The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.

The People's History

The popular view of American history is built not upon facts, but upon mythologies. In order to provide additional emotional justification and support for the status quo, traditionally historians and the purveyors of popular culture have exaggerated and distorted the images of those who have been so influential in shaping this country. As children, we all learned the stories of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac, or read stories that described Lincoln as a manual laborer and rail splitter right up to the moment he entered politics.

These fabrications are designed with a very particular goal in mind: to create a mystical reverence for these individuals and thus by association for the institutions they helped to create. One of the most subtle and yet powerful means of creating and reinforcing these images is by placing a picture of the persons face on the most omnipresent billboard in history, money. Every day, we see Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, or Grant staring back at us as we pay for nearly everything thing we buy. Many of us know a few little tidbits about these men, and we have no problem carrying them around in our wallets or our pockets. In fact, thinking back to my high school history class, these men often conjure up images of great, freedom-loving individuals who fought for the “rights” we all enjoy today. If this was all I had to go on, I would feel proud to be reminded of the vision and courage of these founding fathers and defenders of the union. But on this Fourth of July, we should try to do more than merely look back on a whitewashed version of history, where great heroes and warriors roamed the country, defending democracy and spreading freedom. If we really wish to honor the principles that these mythologies have been built upon (i.e. true freedom, liberty, justice, honesty, etc.), than we must first come to realize that while these men were each a powerful force that left an indelible mark on the shape of this country, they could also be brutal, ruthless, racist, and some out-right murderers. Without examining the complete nature of the people who molded this country, we will never be able to understand why the stated ideals of this “free nation” were so quickly betrayed, nor will we be able to find the ways in which to make the words “democracy” and “equality” into a reality.

In some ways, the mythology surrounding George Washington is the most well-developed, in that there are more tightly crafted stories to portray him as a pillar of virtue, and that the largest stain on Washington’s past has been marginalized by popular myths. I am, of course, referring to the fact that George was a rather large slave owner. I am sure that many of you have heard this before - quickly followed by the knee-jerk responses that he was from Virginia in a time when everybody (or at least every rich plantation owner) had slaves and therefore he didn’t know any better, or that it was OK, because he personally didn’t like slavery, but couldn’t say anything for fear of breaking up the new country. Sometimes you will even hear about Washington freeing his slaves upon his death. This is classic myth-building, designed to turn a clearly immoral and hypocritical action into something not only acceptable, but admirable. The truth of the matter is that while Washington may have come to think the institution of slavery was inefficient and wasteful as he grew older, he made his living exploiting the suffering of human beings whom he had no qualms about owning like property. He owned 10 slaves by age eleven, 36 slaves by age twenty-two, and by 1799, when Washington died, there were 316 slaves working on this plantation. These slaves were typically fed two cups of cornmeal and 5 - 8 ounces of fish per day, which had to sustain them through long hours of back-breaking manual labor in the fields. Upon his death he did free 123 of the 316 slaves, but don’t give the man too much credit. It is easy to give away that which you can no longer use. A gesture that shallow, while very important to those 123 people, is still a hollow gesture. Not only did he have no problem owning slaves, but in 1775, a year before the event we celebrate today, he accepted a slave as payment of a debt and forced him to be removed from his family in Maryland to come live in Virginia. Four years later, he wrote that he saw no problem with trafficking in slaves, because changing masters should not be any more “irksome” than simply being a slave was. His private objections to slavery that are often touted to show what a great guy he was often centered around how the system of slavery prevented the best use of new farming methods and machinery, and how it hindered agricultural progress. In fact, he had such a low opinion of the slaves’ potential for work that on November 12, 1775, he signed an order barring Blacks, underage boys, and old men as recruits for the revolutionary army since they would be unfit to endure the rigors of battle. After the Revolution, there was no one more popular or powerful in the country. If Washington had had any serious moral or ethical problem with slavery, he could have done much to begin its elimination even if he couldn’t stop it immediately. Looking at his actual record, it is clear that he was a product of his environment, and that means that he was a racist slave owner who would have no problem breaking up a family to settle a debt.

The most pervasive and distorted myth surrounding Abraham Lincoln is that he was the great emancipator, and the driving moral force behind the abolition of slavery. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In recent years it has become popular to label Lincoln a racist, but, hey, if the shoe fits... Even before the Civil War, Lincoln did privately express a distaste for the institution of slavery, but he would never see the slaves as equals. A recurring theme in his policy regarding slavery was its abolition followed by the relocation of the freed slaves to Africa. The now classic examples of Lincoln’s true moral character are the speeches he gave during his 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois against Stephen Douglas. Early on in the race, while speaking in Chicago he openly expressed the idea that the country should unite under the principle that all men are created equal, but two months later, speaking in Charleston which is in southern Illinois, Lincoln said:

    I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, not to intermarry with white people...

