Independence Day

I am fond of vintage American history textbooks. Rifling through dumpsters, library discards, and second-hand bookstores, I cannot resist bringing them home when I find them. I am drawn to the temper of older histories, particularly ones written for students. Prior to the revisionist animus of the Sixties, school texts shared a sympathy for the American experiment, the fragility and genius of it. Sins were acknowledged but without the rancor that scours the past for new sources of accusation, new means of destruction.

Poster. Art Project of the WPA (c.1936
Poster. Art Project of the WPA (c.1936

A civilized sense of national identity—to be distinguished from the ideology of nationalism—is hard to find in contemporary texts. Howard Zinn’s anti-American harangue, A People’s History of the United States, is one of the most widely used and influential texts. It has incapacitated a generation of readers for living gracefully with our singular past. In the selection process necessary to the historian, Zinn and his disciples shrank the historical enterprise to a story of grievances and outrages.

I am spending this Independence Day with a yellowed, water-stained copy of the second volume of E. Benjamin Andrews’ History of the United States). It is a 1928 edition, the sixth reprinting after its publication in 1894. The succession of reprints signals its popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Historian and once chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Andrews wrote about the American Revolution with an affection no longer fashionable. He approached the Revolution through the lens of the French and Indian War (1754-63), emphasizing its role in framing colonial preparedness to secede from England:

“The results of the French and Indian War were out of all proportion to the scale of its military operations. Contrasted with the campaigns which were then shaking all Europe [the Seven Years’ War], it sank into insignificance; and the world, its eyes strained to see the magnitude . . . of those European wars, little surmised that they would dictate the course of history far less than yonder desultory campaigning in America.”

It seemed a minor theatre in the global conflict between the great colonial powers. Yet it had momentous consequences. Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, French envoy to the Ottoman Empire, prophesied from his post in Constantinople: “England will erelong repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They no longer stand in need of her protection.”

Philip Dawe. Tarring and Feathering the Excise Man (1774). Lithograph published in London.
Philip Dawe. Tarring and Feathering the Excise Man (1774). Lithograph published in London.

The French and Indian War gave rag-tag colonists battle field training side by side with the British, a daunting fighting force. It provided experience in establishing camps and enduring a march. It set a standard, however difficult to maintain, for organization and discipline. The value of that tutelage was inestimable.

“If the outbreak of the Revolution had found the Americans a generation of civilians, if the colonial cause had lacked the privates who had seen hard service at Lake George and Louisburg, or the officers . . . who had learned to fight successfully against British regulars by fighting with them, it is a question whether the uprising would not have been stamped out . . . almost at its inception.”

What is interesting about the following passage is the knowledge Andrews takes for granted in the reader. Nowhere does Andrews identify Fort Necessity as the battleground on which Washington suffered his first—and only—surrender. Neither is Braddock identified as the British general under whom colonists, young Washington among them, fought with the British against the French. Braddock died at the outset of battle; the campaign proved a disaster for the British. Andrews could trust his readers’ ability to fill in the backstory by themselves. To audiences unaided by Google, the historian need state only this:

“Without the Washington of Fort Necessity and of Braddock’s Defeat, we could in all likelihood never have had the Washington of Trenton and Yorktown. Besides Washington, to say nothing of Gates, Gage, and Mercer, and also there Dan Morgan of Virginia, began to learn war in the Braddock campaign. Again, the war prepared the colonists for the Revolution by revealing to them their own rare fighting quality, and by showing that the dreaded British regulars were not invincible.”

German Battalion Fighting for the British in the American War of Independence (19th C.). Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia.
German Battalion Fighting for the British in the American War of Independence (19th C.).
Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia.

But another necessity loomed, one even more crucial than skill at arms. That was a sense of union, a “community of sentiment” that fueled the cooperation needed to carry the fledgling nation through the bloody trials and deprivations of secession. The only hope of successful resistance lay in concerted action derived from grasp of a mutual cause, a perception which Andrews reminds us was “still none too intense” in the colonies:

“It is important to remember not only that the war built up this conviction of a common interest, but that nothing except the [French and Indian] war could have done it. The great forces of nineteenth-century civilization—the locomotive, the telegraph, the modern daily newspaper—which now bind sixty millions of people, spread over half a continent, into one nation, were then unknown. The means of communication and transportation between the colonies were very primitive. Roads were rough, full of steeps and cuts, and in many places . . . almost impassable with mire. It took seven days to go by stage from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, four days from Boston to New York. The mail service was correspondingly inadequate and slow. At times in winter a letter would be five weeks in going from Philadelphia to Virginia.

“Newspapers were few, contained little news and the circulation necessarily confined to a very limited area. It has been estimated that the reading matter in all the forty-three papers which existed at the close of the Revolution would not fill ten pages of the New York Herald now. In connection with this state of things consider the fact that the idea of colonial solidarity . . . had to be created outright. Local pride and jealousy were still strong. Each colony thought of itself as a complete and isolated political body . . . . Plainly a lifetime of peace would not have begotten the same degree of consolidation among the colonies which the war, with its common danger and common purpose, called into being in a half-dozen years.”

Common purpose. How we represent ourselves to ourselves, to our young, makes the difference between our survival as one people or suicide by balkanization. So I gather around me old texts like Andrews’ as talismans against the grinning executioners waiting to garrote defense of our shared history. They are frail things, these books. But while they remain intact, they defy the frenzied schoolmen determined to suffocate gratitude for the shared human project that is our legacy.