What happens when a country forgets its history? What about when a country allows its history to be exploited for political gain and discarded for political correctness? Over the last few years, Americans have gotten a crash course in answering both questions. Classical literature, stories that have held their relevance for decades (in some cases centuries), are now discarded out of fear they might cause offense. American History (and civics in general), once seen as essential subjects for an informed and intelligent citizenry, has been edited at best and twisted for exploitation at worst. In some cases, American history has become completely optional, even for those looking to major in history at some universities.
It is perhaps a thoroughly modern phenomenon that the story of America’s founding; a story of impassioned debates on every conceivable topic, of deep patriotism and against-all-odds courage, of breaking free from a tyrannical regime by directly fighting it, and where fighting for your beliefs was tantamount to treason; has been largely reduced to “they were all slaveowners.” One of the richest, most unique stories the world has ever seen reduced largely to a Tweet for us to conveniently discard the whole of it.
And the parts that cannot be exploited are being discarded. From the 2016 need to erase virtually any reference to the Confederate flag (which culminated at, of all places, Stone Mountain, Georgia and the iTunes App Store), to the aforementioned need to censor “offensive” classic literature whose only crime is reflecting the time in which it was created.
As Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen wrote in their landmark book, A Patriot’s History of the United States, “if the story of America’s past is told fairly, the result cannot be anything but a deepened patriotism, a sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built.” (Schweikart, xv) This, in a nutshell, is the spirit both of this year’s Blowback and the few updates to follow.
A warts-and-all examination of American history puts to rest quite a few concepts that those looking to exploit it for political gain cling to. For example, while it is true that the Founders were slaveowners, they set up an environment where slavery could not survive. It shows that the Founders took issue with the State choosing religion, but not with those of deep religious faith being in government and governing in line with their beliefs. (Indeed, many of the Founders believed a solid moral core was essential to good governance.)
Last year, Blowback returned to the Revolutionary Era to focus on the history of the United States Flag, and the thinking behind the Second Amendment. This year, we look at the philosophy behind the revolution, and the intense debate that led to the formation of our Republic.. This year we look at the incredible effort, blood, and cost of forging a new nation built around the concept of individual liberty. This year, we continue the discussion on what has become a remarkably obscure part of the American story; our foundations.
1.) Baseline. It isn’t too hard to imagine why one would want to get out from under an absolute monarchy. The Declaration of Independence listed eighteen reasons why its authors wanted out from underneath the British Empire. Among these include refusing to pass “Laws of immediate and pressing importance,” that he “dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people,” and he “has made Judges dependent on his Will alone” (“Declaration of Independence”). In other words, in the eyes of the Founders, he was at best an incompetent leader, and at worst dissolved legislative bodies that opposed him and exercised near total control of the justice system. It was these things, and many others, that led to the formation of what was then known as the United Colonies of America.
Alongside the Declaration of Independence was the Articles of Confederation, adopted (after over a year of debate), in 1777. The Articles, lacking any real enforcement mechanism, fell apart almost immediately, Lacking any real enforcement mechanism, and lacking any ability to force the colonies to help pay for national defense, the Articles arguably managed to accomplish little more than coming close to collapsing the government before it started. The lack of funding from the colonies, plus the lack of an enforcement mechanism generally, made funding the army almost impossible to the point of near-mutiny (Extra Credits “The Articles of Confederation – I” 2017).
It was in this context that our current Constitution was formed. Built specifically to address the numerous weaknesses in the Articles, and essentially to give the central government (at least some) power, the Constitution still became the subject of fierce debate. What was originally approved by the Congress in 1787 wasn’t ratified until 1789 (“United States Constitution”). While we (mostly) accept the Constitution as it is now, the truth is that many states came fairly close to not ratifying the document at all (LevinTV 2016). Some saw what we know as the Bill of Rights to be completely unnecessary as the rights went without saying in that time. (Of course, now, it is good that they are listed in our founding documents considering efforts to take almost all of them out.).
2.) Debates. But that brief history of three major documents glosses over that what we take for granted almost 240 years later nearly killed the country before it began. The trouble with the Articles was that the national government had no power, and this was in large part due to the fact that a lot of colonies, having just fought an all-powerful central government, didn’t want to be ruled by a different all-powerful central government. (To quote Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin in the 2000 film The Patriot, “why should I trade one tyrant, three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants, one mile away?”)
