An examination of the role myth plays in shaping the way in which America views itself…
by: Frederick Foote
The United States appears to be divided by race, gender, politics, religion, wealth, and attitudes toward social change as never before. However, a look back at the history of the country offers an enlightening perspective. Many of our ideas about America’s past are based on myth, not history, as this article highlights.
A Comment on Myth
Myths tell simple, compelling stories that smooth over complex issues and ideas. Myths are stronger than reality, mightier than mountains, wider than the sky, and as necessary to our existence as the air we breathe.
These stories are often a form of propaganda that supports a particular worldview. These legends are propagated by groups and individuals that benefit from the ideology embedded in the story. These tales are nearly impervious to facts or logic because their supporters want to, or need to, believe the ideas in the myth to justify their existence, advantages, and or resentments.
The truth will not destroy these legends or the support of their consumers. Only a stronger, more appealing fable will become a dominant myth. The initial story may live on indefinitely in the minds and hearts of true believers.
The Myth of American Unity
The “Make America Great Again” slogan touted by the Trump administration is based on the American Unity Myth. This story holds that at some time(s) in the past, we were a united people indivisible under God. The truth is that we have always been a divided people even about the worship of God, as Thomas Paine made clear in 1794:
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of.
My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” — The Age of Reason 1794-1807
The American Revolution was not the work of a brave and united populace that fought for Liberty, freedom, and justice. The truth is that the rebels fought our first civil war as well as the British:
“But when we remember how America began, we should also remember that within the Revolution there raged a civil war. The rebels fought not only the British but also other Americans who called themselves Loyalists. The rebels called them Tories, a derogatory label linked to the Irish word for outlaw.”
Our nation was founded in battles between white colonists, but our unity myth has all but smothered out this reality. The same way it smooths over the division explicit and implicit in our Constitution.
Our Constitution is one of America’s proudest creations. The same Constitution that legalized slavery and documented the divisions between “slave” dependent states where slavery was essential to the economy and “free” states, where slavery existed but was not a primary economic function. This founding document openly divides the nation between “free persons” (whites) and “other Persons” (blacks).
3: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. US Constitution Article I Section 2
1: The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person. US Constitution Article I Section 9
3: No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. US Constitution Article IV Section 2
The “all other Persons” and “such persons” “and “No Person” are slaves. The drafters were avoiding the unsavory realities of the term “slavery” and the black and white racial division that is the essential organizing tool of U.S. society to this very day. It is difficult to imagine slaves as willing participants in the colonies or the new nation.
The Second Civil War
From 1776 to 1860, the tensions between the slaveholding states and the free states waxed and waned until the war between the states erupted in 1861 and ended in 1865. Estimates of the war dead range from over 600,000 to over 700,000. The national divisions have never been more apparent.
Wars promoted their own myths of national unity, and both sides in our second Civil War followed this pattern. In fact, there was significant divisions within the Union and Confederate nations.
“Americans tend to think of the Civil War as a titanic struggle between two regions of the country, one united in commitment to the Union, the other equally devoted to its own nationhood. Yet neither North nor South was truly unified. Lincoln was constantly beset by draft resistance, peace sentiment, and resentment of the immense economic changes unleashed by the war. Internal dissent was, if anything, even more widespread in the wartime South. Not only did the four million slaves identify with the Union cause, but large numbers of white Southerners came to believe that they had more to lose from a continuation of the war than from a Northern victory. Indeed, scholars today consider the erosion of the will to fight as important a cause of Confederate defeat as the South’s inferiority in manpower and industrial resources. Even as it waged a desperate struggle for independence, the Confederacy was increasingly divided against itself.” — Eric Foner
American Unity myth makers north and south glorified, the “united” war efforts and glossed over the internal conflicts that threaten victories on both sides. However, even the second Civil War Union victory and an amended Constitution could not erase the previously sanctioned Constitutional divisions between black and white.
Slavery was a cheap labor solution, and the division between owners and slaves were crystal clear. The division between owners and workers in the growing northern industries was becoming just as distinct. In the Colonies and, in the early United States, the owners used English Common law, to prosecute organized workers who went on strikes or encouraged boycotts. The owners won these “conspiracy” cases more often than not. The union/owner wars reached their apex in the 1930s, but the division between workers and owners is still just as wide.
The post-Civil War years were used to impose an iron segregation curtain between blacks and whites in every part of the nation. The Klu Klux Klan terrorized blacks in the south, and law enforcement still performs a similar function nationwide. Governments at every level reinforced this separation and denigration.
In the 1950s, blacks made increasing efforts to seize their rights, demand social justice, and force change. This Civil Rights Movement inspired women’s rights, gay rights, La Rasa, and Native American liberation movements.
Black Americans and some other marginalized groups are still fighting for voting rights, equal employment opportunities, fair housing, “good” schools, equality under the law, and protection from state law enforcement persecution and violence.
Many white Americans are still in denial mode and see racial discrimination and oppression as extinct creatures of the ancient past if they existed at all. For many whites, the myth of American unity is based not on agreement but on the subordination of non-whites, women, workers, antiwar factions, and gender challenges and the suppression of rights and representation for these groups.
Our lack of unity in our current era is evident in our blue/red state divide, anti-abortionist, women’s rights conflicts, the anti-vaxers and vaccine support battles, the discord between man-made climate change deniers and believers, the skirmishes between Second Amendment supporters and challengers, and the pro-gay marriage and anti-gay marriage clashes.
It is natural for the myth of unity supporters to want to make America great again — meaning to elevate white males to a position of unquestioned authority where they will continue to attempt to suppress all divisions and present a white male united front.
The movements, groups and individuals opposing this myth are creating their own story of heroic opposition to racism, sexism, gender repression, labor exploitation, and the police state. This myth will be as true and as accurate as the myth of national unity.