Historical Narratives of America and the Anglosphere

Jim Bennett has a good post in response to Mitch’s post comparing the American Constitution and the French Rights of Man. Bennett takes up the question of how the various Anglosphere countries vary amongst themselves based on the different “Lockean bargains” that were struck at the time of their founding. (Bennett discusses state-nations and Lockean bargains here.) We sometimes forget that, while England is a very ancient polity indeed, its current institutional form, the United Kingdom of Great Britain goes back only to the Act of Union in 1707.

A few thoughts struck me about Bennett’s post. First, I agree with his synopsis of the American vision of liberty as one that is expansive and forward-looking and universal, as against an English one that looked back to its “ancient constitution”, and was limited to England and the jurisdiction of its own courts. This is consistent with the thesis of Daniel Hulsebosch, which I mentioned in this post, about the universalising of the common law and the “ancient constitution” in the American setting. (I bought his book and hope to get to it this summer.) Lord Coke, who was, with Blackstone, the most revered interpreter of the law to Americans, would not have agreed. As Coke saw it, English liberties applied only within the jurisdictional scope of the English courts, not in England’s possession beyond the seas, not even in Scotland, and certainly not in some vague sense as universal values. But the Americans took his model and said, no, these are general principles, not limited to the jurisdiction of English courts. English liberties were not restricted to England, but belonged to “Englishmen” like them wherever they had managed to lodge themselves. And as we Americans quit being Englishmen at all, these principles took on an even more universalistic character. This process is already visible in the Declaration, where “ancient liberties” developed by increments over centuries in England are set forth in universal terms more consistent with the contemporary Enlightenment thinking.

The Americans took Lord Coke’s ghost out for a joy ride, with no end yet in sight.

Also it is interesting that the British had to handcraft legislation for the incremental independence of Oz, Canada, etc. The Americans provided for the admission of states right there in the Constitution . The USA was founded as a machine for the annexation and incorporation of the entire continent. We started out very ambitious. As George Will put it somewhere, the Founders knew where they were going – West all the way to the Pacific. I certainly think Hamilton thought in terms this grand, and others probably did too.

Jim concludes:

Our uniqueness lies not in a denial of our political and cultural continuity with the rest of the Anglosphere, but rather with the way we took the British (and particularly English) experience, and turned it into a universalized template.

Of course it’s a social construct. As if there’s anything wrong with that.

I would only add that socially constructed narratives are not only a way to give color to the past. In particular, they are not, as cynics would claim, merely a gloss over past crimes. Any old community has crimes to atone for. But some, including ours, have much that is good, or even great, to celebrate and to cultivate. The narrative of America’s past provides role models that come to represent aspirational goals, e.g. the selfless service of Washington, the invocation of equality in the Declaration, the armed citizenry facing down the redcoats. There is a whole galaxy of such inspiring “points of light” in the narrative of our past.

Of course, it is not the job of historians to write inspirational narratives, but to find and report the facts as the evidence shows those facts to have been. If some cherished episodes end up debunked, so be it. I cannot share the popular view among some professional historians that it is impossible to draw “lessons from the past”. That is absurd. The only thing we can draw lessons from is the past, individual and collective. I hold with that Bismarck, a wise and practical man: “Any fool can learn from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Having spent my entire life reading American history, I am convinced that the major events in our history, dirt and all, contain much material to inspire us. And where our predecessors fell short, there are lessons to be had there as well. This is true even if we make the effort to dig past the more superficial and pristine “folk” versions of past events.

Intelligence, sophistication and broad learning do not necessarily lead to cynicism about the American past. That pose is one that is popular for its own sake, not because it is particularly well-founded. It is a choice to focus solely on the negatives of the American past, and assert that this is what we are “really” about. Doing so is not “more accurate” than glossing over the negatives. In fact, an overly rosy depiction of our history is not something I have actually seen happen amongst those of us who love America. I find that people who think like me are well aware of the negatives in our history. So be it. Our predecessors were human and fell short of our ideals and theirs. So what else is new. They, like us, are entitled to be judged on the totality of what they did and failed to do. To love someone or something means that you do so warts and all. No one imagines their parents to be perfect, but you love them anyway.

I have regretted to observe that the more cynical academics are a product that is only to be expected given the milieu they inhabit — a viciously loveless mental and moral world, where everything they see is about the struggle for power. (The idea that anyone, especially anyone in a condemned category (straight/white/male) ever had a positive motive for anything is met with a sneer.) This “power only” understanding of history is probably an accurate projection of the interpersonal relations within most academic departments. But life at large in the rest of the world, even in the workplace, where most of us are blessed to live, is by and large characterized by more humane values. Fortunately, the life of a scholar is a calling, which will always draw many good minds and good hearts, despite all of these things. It is a miracle that so much good academic work gets done at all these days, given the poisonous atmosphere in which it so frequently has to be carried on.

The constructed narrative Bennett mentions go beyond mere academic understanding and become a motive for action in themselves. If someone is taught and believes that America is a vile thing, they will not treat this as a neutral datum, but will respond appropriately and detest America. Such views need to be offset by alternative narratives that are, most importantly, true, and as a result balanced, and overall, positive. The better founded they are in historical fact, the more effective they will be. These historical narratives can to some degree be self-fulfilling prophecies. We become what we tell ourselves we are; we base this in part on what we tell ourselves we have been. Or, we try to do so. Our history is not a mere aggregation of dead facts. It is a story of an ongoing enterprise that we Americans have inherited and that we will pass on. And future generations will judge us favorably or harshly on what we make of this inheritance, and what we transmit on to them.

And there is nothing wrong with that, either.

1 thought on “Historical Narratives of America and the Anglosphere”

  1. Gordon Wood’s brief American Revolution: A History is excellent in placing the events of 1763-89, particularly the origins of the Revolution, in the greater context of a concept of liberty that was very Anglospheric in nature.

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