Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Thought About History for Those Proud of Willfully Ignoring It

One of our most interesting historians currently is Annette Gordon-Reed, who boasts of two faculty positions at Harvard University, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In the latest (January 19) issue of The New York Review of Books, she has written a thoroughly absorbing account of a major undertaking by Robert Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. (For those who prefer numbers, “major” translates to 742 pages.)

The basic idea is that those founding fathers that we admire so much fully appreciated the wide differences in mindset across the thirteen colonies. They realized that any revolution could only succeed if there were some significant “common cause” that all of those colonies could embrace with sufficient determination to unite in resistance to British authority. This is one of the reasons why the Declaration of Independence itemizes all of the injustices levied on the colonies from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean. As Gordon-Reed observes, that sentence about the equality of all men is the one that is most quoted; but it is the laundry-list of grievances that did the trick. Any rhetoric about equality was simply there as a flourish before getting down to brass tacks.

Indeed, the question of equality was one that divided the colonies, rather than uniting them. The Declaration of Independence probably would not have been unanimously ratified had it not been for the depth to which questions of race, involving both Native Americans and slaves of African descent, had been buried in the document. Gordon-Reed’s text then delivers a particularly apposite punch line:
History has taught the sad lesson that fear and contempt are the most predictably powerful motivators for galvanizing one group to move against another.
“Fear and contempt” of the British had to take priority over the indignities suffered by those who were not, even in those days, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Apparently, Gordon-Reed wrote this piece while at a retreat for women writers in Washington State. No indication is given of when she actually wrote it. However, that sentence cited above seems to suggest that she was well aware of the strategy behind the rise of Donald Trump, if not the results of that strategy. Ironically, she does not mention the fact that the phrase “common cause” was appropriated in 1970 by a political advocacy group founded by John W. Gardner, whose mission statement included the phrase “work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.”

Given what happened during 2016, many would be justified in wondering whether Common Cause still existed (assuming they knew about it in the first place). The answer is that, as of this writing, the group has not yet folded its tent. Indeed, Common Cause is one of the organizations that George Soros funds through his Open Society Institute. Whether we shall be able to say the same thing a year from now is left as an exercise for the reader, preferably one who is not proud of his/her ignorance of history!

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