Monday, June 26, 2006

Demystification of the American Revolution

I’ve never watched more than three minutes of Joel Osteen, whose sermons I sometimes chance upon while channel surfing, but he is always saying something I regard as stupid. This weekend, I caught him expounding on the relationship between “righteousness” and “loyalty”. Loyalty to one’s “country” was included as one of the indicators of righteousness, and the congregation was admonished not to be one of those disloyal folks who go around “bad mouthing people in authority”. It fits in with the whole feel good message of Osteen and his ilk to embrace the government and go along with its shenanigans without complaint. Like a dog who learns to love his leash, those who accept their bondage with gladness enjoy a kind of perverse “liberation”. They enjoy the illusion of freedom, of living under laws of their own making. The illusion is comforting.

The process of disillusionment can be difficult. I am still undergoing it. The more disillusioned I become, however, the easier it gets, and I even take pleasure in it sometimes. At the moment, my profoundly held views about the cause of American independence are being challenged as I read Simon Schama’s “Rough Crossings” about the role of slaves in the Revolutionary War:

To make a long story short, Schama’s book leads me to conclude that I can plausibly claim that the most significant principle upon which the independent United States of America was founded was hypocrisy. The Founding Fathers complained that they were treated as slaves by the British, all the while keeping thousands of their fellow men in actual slavery. And they did this with little apparent appreciation of the irony of their claims.

I have learned that one of the propaganda tools of the “Patriots” involved the fear that the British would promote a slave uprising or would emancipate the slaves of the colonists (recent events in England had called into question the legality of slavery there). Liberty loving “Patriots” increased surveillance and control of slaves and free Negroes and hanged a number of alleged conspirators. To them, slaves who wanted freedom were ingrates, while they themselves were heroic defenders of liberty.

The slaves seemed to think that their hope for freedom rested with the British, and they defected to the King’s forces by the thousands even before any offer of emancipation had been made. The British ultimately did use the offer of emancipation in exchange for service to the Crown as a means of crippling the “Patriot” planters and gaining allies in America. Many of these defectors, including slaves of many of the Founding Fathers, found their way to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone when the British withdrew. Others found themselves back in bondage. The Revolutionary War, for slaves, meant the continuation of slavery long beyond its abolition in Great Britain and for a long generation after its abolition in the West Indies.

For slaves, the forces of liberty were those of the Crown, and the forces of tyranny and oppression were those of the Revolutioners. Victory for the Crown meant emancipation, whereas victory for the “Patriots” meant continued slavery. I can plausibly make the claim that the Revolutionary War was “about” slavery in much the same way as the War Between the States nearly ninety years later was “about” slavery. The offers of emancipation made the war “about” slavery for many slaves and doubtless many slaveholding “Patriots”.

As Independence Day approaches, I am coming to realize that the mythology of the Revolution and the apotheosis of the Founding Fathers serve to obscure inconvenient facts about that struggle. They also serve to obscure the truth about the American state and are part of the present day process of manufacturing illusions. “Rough Crossings” is a powerful book. It has demystified the Revolution for me, and I am only halfway through it.

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