DL Fowler's Blog

What Is History?

History is a collection of stories designed to teach and motivate societies toward common goals and values. These historical narratives can be different from the contemporary narratives that society’s leaders employ to call people to action. Nonetheless, by narrowing or broadening the perspective from which historical events are viewed a dominant group within society can create the perception that their current agenda is rooted in treasured traditions.

The following historical narrative of America’s early years reverses the conventional way we look at history. Instead of starting with assumptions about our Founders’ shared values, we look at the narratives they used to motivate people to action and how those narratives were interpreted differently in the two major regions, northern colonies and southern colonies. This approach helps us see that there were at least two traditions, not just one, upon which our history was built.

In 1770 when the British Parliament repealed the objectionable taxes imposed on the American colonies, sentiment in favor of rebellion began to wane everywhere except for Massachusetts. Sentiment for rebellion had never existed to any meaningful level in the South; after all, paying taxes to the Crown and selling him your cotton was better than letting those abolitionists up north take away your slaves … and destroy your whole way of life.

Southern attitudes changed dramatically in 1772 when the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench Court (the highest court in the Empire) labeled slavery as an ‘odious’ institution that could exist only if Parliament passed a law establishing it, which it had never done and took no initiative to do. Consequently, an American slave who traveled to London with his master was freed, and many of the 15,000 slaves living in England walked away from bondage without any resistance.The ruling sent shock waves through the southern colonies where it was well known that Parliament had the power to overturn any colonial law that was ‘repugnant’ to Britain.

The following year, Parliament passed laws authorizing coercive action to quell unrest that had festered in Massachusetts for a decade and had become an irritant to British authorities. These laws did not directly impact other colonies, but many feared, especially in the South, that Parliament was poised to interfere with their internal policies, including slavery.

To nudge the colonists closer to rebellion, the legislatures in the various colonies, led by the Virginia House of Burgesses, opened Committees of Correspondence. These committees facilitated communication among colonial leaders and helped them focus attention on devising a common theme that could embrace such divergent goals as liberty and protection of slavery. George Mason proposed the language ‘men are born free’ to the Virginia House of Burgesses, but many of his colleagues lodged strong objections, which reached Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia as he was drafting the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s alternative language ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed with certain unalienable rights’ was acceptable since it was vague enough to accommodate the northern call for ‘no taxation without representation’ and the South’s demand for ‘no interference with local policies’ (specifically, the policy of treating slaves as property).

Once independence was won, most colonists returned to their ordinary lives, content to think very little about government unless some future crisis called for collective action. On the other hand, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and others were by driven by separate visions, each calling for some manner of national administration. These national leaders needed to keep the common narrative alive so people would focus on nation building. The phrase ‘created equal’ was repurposed to embrace the dreams of middle class farmers and merchants in the North (you have the right to become as prosperous as anyone else) while it was ambiguous enough to accommodate the requirements of southern slave owners (men might be created equal, but that doesn’t mean they should stay that way).

The regional narratives reflected each section’s class structure, hierarchies that were enforced through governmental, religious and financial institutions in order to solidifying power in the hands of the economic elite. In the South, slaves and poor whites provided low cost labor that fed the economic engine. A white middle class emerged that was bound to the elite through economic dependency, coercion, and a culture of dehumanizing the poor and those in servitude. In their role as buffer between rich and poor, the middle class shielded the rich from interacting directly with the poor, making it easier for the oppressors to deny the plight of their victims.The narrative of Popular Sovereignty, like a carrot dangled in front of the middle class but meant primarily for the benefit of slave owners, declared that each man had the right to do what he pleased, where he pleased, when he pleased without interference from a national government.

Elsewhere, subsistence farming, later to be replaced by sweat shops, drew immigrants flooding into the country, fueling economic growth. The middle class, lured by promises of upward mobility and fearful of the prospect that the promised prosperity might be wrenched away from them at any moment, shouldered the bulk of the risk inherent in geographical and economic expansion. Such growth, however, primarily benefitted the elite. The northern narrative was driven by a notion called free labor; it offered the opportunity for workers to bargain for wages in a theoretical free market place, but carried the threat that competition from freed slaves or immigrants might cost them their livelihoods.

As the country grew, new perceptions of liberty emerged. In many circles the words ‘created equal’ became synonymous with ‘liberty to all’. This shift in national vision threatened the entire social and economic structure of the South and plunged the young nation into civil war. Southerners called it the ‘war of northern aggression’ (interference with their internal policies) while northerners saw the war as a fight to preserve the Union (united we stand, divided we fall).

During Abraham Lincoln’s presence on the national stage, he was the most divisive figure in the country’s short history, loved by many and hated by almost an equal number. His assassination resulted in the first violent transfer of power from one president to the next, coming on the heels of a war that ripped families apart. Almost immediately after Lincoln’s death, a fresh narrative was essential to heal the nation. ‘Father Abraham’ became a near deity, and those who resisted his vision of liberty to all we’re forced into the shadows. Within three yeartoot his death the privileges and immunities granted by the federal government became the birthright of everyone born on American soil (Fourteenth Amendment).

Not long afterward, however, those who had lost power and wealth as a result of the Civil War bolstered their alliance with white middle and lower classes, invoking a narrative that played on the fear of economic displacement. This fear fueled a wildfire of racial segregation, bigotry, and disdain for immigrants. Over the ensuing century, that narrative became deeply woven into the fabric of American culture.

I’d like to know your thoughts about history. Please take the time to post a comment. Can you think of other ways to look at history?

Also, check out my journey into Abraham Lincoln’s head – Lincoln Raw: a biographical novel.


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