H.D.S. Greenway: Whitewashing the Founding Fathers

Roundup: Talking About History

LAST YEAR in Britain I went to hear Simon Schama of Columbia University lecture about his book, ''Rough Crossings," which has just been published in the United States. The British-born professor's tale was music to British ears, but could make an American a little uncomfortable.

His story is the story of thousands of blacks in the 13 American Colonies who rallied to the British lines during the Revolutionary War because they believed that is where freedom lay. It is a tale not often told in the United States, where, if blacks are mentioned at all, it has most often been in the context of blacks and whites together fighting against the tyranny of King George.

In America, Crispus Attucks, who fell to British bullets in the Boston Massacre of 1770, is celebrated here while Newton Prince, a Boston barber who testified on behalf of the British soldiers who shot Attucks, is not. The ''redcoats" were acquitted, with the help of their lawyer, John Adams. Prince, however, was tarred and feathered by indignant Bostonians.

When the war came, Prince, not surprisingly, joined the British side. Later, when the British began to actively recruit blacks by promising them freedom, thousands followed Prince into the King's service -- not only slaves, but freed men too....
The Founding Fathers of the United States knew well the double standard embedded in the liberty they preached. Patrick ''give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death" Henry admitted that he might be against holding slaves in principle, but ''I'm drawn along by the general inconveniency of living without them."

Schama wondered aloud how his book would be received in America. For although there are plenty of books critical about this or that aspect of American history, by in large the Founding Fathers have been deified in this country. Schama joked that he would not look good in an orange Guantanamo jumpsuit.

Do we Americans glorify our Founding Fathers too uncritically? Certainly, a great many biographies have been worshipful. Thucydides and Herodotus, the fathers of history, did not ''whitewash the past," Schama said. The story of the Peloponnesian wars ''is the story of a cock-up," he said.

Do we, as a nation of immigrants, need whitewashed founding legends to unite us? Do Americans, in these morally ambiguous times of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the secret prisons into which our prisoners disappear without trial or hope, long for heroes and heroic times? Perhaps Americans feel a need to hang on to the glory days of our national youth, when all our leaders were brilliant, brave, and beyond reproach, even if it is not always entirely true.

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david alexander - 5/7/2006

In November 1782, Britain and America signed a provisional treaty granting the former colonies their independence. As the British prepared for their final evacuation, the Americans demanded the return of American property, including runaway slaves, under the terms of the peace treaty. Sir Guy Carleton, the acting commander of British forces, refused to abandon black Loyalists to their fate as slaves. With thousands of apprehensive blacks seeking to document their service to the Crown, Brigadier General Samuel Birch, British commandant of the city of New York, created a list of claimants known as The Book of Negroes. Boston King and his wife, Violet, were among 3,000 to 4,000 African Americans Loyalists who boarded ships in New York bound for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain.

A Black Loyalist History Museum was established at Birchtown, and last month fell to arson.
"Visitors from across North America would come to the rural headquarters, located near the port town of Shelburne, where the majority of 3,500 black Loyalists were dropped off by British ships in 1783.
In addition to their freedom, the British promised slaves land and rations for three years in Nova Scotia for their military efforts against American rebels.
The Birchtown office building was the culmination of a decade-long drive by local residents to salvage hard-to-find mementos of this history for public display.
Once in Nova Scotia, black Loyalists faced incredible hardship. Fewer than 200 of the more than 600 black men received the land grants promised them.
Many arrived in late fall and were literally dropped in Shelburne to fend for themselves. Some lived in tents or dug pits in the ground, which they covered with logs and moss.
Their arrival in Shelburne caused friction with the white population, some of whom accused the blacks of stealing jobs. In 1784, the summer after the first wave arrived, Shelburne was the site of Canada's first race riot, when white settlers burned 20 homes of black Loyalists.
After the riot, black Loyalists set up their own community about five kilometres west of Shelburne and called it Birchtown, after British General Samuel Birch, who signed their freedom certificates. Today, it's a tiny village of just a few dozen families.
“This was the largest group of freed Africans in the world,” Mr. Bruce said, standing beside a replica pit house across the road from the razed office. “They were so important and yet they were forgotten.”
JANE ARMSTRONG Toronto Globe and Mail 6 May 2006

AfriGeneas Canadian Research Forum
Black Loyalists Museum Burned - Nova Scotia

Douglas Deal - 4/26/2006

Every nation, every people needs a whitewashed version of its past--call it a "heritage"--to preserve its identity and unity. David Lowenthal provides the best analysis of the differences between history and heritage (and the ways they typically get confused) in his 1996 book, Possessed by the Past.

The new book by Schama is hardly the first to treat the history of slaves and slavery during and after the Revolution. Schama says this himself in introducing a section at the end of his book entitled "Further Reading": "Rough Crossings builds on, and is deeply indebted to, the pioneering work of a number of historians who over the past half century have transformed what what was once a marginal curiosity in the history of the American Revolution and Great Britain into something approaching a paradigm shift" (RC, 451).

Rough Crossings and its "cousin"--the new book on part of the same subject by the Australian historian Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom--are to be welcomed as the newest additions to a burgeoning literature. Their signal contribution is to personalize the tangled histories of slaves and ex-slaves during that era by providing fascinating biographical sketches of a number of them, recounting in particular their experiences after the war in Canada and Sierra Leone.

Will these experiences and stories ever share center stage with those of the "founders" in American school text accounts of the Revolution? Probably not. But such biases are to be found in just about every nation, each of which is bound (paraphrasing Ernst Renan here) to get its own history wrong.

Douglas Deal