America – the missing years: 1619–1775

Violence was commonplace in Nevis, as in all of the slave-ridden sugar islands. The eight thousand captive blacks easily dwarfed in number the one thousand whites, “a disproportion,” remarked one visitor, “which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well-regulated militia.” (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 19)

I am an avid reader of history, especially U.S. history, and so when I read two books a decade ago , I surprised myself by realizing how little I had read over my many years of library cards about the pre-Revolution era of American history. The continuing hubbub over Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, published by The New York Times in 2019 and now the subject of multiple fights in school boards around the country, demonstrates to me that most other Americans have likewise read very little about that period of our shared story.

I am not going to re-litigate the accuracy of every assertion in the work of Hannah-Jones’ and her co-authors here; the early American settlers were “fish living in very different waters” from us, and so all attempts at this history are both enlightened and flawed by our 21st century attempts to read 17th-century tea leaves. But I do want to say that if you think you received an accurate rendition of the founding of America in your early book-learning years, you are profoundly in Fantasyland.

The two books that started me down this new “gap period” quest were Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, published in 2011 (a follow-up to his excellent 1491), and Ron Chernow’s best-selling 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, from which the opening quote and the Broadway musical were taken (with lots of “liberties” in the musical). These two books are a good set of “bookends” on the era, which I have since begun to fill in.

Your primary and secondary school American history knowledge likely skips abruptly like mine did from a very scrubbed-up version of “the first Thanksgiving” in 1621, fast-forwarded through 150 “missing years” to a dramatized Boston Tea Party of 1773. Religion historian Marcus Borg wrote twenty years ago of the danger of assuming that the stories we recount from history were captured as if they were recorded on videotape. If Borg were alive today, he surely would have updated that advice to include cellphone video. He reminds us that the very concept of movie-like replay of ancient events was not even in common intellectual thinking before motion pictures first crudely documented history starting in the late 1800s. And editors compiling and altering the words of “primary sources” (I once was one) have been around since at least the time of Ezra in fifth century BCE Jerusalem. [1]

Best to assume that all history before 1900 (and a lot since) would not have been “captured” in quite the same way as the stories were retold if, for instance, Mary Magdalene had her iPhone at hand. Indeed, given all the video cameras now universally in pockets, it is no coincidence that better “alien abduction” and “Bigfoot” videos have failed to emerge. Some stories are best left undocumented.

But some things we do know…

In some areas, however, historians have uncovered much better documentation of deep history than we had even two decades ago. The mass digitization of very old documents has enabled a DNA-like history path to be created for much of human word use as it memetically evolved. Linguists now have the tools to “walk back in time” words and phrases in common use today, even crossing geographic and language boundaries back to language roots thousands of years old.

Almost all language comes from somewhere as literature and cultures cross to feed new generations of speakers and writers. We have long known, for instance, that the great prose of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (saying this gracefully) “owes a lot” to earlier sources such as Jefferson’s own preamble to the Virginia Constitution, George Mason’s draft of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, and the writings of British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) [See Note 2 for an example].

While modern academics and editors have rules regarding sourcing materials, folksinger Pete Seeger (1919–2014) frequently commented, regarding his own songs and those of friends such as Woody Guthrie, that “plagiarism is the root of all culture.” History is the retelling of stories, and accuracy does fade over time even as words and key phrases repeat themselves. All of us writers try to recast our own influences into our own personal words, but there are only so many words, and I am sure that a good linguistic detective could dig up many of my own uncredited sources of well-turned phrases.

That Second Amendment thing

Alexander Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow casually throws out, early in his book, one of the earliest documented uses in the Americas of the still-debated catchphrase from the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as found in quote that opens this post. The language of “well-regulated militia” was not at all new to the Framers, indeed it goes back at least to the Caribbean slave colonies of the 1850s where Hamilton was born.

As you can surmise, these militias had nothing to do with “fighting the British,” or as Florida congressman Matt Gaetz now claims, “armed rebellion against the government.” That early “language DNA” is clearly talking about the repression of slave rebellions and the hunting of escaped slaves in the British colonies.

The first settlement of South Carolina came not from direct migrations from Europe, as did most other colonies, but rather as “overflow” from slave-holding plantations from the British Caribbean in 1670. Of all of the Southern states, coastal growing conditions in South Carolina were especially unhealthful for white human habitation (and Black slave habitation as well, but that’s kinda the point, isn’t it?) and so the colony/state’s slave population soon exceeded the white population. Fear of slave rebellion was a part of daily life at the time of writing the U.S. Constitution, and there is no doubt that Southern plantation owners were far more interested in ensuring the right of “well-regulated militias” to protect their personal holdings from their own enslaved Black workers than from the British, who were an ocean away.