    And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Three years later, in his first Inaugural Address Lincoln states:

    I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exits. I believe that I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

There are many more examples of this kind, but we have yet to examine the most misleading piece of the Lincoln myth, namely the Emancipation Proclamation . The decision to issue the Proclamation had far less to do with the abolition of slavery than it did with trying to threaten and bribe the South into returning to the Union. In September of 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which gave the southern states four months to stop rebelling, and promised to emancipate the slaves of any state still fighting on January 1 while leaving slavery untouched in the states fighting with the Union on that date. Clearly Lincoln cared more for a quick end to the war, than for seeing the institution of slavery ended. For his day, he was probably the most “progressive” president that could actually have been elected, but to somehow elevate him above his own clearly visible bigotry and prejudice and turn him into the Great Emancipator does a disservice to the long and bloody history of slave rebellions and the abolitionist movement in this country.

Alexander Hamilton is the odd man out in this article, because he is the only non- president on any of the bills we are considering. So, what could Hamilton have done to warrant this honor? Some people might remember that Hamilton was influential in drafting the Constitution and that later he was the Secretary of the Treasury under Washington. He was far more than just this, however. Hamilton was a strong supporter of providing Constitutional controls to protect the power and privilege of the emerging wealthy elite in post-Revolutionary War America, and he was responsible for the first linking of the U.S. government to business and banking interests. Voicing his philosophy on the form the new government should take he said:

    All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born, the other the mass of the people...The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government...Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy...

At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton suggested the President and Senate be chosen for life. Later, during the debate over ratification he wrote in the Federalist Paper number 84:

    I go further, and affirm that bill of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous.

After ratification, Hamilton believed that, to survive, the new government must ally itself with the rich and the powerful, so he pushed the following programs and laws through the Congress: A Bank of the United States was set up as a partnership between the government and certain banking interests. A tariff was passed to protect the emerging manufacturing industries. And finally, taxes were levied to repay bonds held by a small group of wealthy investors. One of these taxes was the Whiskey Tax which seriously hurt small farmers who raised grain to be made into whiskey. When the farmers in western Pennsylvania took up arms in 1794 to prevent the collection of the tax, Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, personally lead the troops to put them down. In this light, it finally becomes clear why Hamilton was a perfect choice for the portrait on a symbol of greed and capitalist exploitation like the ten dollar bill.

Finally, we come to Andrew Jackson, often depicted as the rugged frontiers man and war hero who is credited with remaking the democratic party and forever altering American politics. In fact, he was a land speculator, a wealthy merchant, slave trader, and the most brutal and aggressive enemy the Native Americans had faced since the Europeans first landed in Virginia. Jackson started his “career” by burning down a Creek village killing men, women, and children after the Creeks attacked Fort Mims in 1813. He promised governmental friendship to the Cherokee, who subsequently joined his army and defeated the Creeks for him. After the war, he got himself appointed treaty commissioner and he and his friends began buying up huge tracts of seized land. This land grab brought America to the border of Florida. When settlers crossed into Indian territory, there were confrontations and violence erupted on both sides. Using these clashes, and the fact that the Seminole Indians were providing refuge for escaped slaves, as a pretext, Jackson crossed the border and began burning Seminole villages and seizing Spanish forts until Spain finally “agreed” to sell Florida to the United States. After Jackson was elected president in 1828 the Indian Removal bill came before the congress. During this time, treaty after treaty was signed with the various Indian nations each time ensuring them that their new homeland would be theirs forever, and each time the promise was broken and they were pushed further westward as white settlers moved in. Under Jackson, and his hand picked successor Martin Van Buren, seventy thousand Indians east of the Mississippi were forcibly driven west along with the Sac and the Fox Indians in the north. These forced removals were exceedingly brutal due to their length and poor organization, not to mention the psychological pain of being torn from the land you feel is sanctified by the ashes of your ancestors. As an example, in late 1831 thirteen thousand Choctaws set out on a long march that by treaty was supposed to be organized by the military. But the military turned over the planning of the journey to a private company. Everything was in a state of chaos. There was not enough food and malnutrition and starvation soon set in. The first winter was one of the coldest on record and the Indians began to die of pneumonia. In the summer a massive cholera epidemic set in killings the Choctaws by the hundreds. This was unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence during this time, and seven years later a similar joinery now known as the Trail of Tears would follow this pattern resulting in the deaths of over four thousand Cherokees. Of every person featured on AmeriKKKan money, Jackson is by far the most brutal and racist. He had no problem killing those standing in the way of American expansion in person or from the oval office. The saddest part of the Jacksonian myth, however, is that this butcher is to this day remembered as a man of the people and a defender of the weak.

In conclusion, it is very important to remember that there are few things more dangerous to the continued growth of a democracy than a dogmatic reverence for icons and mythologies. Until we learn that just because a person rose to a position of great power, does not by itself make him or her an admirable person, and until we learn to separate the truth about this country and its past from the illusion created by the myth makers and historical popularizers, we will have no chance to truely become the land of the free.


The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.