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.
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.
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 a 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. Why? Because there was no America. There was no U.S.A. Creating the U.S.A. was what the war was about, although taxes, parliamentary participation, and slavery were also major components.
We wanted the right to vote in parliamentary elections, to be equals with other British citizens. The cry “no taxation without representation” 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 never the 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.
Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown
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 warships and trained seamen to man them.
We didn’t have anything like that. French participation was the key to possibly winning the war. Oh, and we promised to pay the war debt back to France. Lucky for us, they had their own Revolution, so when they asked for the money, we said “What money?”
Just as we considered ourselves English, albeit living abroad in a colony rather than in England, British soldiers and commanders were not eager to slaughter people they considered Englishmen. They didn’t pursue the war with the deadly determination they might have. If they had, who knows?
Did we 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 side with those who think the British found it distasteful to shoot people with whom, a short time before, they had been friends and with whom they hoped to be friends again. And of course, many British soldiers had family in “the colonies” and vice-versa. It was a painful fight, similar to a civil war.
Many British citizens sympathized with the colonists including a big percentage of troops. Sympathy ran high even in the upper echelons of the British government. Many important people in England were none too happy with King George. They did as they were ordered but without enthusiasm.
No one in the British government — or high up in the army — believed 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 lower would be the level of hard feelings afterward.
The Beaver and the Tea Party Museum in Boston
But, 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.
British surrender at Yorktown
The mythology surrounding the American Revolution is natural. Every nation needs heroes and myths. We are no exception. Now that we have grown up, we can apply some healthy skepticism to our mythology. We can read books and learn there’s more to the story than what we learned as kids. Like, the second part of the Revolutionary War also known as “The War of 1812.” It was really the second of two acts of our 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. By then, the war was over.
Battle of New Orleans (10 days after the Revolutionary war ended)
No one had a cellphone, so they didn’t know the war was over. I contend the course of history would be very different if cell phones were invented a few centuries earlier.
Only crazy people think guns and killing is the solution to the world’s ills.
Guns and killing are the cause of most problems. It horrifies me such people gain credence.
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There was no better form of government than ours — or at least as ours used to be. No government offered better protection to its citizens.
Intelligent people don’t usually throw away the good stuff because someone lost or won an election, or a jury brought in a bad verdict. At least that’s what I used to believe. I’m not sure I was right.
An educated citizenry and a free press are our best defense against tyranny. As long as you can complain openly and protest vigorously against your own government, and the people on TV and the news can say what they will about the government — whether or not we 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.
Education benefits everyone.