Myths of origin

I’ve just restrained myself from picking up on someone who, responding to the suggestion that America was built on slavery, wrote “No, America did not start with ‘genocide and slavery’. People from Britain and elsewhere fled there to find religious freedom, and it was the first country to establish a true democracy – one without a king. America started out of a noble idea! Yes, negative things like slavery did take place, but wasn’t it also America that abolished it?” (the writer is called Maxim Ilushenkov). I may put a link in that discussion, if I can find it again, but in any event, have seen similar statements so many times that I think it useful for me to have a boilerplate answer.

It seems the myths of origin are still strong in the States. Let me suggest a more historical narrative. America was originally settled, so far as modern European influence was concerned, by a number of government-approved groups. The first settlement in North America (if you ignore Viking settlements much earlier, which did not survive long term) was Spanish, and was in Florida. The first English sponsored colony, Jamestown, was founded in 1607, nearly 100 years later. 13 years later, the “Pilgrim Fathers” arrived, as the first non-state-licensed group. Yes, in a sense they were trying to find religious freedom, but they didn’t “flee there”; the religious element of the group had indeed fled England to the Netherlands in order to avoid persecution, but had then returned to England when the climate for dissenters improved, having found that the extremely religiously tolerant society in the Netherlands didn’t agree with them. Their wish for religious freedom was the wish to impose their brand of extreme Protestantism on everyone else, which they proceeded to do in Massachusetts for quite some time – but, I suppose, that is in line with the ideas current in the USA of “Religious Freedom Restoration”, being the freedom to discriminate against others not of their religious views. There were however other early colonies which actually were formed with an ethos of religious toleration – William Penn’s Pensylvania, for instance (formed as a haven for Quakers) and Roger Williams’ Rhode Island (a reaction to the attitudes of Massachusetts).

Curiously, a substantial reason for the persecution of extreme Protestants which had prompted the move of the original Pilgrim Fathers group to Holland was the aftermath of the English Civil War, in which (among other things) extreme Protestants gained a substantial voice in government and were instrumental in banning theatre, music and dancing, and other restrictive laws prompted by their extremist views, as well as being responsible for the destruction of huge amounts of religious art (most churches I know which date from prior to the Civil War bear the scars of that episode). On the restoration of the monarchy (to which subject I’ll return shortly), not only were religious dissenters regarded as bigoted killjoys, but also as having been significantly responsible for the Civil War itself; the monarchy was re-established with the national church (the Church of England) in place, and as the king was the head of the church, not being part of that church was regarded as potentially treasonous. The same had been the case with Catholics since Henry VIII nationalised the English Church, with even more justification, given that the Pope had authorised and encouraged Catholics to revolt and/or kill the monarch from time to time, and Catholic nations to invade and overthrow the monarch (and government).

Incidentally, it is worth stressing that the Anglican Church of the time was far more an offshoot of government than was government under religious control. Catholic countries were, at least theoretically, able to be ordered about by the Pope, and we had seen what control by a group including Puritans looked like – that was government under religious control. England was therefore much more self-determining than were Catholic countries or some German states where Protestantism took a strong role in government. In other words, ironically, the Pilgrim Fathers who are hailed as seeking religious libery were actually looking for a place where they could impose religious control of government. I am sure the Founding Fathers were well aware of that, and had it in mind when decreeing that there should be no established religion! There are, I think, some uncomfortable parallels with attitudes these days to Islam.

My second issue is with “the first country to establish a true democracy”. Actually, that is slightly truer than might appear, given that there is no way that the Republic established in 1776 could be regarded as a “true democracy”, as it denied votes to blacks and women, because the USA was fairly early in granting full suffrage. Sweden possibly has the claim to be the first county to have women’s suffrage (in the 18th century, though it was limited, and an universal franchise was not achieved until 1919); the United Kingdom finally got there in 1928 after a limited franchise in 1918; the United States got there as a whole in 1920 with the 19th Amendment after various states had instituted womens’ suffrage in the previous 20 years. But perhaps Mr. Ilushenkov meant “the first country to establish a modern republic”? We’d had one for a few years during our civil war period, of course, but thought better of the concept. Iceland almost certainly has the claim to that title, though – their republic dates back to 930.

