Debunking American History, Part II: Who We Were

The older  textbook view of our history (whose most idiotic version goes by the name "American Exceptionalism")  is that the American colonists were a rare breed of individualists, cut loose from the traditions of old Europe, who came to New World seeking religious liberty.  This is more or less bunk.  The British settlers of North America were a diverse lot.  Most of them came in search of cheap land and economic opportunity.  While it is true that the Puritans who settled New England did want freedom for their own kind of religion, they were eager to persecute unto death anyone who belonged to any other Christian sect.

According to this progressive view of American history, which has been adopted by Straussians, Conservatives, and other supporters of the Revolution, the colonists, in leaving the Old World, also abandoned their old European identities and reentered a state of nature in which the old notions of patriarchy and social hierarchy quickly evaporated.  As one historian has written, the events of 1776 were the culminating phase of an "American revolution against patriarchal authority" that has left its impress upon all the characteristic institutions of American life. 

In fact, American settlers were slow to slough off their European skin, either in their patterns of family life or in their sense of community identity.  Throughout the colonial period the autonomous household integrated into a local community was the American norm.  The early American as footloose individualist is more of a myth than the noble savage or the Virginia Cavalier.  Some historians might concede that this was truth in some parts of the South but certainly not in the North.  On the contrary.  In the North,  to quote one historian

Work was arranged along familial lines rather than …through a wage system.  This apparently simple organizational fact was a crucial determinant of the historical consciousness of this farming population....The parents (principally the husband) enjoyed legal possession of the property...but they were dependent on their children for economic support in their old age.

The Puritan experiments in New England constitute the nearest thing to a partial exception.  But even there the revolution against patriarchy was a much slower process than is sometimes imagined.  The Plymouth colony, in its early days, faithfully preserved the outline of English and European family life.  The social historian John Demos summarizes: "One married couple plus children and (in some cases) servants formed the model household unit...."   While husbands and wives assumed joint responsibilities over many household tasks and even managed businesses in a cooperative manner, Puritan ideology invested the husband and father with ultimate authority. Children were expected to be obedient in all details: "Egalitarianism formed no part of the seventeenth century assumptions about the proper relationship of parents and children," but if children were expected to obey, parents were obliged to provide, and irresponsible or cruel parents could be and would be corrected by the community.  

     The family was not viewed as an isolated unit, but as the foundation of civil and religious society.  Demos took the title of his book from an anonymous Puritan essayist who declared: 

A family is a little church and a little commonwealth ...whereby trial may be made of such as are fit for any place of authority, or of subjection, in church or commonwealth.  or rather it is a school wherein the first principles and grounds of government are learned.

This strong sense of family and community was maintained as Americans moved westward, not as footloose individuals but in large groups of extended families and neighbors.

  The pattern of settlement and the sorts of societies that grew up was, of course, different, because the different regions—for example, New England, the Tidewater South, and the Appalachian ridge—were settled predominantly by people from different parts of Britain.  

David Hacket-Fisher, in his famous book Albion’s Seed, showed in detail how the different regions of the future United States were settled from different and distinctive parts of Britain.  New England was settled largely by people from East Anglia, a very distinctive group that embraced Puritanism with a fury, but they were distinctive from the beginning, since the population contained strong Scandinavian influences from the Danes and other Norsemen who had invaded and settled it.  Living lived on small farms, the East Anglians and their New Englander progeny were known for their bad cooking—New England boiled dinner is an unpardonable outrage against the human palate—and a rather casual attitude toward premarital sex.  These were enduring cultural traits in New England, and it is amusing to read the wife of John Quincy Adams, a Southern girl who lived part of her life in England, as she tries in vain to find a maid in Boston who has not had at least one illegitimate child.  Piety and promiscuity are the signs of the most distinctive Yankee trait:  hypocrisy!

The tidewater south, by contrast, was settled by people largely from southwestern England, where they were proprietors of large farms, enjoyed good roasted meat and liked fox hunting.  Appalachia, as most of us know, was settled mostly by people from Celtic fringe: Scotland, northern Ireland, northern England. 

