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Off Piste: Siege mentality

A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise. Terence Kealey reveals how hypocrisy, violence and torture in the America of George Washington have helped create the US of George Bush

Barack Obama recently congratulated the American people for having freed themselves from British tyranny in 1776. Excuse me? Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1689 Britain had, a century earlier, already installed parliamentary rule and had already established the very separation of powers that was to inspire Montesquieu. In 1776 it was the Americans who were the tyrants, and the British (and Canadians) who were the good guys.

America was built on tyranny. The first two British settlements were at Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) and - as Matthew Sharpe described in his book Jamestown (2007), and Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower (2007) - within a year of their founding each had launched the first of a long series of genocidal wars on Native American tribes.

George Percy, one of the Jamestown leaders, chronicled the genocides in his book A True Relation (1624, available on the web). In 1610, for example, he led a night-time attack on a Native American village, reporting that: "We put some fifteen or sixteen to the sword and almost all the rest to flight... my lieutenant bringing with him the queen and her children and one Indian prisoner for the which I taxed him because he had spared them... I caused the Indian's head to be cut off... my soldiers did begin to murmur because the queen and her children were spared... it was agreed upon to put the children to death, the which was effected by throwing them overboard and shooting out their brains in the water... Captain Davis he did take the queen with two soldiers ashore and in the woods put her to the sword."

The Mayflower Pilgrims were members of an English Puritan sect, and when they reported home in Good Newes from New England the details of their genocidal massacres, they were astonished when Pastor John Robinson, the leader of the sect, wrote back condemning them for "the killing of those poor Indians". But the settlers had already broken, psychologically, with the culture of Europe, and they rejected Pastor Robinson's reproaches. They had an awful lot more Native Americans to ethnically cleanse.

We overlook these founding horrors because we remember the early colonies primarily for their democracies. So Jamestown in Virginia had an Assembly by 1619 "to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia" and to provide "just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting". Meanwhile, the Mayflower Pilgrims, on their arrival in 1620, signed the Mayflower Compact, "solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another", to "Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience". This famous Compact is now seen as the forebear of the American Constitution.

The early colonists, therefore, are remembered as Athenians - as egalitarian democrats. Actually, they were Spartans, a tyrannical group of thugs who used democracy (because democracy is the most efficient mode of government) the better to oppress the Helots (there were black slaves in Jamestown by 1619).

The essentially wicked nature of the American Revolution is evidenced by its Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." The pursuit of happiness? Why that? The phrase was drawn by Thomas Jefferson from John Locke's concept of life, liberty and property, so why didn't Jefferson claim "life, liberty and the protection of property" as inalienable rights? Actually, in his first draft he did, but he was overruled by the Northerners. Why?

Slavery. The North understood, even then, that Jefferson's defence of property was code for defending slavery. So they struck property rights out of the Declaration of Independence and (because phrases best come in threes) installed the Pursuit of Happiness instead.

Which raises another question: why did the South join the Revolution? We know why the Bostonians did (no taxation without representation - they claimed), but no one tells us why the South, which held few tea parties, joined in. Some dates may be helpful here.

It was in 1766 that Parliament, in London, passed the Declaratory Act, which established that England's laws superseded colonial laws. And it was in 1772 that a slave, James Somerset, escaped from his American master while on a visit to London. But Somerset was recovered. Upon which his friends sued for his freedom. And, in a celebrated ruling, the judge Lord Mansfield ruled that "the black must be discharged". The spirit of Mansfield's judgment, stating that slavery was illegal in England, is often summarised as "The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe".

Now, imagine you are George Washington in Virginia in 1773. You are drinking a glass of mint julep on your veranda to the sound of blacks screaming under the lash when you learn from your intelligencer that slavery is now illegal in a nation whose law supersedes your own. Revolution! Liberty or death!

OK. So now we know why the South supported revolution. But why did the middle states also revolt? Yet again we must look to that pestilential Parliament in London, because it was in 1763 that it passed the Appalachian Proclamation. This prohibited the inhabitants of the 13 colonies from settling west of the Appalachian mountains.

The British Government had a number of motives for passing the Proclamation, of which one was the desire to populate Canada and Florida with emigrants, but the major reason was the recognition that, by 1763, the Americans had become so horrible that some measure was necessary to protect the Native Americans from the endless genocides.

Many of the emigrants to the 13 colonies were, of course, convicts (only after 1776 was the detritus redirected to Australia), but even those who emigrated voluntarily were the rejects of society, the dregs for whom a transatlantic crossing represented no risk because they had nothing to lose. Such desperadoes were not likely to respect Native American rights, and nor did they. But they were furious at Britain's restrictions on their murderous expansionism, and they were soon to cry: Revolution! Liberty or death!

