Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reclaiming American History Part II - What Was the American Revolution About?

As I argued in a previous post, conservatives have been able to frame American history in a way that feeds into their broader goal of discrediting the role of government in society. They have done this by using history to define the United States as a conservative country. While progressive scholars and activists have spent the last few decades bringing marginalized groups (African Americans, American Indians, women, etc.) into the mainstream of American history, conservatives have focused on portraying the nation's founding in a way that suits their needs. They've done by arguing (1) that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious individuals who supported laissez-faire economic policies and (2) that the Revolutionary War was a revolt against government and taxes.

Because the founding period is the defining moment in a nation's history, conservative efforts to claim the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War have been politically effective. It can be hard to tease out the precise ways that our understanding of the past influences the politics of today, but it clearly has an effect. For instance, the sense that the United States was founded by people who supported laissez-faire economics causes members of the media to portray various forms of government intervention, such as the 2009 stimulus, as unprecedented and/or vastly different from what the Founding Fathers would have done in similar circumstances. To the extent that most Americans think about history, they tend to adopt the view that the United States started off as a fairly perfect country - with a heroic set of founders - and that current policy should be geared towards keeping the country as moored to the founding principles as possible. This has a subtle but important impact on politics at both the personal and societal level, particularly because it taps into the way in which many of us are wired to appeal to authority and tradition when making political decisions.

Having said all that, what is wrong with the argument that the United States was founded as a conservative country. After all, weren't the Founding Fathers Christians who believed that government had gone too far? Wasn't the Revolution an anti-tax revolt against an oppressive central government?

Well, as any historian will tell you, the story is more complicated. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to distill any one meaning from the Revolutionary period. There were many Founding Fathers, they disagreed vehemently, and the Revolution meant different things to different people. Moreover, times change. Attempting to apply lessons of the past to the issues of today is complicated by the fact that definitions and concepts are not static. Being a Christian meant something different two hundred years ago compared to what it means today. Same with race, economic policy, and other issues.

Nonetheless, there is a progressive view of the United States' founding that needs to be told. I'm going to lay this out in more detail in a few forthcoming posts, but for now I want to highlight the two key principles that I think progressives should focus on as we seek to reclaim American history from conservatives.

1. The Founding Fathers were forward-thinking individuals that were interested in progress. Although they were wealthy white men who wore powdered wigs, the Founding Fathers did not want to be bound by tradition. Rather, they were obsessed with figuring out ways to move their nation - and all of humanity - forward. They saw this primarily in political terms, specifically through extending democracy, but were deeply interested in scientific, technological, and cultural progress as well. Like progressives today, the Founding Fathers embraced critical inquiry, scientific truth, and, above all, doing something to move history forward.

2. The Revolutionary War was an anti-imperialist revolt. An oppressive government that denied people participation in the political process, not taxes, was the primary cause of the American Revolution. Like progressives today, the Revolutionary generation was deeply worried about concentrated political and economic power. They were inspired to take up arms against the British Empire because they felt that they had no say in the political process. They did not say "No taxation." They said "No taxation without representation."

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