My assignment this summer is to review an American history textbook in preparation for teaching in the fall. This week I hoped to reach the revolution, but I keep stopping to look for the adult US in the accounts of the child.
It’s all there, the best and the worst: conflicts of justice and profit; idealism and its steady drift toward self-righteousness; deep devotion that excuses persecution; autonomy dismissive of interconnectedness and gratitude; practical tolerance and its red-line limits; everything-is-possible (and allowable) ambition; can-do self-assurance that here, at last, is something different… and better.
One of the most interesting questions in American history is when we stopped thinking of ourselves as British subjects and became Americans. Well into the 1760’s, the textbook says, Americans still thought of themselves as British subjects. According to the book, British mismanagement (specifically all those taxation and regulatory acts that I will have to get straight one of these days) galvanized Americans as Americans.
Though I’ll be teaching history in the fall, I’m no historian. I wonder, however, if the textbook’s account of our origins follows another American tendency—self-justification. We like to believe that, as victims of circumstance, we’ve responded to necessity. Whatever trouble we get into, we like to believe someone else started it, caused it, created it when, from the beginning, we’ve made choices to set ourselves apart.
The textbook contains a two-page spread asking whether slavery arose from racism or whether racism arose from slavery. However, both options put the blame elsewhere. If slavery comes first—because Africans captured to be slaves and transported to the colonies as slaves were slaves when they arrived—then colonists only took part in an existing institution. If racism came first, the colonists’ cultural circumstances prevented them from fully seeing the great evil of their actions.
Yet, the French and Spanish models of colonization were quite different. The French trapped furs alongside the native population, and, though their approach also exploited opportunities (and set environmentally disastrous precedents), they traded with Native Americans, and intermarried with them. The Spanish were perhaps as cruel as the British, but their paternalistic model sought to “help” indigenous people through conversion, organized farming, and mutual protection. You might argue they faced different environments and needs, but neither group turned to importing slaves or embraced slavery on the scale British colonists did.
For the British colonists, slavery arose after indentured servitude failed to provide labor forces of the size, economy, and quality desired. When indentured servants fulfilled their terms, their caretakers provided little to assure any future, and former workers roamed the countryside begging alms and/or robbing the local population. Land owners weren’t willing to pay former servants to stick around nor were they willing to offer incentives to attract more laborers from overseas. African slaves, in contrast, needed no incentive other than compulsion, and the institution itself assured that no reward would be necessary either. Slavery was, in other words, a rational second option for colonial farmers, one entered into consciously and deliberately. Neither racism nor slavery mattered as much as economic advantage. Both justified money-making choices.
Peter Wood, a historian writing in the seventies, offered accounts of colonists and Africans working side-by-side in the early years of settlement before the rigid plantation model supplanted the more flexible and intimate system that preceded it. Early colonists faced the choice of working on a smaller and less profitable scale. Instead they refined means of forced subjugation. They nurtured it. They profited from it. They perfected it, and institutionalized cruelty marked its improved apparatus.
One example does not a case make, but the history of slavery in the British colonies (and later the US) suggests something was fundamentally different about the American colonies from the start. Out of communication with the capitals of Europe and old-world values, British colonists experienced unprecedented freedom to reinvent society—and to do so, in the case of slavery, with depraved cynicism and for economic and pragmatic ends. Though they may have called themselves British subjects into the 1760s, they were, from the start, set apart, not yet renamed, but different because they were free to act according to their own ways.
I’m reminded here of a former student who chided classmates whenever they turned to listing “American” traits. She would say that Americans are people, that the characteristics we ascribe to them are human characteristics, not American ones. Perhaps, but the American experiment granted human nature unprecedented liberty. The child who grows up away from its parents, who, in the absence of absolutes, creates its own codes and rationalizations for selfish actions, who invents its own self-esteem and pride… that child grows into a very different adult.
And what you call that adult may matter less than recognizing its defining and abiding nature.