Finally, we have to ask why Boston revolted. We are told that it was because of taxation without representation. But the taxes were raised to pay for the costs of fighting France in America before 1763, and the bulk of the fighting had been done by British soldiers, not by the colonialists. The taxes were thus legitimate. But by removing the French threat, the British had empowered the colonialists to impertinence.

Noble persons fighting a noble war fight nobly, but the colonial militias of the Revolutionary War soon fled the redcoats. It was only when the French came to the rabbles' aid that the balance shifted, leading to American independence in 1783.

And the hypocrisy behind the cry of "No taxation without representation" was soon revealed by the repeated tax rebellions among the newly enfranchised freemen of America. To name but three, Shays's Rebellion in 1786-87 in Western Massachusetts, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 in Pennsylvania and John Fries's Rebellion of 1799-1800, also in Pennsylvania, all arose from Americans simply refusing to pay taxes to any government, however representative. There was nothing noble about those refusals, simply greed and brutality.

Moreover, the Bostonians' much-vaunted love of free trade, as evidenced by its Tea Party rebellion against tariffs, was soon exposed as equally hypocritical. Almost as soon as the US was formed, the northerners started to press for the reinstatement of tariffs, and under Henry Clay's "American system" tariffs were raised to grotesque levels. Indeed, under the Tariff of Abominations almost all imports were taxed out of existence, and the South was forced to buy the Bostonians' protected but shabby industrial goods. This caused such resentment that it fuelled southern anger, which is why Clause 1 of the Confederate Constitution prohibited "duties or taxes on importation from foreign nations". Tariffs had divided the nation.

The viciousness of the original Revolution is confirmed by some later history. Between 1776 and 1783, about 50,000 honourable Americans emigrated to Canada as Empire Loyalists, and Canada remains, to this day, part of the Commonwealth. Although it has long been independent (an independence that was negotiated constitutionally), the Queen's head still appears on Canada's currency, the head of state is Her Majesty's Governor General, and the food is European, not American (ie, palatable). A comparative history of the two countries reveals the following:

1) the UK and Canada won the War of 1812, thus burning the White House (which was painted white to disguise the scorch marks)

2) the US had a brutish Civil War (two thirds of a million dead) but Canada did not

3) Canada liberated its slaves long before the US

4) Canada declared war in 1914 but the US waited until it was safe, in 1917

5) the US, not Canada, sabotaged the League of Nations and, moreover, created the Prohibition and the Depression (and today's absurd War on Drugs)

6) Canada declared war in 1939 but the US quivered in terror until Japan and Germany declared war in 1941

7) the US fought and lost a meretricious war in Vietnam; Canada did not

8) while fighting and losing its meretricious war in Iraq, the US has embraced torture and renounced the Geneva Convention; Canada has done neither

9) America has a ghastly record on gun crime; Canada does not

10) thirty per cent of Americans believe George W. Bush to be a good president (that may be an historical low but it still represents 70 million adults) while not a single Canadian believes that, and

11) most Americans do not believe in evolution but most Canadians do.

And higher education is better in Canada too. I recently spent some days at Massey College, at the University of Toronto, to which the University of Buckingham is linked by a Rhodes Scholarship-like scheme thanks to the generosity of Sir Christopher Ondaatje, and it was academic heaven - a college built on Oxbridge lines but with Canadian levels of personal care. It is presided over by a delightful Master, John Fraser, whose book Eminent Canadians is a revelatory introduction to the history of Canada. Nothing in America compares to Massey.

People today are shocked by the US, in particular by its love of torture. But America was built on torture. Here is George Percy in A True Relation describing how a colonialist who tried to escape Jamestown was, on recapture, first tortured before being burned alive. He was hanged "by the thumbs with weights at his feet a quarter of an hour before he did confess". Percy describes how other absconders were "appointed to be hanged, some burned, some to be broken on wheels, others to be staked, and some to be shot to death, all these extreme and cruel tortures he (the Governor) used and inflicted upon them. To terrify the rest for attempting the like, and some which robbed the store, he caused them to be bound fast unto trees and so starved them to death."

Torture is in America's DNA: it remains a settler society that behaves as a beleaguered wagon train, encircled against an enemy whose just fury it justly fears. George W. Bush, George Washington and George Percy share more than a first name, and the illegalities of extraordinary rendition flow out of the illegalities of 1776.

