July 4th remains a date to assess where our nation is and where it is going. This has become an unsettling task in the age of Trump. A sense of history has always been an important element of the United States' approach to its great crises of the past. In the era of the Revolution and the Constitution, our leadership was trying to preserve the best elements, as they saw them, of the British Constitution, while also building on ancient Republican traditions from Greece and Rome. During the Civil War, and again during the Depression and the Second World War, first Lincoln and then Franklin Roosevelt argued that the nation was struggling to prove that modern democracy--its invention--could work. In each of these cases, those opposed to the tide of history--Tories, Confederates, and conservative Republicans--had their own view of history, as well.
Today, alas, we are burdened with not one, but two false views of history. The Republican ascendancy is based on the idea that the last 120 years of American history were mostly a mistake, because they favored the state over private interests. Today's Republican Party, largely dominated by the Koch brothers and their intellectual camp followers, rejects the legacy of the Progressive era, including campaign finance reform and antitrust laws; the New Deal, including workers' rights, financial regulation, and even social security; and the Great Society. The liberal children and grandchildren of the men and women who gave us those institutions--that is, the Boom, Xer and Millennial generations--have taken them for granted for most of their lives and have not taken the growing opposition to them seriously enough. The result is a steady growth of inequality and a decline of public services at every level that is having dreadful consequences.
What differentiates this crisis from the previous ones, sadly, is that neither political side has a sound view of history upon which we can build further progress. To illustrate this, I want to discuss an article on the website Vox, by a young man named Dylan Matthews, entitled, "Three Reasons Why the American Revolution was a Mistake."
I do not mean to single out Dylan Matthews for criticism--on the contrary, I am discussing his piece because it's such a typical product of elite education today. He graduated from Harvard, as it happens, in 2012, and seems to have been either a philosophy or a government concentrator. His piece on the American Revolution represents a new and growing interpretive school in American history, one which essentially critiques the past based upon the values of contemporary universities. I knew as soon as I saw the title of his piece that it was going to deal with slavery, sexism, and the treatment of American Indians, and I was not disappointed. "I'm reasonably confident," he writes, "a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would've been abolished earlier, American Indians would've faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse."
Elaborating, Matthews states (wrongly) that Britain had abolished slavery in Britain by 1772--actually, it was centuries before that--and notes correctly that it was abolished in the British colonies in the West Indies in 1834. He simply assumes that the same thing would have happened if the North American colonies had remained colonies--an untestable and highly dubious assumption--and he ignores that as a result of the Revolution, slavery was abolished in most northern states decades before 1834. But then he gets to the heart of the matter, describing, from a contemporary perspective, the actual impact of the Revolution as he sees it.
"The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America's white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would've been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn't be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?"
This is the way generations of undergraduates have now been taught to think--especially at elite institutions. We should judge societies of the past by the same standards that we judge academic departments and student bodies today: by their treatment of nonwhitemales. That algorithm rejects the morality of every known society before the late 20th century and is therefore very pleasing to the Boomer academics who first spread it, since it gives them such a critical role in history. But it is a profound misreading of how key historical changes in the last three centuries took place.
The reason the American Revolution was fought, of course, was that under the British monarchy (especially as exercised vigorously by George III), no one was enfranchised in the modern sense--that is, no one enjoyed political rights merely because of their status as a free human being. Great Britain was a society of orders in which the nobility had special privileges and held most political power. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution enshrined the idea of equal citizenship--and the Constitution did not define citizens as either white or male. These documents broke fundamentally with the past. More importantly, the full enfranchisement of males (not only white males, actually, in more than one colony), inevitably put the question of the status of slaves and women on the table for discussion. That is why the northern states abolished slavery during and after the Revolution and why questions of women's rights began to arise. Matthews' comments about women, moreover, reflect another tenet of elite modern thought: that we should all be viewed as individuals, not members of families. Most women in the late 18th century were married, and it was very different to be married to a free citizen who could vote, than to be married to a subject.
Matthews then argues that the treatment of Indian tribes would have been better under the British Empire than it was under the new Republic. This is not easy, as he has to admit, because Indian tribes did not fare a great deal better in Canada than they did in the United States. But he argues that only the United States resorted to "ethnic cleansing) of the tribes, and regrets that independence allowed the United States to acquire the Louisiana territory under Jefferson and California and the southwestern states in the Mexican War, with consequences for the Indian inhabitants there. There are, it seems to me, two great historical problems with this argument.
Such arguments--which the vast majority of historians now accept and try to pass on to their dwindling numbers of students--assume that any acquisition of territory by one group at the expense of another is unjust and, implicitly, should never have happened. Such changes, however, are obviously fundamental to human nature and the human experience. The whole of history, on every continent, is full of war and conquest for as far back as we can document it. Sometimes war and political change lead to population movements; sometimes population movements (as in the 17th and 18th century American colonies) lead to political change. This is often a cruel process and I am glad that we have now tried to create international law to bring some aspects of it to a halt. But it is clearly in inevitable part of history. Nor is there any evidence that settlers from Europe eventually took over political power and land in the North American continent because they were especially rapacious and cruel. Indian tribes had been fighting over the same territories for many centuries when Europeans arrived, and some of them had been completely wiped out.
The second question I would like to ask Matthews is--how big do you think the United States should have been? What do you think North America should look like today? I don't know anything about Matthews' own ancestry, but a great many of us here in the US--probably a majority--would never have been born (I surely wouldn't have) if the United States had not been created and expanded. Is our existence a mistake? Surely, to live with some internal and external peace during our time on earth, we need to be able to accept our history and its consequences, however imperfect it might be?
Lastly, Matthews argues, had we simply become a Dominion like the other settler states of the British Empire, we, like they, would have had a parliamentary system like theirs, which would have functioned more effectively. It is, again, difficult to test this proposition without knowing exactly how big he imagines the North American dominion to have been. He argues that it can be much easier to pass legislation under a Parliamentary system--but what is happening in Britain today shows that that is only true when the governing party really has a strong consensus on policy within itself. He also argues that monarchs, or their representatives the governors general in the British dominions, have played a big role in avoiding political crises in ways which an American President cannot. What he ignores, of course, is the enormous boost the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Second World War gave to American ideas of democracy around the world, beginning with the British Empire, where both the Second Reform Act and the British North America Act of 1867 (which made Canada effectively independent) were passed largely as a result of the Union victory in the Civil War.
Views like Matthews'--and his citations show how many contemporary academic historians are pushing them--cannot form the basis for renewing our allegiance to the United States. They are parallel, in a bizarre way, to the views of the southern slaveholders in 1861 who said that they had to rewrite the American Constitution to make sure that it protected slavery anywhere within the new Confederacy. They, like he, were arguing that because that document (as they understood, better than he) did not reflect their values on this issue, it deserved no respect. For those of us who believe that the American tradition, however flawed, still provides the only way forward for our diverse nation, this is frightening. And it is all the more frightening because it represents a trend among the Left, which, so far, is definitely the losing side in the present crisis. Like the white Southerners in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Left today is not moving towards more centrist positions to broaden its appeal. It is doubling down on identity politics and the rejection of American traditions, just as they did on white supremacy. And these tactics cannot, in my opinion, provide us with a good way out of the crisis we face today.