We’ve Just Doubled Down On Revolutionary War Mythology

The Old Guard from Commander and Chief Guard
The Old Guard from Commander and Chief Guard marches after the national anthem during a wreath-laying ceremony at the French Monument in Yorktown, VA., October 19, 2016. Photo credit: US Air Force
Reading Time: 13 minutes

Suddenly this celebration of Independence Day has become, by presidential fiat, a celebration of war and militarism. It’s as if we really believed that our own Revolution was a singular triumph of military might.

In fact, according to our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, University of Rochester professor of history Thomas P. Slaughter, our revolution was equally impacted by the global trade and integration of the day. Already in the 18th century, we were part of a world economy. As a further reminder of how divisive the war was, even back then, Slaughter points out that no more than 40 percent of the country ever supported the Revolution.

He explains that it’s not actual history but the mythology of those events that is woven tightly into our cultural and historical DNA, and, like the culture of any institution, ingrained beliefs about the past are almost impossible to change. Which makes understanding the myth at least as relevant as the actual history itself.

Slaughter talks about how this Revolutionary War mythology evolved, and he draws a direct through line to Americans’ long-standing distrust of national government. This is one reason,  he says, why it has always been so difficult to export our style of democracy around the world — without the supporting mythology of the plucky rebels who beat the big bad British Empire.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

As we mark this July 4th holiday and all the pageantry that’s been added to it, it’s worth remembering that history is a funny thing. Time goes by, books are written and we think we know all there is to know about a particular time and place and set of events. Yet the complexity we sometimes feel about ourselves and about our modern life is no less true of history. The true interpretation of motives and events we thought we knew is always evolving and surprising us. Thus it is with all of history and particularly with respect to our own American Revolution.

Jeff Schechtman: It’s important to also as we try to understand other revolutions and the yearnings of independence in other parts of the world, that perhaps we see more clearly and better understand our own history. We’re going to talk about this today in the context of the American Revolution with my guest, Professor Thomas P. Slaughter.
Jeff Schechtman: Thomas Slaughter is the Arthur R. Miller professor at the University of Rochester. He’s the editor of Reviews in American History. He’s also the author of the book Independence, the Tangled Roots of the American Revolution. It is my pleasure on this July 4th weekend to welcome Thomas P. Slaughter here to the

WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Jeff Schechtman: Thomas, thanks so much for joining us.
Thomas P. Slaughter: Glad to be here Jeff, thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we often think about when we talk about Independence and the American Revolution is that we think that it was isolated to simply what happened here in America and in fact, the context is larger than that, as you talk about.
Thomas P. Slaughter: It was a world war. It was an event that in part took place because international trade and politics had become more fully integrated than had ever been in the previous history of the world. Great Britain, the British Empire, was trading to Asia, Africa, throughout Europe and the Americas were integrated into those economies.
Thomas P. Slaughter: What happened in Holland, you’ve got a banker in the Netherlands who calls in his debts that’s going to affect a merchant in London, the people he’s dealing with in India and the people he’s trading with in North America as well. Americans were part of an international network that was fixed by the policies and the trade patterns in a much larger empire. Yeah, it wasn’t a small, isolated set of communities which is the way we think about it but it was a function of the whole world sharing an economy and a politics.
Jeff Schechtman: Why does that so often get left out of the history? Why have we been so myopic in our view of the Revolution and of Independence?
Thomas P. Slaughter: Good question. I think part of the problem, and this is only part of it but it’s what comes to mind first, is that we would like to remember our revolution as a unifying event. It was that and also an incredibly divisive event. Once we now move off where we would be most comfortable in thinking about our revolution, we get to places that we’re not really sure are part of the stories that we like to tell.
Thomas P. Slaughter: For example, never more than 40, 45% of Americans supported that revolution. Never half were fully in favor of what was going on there. In all of the wars, to pick another example, in all of the wars that America has fought, never has a higher percentage of the population died than in the American Revolution. Now what that means is that the chances that you knew somebody, that you were related to somebody who died were greater in that war than any war we’ve fought since. And that’s sure not the way we tell that story, is it? It’s sure not the way we think about the Revolution. But it was Americans fighting Americans as well as Americans fighting soldiers that came from across the Atlantic. It’s very hard for us to think about it that way.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent does thinking about it that way, understanding both that and the broader global context that we were talking about before, to what extent does that change our interpretation of our place in history and really what it means to be American?
Thomas P. Slaughter: I think that Americans have in independence a core cultural value. One of the ways we think about ourselves is focused on that independence. That has ramifications both for individuals, embodied in the Bill of Rights and also for us collectively as a culture, as a nation, as a people. We have in the modern era, tried to export independence and we have tried to export it to people who really haven’t shared our valuing of it. I suppose Iraq is the most blatant in progress example of that. Have we been able to successfully export it? Not really.
Thomas P. Slaughter: The other thing I would point to, I guess, is that the flip side of our independence, of our cultural, political, legal valuation of independence, is a narrow definition of what community is. And I think that’s directed to the question you asked, because when Americans in the 18th century thought of their independence and thought of community, they most valued the most local communities. Americans’ independence defined community very narrowly. You were part of a community that was your parish, was your village. And the people from the next village weren’t necessarily your problem. They weren’t necessarily your community.
Thomas P. Slaughter: Always in the 17th and the 18th centuries from the perspective of the British Empire, it was very difficult to get Americans to think about the relationship between their community and their independence and any larger entities to which they belonged. Now if you take that culture that had that set of values and move it from the 18th century to the 21st century, it’s got some really dramatic and probably significantly more dramatic implications.
Thomas P. Slaughter: We’ve got these fossil fuel producing states, the states that produce coal and oil and you suggest that well maybe we should try to regulate coal fired plants and the pollution caused by oil as well and other fossil fuels because when you run a plant in Indiana, it affects the people in Michigan, it affects the people in New York because the wind blows. It affects the people in New England. It affects the people in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and it’s hard for us to think of community in those larger interconnected ways.
Thomas P. Slaughter: We live with the legacy of this independence that is rooted in a narrow definition of community and the implications of that in a world that is much more fully integrated, not just economically, not just politically, but obviously environmentally and so yeah, our clothes too. We all know this. Most of our clothing is produced in Asia by people who aren’t paid very well, who work under bad conditions and all of that. Are they part of our community? They’re the people who are producing our clothing. It’s very hard for us, isn’t it? It’s very hard for us to think of our community in those larger ways. And that’s all part of this American notion of independence I think.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that’s so interesting about that is the inherent contradiction and tension between that localism that you’re talking about as it affects people’s attitudes then and now and also the globalization then and now with respect to the larger context in which events take place. And that tension seems as if it was just as strong then as it is today.
Thomas P. Slaughter: It was just as strong then and the implications for it are even greater today, yes, I think that’s absolutely right. And then we have the other dimension and the other dimension besides spatial is across time too. We’re actually still very focused on a conversation that started back then that’s about strict construction of language, of rights, of documents, of rules and thinking of the texts that come down to us, particularly the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, in a much, much different world than a 21st century world. And so we have these contradictions and they’re, to a large extent they’re not really conversations are they? They’re people talking past each other about what we were bound by an understanding of language and law and culture from the 18th century or whether all of that evolves and grows and we’re just talking about the application of 18th century ideals in a 21st century situation.
Jeff Schechtman: When we look at it beyond the local communities and this attitude that you’ve been talking about, how did the founders themselves see this tension?
Thomas P. Slaughter: They struggled with it. When they tried to get, going back again to the 17th century but even more in the middle of the 18th century when they tried to get American colonists to work together, it was always a struggle. They had a hard time for example, getting soldiers from Massachusetts to fight in New York and soldiers from New Jersey to fight in Virginia. They were much more willing to fight close to home.
Thomas P. Slaughter: They themselves had these locally, the founders, had these locally based values, their sense of community. Thomas Pefferson throughout his life, for example, when he used the words ‘my country’ he meant Virginia. He didn’t mean the United States. He didn’t mean something larger. They were trying to work within a culture in which they saw very clearly the contradictions. They saw the limitations but they also saw the necessity for trying to get people to think larger, bigger.