Readers' comments (5)

  • Mr. Kealey raises some excellent points familiar to any American high schooler fortunate enough to have been exposed to American history in AP US History. The starting premise of his argument seems to be that all Americans believe that we have held the moral high ground since Jamestown was first settled in 1607. He goes on to raise troubling historical facts that disprove this assumption --slavery existed in the US prior to 1865, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had ulterior motives beyond a desire to found a nation on high-falutin' values, American food is unhealthy-- and thereby prove that the United States are not the unblemished haven that everyone thinks it is. And, horror of horrors, did you know that George Washington may not have actually confessed about chopping down that cherry tree? Mr. Kealey's argument smacks of the elder victim of a severe case of sibling rivalry, trying desperately to convince a parent that his younger brother is not as perfect as he seems. He conveniently glosses over Britain's own less-than-stellar human rights record during the colonization of India, Australia, parts of Africa (anyone ever read Heart of Darkness or A Passage to India?), etc., in order to win the battle of comparisons, but then reams Americans over the coals for their abysmally selective memory about their own history. I don't fault the author's criticism of the 30% of Americans that still favor George W. Bush, of some Americans' baffling support of torture, of our frequently immoral conduct throughout the last 400 years of our history (169 years of which we were still British citizens, but that's besides the point). All of these are indeed troubling elements that mar our history and that many Americans hope to rectify. If Mr. Kealey hopes, however, to accomplish something with his poorly structured rant, he may want to consider subjecting his argument to a more stringent standard prior to publication.

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  • First, let me give the usual disclaimers that I am an American who lectures in human rights law in the UK, strenuously opposes the current Presidential Administration, condemns fundmantalist and reactionary neo-con politics, and wholeheartedly supports a critical re-evaluation of the dark side of American (or British or any other) history. Having lived in Montreal for some years, I am also quite a fan of Canada.

    That said, I would complain that the THE chose to publish this piece by Terence Kealey. It is far from balanced scholarship or political opinion. Instead, it is a gross example of vicious and unacceptable anti-Americanism of the worst sort. Statements such as "torture is in the American DNA" are offensive and smack of the same kind of irrational, jingoistic bigotry that Mr. Kealey condemns. I am quite happy to engage with critics of American government policy or society at large, and more often than not agree with them. But Mr. Kealey crosses the line into dangerous territory. I can remember occasions in French-speaking Quebec where I was refused store service and even a flat for simply being American, and - at the time of the Iraq war - verbally abused for government policies that I myself vociferously condemned - that is certainly not on the same level as racial or other kinds of prejudice, but such knee-jerk,categorical, nationalistic prejudices go down the same path.

    Moreover, Mr. Kealey's patriotic fervour for the British Empire and Canada is the same kind of drum-beating ones hears from the kind of parochial, militant Americans who insist the US is world best at everthing. What about Canadian treatment of Asians on the West Coast? Would the Mohawk and Cree agree that the Canadians and British were ever so nice? How about thsoe tortured by British servicemen in Iraq? Instead, Mr. Kealey's trite jibes about the differences between Canadian and American food venture into the ridiculous. Has he ever eaten quebecois "cretons" or fried pork skins? Or how about a foul, heart-stopping, battered white sausage or macaroni pie, like that in the Scottish bakery across from my office? That the THE would publish Mr. Kealey's aburdly argued article beggars belief.

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  • I was surprised and disappointed that this unpleasant and intemperate article appeared in a journal supposedly devoted to higher education. I can only assume that someone on magazine's editorial staff is either related to the author, or shares his views to the extent that he or she allowed normal standards of editorial control to be ignored on this occasion. Either way, it was an unedifying piece.

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  • I thank people for their comments, but please! Barack Obama trailed his coat by describing Britain as a tyranny in 1776 so I replied in a similar vein. It's August; it's the Times Higher (ie, the readership is sophisticated); it's a mischievous exchange of national caricatures. Of course Obama knows that Britain was no tyranny in 1776 (just as he knows that most educated Brits then supported the rebels) and I know that today's US is not one either (transparently I love America) but nonetheless there are transatlantic issues that can be ventilated using literary devices that draw the sting.
    When Jonathan Swift wrote his Modest Proposal, he didn't really believe the Irish should eat their babies. He was using a literary device to ventilate an issue.

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  • Several points:

    1) The losers are always bitter;

    2) Take that as humor. In these times, if we can't laugh we'll ruin our keyboards with tears.

    3) I'm not always sure who won and who lost in the 1775 unpleasantness;

    4) Anyone who thinks they understand Amercian (or any other history), most certainly does not. It is far too complex. I don't.

    5) Of course, there are some good points along the way in this essay. Misbehavior (or in many cases, misbehaviour, for the spelling impaired) is not the exclusive province of any group of people. We, on both sides of the Atlantic, are very prone to reviewing our actions and motives. That is one of our strengths.

    6) With, unfortunately, the exception of the current King George of America.

    7) Is it possible (horrible thought), we may move from the worst of the Georges to King John? Ah, well, at least that earlier one did lead to the responses that produced the Magna Carta.

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