White America’s Fears Have Deep Roots

Jane McCrea, Indians

The Death of Jane McCrea, by John Vanderlyn (1804)

Corrosive racial fears got a strong start in early American history, according to historian Robert G. Parkinson in a recent talk at the David Library of the American Revolution. While today we may think abstract concepts like “liberty” and “patriotism” motivated colonists to go to war with Britain, Parkinson suggested something quite different in his new book: The Common Cause.

The founding fathers faced two almost insurmountable tasks: uniting the colonists and persuading them the British were a deadly enemy. Many fault lines weakened the prospects for union: North versus South, Tories versus colonials, religious differences, city dwellers versus frontiersmen. Almost half of colonials themselves were English or Welsh. The redcoats were their soldiers, George III was their king. Getting them to unite and take up arms would require a powerful threat.

The Set-Up

The war planners set about inventing one: savage Indians and rebellious slaves. While most students of the Declaration of Independence focus on Jefferson’s stirring opening paragraphs and skip to the end, the Declaration also lays out a long list of grievances against the King, ending with:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

Only a strong union, with people working in common cause, could protect against these supposed dangers. Parkinson’s research in colonial newspapers reveals a deliberate and ongoing campaign to exaggerate Indian atrocities, publicize the risk of slave rebellion, and paint the British as ruthlessly allying with these “uncivilized” forces.

He points for example to coverage of the murder of Jane McCrea, murdered by Indians in Upstate New York. McCrea’s death was reported in lurid, if not always accurate, detail in every single colonial newspaper (and was one of the inspirations for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans). Only two other news stories—the announcement of the Declaration of Independence and “the shot heard ʼround the world” opening the Revolutionary War—were so universally covered; even the victory at Yorktown, which ended the war, received less media attention, said Parkinson.

A Lasting Legacy of Fear

So deep was the colonials’ fear of the Indians that thirty-five years later, in the War of 1812, outnumbered British troops could still make American forces retreat in disarray by mimicking Indian war cries. The legacy from this dark side of the American Revolution—the fear of white citizens’ order becoming unraveled as Chris Hayes describes it in his new book—continues to plague our country today, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement on one hand and anti-immigration sentiment on the other.

If you’re not familiar with the David Library, it’s a gem, located on the fringes of Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a boon to my genealogy club, and the host for many prestigious scholars speaking about the Colonial era, the Revolutionary War, and U.S. history 1750 to 1800.

One thought on “White America’s Fears Have Deep Roots

  1. Victoria, This sounds like another important book covering some of the same territory found in WHITE TRASH, which begins with the earliest arrivals to North America. Thanks for pointing me to Parkinson’s book.

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