Friday, January 19, 2007

America's bizarre creation myths

Sadly, American mythology about 1776 tends to portray Britain as a cross between a Renaissance autocracy and Nazi Germany rather than as the country that bestowed on America the legacy of personal freedom, the rule of law and capitalism.

Reading the Economist the other day, I was astonished by such mythology passing for history in Lexington’s article about Seymour Martin Lipset and American exceptionalism.

Bizarrely, it says that the 1776 revolution got rid of feudalism. This seems an odd comment to make, given that the Britain of 1776 against whom the American colonists revolted was a Parliamentary democracy (albeit of very limited franchise), where Adam Smith was publishing ‘The Wealth of Nations’, and where most historians would agree that it is precisely the absence of feudalism that was one of the many factors allowing for the start of the Industrial Revolution at this time.

I found the inability to consider the bleeding obvious in this article astounding. Surely one need look no further than its huge size and its historical capacity to absorb people (and give them the opportunity to own land) to see why America is exceptional. No other country has had such relatively benign temperate lands to expand into.

It chooses to explain Canada's adoption of the Metric System by reference to a monarchist counter-revolution (that'll be people who chose to remain loyal to Britain in 1776) rather than the fact that Canada has a small population (32 million) and can agree this can of change fairly easily and amicably.

Having said all that, people in the UK are often just as ignorant of the past, choosing to celebrate dubious things like the Battle of Agincourt and the fact that Britain ruled a lot of other people's countries for them (without asking permission). Not many Brits would highlight the abolition of slavery as a key acheivement but the way that it happened was remarkable.

Slavery was pursued through the courts in Britain with the result that (in 1772) it was deemed unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable in Britain (but alas not her colonies); then a huge campaign against slavery was mounted until firstly the trade was banned (1807) by Parliament throughout the Empire and then slavery itself was banned (1833) - although it was the owners who got compensation rather than their victims. Unfortunately, slaves in the southern states of America were no longer living in the British Empire, so they had to wait till 1865 for the outcome of the American Civil War.

1 comment:

DB said...

Congrats on getting the economist to print your letter pointing out the error of their ways (albeit they've done a nice job of editing it so that it doesn't drone on for quite so long...)