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.