Thursday, February 3, 2011

History is Written by the Victors

On days when I’m disgusted by the avarice, greed, narcissism and selfishness of my fellow Americans I like to remind myself things aren’t worse today than they’ve ever been.  America was born out of selfishness and greed. But they won’t teach you that in schools.

I’m reading Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution and was reminded of this again.  I was also reminded of an online discussion I had a few years ago about a line in the Declaration of Independence accusing King George of “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”   Most Americans don’t know that this refers to the Quebec Act, adopted by Parliament in 1774.  It was meant to resolve the tensions that arose from the British conquest of French North America and help integrate the French Canadians into the British empire. 

Taylor explains:

To please the French Canadians, Parliament endorsed French civil law, protected the Catholic faith, and mandated a provincial government that combined a military governor with an oligarchical council (and without an elected assembly). 

The American colonists were not pleased by this.  Even at this pre-Republic stage in their development the Americans believed that they should be telling people how to live their lives and of course they believed that their way was the best way.  Never mind that the British government had given serious thought as to the best way to integrate Canada into the empire, the American colonists were sure that Parliament was wrong and they were right.  Or maybe they just didn’t care about whether the French Canadians were integrated.  After all, they were French.

But the thing that really drove the Americans crazy about the Quebec Act was that it was also intended to protect the rights of the Indians to their lands.  It was a double whammy for the Americans – protecting red skinned people from grasping American land speculators through a plan that also helped people who spoke French.  See?  Things never really change.   

In 1768 Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in North America, had convinced Parliament to create an imaginary line past which settlement would not go.  This would preserve the Indian lands for the Indians, which the British merchants understood was essential to preserving the Fur Trade.  This line cut off the Ohio River Valley from land speculators.  The Quebec Act reinforced this concept by taking away from the colonies any hope of ever controlling the Ohio River Valley because they gave it to Quebec.

Again, Taylor:

The Quebec Act also offended Patriot leaders by extending Quebec’s boundaries south to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi, subsuming a vast Indian country coveted by speculators and settlers.  An exasperated Parliament sought to restrain the intruding frontiersmen who provoked so much trouble with the Indians. Governed by the military without an elected assembly, Quebec might protect Indians better than Virginia or Pennsylvania ever had.  In effect, the British expanded Quebec to bolster the boundary for the Indian Country that Sir William had negotiated at Fort Stanwix in 1768. But that expansion alienated powerful colonial politicians who doubled as land speculators, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Yes, the Americans were very unhappy with these new rules and like all Americans who followed them, they simply ignored anything that didn’t fit into their world view.  The Virginians especially.  They entered the Ohio River Valley illegally and provoked conflicts with the Indians there. In fact, things seemed to be heading toward an all out Indian War when Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent for Indian Affairs in North America, suddenly died. As with most important points in history, timing is everything and Johnson had very bad timing. At the time of his death he was working with the Mohawks to use their influence to end the Ohio River conflict while he worked the colonial side.  It is unlikely that this plan would have succeeded, but we’ll never know for sure. 

But other things were happening that also affected the Ohio conflicts. 

With the empire in crisis, the timing of Johnson’s death rendered the blow especially ominous.  General Thomas Gage reported:  “I should at all times consider this event as a Publick Loss.  I look upon it as a heavy one at this Juncture, when the frontier People, of Virginia particularly, have taken so much Pains to bring on an Indian War.”  Gage also confronted a virtual collapse of British authority in the colonial seaports, where radical leaders resisted British taxes.  Infuriated by that resistance, Parliament and the Crown resolved to punish Boston by enforcing a blockade with occupying troops commanded by Gage.  That shift withdrew British troops from the troubled frontier in western Pennsylvania, which Indians and settles then drenched in blood.

While I had always known that the American Revolution was not a good thing, in general, for the American Indians I had never before realized that the insurrection in Massachusetts forced the British to withdraw troops from the west who were there to protect the Indians and their land.  If I had thought about it, I might have rationally come to the conclusion that this was inevitable.  But I’d never thought about it.

Over the last few years I’ve read a lot of colonial history and I’ve discovered that I don’t really care for the American colonists all that much.  On some levels they were admirable but on other levels they were abominable.  And, as I continue to read Taylor’s book I find myself wondering what life would have been like if the 13 colonies had lost and the founding fathers had all been hung.