Hidden within that claim, though, is, I think, the thought that the American Revolution was a revolution against absolute monarchy. Certainly I repeatedly hear from Americans that George III was a tyrannical ruler, and the American revolt was against him (and the Declaration of Independence rather suggests that…) Again, this is not really the case. He wasn’t an absolute ruler – that was something which was also settled by our Civil War after a long process of incrementally increasing democracy in England dating back to the 13th century; what the colonists objected to was a set of laws passed by the British parliament, which was by the standards of the time a democracy, George III being a constitutional monarch. The Civil War had been, to a significant extent, a war of religion, against the prospect of Charles I returning England to Catholicism, but it was also a war to prevent him becoming an absolute monarch in the continental mould – though, of course, still subject to Papal interference. We’d in fact had another revolution ourselves on this issue when James II showed similar tendencies. The problem for the colonists was, ostensibly, that they didn’t have representation in that parliament. Actually, though, it was probably more a tax revolt; the American colonies didn’t like paying taxes, something which hasn’t changed much for some of the population. It was also, which should not be forgotten, a revolt against crony capitalism; the British Government gave the East India company massively favourable terms of operation, and American enterprises couldn’t compete…

Of course, the British democracy of the time wasn’t a very good democracy. The franchise was largely limited to adult males who owned property, and quite a few of the constituencies which returned an MP were “rotten boroughs” which, due largely to population shifts, but also a certain amount of gerrymandering, had very few electors, all of whom were likely to be in the pocket of the local landowner – or, at least, easily and relatively cheaply bribable (or otherwise able to be influenced) by him. What the Founding Fathers set up was somewhat better, and was definitely better if you ignore the lack of votes for the huge slave population in the South.

The King did have considerably more power than monarchs do these days – he could refuse to sign Acts of Parliament without the absolute assurance that his reign would end very shortly thereafter (which is the position for all 20th and 21st century rulers of Britain), though with the spectre of that hanging over his head (perhaps literally, given the fate of Charles I…). He retained a modest amount of executive power, and had a lot of influence in parliament via a system of patronage – he had in his gift a lot of valuable positions, and though members of parliament were debarred from accepting those, their relatives weren’t. Besides, in those days the British House of Lords (the upper chamber of the legislature) had at least equal power with the House of Commons (the lower chamber), and represented specifically the rich and powerful (which was the hereditary group of noblemen), and they were not denied offices of profit.

The more of this I write, the more I see echoes of the faults in the British democracy of the 18th century appearing in the American democracy of the 21st.

As to Mr. Ilushenkov’s last point, the USA was slow to abolish slavery after the British government took the step of banning the international slave trade in 1807, and actually went to considerable lengths to try to enforce that. (I do note that this was a matter of poacher turned gamekeeper – Britain had had a disproportionately large part of the Atlantic slave trade for over 100 years at that point).Parts of the USA were, however, well in advance of this – Pennsylvania abolished it in 1780. Britain abolished it in it’s overseas possessions in 1833 by act of parliament, probably largely on the basis that it took that long before the political will to compensate the slave owners had been assembled (Somersett’s case in 1772 had by then established that slavery was not legal in Britain itself, and in the marvellous way of legal cases, that it never had been…); the States needed a civil war before the South caught up in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. There was an immense economic system which was fuelled by the existence of slavery, and the Southern States were entirely unwilling to give that up (as they thought would be the consequence of emancipation). The marvel, in my eyes, is that Britain managed to bring itself to demolish that system, which was still producing a majority of the world’s sugar in the Carribean colonies in the 1820s…

Now, I enjoy England’s myths of origin, which are probably about as accurate as the ideas mentioned in my first paragraph – King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, King Alfred burning cakes, Robin Hood bedevilling the Shrrif of Nottingham and even Francis Drake not allowing incipient invasion to interrupt his game of bowls. Two of those are probably pure fiction (the Round Table and the game of bowls), Robin Hood is mostly so, but they all have some root in history. However, it is in the study of real history that we learn lessons to guide us through the present – it is regrettably true that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. And there are a plethora of lessons to be learned from the real history of American Independence and the ending of the slave trade.