Thus three quite distinctive regional cultures emerged, typified, say by the Adamses in New England, Washington and Jefferson from Virginia, and Andrew Jackson from the back country.  In the 18th century, there were great conflicts and even shooting wars between lowcountry planters and upcountry farmers, and it is no accident that in the Revolutionary War, when lowcountry planters decided to support the Revolution, some upcountry folks who had up until that time been rather anti-British switched sides and became Tories—simply out of resentment against the Tidewater aristocrats.  Eventually, as you know, the two southern cultures tended to merge.  By 1860 the Southern leadership, as Mrs. Chesnut observes in her "diary," was not dominated by the old Tidewater families—General Lee is an exception—but by the successful descendants of Appalachian farmers: Jefferson Davis, Stonewall, Jackson, and Mary Boykin;'s own husband, Senator James Chesnnut to name only a few. 

One regional antagonism that did not go away was the mutual dislike between northerners and southerners.  Even during the Revolutionary War, North-South differences caused antagonisms.  New Englander were commercial and enterprising people and when one Yankee officer, a shoemaker in civilian life, set up a cobbler’s shop to make money by fixing the soldier’s boots, southern soldiers were so horrified they attacked the shop and broke it up.  These antagonisms need not have led to a war, but the differences were profound.

What do we conclude?  First, that the myth of American exceptionalism is devoid of reality, that it is, in fact, a lie, and second, that the so-called American identity represents nothing real in the American experience.  It is an artifact, constructed by New England professors and writers, who first invented the ideal rational and liberated but moral New Englander and then pretended that this work of art represented the whole of the country.

Most Americans, in the first hundred years of the Republic, knew that outlines of the various regional characters.  The Tidewater Virginians and Carolinians were noble, refined, but courteous, but they were "mountains of pride."  The Southerners of the back country were rugged, clannish, and not prone to take abuse from anyone.  They lived by a creed enunciated by the character John Book, in Don Siegel's The Shootist (from the book by Glendon Swarthout):  “I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    I remember interesting secondhand accounts from my grandfather and others about west-central Illinois in the 19th Century and the contentions of different populations rapidly moving together. Irate farmers at town meetings vowing to sabotage a new canal project which will bring outsiders from the east, Methodist circuit riders forcing people into church at gunpoint on Sunday, and of course the Nauvoo incident etc. Many old books from that time as well. A recurring idea put out in various forms of propaganda in around the mid-20th Century for the people who still knew these things is something along the lines of “We’ve had all these bitter differences but in compared to the menace of Hitler or Stalin we put these aside and become one people.”

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    An interesting Midwestern bigot was the artsy writer Glenway Wescott, the exemplar of the highly cultivated emigre who wrote for the New Yorker. Both in his fine novel The Grandmothers and in Goodby Wisconsin, Wescott portrays his little corner of the world he grew up in and expresses resentment against the foreigners moving in.

  3. Avatar theAlabamian says:

    Jacob, yes the idea that diversity is a virtue in of itself seems to part of the progressive cult, interesting that certain cultures are disdainful to progressives and they can’t tolerate them, such as Southern culture.
    Dr. Fleming, I love the humorous way you put things and it seems the so called bigots who want to preserve their culture and people are considered wrong for not allowing the progressive cult morality to rule their hearts.

  4. Avatar Roger McGrath says:

    I have to throw a word in here for Frederick Jackson Turner and his Frontier Thesis: Generations of westward pioneering and the dramatic change in man-to-land ratio transformed Europeans into Americans. When Turner developed his thesis, he was rebelling against the New England-centric narrative.

