American Mythology

Every nation revises history. They leave out the bad bits  — slaughters of the innocent, unjust wars against minorities and civilians. They invent heroes, turn defeats into victories.

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American history is no different. It’s relatively easy to make our history match our myths when such a large percentage of U.S. citizens haven’t learned any history since third grade. There’s some question about how well third grade lessons were absorbed. Recent studies show a troubling pattern of ignorance in which even the basics of history are unknown to most of our natural-born citizens. Ironically, naturalized citizens are far better educated. They had to pass a test to become citizens. The rest of us got a free pass.

College students don’t know when we fought the Revolution, much less why. They can’t name our first president (George Washington, just in case you aren’t sure). Many aren’t clear what happened on 9/11.  I’ve been asked which came first, World Wars I or II — indicating more than ignorance. More like deep stupidity.

Getting the people excited enough to take up arms is hard work.

All over Facebook, morons gather to impress each other with the vigor of their uninformed opinions. They proclaim we fought the Revolution to not pay taxes and keep our guns. Saying that’s not how it happened is insufficient. I lack the words to say how untrue that is.

Why did we have a Revolution? How come we rebelled against England rather than peaceably settling our differences? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make a deal?

Yes, it would have been easier to make a deal and we tried. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible. We fought a revolution when we exhausted every peaceful option. Petitions and negotiations failed, but we kept trying, even after shots had been fired and independence declared.

We didn’t want war with England. There were lots of excellent reasons:

  • Our economy was entirely dependent on trade with England. Through English merchants, we could trade with the rest of the world. Without them, we were stuck with no trading partners or ships
  • We were ill-equipped to fight a war
  • We had no navy, no commanders. No trained army. We barely had guns
  • Our population was too small to sustain an army
  • We had no factories, mills or shipyards
  • We relied on England for finished goods other than those we could make in our own homes, including furniture, guns, clothing, cutlery, dishes, porcelain
  • We needed Britain to supply us with anything we ate or drank (think tea) unless we could grow it in North America.

All luxury goods and many necessities came from or through England. We had some nascent industries, but they were not ready for prime time. It wasn’t until 1789 we built our first cotton-spinning mill — made possible by an Englishman named Slater who immigrated from England and showed us how to do it.

Our American colonies didn’t want to be Americans. We wanted to be British. We wanted the right to vote in parliamentary elections as equals with other British citizens. The cry “no taxation without representation” (remember that?) didn’t mean we weren’t willing to pay taxes. It meant we wanted the right to vote on taxes. We wanted to be heard, to participate in government. Whether or not we would or would not pay a particular tax was not at issue. Everyone pays taxes — then and now. We wanted seats in Parliament and British citizenship.

King George was a Royal asshole. His counselors strongly recommended he make a deal with the colonists. Most Americans considered themselves Englishmen. If the British king had been a more flexible, savvy or intelligent monarch, war could have been averted. We would be, as the Canadians are, part of the British Commonwealth. There would have been no war. A bone-headed monarch thought a war was better than compromise. He was a fool, but it worked out better than we could have hoped.

We declared war which many folks here and abroad thought was folly. We almost lost it. We would have lost were it not for two critical things:

  • British unwillingness to pursue the war aggressively
  • French ships and European mercenaries.

Without French assistance and hired mercenaries from central Europe, we would have been squashed by the British who were better armed, better trained. They had ships with guns, trained seamen to man them. We didn’t.

Near home, in a ritzy Boston suburb.

Just as we considered ourselves English, albeit living abroad in a colony rather than in England, British soldiers and commanders were not overly eager to slaughter people they considered fellow Englishmen. They didn’t pursue the war with the deadly determination they could have … and if they had? Who knows?

Did we really win because the British were inept and couldn’t beat an untrained ragtag rabble army? That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. I doubt it. There is considerable argument on much this affected the course of the war. I side with those who think that the British found it distasteful to shoot people with whom a short time before they had been friends and with whom the hoped to be friends again. And of course, many British soldiers had family in “the colonies” and vice-versa. It was a painful fight, rather like a civil war.

Many British citizens sympathised with the colonists including a goodly percentage of troops. Sympathy ran high even in the upper echelons of British government. Many important people in England were none too happy with King George. So they did as they were ordered, but without enthusiasm. No one in the British government — or high up in the army — believe the colonies had any chance of winning. They were convinced we’d work it out by negotiations eventually. Many felt the fewer people killed in the interim, the fewer hard feeling would exist afterwards.

And then there was one huge miscalculation. The British did not expect the French to show up. As soon as the French fleet arrived, a few more battles were fought and the British went home. Had they pursued the war with vigor from the start, we wouldn’t have lasted long enough for the French to get here, much less save our butts.

The mythology surrounding the American Revolution is natural. Every nation needs heroes and myths and we are no exception. But as grown ups, we can apply a bit of healthy skepticism, read a couple of books. Learn there’s more to the story than the stuff we learned when we were eight. Like, the second part of the Revolutionary war known as “The War of 1812.” Part two of the Revolution which we lost fair and square when the British burned Washington D.C.

We did not win the Revolution. We survived it. Barely.

Andrew Jackson’s big win at New Orléans in 1814 kept the British from coming back. The battle took place a full 10 days after the war ended. Losing it would no doubt have encouraged the British to return, but the Battle of New Orléans was not decisive. The war was over by then. No one had a cell phone, so they didn’t know, which is why I contend the course of history would be really different if cell phones had been invented a few centuries earlier.

Only crazy people think guns and killing are the solution to the world’s ills. Guns and killing are the cause of most of the problems. It horrifies me such people gain credence. It used to be considered a normal part of good citizenship to have a basic understanding of history and government.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no better form of government than ours. There are others perhaps as good, but none better, none more fair, none that offers more protection to its citizens. Whatever is wrong with our system of government is wrong with the world, not just America. Intelligent people don’t throw away the good stuff because someone lost an election, or a jury brought in a bad verdict.

We have the good fortune to live in a nation of laws. They don’t always work the way they should, nor does justice always prevail, but the laws exist. We have elections. We transfer power from one administration to the next without battles, riots, bloodbaths.

An educated citizenry and a free press are our best defenses against tyranny. As long as you can complain openly and protest vigorously against your own government, and those people on TV and on the news can say what they will about the government — whether or not you or I agree with them — we are living in a free nation. That’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Ignorance is the enemy of freedom. It allows fools to rush in where angels would never dare. Support education. Encourage your kids to read. Let’s all read. Knowledge benefits everyone.



Categories: American history, Education, Government, History, Patriotism, Politics

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. As a historian of the American West, I wade through myth all of the time. Unfortunately, many people fall under the old line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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    • Myth is prettier than fact. Most people prefer it. We like stories with heros, good guys and bad guys. Don’t confuse me with facts: my mind is made UP!! Thanks for the John Ford quote 🙂 Garry will like that.

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  2. What a fantastic read! Thanks for the plug. I think too that The British were ill-prepared for the colonists fight. They did not realize the fight the colonists would bring for their taxation policies to help pay for the French and Indian War.

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    • The British miscalculation of everything doomed them ultimately to second-rank status in the nations of the world. It took a hundred or so years, but eventually, hubris did it again, as it always does. Hopefully we are going to wake up before we walk down that same path!!

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  3. I love this post!

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