In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War. At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South. The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:
“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”
This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.
What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to
“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”
It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.
Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.
It may have been best said by the ancient historian Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that
“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”
The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.
Hugh, you paint an appropriate picture of the angst and debates. When I think of the amount of time between the end of the revolution to when Washington took office it creates this great void which you nicely fill in.
I remember being riveted by the mini-series on John Adams which shed some light on the debates. A good example was ending up with slaves being counted as 3/5 a citizen to give some political power to the southern states as an appeasement – the slaves did not gain rights, but they were used in the delegate distribution at 60%.
Setting that aside, it is still amazing the forefathers came up with an enviable construct of governance. We should think about how hard they worked, as we witness a dishonorable man attempt to strip away powers and throw US influence. Keith
They worked hard, but more important they knew how to compromise. Politicians today, of all stripes, are beholden to their Party and to the money that has placed them in office. The notion of the Common Good, which was paramount in the Enlightenment Age, has gone the way of civil discourse and good manners!
True on all counts. I want to read McCain’s book and watch the documentary. He had many friend across the aisle and did seek compromise. He was imperfect and says so, but we need more of what he offers and less of what the man in the White House offers.
If current “developments” world-wide prove anything at all, it’s that Earthians are flawed in their understanding of cause and effect; nor are they able to learn anything from their past mistakes. In fact many of those mistakes are glorified over and over, for example the wearing of a poppy circa November 11. WWI was an unmitigated disaster that fell into limbo at the Treaty of Versailles, to be picked up again by the Nazis 2 decades later and they had a lot of help from the US in getting set up for their blitzkriegs and their quasi successful of enslavement of Europe and extermination of “undesirables” or untermenchens. (Untermensch is a term that became infamous when the Nazis used it to describe non-Aryan “inferior people” often referred to as “the masses from the East”, that is Jews, Roma, and Slavs – mainly ethnic Poles, Serbs, and later also Russians. The term was also applied to most Blacks, and persons of color, with some particular exceptions.More at Wikipedia Now, we’re going back over that bloody ground and preparing for more bloodbaths. The more things change, the more they stay the same… unless, of course, the change tends to become positive, in which case it suffers increasing attacks from both ends of the social spectrum: from the elites, and from their brain-dead uneducated supporters.
Well said! I dare say the reason history is cyclical is because we simply refuse to learn from our past mistakes. As Murrin makes it clear in his book, the founding fathers fought heatedly over the question of wealth — how to manage it so it did not destroy their democratic experiment. It would appear that battle has been lost.
Just as a footnote, there are many brain dead so-called “educated” folks in this country as well. The confusion arises because we fail to distinguish between schooled and educated. I know many a PhD who is brain dead!
Keith – I am hoping that historians will be able to make sense of our present day kerfuffle, and that some of today’s young ones will later understand it all better than I do. At least you are here to put some perspective on it! Susan