American History for Dummies

I can’t say I never learned American History, but I learned it in a weird way. I went to a French school, the Lycée Français de New-York, so American History was an afterthought. In fact, one year, we learned about it in French! There were no American History textbooks (at that level) written in French, so our history teacher wrote one, and it was published by the same firm that did our yearbooks; so it was that format — oversize and floppy. I wish I still had it; what an oddity.

Also, neither of my parents were Born in the USA™. My mother was Canadian, and left Quebec City… not for Freedom in America, but for Culture in New York. And she kept her Canadian citizenship her whole life. So while I would hear about American Revolutionaries struggling for Freedom against the Tyranny of the British crown, I also heard about how Canadians did pretty well without a revolution and made themselves a really nice country, all things considered.

My father was born in Germany of Austrian Jewish parents. Because my paternal great-grandfather, Arthur Basch, got US citizenship in 1867, when he came over to sell wine to San Franciscans during the Gold Rush, my grandparents and my father were US citizens and, I suspect, not citizens of either Germany or Austria. So when they, like quite a few Jews in that part of the world, decided to go somewhere else, they came to the US. Not for Freedom — they would have been just as free in Palestine or England or Australia or any number of other places — but because that’s where Arthur had gone, because that’s where the Gold Rush was.

So I learned about American History from a remove. And yet I never questioned, or thought much about, frankly, the claims that the revolution was fought for Freedom. I never thought, but wait! What about the 20% of people here who were slaves? What about their freedom?

My old school friend CK, who studied history in college and is one of the more patriotic people I know, says that this conception of American History, due to the 1619 Project, namely that the Revolution was fought in large part to preserve the wealth produced by slavery, has the wrong context. He says that slavery was a constant through human history until the Enlightenment, and vigorously promulgated by Islam (among others). Only in the European West was it even possible to conceive of an end to slavery. So, instead of thinking of the American Revolution as a battle to preserve slavery, think of slavery in the West as a slowly crumbling institution, thanks to the necessary precondition of the Enlightenment; the institution of slavery finally collapsed, albeit with resistance, because of the Civil War. After all, among the 13 colonies, there were states that abolished slavery in ~1776; Vermont was the first. And they also fought the Revolution, though obviously not to preserve slavery, which they opposed.

Sidebar: The idea that there was no opposition to slavery except European and only after the Enlightenment may have a lot of truth. It may also be the result of our cultural preconceptions — because we didn't learn Islamic history in school, we wouldn't have learned about any Islamic abolitionists. Same for Indian or Chinese or anything else. See this handy Wikipedia page on abolition. So there may be some confirmation bias. Of course, while apparently there were Islamic abolitionists in the 17th Century, I don't know how effective they were, and they may (I guess it's obvious I don't know much about them) have been responding to the European Enlightenment. Note that the last country to outlaw slavery was Mauritania in 2007, and apparently it is still a struggle. And the last time a slave was in the White House, I believe, was when an Arab potentate visited the White House with his entourage (I think this was in the 20th century). Time and progress are neither a circle nor an arrow, but a big chaotic complicated mess.

Of course, conservative voices (whatever that even means these days) have resisted the casting of shade on the Founding Fathers with the argument that, “Be Fair! While we know better now, you can’t judge people then by our standards! Slavery was perfectly normal then!”

Of course, that argument is inconsistent with the one above about the Revolution — it is not fair to judge the slave-owning Founders by our modern standards, but how about if we judge them by contemporaneous New England standards? If states then were abolishing slavery, then slavery was hardly completely normal and not worth mentioning.

I’m (obviously, maybe?) not a historian, but I have studied human behavior (I was an actor and a playwright). As I look at the period of the founders, I detect ambivalence and cognitive dissonance. After all, our founding documents don’t mention slavery, yet they included many provisions which enabled and strengthened it, such as the 3/5ths rule or the 2nd Amendment.

That’s an interesting argument, that the 2nd Amendment was drafted to protect the rights of slave States to have militias to crush slave rebellions; Patrick Henry certainly said that. Other Founders said other things too, so the best gloss I can put on it was that crushing slave rebellions may not have been the only reason we have the right to bear arms, but it was certainly one of them. I don’t know that the people of Vermont were especially worried about Federal troops coming into Montpelier, while Georgians were certainly concerned.

And given the ambivalence I detect in the Founders’ attitudes about slavery (they didn’t want to get rid of it, but they didn’t want to explicitly acknowledge it either), I wonder if the non-slavery-crushing justifications for the 2nd Amendment were feeble post-hoc rationalizations. Maybe, maybe not; would be an interesting American History PhD project for someone.

