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.

Igniting the American Revolution

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

The David Library of the American Revolution is a history gem, just up the road from Washington Crossing (yes, THAT Washington Crossing) Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a preamble to July 4, last Saturday historian Derek W. Beck gave a lively talk about “the war before the war”—the goings-on in Massachusetts before the Declaration of Independence, before the formation of the Continental Army, and in the earliest days of George Washington’s command.

Paul Revere

photo: Kathy, creative commons license

Beck tries to present both sides of the conflict and in his efforts exposes certain myths that arise when historians wear partisan blinders. Would Paul Revere have ridden through the countryside hollering, “The British are coming, the British are coming!”? Not likely, Beck says. If he did, he’d be greeted by puzzled looks and scratching heads, because practically everyone considered themselves to be British. They didn’t necessarily want independence from England (yet); they just wanted to be treated like any other British citizen. But in our mythologized history, with the clarity of hindsight, we know who the enemy was, and we name him.

Another example is “the shot heard round the world”—the first gunshot of the Revolution, traditionally fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. Who fired it? In the verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson,

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It was to the Americans’ advantage to be the aggrieved parties, the victims, so preferred the view that the British fired first. However, Beck says, forensic evidence suggests that the very first shot wasn’t fired by either an American militia member or a British soldier, but a bystander outside a pub. (Figures.)

Beck considers it a plus that his two books (Igniting the American Revolution and The War Before Independence) are said to “read like action novels,” and he consigns the documentation that ordinarily fills history books to a thorough set of notes at the end. Such details are of vital interest to historians but make books much less interesting to those of us who merely want to gain a better understanding of our country’s past and establish a stronger connection to it.

Noble train, Henry Knox, Ft. Ticonderoga

The Noble Train of Artillery

Another myth he debunked was the one in which poor General Henry Knox struggled through heavy snows with the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga (“the noble train of artillery”). Histories (and many artworks) commemorating this episode depict them being pulled by oxen. Indeed, that was Knox’s plan. However, the farmer who owned the oxen so inflated their price, that at the last minute, he used horses instead, and he wrote about the change in his diary at the time.

Beck’s insights were informative, entertaining, and memorable, just as history ought to be!