A few days ago, I referred to Ray Raphael’s book about American Revolutionary history called “Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past”. It is simultaneously a book that peels back our patriotic legends to reveal the actual democratic nature of the Revolution, and also peeks at the shameful underbelly of that revolution.
As an example of the democracy, Raphael examines the story of Paul Revere, and finds that it wasn’t the tale of one man single-handedly alerting the region of an incoming invasion, but of hundreds of Americans taking part in an emergency alert network, of which Revere was one member. Not a solitary hero, but a widespread group of individuals with shared goals, working together. Frankly, much more in line with the alleged grassroots principles of the nation’s founding.
For the shame, Raphael points out that although we hear tales today of African-American slaves fighting for the principle of liberty, this situation almost never really happened. The Americans were too afraid that if they put weapons in the hands of their slaves, they might revolt. So slaves were not so enamored of the cause that they fought for the freedom of their masters. Also, as a subversion tactic, the British sometimes announced that any slave who would rebel and fight on the side of the King would receive their freedom (sometimes this promise was kept, sometimes not). Which meant that despite all of its high-minded talk of liberty and democracy, in some ways, the American patriots were explicitly fighting for slavery against opponents who looked to end it. Kinda stands the whole thing on its head.
But the most powerful part of the book, for me, was a single concluding passage towards the end that the author argues is core to understanding American history, but I feel also for the American present. I will alter it slightly so that it’s aimed at modern times:
“[Most Americans] believe that ordinary people are entitled to rule themselves and are fully capable of doing so. They also believe that they have the right, and even the obligation, to impose their will on people whom they deem inferior.”
And given that Americans are taught that their society sits above all others on the evolutionary ladder, that’s a lot of people to impose their will on.
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