Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the 18th century, By Jeremy Black
America's founding myths are all bunkum
Sunday 11 January 2009
Say what you will about the United States, but it has always been very good at myth-making. As soon as the guns of the Revolutionary Wars fell silent it set about constructing a cosy, specious historical narrative in which words like destiny, liberty and providence played a starring role. The yoke of British tyranny had been cast off, the freedom-loving colonists had rallied together to defeat the redcoats, and the great American experiment had begun.
The realisation that much of this narrative is bunkum has made a depressingly tiny dent in the popular historical imagination. No-one could deny that Britain introduced novel and unpopular kinds of legislation during the 1760s and 1770s, but it wasn't being tyrannous: just avaricious and obtuse.
Nor were Americans united in their desire for independence: most of them wanted the relationship between Britain and its American colonies to be re-jigged, not obliterated. The teleological scheme in which American colonists, after grumbling increasingly loudly since the mid-17th century, had finally had enough and inevitably did something about it flies in the face of all available evidence.
In fact, as Jeremy Black's impressive new book demonstrates, the American Revolution was a singularly contingent event. It might never have happened, and that provides food for counterfactual thought.
Britain and its American colonies had always squabbled (that is what centres and peripheries do). It makes sense to talk of perennial disgruntlement at the abuse of crown authority, of anger about trade restrictions, and of the colonists' love of local rights and privileges. By and large, however, Britain and the colonies had managed to sustain a mutually beneficial relationship. Someone in Virginia grew tobacco, and some grateful recipient in Bristol, Liverpool or (after the union of the crowns) Glasgow sold it on. Better yet, everyone shared a sense of Englishness, and later Britishness.
These are terms that Black never really gets round to anatomising in sufficient detail, which is a pity, but one still takes his point. People in Boston, Lincolnshire and Boston, Massachusetts were part of the same imperial enterprise. In bad times (when the French were behaving in menacing ways, or when wars with Native Americans were raging) differences tended to be put aside. Even in the good times, when niggling resentments could be indulged, there was still a common legal, intellectual and political culture.
As late as 1775, almost everyone concerned thought of themselves as British. Republicanism (however dominant it soon became) was aberrant, and it is important to remember that the catalyst for Revolution was not some imperative to make things new, but an obsession with having one's rights as a British subject respected. It was distaste for the lunatic decisions of specific parliaments and ministers, not a rejection of the entire constitutional apple-cart, that created the United States.
The interpretation of history has a logic of its own, of course. The circumstances (most notably the financial legacy of the 1750s Seven Years' War with France) were accidental, but battles were soon joined, soldiers perished, and what started as a minority position (slaying the British dragon) quickly became a founding myth.
There is nothing wrong with mythology: nations, especially young ones, rely upon it and, if only because the consequences have been so interesting, we should probably be glad that random events lit the touchpaper of what turned out to be the most extraordinary political enterprise in Western history. I just wish that everyone would acknowledge that destiny had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Anyone unpersuaded that this is so should read Jeremy Black's book. Firstly, because it spends a huge amount of time concen-trating on the overlooked histories of the pre-Republic Native American and African American populations. Secondly, because when it returns to more familiar ground it makes the excellent point that great events (1776 and all that) do not require great causes.
This is a little book crammed with large ideas and Black consolidates his reputation as one of the finest interrogators of 18th-century history. Historians are sometimes obsessed with neatness: this always makes it easier to conjure up an attention-grabbing thesis. Black, on the other hand, is willing to recognise a mess when he sees one.
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