Idealism has played a role in American interventions. Misguided idealism. It goes back over two centuries to the country’s revolution against Britain.
This is the subject of a new book by Holger Hoock of the University of Pittsburgh, called “Scars of Independence,” the best book I’ve ever read on the revolution.
Mr. Hoock shows that the war was very much “America’s first civil war,” with Loyalists and Patriots doing most of the fighting. (After the “final” Battle of Yorktown, there were over 200 battles and skirmishes between those loyal to the Crown and those in revolt. None of these involved British troops.) Loyalists were denied the opportunity to return to their former properties (and families) after the war, by local revolutionary committees – this enabled the “victors” to distort historical accounts of exactly what happened. But those accounts are still there. Mr. Hoock quotes from newspaper and other accounts at the time, of atrocities committed by both sides. Neither side looks good by the end of the book.
He also shows how America’s mis-interpretation of the Revolutionary War affects us today.
Because America’s leaders see the war for independence as a revolt by simple farmers against a mighty tyrant king of England, they see analogies with leaders like Saddam Hussein. Overthrow him and you can introduce democracy, which will solve all the country’s problems. This was a prominent idea at the time of the invasion. The reality is that a democratic election in Iraq has caused many problems. The repercussions never seem to end. As with every other military adventure in the Middle East, the quicksand just keeps sucking us further in!
The reality of our history is that the thirteen original colonies were democracies before the revolution. Each colony had its own representative assembly. The political system of each colony evolved from England whose parliament was founded in 1265. That’s a long history of democracy.
This is important to understand and appreciate. Because the common mythology believes that it took a revolution to introduce democracy in America, our foreign policy keeps trying to do the same thing over and over again.
We fail to understand that democracy is unlikely to be successfully introduced in some nations for cultural reasons. America’s democracy evolved over centuries in the mother country; it cannot suddenly be imposed on most alien cultures.
Post-war America kept pushing for the dissolution of the European empires. Country after country was given independence. Most of them have not been very successful democracies; in many, the people are worse off than they were under colonialism and the people have less freedom. These are reasons why millions are trying to reach North America, Europe and Australia. But, again, Americans see independence as a solution to all problems, based on their own misinterpretation of history.
“It was the Suez crisis of 1956 which first sounded the alarm, and brought those of us associated with Britain and the Empire face to face with the hard reality that Britain could no longer call the tune on the international stage. The United States was now in the driving seat, constantly propagating the philosophy that colonialism was inherently bad and that the pace of its elimination had to be stepped up.
“The Americans joined forces with the Russians in this anti-colonialist campaign, albeit for opposing reasons. The Russian plan was for world conquest, the take-over by Marxism-Leninism. As the metropolitan powers pulled out of their empires, the Russian plan was to move in. The Americans, on the other hand, believed that the presence of the colonial powers was denying them the opportunity to develop in these areas the expertise, skills and economic success of their free enterprise system. Sadly, they seriously misjudged the situation.
“First, the Russian plan was organized and well laid . . . As everybody knows only too well, in the fields of espionage and propaganda, the Marxists-Leninists are world beaters . . . Once they control a country, the free enterprise system goes out the window – and that is exactly what happened in every case.
“The second point, which should have been obvious to the USA, was that wherever Western colonialism was the vogue and the free enterprise system thriving, with American skills, capital and equipment everywhere – big mining and industrial development, motor cars, heavy transport, earth-moving equipment – all doors were open to everybody, including the Americans. But once the Russians moved in, everyone else was frozen out. So the result turned out to be contrary to the United States’ expectations. However, there is no way of correcting these mistakes, we have to live with them. This is easy for the Americans: they live 10,000 kilometers away and can go on living their own lives. The problem lies with the people on the spot, who have to go on living with the disaster forced onto them.” (Bitter Harvest, Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, 2008, pg 34)
It’s also the case that, denying the Revolutionary War was, in fact, a civil war, we overlook the case for the Loyalists. Those that remained loyal to the Crown were, ironically, the equivalent of today’s Republicans. They called the Patriots “the sons of anarchy.” fearing that a republic, a country without a king, would be like the English Republic of the previous century. When King Charles I was executed in 1649, parliament was supreme for a while, but was soon replaced by a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. The king had always been seen as the guarantor of freedom – without him, it was likely there would be a breakdown of law and order.
There were also concerns that America would be cut off from other colonies around the world. Together, they all constituted an Empire of the English speaking peoples, that had built up the best trading system in the world. Tens of thousands, maybe more, wanted to maintain that trading empire because their livelihood depended on it. It was also an empire built on basic freedoms, of enterprise, political thought, the press and religion; and the rule of law.
“There are good reasons why Americans portray their revolution and war for independence as an uplifting, heroic tale, as the triumph of high-minded ideals in the face of imperial overreach, as a unified and unifying nation-building struggle to deliver a free and independent United States. But, in doing so, they risk neglecting its divisive and violent strands. To understand the Revolution and the war – the very birth of the nation – we must write the violence, in all its forms, back into the story.” (“Scars of Independence,” Holger Hoock, 2017, page 12.)
It’s not just foreign policy that has been affected. Mr. Hoock shows that the basic divisions of the “first civil war” continue to this day, as do the means of achieving an end. The Patriots tried to silence the Loyalists, by smashing their printing presses, tarring and feathering them, even hanging them. Today, we see a frightening liberal-fascism that tries to silence any voices that oppose their aims. It’s the same intolerance.
I remember a few years ago listening to an interesting segment on NPR. It was an interview with a Canadian politician who was asked to explain the difference between the Canadian and American political systems. I will always remember his answer (paraphrased): “In Canada, on any issue, we begin with the four parties stating their respective positions. We then discuss and discuss until we finally reach a compromise. In the US, there are two sides. Both argue their case and then head for the barricades.” Sadly, there is a lot of truth to that.
We have a culture of intolerance, which is causing irreparable division. In Mr. Hoock’s opinion, it all goes back over two centuries to the Revolutionary War. Incidentally, that war made the “second civil war” inevitable.
Although many Loyalists left the new republic to live in other colonies, many also remained with their families in the US. They remain in our midst even now. The post-World War II Secretary of State, Dean Acheson came from a Loyalist family.
“Dean Acheson was born in Connecticut into the Anglophile East Coast establishment. His father was a Canadian-born Episcopalian bishop and the family always celebrated the King’s birthday.” (“Picking Up The Reins”, Norman Moss, 2008, pg 65).
“Scars of Independence” should be read by all Americans. The writer’s basic premise is that the country’s violent birth still affects us negatively. Before we make any more mistakes, we ought to be honest about our origins.
From a Biblical perspective, there is also something to think about. Most Christians would say that the US is not mentioned in the Bible. It certainly does not seem to be mentioned in end-time prophecies. However, other Christians believe that the United States is modern Manasseh, the half-tribe of Israel, descended from Joseph. Manasseh broke away from the “multitude of nations” that was the Empire. (Genesis 48)
Manasseh’s name means “causing to forget.” “And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” (Genesis 41:51)
Forgetting has been America’s history from Day One.