Documents from Benjamin Franklin, among others, show us that even the concepts of proportional representation (in the House of Representatives) and the idea of a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature threatened to collapse the Conventions. George Mason was the principal proponent for what we now call the Bill of Rights, fearing an all-powerful national government with no protections against infringement on the rights of the citizenry (“Creating the United States: Convention and Ratification”) As the Library of Congress writes on their website, “diverging plans, strong egos, regional demands, and states’ rights made solutions difficult” for the Constitutional Convention.
Consider that the debates for either document lasted over a year, under an unconscionable amount of pressure from external and internal forces. Even leaving aside the pressures of the Revolutionary War surrounding them, what we have today is the product of fierce debate and endless reiterations, all built around the role of government and the protection of individual rights. It is safe to say that no detail was left ignored in the creation of the Republic.
3.) The War Itself. Of course, we cannot “leave aside” the pressures of the war, which were felt at every point along the creation of the founding documents. Recall last year, in Blowback: Origins, that we discussed how Georgia wanted to make taking up arms in support of the Revolution a prerequisite for citizenship (Halbrook 2008, 149-150). Additionally, as the military was already outgunned and outnumbered by virtue of their opponent being the largest military force in the world, any and all setbacks were immeasurably more damaging. From Congress, the army faced a complete lack of funding. But on the battlefield, George Washington’s army faced everything from chronic shortages (to the point where pillaging became an option), to collapsing morale, all amplified by a currency Congress had over inflated to the point of worthlessness. (Extra Credits “The Articles of Confederation – II” 2017).
While today, the idea of a revolution is made to sound extremely easy (see also the nascent 3% movements all over the Internet), as David McCullough writes in 1776, the “outcome seemed little short of a miracle.” (McCullough 2006, 294)
4.) Modern thinking. The book 1776 is 386 pages long. It discusses, from a military perspective, the intense struggle that those attempting to break from an oppressive, all-powerful empire endured. Meanwhile, countless documents exist showing the intense debate over how the country should operate, and how the freedoms they had fought and died for would be safeguarded. (Not created by the new government, but safeguarded.)
The birth of our Republic is a rich and powerful story. The philosophies that drove the Founders are no less relevant now than they were at the time. It is, therefore, baffling at best and insulting at worst to completely disregard all of it; reducing one of the greatest stories in history to a Tweet for political purposes. Put another way, through the wonders of modern thinking, two decades of history have been reduced to a sentence or two, and only when political motives warrant acknowledging history at all.
History was not designed to be ignored, it was designed to be studied. History is the ultimate guide of what has worked, and what has not. Far from removing, ignoring, or flat-out censoring our history, we should instead attempt to rediscover it. Learning from the Revolution, the ideas that drove the creation a Republic built around the concept of defending individual liberty, and the success that the Republic has seen as a result, can only benefit the country as a whole.
We are ignoring one of the greatest teachers we have, so that we may tell ourselves we are politically enlightened.
Those seeking to censor our history also tend to censor other ideas that they disagree with, but cannot argue against. Next week, we get into the (depressingly relevant) free speech movement.
Happy Independence Day.
Stay informed. Stay alert. Stay free.
“Creating the United States: Convention and Ratification.” Convention and Ratification – Creating the United States | Exhibitions – Library of Congress. Library of Congress, 12 Apr. 2008. Web. 17 June 2017.
“Declaration of Independence.” Bill of Rights Institute. Accessed June 17, 2017. https://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/declaration-of-independence/.
Extra Credits. “The Articles of Confederation – I: Becoming the United States – Extra History.” YouTube video. Posted May 06, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6rHSiN0vKk&list=PLhyKYa0YJ_5A9iLoiK_KYiCNVsCT11vZ9&index=1.
Extra Credits. “The Articles of Confederation – II: Ratification – Extra History.” YouTube video. Posted May 13, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPLA_VPMsUg.
Halbrook, Stephen P. The founders Second Amendment: origins of the right to bear arms. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. Print.
LevinTV “LevinTV: Constitution Day Special.” YouTube video. Posted Sep 17, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtaSxeiqUg0
McCullough, David G. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006. Kindle.
“The Articles of Confederation.” The Articles of Confederation: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). Accessed June 17, 2017. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/articles.html.
Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. A patriot’s history of the United States: from Columbus’s great discovery to America’s age of entitlement. New York, Sentinel, 2014.
“United States Constitution.” United States Constitution: Primary Documents in American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). Accessed June 17, 2017. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Constitution.html.