Back to that 1619 Project

Let me make an analogy here to Howard Zinn’s controversial, but compelling, 1980 text, A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book has a very obvious “slant,” telling an “American story” from the point of view of the most marginalized and historically undocumented residents of the nation — the indigenous, the imported slaves, the non-English immigrants, the laborers, and the women. But Zinn’s “slant” is only obvious because most of us have been taught only a sanitized American history “written by the winners.”

In early 2018 I reviewed an enlightening book by Daniel Wolff about the angry and radicalized labor movements of the Lake Superior “Copper Country” into which my grandfather and his wife’s parent’s immigrated from the poorest parts of Scandinavia around the turn of the 20th century. This unrest culminated in an incident with the tragic loss of many children’s lives around the time of my father’s birth nearby. I spent important parts of my childhood and university years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and yet I had never been taught this well-documented history in school or by family, likely because it was often ugly, sometimes with overt “Communist” affiliations that were taboo during my 1950’s-era childhood. The only hint I recall was my aging grandmother reminiscing about a decaying “ghost town” that we passed through bearing the name of “Helltown” during her childhood.

For six decades, I was literally missing a significant part of “my story.” It is through that lens that I read the 1619 Project. This project is named for the date of the first arrival on American soil of African slaves (a date far earlier than that of the forebears of many of us), and upfront the authors states that the compilation of articles and images seeks to highlight the “consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

It is often uncomfortable reading. My aforementioned second-generation American father was able to escape the poverty of his home region after World War II, thanks to the G.I. Bill and a Veterans Administration house loan by which he raised his family in a safe white suburb with excellent schools. When you dig too deeply as to why most Black military veterans were unable to avail themselves of that massive “economic bootstrap,” however, the story gets squirmy for us white kids who are today convinced that we “made it” on our hard work and resilience alone. While this disparity was noted by 1619 Project contributor Trymaine Lee, I had learned this story before, but not until many years after my youth (see, for instance, this account).

Many of the most vocal critics of the 1619 Project, such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis, portray its revelations as either just untrue or as “old stuff Black people should get over” (they say as their party adherents march Confederate flags through the U.S. Capitol in January). But “critical race theory” is not just about things that happened 170 years ago and earlier. My own life and economic success are largely rooted in blatantly racist government policies during the 1950s and later. To think that the seeds sown by those slave traders in the 17th century and slaveholding “Founding Fathers” have no lingering and currently-active impact on the daily lives of millions of minority Americans is wishful thinking at best and outright bigotry at worst.

Indeed, open and unapologetic racial bigotry has become “a feature, not a bug” in the post-Trump Republican Party. As I have often noted, if you think Southern politicians like former senator and attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III really believe that they are in “the Party of Lincoln,” or that their 2000’s-version “Copperhead” Northern enablers like my former congressman Steve King of Iowa, or current Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have the best interests of minority Americans at heart, then you still live in the 1950s white America in which I grew up.

The 1619 Project is about dialogue. You or I may disagree with some evidence or conclusions, or recommended solutions but a wide swath of America continues to pretend that racial injustice never happened in America, or at least does not happen today. Perhaps part of this hostility comes from the reality faced by many of my Baby Boomer demographic that they are entering, or are in, their retirement years without having taken full advantage of the educational and economic bootstraps that were offered to them. Ironically, it was often past Republican state and federal administrations that had offered them the most “social program” help. That was certainly true in my case.

We need this dialogue right now. It affects basic voting rights. It affects day-to-day economic justice. It affects the daily interactions of police and minority communities. Of all of the dishonesty in this world, the lies that we tell ourselves are often the most destructive to ourselves and our communities.


Notes:

  1. The compilation of the Old Testament Torah is commonly ascribed to Ezra following the Babylonian Captivity. Much has been written about the multiple sources, merged traditions, and alternating “languages for God” found in the Torah that we know today that evidence the heavy hand of editors.
  2. A good example of linguistic “cross pollination” is this comparison of portions of the Declaration of Independence to one of John Locke’s essays from decades before (and likely required reading for any learned American in Jefferson’s time):

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. – U. S. Declaration of Independence (1776)

But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected. – John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690)

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