Given all of this, it is fair to de-romanticize the Founders and the Revolution. By the standards of the time, the (slave-owning) Founders were morally repugnant slavers, and the Revolution was fought, at least in part, to preserve a police state. Gradually, states began to abolish slavery, but the remaining slave states fought fiercely for their right to impose tyranny, using the glorious Constitution as their shield and sword.

I think one can still love one’s country, though in a mature adult way — not by imposing a mythic gloss on it, so that nothing done in its name was ever bad or wrong, but in accepting its flaws and trying to remedy them. As we grow up as individuals, we sometimes learn to do that with our parents: Dad may have been a superhero when we were children, but we might learn that he cheated on Mom, that he gambled away our college fund, that maybe he slacked off at work, that he drank and hit us… there is a gamut of human frailty and even sin to which we and our parents and loved ones are subject. But we love them anyway! Same is true about ourselves — I think we can love ourselves despite our faults and flaws, and only if we do that can we make the effort to improve.

The same can be true of our hometowns, our states, our religions, our ethnic groups, or any other groups with which we feel affinity. We don’t have to find them blameless to love them. It can be a struggle: as the President of Germany once said, sometimes you can only love your country with a broken heart. I feel drawn to Israel, but not because it’s perfect or beyond criticism, even fierce criticism. NB: I’ve never been, and have no plans.

That’s all well and good for grown-ups. But how do you teach children who may not be able to process all that nuance? My friend CK says that, traditionally, history classes are taught as a way to bind children to their country and each other. I guess I see that, but I didn’t experience it myself — my history classes were all about the French Revolution and Napoleon. I didn’t feel “bound” to much at all. And yet I am proud to be an American, though I have no illusions about the terrible things it has done, starting with slavery and its treatment of indigenous peoples. Keeping that in mind (using the “yes, and” of improv, maybe the best argumentation technique ever), we can still be aware of a complex, contradictory panoply of people, characteristics, and events.

But… none of that helps the children. I think there are two possible approaches, the first hard, the second much easier.

(1) Do not deny the wickedness of the slave system and do not deny its existence: instead, emphasize the slaves’ courageous attempts to free themselves, while not ignoring the Bad White Men who moved to stop them. In other words, do not interpret them as victims requiring rescue by Good White People; the “virtuous victimhood” trope is quite as sickening as that awful actress, formerly of The Mandalorian, saying that she’s not anti-Semitic, why, if she had been in Germany in WWII, she would have used her martial arts skills to protect the “gentle Jews!” Ugh, ptui. I’d rather talk about the Warsaw Uprising. If ever there were Good Guys and Bad Guys, the Southern slaveholders must be seen as Bad Guys. Too comic-booky? We are talking about primary school, and any attempt to frame them as other than Bad Guys is sickening. You could say, well, to be fair, they were getting very rich off their slaves, so what do you expect; not a good lesson for kids. So sentimental portrayals of the antebellum South are out. Gone With the Wind? Out. Song of the South? Out. Benjamin Franklin on abolition, not just that kite business and a printer? In. Northern states that abolished slavery in the first decades of the Union? In. George Washington and securing his wife’s slaves in PA? In. Kids should not be protected from contradiction. And we should completely expunge Parson Weems‘ hagiographical fictions.

(2) Forget about it; US History can’t be taught as a binding experience, because that just propagates lies. Avoid stories and narrative entirely. Teach names, dates, places, and maps as a memorization exercise. Give no stirring tales of the wonderful Rise of Freedom, because they are not actually true and the lie is too obvious to be convincing; if you’re going to lie to your children, make it convincing at least. Also don’t tell sickening one-note horror stories. Just names/dates/places/maps. Be sure to include non-Whites, women, and the First Peoples. And don’t just focus on Great Men, also heavily weight stories of regular people.

It seems more and more obvious to me that the American Revolution fight for “freedom” was also a fight to protect the evil twin of America — the slave-owning South was a totalitarian dictatorship and police state. Its elites, yes, even those Founders who owned slaves, knew this; even as they grew rich off this system, they were influenced by the Enlightenment. So I suspect they were in the grip of a powerful cognitive dissonance, morally, and resorted to lying and dissembling, probably justifying it to themselves every step of the way. They had to find non-slavery-justifying text for every measure they took to protect slavery. We see that same tendency today, using fiscal arguments to justify denying government largesse to non-Whites.

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