More on the US National Mythology

There a quite a few thoughts floating about in the post, but they all hail back to the concept of the US national myth. Professor Richard Holmes summarises some of it in this statement from The American War of Independence: The Rebels and the Redcoats:

“The War of Independence plays such an important part in American popular ideology that references to it are especially prone to exaggeration and oversimplification. And two uncomfortable truths about it – the fact that it was a civil war (perhaps 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at its end), and that it was also a world war (the Americans could scarcely have won without French help) – are often forgotten.”

The part that is important is that the War for American Independence was one of many civil wars and insurrections which have occurred in the United States and that the Loyalists, or Tories, played an important part in that conflict.  We know that not too many people wanted war with Britain at the beginning of the War for Independence, but we don’t know how many people actually opposed the war.

What we do know is that Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and The Declaration of Independence  are the most potent propaganda documents in American History.  Both were written for the purpose of justifying an armed struggle for independence which would set a bad precedent for future generations.  Many people who style themselves as “patriots” in the US do not cite the Constitution (at least not correctly) to justify their position of armed struggle against the US.

The rebel leaders, also known as the founding fathers, only represented about 27% of two and quarter million colonists (although they said it was 33%), but even if this was correct they knew they would have never won power through a referendum, so as they possess considerable propaganda skills, they called themselves Patriots, contrived incidents such as the so called “Boston massacre”, portrayed their own vested interests as philanthropic ideals, and incited a reign of terror, aimed at civil authorities to disrupt society.  We can also add in that the “Sons of Liberty” would intimidate those showing loyalist tendencies.  The rebel’s strategy of attacking Loyalists, tarring and feathering them, encouraging boycotts, and other tactics used  to force them to resign their posts or change their business practises.  Those Loyalists that remained passive and the Non-aligned were forced under the threat of death to swear and sign oaths of allegiance to the rebel cause.

In reality, Hancock was a very wealthly smuggler, but the British had undercut his overpriced business.  He had been summoned  to appear in court at a time he and Samuel Adams were known to have been in Lexington at the time of the Battle. The others including Sam Adams (a failed businessman accused of embezzlement), Allen, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison were bitter men, who for various reasons held grievances against the British.  I have mentioned before that it could have been a personal slight which cause Franklin to side with the Rebels (his son William was a tory).

The Loyalists were of many kinds and conditions. There was a religious dimension. Presbyterians were apt to be Patriots, Anglicans often Tories. Many slaves, tempted by freedom, joined Loyalist units, such as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; so did many, though not all, of the Native American tribes on the frontier. Quakers and Catholics sided with the king, and so did many settlers of German and Dutch origin, as well as most Scots Highlanders, who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Hanoverian crown in defeat and were not about to go back on it. Some tenant farmers fought alongside their Tory landlords, while others were Loyalists out of hostility to Patriot landlords. Some were tempted by promises of land, others by the fact that the king’s armies paid in a gold-backed currency, not paper dollars.

But, the founding myth paints the War for Independence as on against a foreign foe, rather than a Civil War.  And a quite brutal Civil War at that given how those who may have wanted to follow the law were brutalised by those who only saw violent conflict as being the solution to their problems.

The Loyalists were of many kinds and conditions. There was a religious dimension. Presbyterians were apt to be Patriots, Anglicans often Tories. Many slaves, tempted by freedom, joined Loyalist units, such as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; so did many, though not all, of the Native American tribes on the frontier. Quakers and Catholics sided with the king, and so did many settlers of German and Dutch origin, as well as most Scots Highlanders, who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Hanoverian crown in defeat and were not about to go back on it. Some tenant farmers fought alongside their Tory landlords, while others were Loyalists out of hostility to Patriot landlords. Some were tempted by promises of land, others by the fact that the king’s armies paid in a gold-backed currency, not paper dollars.

Like other civil wars, the American revolution was marked by brutality on a sickening scale. Both sides shot and hanged prisoners without mercy, and on at least two occasions Patriots enforced the gruesome punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering. While the Native American braves recruited to fight for the crown by the Johnson and Butler chieftains of the Mohawk valley scalped, tortured and sometimes burned their prisoners alive, the Patriots tarred and feathered Loyalists, or forced them to ride on a sharpened rail, and many Loyalist houses were looted and burned. Patriotic legend remembers the violence of British officers, but rebel officers, including General Washington himself, could be ruthless when policy recommended it. The future father of his country once proposed shooting a few Tories to “strike terror into the others”.

I would add that any “gun grabbing” which may have been

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Brown Bess showing Crown ordinance markings indicating it as royal property.

done by the British Authorities was most likely legal since the arms were crown property (via the Colonies). The Brown Bess Muskets in their fully accepted form the barrels had Ordnance Proofs and the locks were marked with a crowned broad arrow (known as “The King’s Mark”) as well as individual inspector’s marks. The parts were government property and is was a serious offense to be caught with them in your possession if not authorized to have them.  Of course, another part of the founding myth is that the Colonials pull their personal weapons from above the mantle to toss out the evil British.

There is a reverence for the time of the US’s founding which makes no sense.  Their words are taken as being carved in stone and they could do no wrong.  On the other hand, how much of the thuggery of the Tea Party movement might actually be accurate.  After all, the founders were not friends of democracy and equality despite protestations to the Contrary.

But, the real issue was that the time of the War for Independence was a very turbulent one.  The “single most contentious issue” in the First Continental Congress in 1774 was about the extent to which the British Parliament could regulate the U.S. economy, including these and other limits on navigation as well as acts that sought to prohibit manufacturing in the colonies (so that the colonies would need to import from Britain, instead).  Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher  review the history in some detail, and conclude in “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward and Economic Interpretation of American Independence”:

“The commercial dispute preceded the constitutional, not just once but again and again in these years. It is important that colonists melded economic and constitutional arguments under the category of sovereignty–but not so important that we should ignore the originating nature of economic forces.”

One of these economic issues were the taxes which resulted from the French and Indian, or Seven Years War, which began in the North American Colonies.  The people who objected to “Taxation without Representation” were all too willing to run up the bill when others were paying.  But, the Ironic part was that they chose to use a route to independence which would ultimately lead to financial disaster with the Continental Dollar depreciating badly during the war, giving rise to the famous phrase “not worth a continental”.

But, the collapse of the Colonial Economy was one of many disasters precipitated by the ill thought out “independence movement” of the 1760s-70s.  George Washington wrote about Shays’ Rebellion that:

“I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned in any country… What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious.”

Perhaps time has come to look at this period with a far more critical eye than has been given due to a religious reverence to the founders which is far from justified.

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