It’s July. This week we celebrated the 236nd anniversary of the signing of the “Declaration of Independence” with the usual fireworks, parades, concerts, and street fairs.
Throughout the day on various programs, I heard sweeping patriotic declarations about the nature of the American War for Independence and its impacts. These grand patriotic statements sound so wonderful during July 4th festivities. They are not, for the most part, remotely historically true.
One major myth I heard across numerous programs was the myth that Americans of the 18th century came out of the “Revolution” as one, unified, cohesive group under a strong federal government system.
This is grossly inaccurate. In Article two of the “Articles of Confederation,” we read,
“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled. “
Across the “Articles of Confederation” the term “United States” is almost always written “united States.” This signals the dominate 18th century belief that each state – from Georgia to New Hampshire – was a country unto its own and that most persons considered themselves New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, South Carolinians, and so forth, NOT Americans.
Or put another way, the American War for Independence created 13 countries, not one, who agreed to work together when it suited them. It took a second civil war (the American War for Independence was primarily a civil war) from 1861-5 to actually create the United States of America from “These United States.”
Other serious myths I keep hearing in patriotic declarations was that the Founders believed in equality and freedom for all. They didn’t. Washington and Jefferson were both notorious slave owners. Washington believed so much in slavery that he refused to end the war (the Battle of Yorktown was October 19th, 1781) until November 25th, 1783. The reason? He demanded all American “property” to be returned to their “rightful” owners.
As explained by Barnett Schleter in in November 25, 2010 lecture held at Fraunces Tavern (one of the best known surviving 18th century establishments in New York City), the American property Washington demanded returned were slaves emancipated by the Crown.
The Crown refused, forcing free blacks, along with those Americans who remained loyal to the Crown, to pursue new lives in Canada, Europe, and across the British Empire.
None of this is conveyed in most non-university history books. Instead, we are told the ideals, not the historical realities.
But why? History is supposed to be taught in an objective fashion. Why then are we teaching mythology when it would be easier and much more ethical to teach what really happened – all sides of the stories? Brevity is an excuse I’ve heard, but a poor one. A person can learn 18th century attitudes towards slavery, racial and gender equality, and liberty in the same amount of space as they can be taught the mythological omni-benevolence of the Founding Fathers. It takes no more time to explain that Americans did not win the American War for Independence; we simply made it too expensive for the Crown to keep pursuing. Parliament, not King George III, decided it was costing too much money and lives to keep fighting.
In teaching myth, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from history. This makes us easier to control by politicians -does anyone actually want that? Do we absolutely trust our politicians or would we prefer to make better decisions in choosing leaders?
Education is the key to becoming strong consumers of information, to supporting only policies and leaders that truly make common sense and serve the interests of all the people – not just their friends.
Education is worthless if all we do is teach the politically convenient version of things. Education needs to be free and independent of politics. American history education has lost its independence.
It would seem the only way to find out objectively what happened in any area of history is to become a history hobbyist, watching countless documentaries on PBS, National Geographic, the History Channel (which has certain biases I don’t approve of), and other sources for educational programming.
We can do better.