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Morning Forum speaker reveals myths about America's founding

Historian Carol Berkin dispelled “Myths of the American Revolution” in her Nov. 5 presentation at the Morning Forum of Los Altos.

“Forget everything your grade-school history teachers taught you,” she advised her audience. 

Carol Berkin
Berkin

Until her recent retirement, Berkin was Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has served as a consultant on several PBS and History Channel documentaries and written eight books.

Berkin’s discussion focused first on the American Revolution. The colonists did not rise up together against a tyrannical king or unfair taxes, or pursue a desire to create a new country based on liberty and democracy.

“Little is true” about that narrative, she said.

King George was actually, Berkin said, “quite lenient with the colonists.” Instead of arresting and hanging those urging independence, he, a believer in free speech, left them alone. The British treated the colonists “with benign neglect” and “were too cheap,” she added, to enforce the trade regulations that they had established.

The belief that George Washington was picked to lead the Revolutionary forces because he was America’s greatest military leader is also a myth, according to Berkin. He had little military experience besides being defeated by the French during the French-Indian war. He was chosen because Southerners wanted someone from the South who would ensure that the slaves wouldn’t revolt.

Initially, most of the colonists did not support the revolution, Berkin said. They were either against it or neutral. Far more than anger over unfair taxes or desire for self-rule, it was the behavior of the young British soldiers who terrorized colonial communities by attacking young girls and pillaging homes and farms that convinced many colonists to support the rebellion.

The pride Americans take in the colonists’ victory over Britain, the most powerful nation in the world at the time, is based on an important omission. Without the help of France, Holland and Spain, which contributed arms and money because of their resentment of Britain’s domination, the colonists, Berkin said, would have never won the war.

Berkin also addressed an even less recognized myth: “The American Revolution was an all-male affair.” Women, she said, were essential to many aspects of the war against England. Some were propagandists for the war and served as spies. During the long winter, they went to the army camps to wash, cook and serve as nurses. Most of the soldiers were adolescents with “no sense of hygiene,” she said – for example, they set up their toilets near their dining areas – and they were plagued with lice. Had the women not been there to do the laundry, Berkin added, “half of the soldiers would not have been battle-ready.”

Constitutional crisis

What Americans believe about the writing of the Constitution, Berkin said, is even more full of lies. In 1787, the story goes, the new country’s most brilliant men gathered in Philadelphia, confident in their shared vision of the new Constitution they would write.

When they arrived, they were terrified – not confident – as the new country under the Articles of Confederation was about to collapse.

“America was drowning in debt,” Berkin explained, and had no way to pay it back – there was no executive branch with the ability to tax, no national currency and no navy to protect the goods and ships that were being sent to Europe.

After cooperating during the war, the colonists returned to embracing colonial separatism. They “out-Britished the British,” Berkin noted, by taxing each other when goods were traded. The concept of a “United States” didn’t exist, as many, like Patrick Henry, were loyal only to their states, not to the new nation.

Moreover, Berkin said, the writers of the Constitution “did not create a new form of government,” as is commonly believed. England already had a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. The one true innovation established in the U.S. Constitution was its system of federalism, which divides power between the states and the central government, a system Berkin said “has never worked well.”

The final myth that pervades the telling of the founding of America is the belief in the founders’ desire to establish a democracy. In fact, Berkin said, while they feared the tyranny of the individual and the tyranny of the few, they feared most “the tyranny of mob rule.” Thus, they gave the vote only to white property owners.

The most brilliant addition to the U.S. Constitution, Berkin noted, was the establishment of the amendment process, as the founders recognized that the country and its needs would change.

Berkin said the most essential quality the founding fathers brought to Philadelphia in their goal to save the country was their willingness to compromise.

“Everyone agreed to something that most citizens in their state didn’t want,” she said, and because of this willingness to put the fledgling country’s needs first, Americans owe their gratitude to the writers of the Constitution.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.

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