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.”