Thomas P. Slaughter: This was the problem of the British Empire. The getting the colonists to think of the perspective of London in which they had to think about “You know, we’re responsible for people in India now who are part of the Empire.” There was a drought and there was a flood and there was a famine of major proportions in India in the middle of the 18th century and the British felt responsible and that’s where some of these laws come from where the British are trying to get people in America to abide by a set of regulations that are going to help the empire in India and it was very, very difficult.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s remarkable, I suppose, is that these same attitudes, these issues that you’re talking about are still with us 12 generations later.
Thomas P. Slaughter: That’s absolutely right. And I don’t know if you’ve had this experience but when I’ve gone into different workplaces, I’ve taught here at the University of Rochester, before this I was at Notre Dame and then for a long time I was at Rutgers in New Jersey and you had these workplace cultures. I always say to people, “You know the hardest thing to change is a culture.” And a workplace culture is so much smaller compared to a national culture that to talk about changing it seems to be really incredibly ambitious and unlikely.
Jeff Schechtman: And it’s interesting because people on the one hand think of cultures as being somehow fragile and delicate when they deal with them but yet in many ways they’re like these weeds that take root that just can’t be changed.
Thomas P. Slaughter: You’re right. They’re really persistent. They’re really invasive. I think what makes it even more complicated is the fact that we don’t really think about it. It’s kind of, it’s just the way things are. Do we really explore in ourselves? How often do we really explore in ourselves what the filters are, what the ideologies are that lead us to experience and to value or to criticize things in the way we do? That sort of introspection isn’t as much a part of our culture as might lend itself easily to change either, I think.
Jeff Schechtman: And perhaps at the root of that it’s certainly true in companies and you get to the heart of it in independence, that it has so much to do with what the founding mythology turns out to be.
Thomas P. Slaughter: Yeah. We don’t know, we don’t agree about what to do about that today. We slide so easily between the mythology and the history. I know in this field of history, when you write about the American Revolution it’s one of the time periods and subjects of American history that is more politicized than most others. The Civil War is another one. Race relations are across the board, another of those two.
Thomas P. Slaughter: But there’s a difference which your question recognizes, between the mythology and the history and if you’re trying to separate the history from that mythology, you often make people upset and I think they a lot of times, don’t even really know why they’re upset but we have a set of agreed-upon myths that work for us. We’re really fonder of those myths than we are of the history, I think.
Jeff Schechtman: In many ways, as it is true for individuals and we’ve certainly seen it with all the discussion over the years about memoir, the mythology becomes the history. As some historian once referred to it, it becomes our remembered past.
Thomas P. Slaughter: Yeah. That’s really, the first book I wrote was published in 1986, was called The Whiskey Rebellion. It’s about an event in the 1790s in which George Washington leads troops against American citizens. I have a chapter in that book that’s about George Washington and I remember being shocked how upsetting that chapter was to some reviewers because I argue that the fact that George Washington was the major absentee landlord in the area that he took the troops to repress this rebellion against the Whiskey Excise Tax. When he might have chosen other places to go, I was just arguing that the fact that he knew these people, the fact that he had investments in that land itself, the fact that he was interested in that land undoubtedly played a role in the decision to take the troops to western Pennsylvania rather than to what is today Kentucky or North Carolina where people weren’t paying the tax either.
Thomas P. Slaughter: I just was not prepared for how angry that met some people. That made some people. And the reason it made them angry, I think, is because they saw it as questioning George Washington’s integrity and as we all know, George Washington’s integrity is a core part of our national myth. But I just got this that they weren’t really self-conscious about why that upset them. And I found that when I’ve written books that have touched on religion also, that people of given faith groups aren’t really interested in the history of their faith group or the history of their faith group’s role in historical events. Whether it’s an abolitionism in the case that I’ve written about or elsewhere. They really just want to hear stories that are going to support the myth they have rather than stories that are going to reveal the history.
Thomas P. Slaughter: I guess that’s very human. I’ve come not be as surprised by it. And certainly try not to take offense at it. It’s just true. We think it’s history but maybe it’s not. But whether it is or whether it’s not, we’re a bit happier with the mythology. Religious groups are certainly that way.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s interesting is that it certainly is true with respect to our own mythology and our own history, as you’re saying. Where it leads us astray is that we seem to have this inability to apply it to other places, other cultures, other nations. That we don’t appropriately respect their mythology, their history and the way it’s so difficult for other nations to change even to bend to our will sometimes.
Thomas P. Slaughter: Yeah. I think that’s because we don’t recognize the degree to which our beliefs are informed by mythology that leads us to be less sensitive to the degree to which other people are operating based more on mythology than on what we might consider to be historical reality.
Jeff Schechtman: And talk a little bit about that. About the fact that what is it in our makeup, in our history, that prevents us from doing that? Or is it just human nature?
Thomas P. Slaughter: I don’t know enough to question whether that is just plain human or whether there is something distinctly American about it. I think the answer is probably that it’s both. But we certainly have a sense that we have a good understanding of what the story of our American Revolution is all about, what our founding story is. Some people even call it a founding myth, we’re very comfortable in our knowledge of it and we’re very uncomfortable with challenges to it.
Thomas P. Slaughter: I know, if you just pay attention to what’s going on in the world, I get the sense that the Irish have a lot of that in their culture too. I can say and I don’t know whether some cultures have more or less informed mythologies than we do but I remember reading about the way people tell stories about Irish independence and about the violence that occurred early in the 20th century in Ireland. The author whose book I was reading said, what was most remarkable to him is the number of people who can tell you things that they remember and then you go and check it and you find out either that they weren’t born when that happened or that they were two years old and couldn’t possibly have the kind of or weren’t there when that happened. But it’s an honest memory. It’s not something they’re making up just to talk to a reporter. They think they remember things and it’s that strong.
Jeff Schechtman: Thomas Slaughter. Thomas, I thank you so much for spending time with us today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Thomas P. Slaughter: Jeff, it’s been great talking to you. Thanks to you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from USCapitol / Flickr.

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