  5. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger, I heartily agree with you that Turner was substantially correct, though every great thesis needs refinement. It has been decades since I read him, but I am not sure that he tumbled to an important aspect of what happened, namely, that the frontier–begin with the landing on the shores of the New World–caused a reversion to more Medieval, more patriarchal, more kin-based and religion-centered societies. I first argued this in some lectures I gave in Italy, and they are, alas, written in Italian. But take, for example, Tocqueville’s observation that much of what was handled by government(s) in France was done in America by communities. Quilting bees, barn raisings, lynching bees, vigilance committees represented a significant step backward to a more creative stage of European civilization, and it is no accident that the groups that did the best on the frontier tended to be from fringe areas of Britain where there was more order and less law than in London. The false myth is that men like Daniel Boone were rugged individualists; the true myth is that they were family men–Boone always had close relatives with him, and studies by historians like Mack Farragher show that just as whole villages moved from Britain to the Eastern seabord, whole villages in America moved West. I don’t know the history of Rockford very well, but what I have learned indicates that a lot of Connecticut Yankees moved in initially, followed by a group of Scots who all came from the Duke of Argyll’s lands. Their letters indicate the role of brothers, kinsmen, and pastors, in arranging the migration.

    A close look at Medieval societies can reveal similar initiative on the part of kindreds, guilds, and communities reveals a similar pattern. This is much too big a subject, but my reading of the history of Tuscan communes from the 6th to 12th centuries shows first a reversion to reliance on kinship then the emergence of non-state policing activities of church dioceses and parishes, e.g.. in building and maintaining streets, city walls, insuring water supply, developing skilled trades ruled by guilds of kinsmen, defending the town, and punishing malefactors. Of course there were higher levels of authority vested in counts who represented the distant Emperor, but by the time Barbarossa got around to cracking down on Lombardia, Pisa and Siena were able to squeeze charters out of him that merely ratified the reality of their own self-government. To cut a long story short: When I would lecture Italian audiences on this Medieval reality of the American frontier experience, one of the names I always invoked was yours.

  6. Avatar Roger McGrath says:

    Yes, the parallels are clear. I often thought that what we experienced on the American frontier was what the Europeans were doing 1500 years earlier or what the Greeks were doing still another 1500 years earlier when they began moving down the peninsula and onto the Peloponnesus. Survival on all these frontiers meant kinfolk cooperating. On the American frontier it was to some degree a reversion to an earlier time. Many European aristocrats and Atlantic seaboard aristocrats thought of the American frontiersmen as barbarians. That’s nonsense but the pioneers certainly weren’t refined and effete. What the westward movement, which began on the Atlantic seaboard, did for certain was reinforce and exaggerate certain characteristics in Americans that made them different from Europeans as de Tocqueville and many other observers noted. We could spent days on this. I suppose I’ve spent a good part of my life on this. We could have a great panel discussion on this. For anyone interested in all this a good start would be reading two books by Ray Allen Billington, The Frontier Thesis and America’s Frontier Heritage. Billington one of Turner’s doctoral students and it was Billington, not Turner, who refined the thesis and amassed supporting documentation. There is still no textbook for the American West that can touch Billington’s Westward Expansion, an absolute tour de force. The 3rd edition is the best.

  7. Avatar William Shofner says:

    Not only did our American ancestors take with them from Europe their customs, families and traditions, as majestically displayed in “Albion’s Seed”, they carried with them, and passed on to their children, their ancient hates, especially centuries of bad blood between Celts and Anglo-Saxons (which Grady McWhiney contends, and Hachet-Fisher hints, was a prime contributor towards the War for Southern Independence).

  8. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    I am always happy for good rook recommendations, especially in a crowded field with much dross. The Alabaman, in mentioning cults, reminds me also about the paranoia about cult leaders. As is said, there was a big race in the pre-railroad days among opportunists to take advantage of the lack of parish system, Joseph Smith being but one of many. There was a man named Rayburn who started a “free love” cult in a small town north of Springfield called Williamsville and was chased out, fleeing to another tiny town called Industry. I think he disappeared to Ireland but he bought a huge memorial for his mistress, who he called his spirit guide, in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. It is as tall as Lincoln’s obelisk and is topped by her bust, which folds her arms and scowls, facing Williamsville so that she may tut-tut at the townspeople. Quite literally a progressive cult monument to the personality people today have decided to call ‘Karen.”