Barry Gewen: Forget the Founding FathersRoundup: Talking About History
Barry Gewen, in the NYT Book Review (6-5-05):
[Barry Gewen is an editor at the NYT Book Review.]
The founding fathers were paranoid hypocrites and ungrateful malcontents. What was their cherished Declaration of Independence but empty political posturing? They groaned about the burden of taxation, but it was the English who were shouldering the real burden, paying taxes on everything from property to beer, from soap to candles, tobacco, paper, leather and beeswax. The notorious tea tax, which had so inflamed the people of Massachusetts, was only one-fourth of what the English paid at home; even Benjamin Franklin labeled the Boston Tea Party an act of piracy. Meanwhile, smugglers, with the full connivance of the colonists, were getting rich at the expense of honest tax-paying citizens. The recent French and Indian War had doubled Britain's national debt, but the Americans, who were the most immediate beneficiaries, were refusing to contribute their fair share.
The revolutionaries complained about a lack of representation in Parliament, but in this they were no different from the majority of Englishmen. What was more, the God-given or nature-given rights they claimed for themselves included the right to hold Africans in bondage. Edward Gibbon, who knew something about the ups and downs of history, opposed the rebels from the House of Commons. Samuel Johnson called them ''a race of convicts'' who ''ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.''
Observed from across the Atlantic, the story of the Revolution looks very different from the one every American child grows up with. To see that story through British eyes, as Stanley Weintraub's ''Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783'' enables us to do, is to see an all-too-familiar tale reinvigorated. Weintraub reminds us that justice did not necessarily reside with the rebels, that the past can always be viewed from multiple perspectives. And he confronts us with the fact that an American triumph was anything but inevitable. History of course belongs to the victors. If Britain's generals had been more enterprising, if the French had failed to supply vital military and financial assistance, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest would be known to us not as political and philosophical giants but as reckless (and hanged) losers, supporting players in a single act of Britain's imperial drama. We would all be Canadians now, with lower prescription drug costs and an inordinate fondness for winter sports.
But Weintraub's book does more than add a fresh dimension to a tired subject. By giving the war a genuinely international flavor, it points the way to a new understanding of American history. Instead of looking out at the rest of the world from an American perspective, it rises above national boundaries to place the past in a global context. This is a significant undertaking. At a time when the role of the United States in the world has never been more dominant, or more vulnerable, it is crucially important for us to see how the United States fits into the jigsaw of international relations. Weintraub indicates how American history may come to be written in the future.
A globalized history of the United States would be only the latest twist in a constantly changing narrative. Broadly speaking, since the end of World War II there have been three major schools of American history; each reflected and served the mood of the country at a particular time. In the 1940's and 50's, that mood was triumphal. As Frances FitzGerald explains in ''America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the 20th Century,'' the United States was routinely presented in those years as ''perfect: the greatest nation in the world, and the embodiment of democracy, freedom and technological progress.'' The outside world may have been intruding on the slumbering nation through the cold war, the United Nations, NATO and the rise of Communist China, but the textbooks' prevailing narrative remained resolutely provincial. ''The United States had been a kind of Salvation Army to the rest of the world,'' the books taught. ''Throughout history, it had done little but dispense benefits to poor, ignorant and diseased countries. . . . American motives were always altruistic.''
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