"America: The Story of Us" is a series from the History channel that tells, well, derr ..., the story of America. I'm enjoying the show immensely, but at the same time, I am becoming increasingly queasy with the unsavory truths of our history.
This is a tired conversation. We've all become enlightened about the less glorious moments of our short American history, but then there are the those things that remain in the darkened shadow of glorified language, hidden, tucked away under that hearty phrase "rugged individualism."
What does that phrase even mean? Herbert Hoover was the guy to first bring that healing term, that salve of all salves, into our lexicon. To be rugged is to be capable of enduring great adversity, to be hearty, to be manly, to look a bear in the eye and roar right back. And to be an individual is to know your mind and give it free rein over your interests and conversations and life goals. Put those two together and heck, you have license to pretty much kill everything in front of you.
Or so it was with the patriots. And I WANT to call them patriots. I want to give them the respect they questionably deserve. What our American forefathers did was rugged and individualistic and scary as hell and you wouldn't catch me doing it for all the tea in China. If it were up to me, we'd all still be in England saying, "Yes, mum, indeed, mum, here's all my money for the Crown and sure, I'll go to whatever Church you tell me to, mum."
But that's not our patriots. Our patriots left, got on ships, landed in harsh conditions, starved or ate each other, died from smallpox, died from smallpox inoculations, died from milk disease, cut out the Erie Canal with their bare hands working fingers to literal bone, and all for what? Could they imagine the glory their sacrifices would allow? Could they imagine a highway system and sanitation and education for all? Did they know - could they have had any indication of the superpower we would become? George Washington thought it would take a 1000 years to settle America. Not with rugged individualists at the helm. No sir. We are only a couple hundred years into the great experiment and look at us. We rule the whole freaking world.
It's not hard to love the patriots, our forefathers, our bold leaders, our rugged individualists. How ungrateful would I have to be to not love them and respect the hell out of their accomplishments?
To wit, a list of the things young America did to earn the term "rugged individualists":
1. Defeated the British who were defending Native American boundary lines
(How, you ask? By killing off the Native American guides in the service of the British and by employing sharp shooters to take out British captains. Stay classy, patriots.)
2. Defeated the Mexicans who had welcomed us into their territory only to have us take it over entirely
(Remember the Alamo? Remember when the Mexicans said, sure, come on in? Then, hey, wait, there's too many of you? Then, hey, what the heck just happened here?)
3. Indentured the free Africans who had fought for America right alongside every other America in the Revolutionary War
(Hey, somebody's got to take care of the cotton on the land we took from the Cherokee.)
4. Crossed 2000 miles to get to the gold rush in California where men died and didn't even receive decent burials
And on and on. But look how tough we are. We keep pushing through. We tame the lands and flourish despite it all.
And there are longers lists of our better deeds. History books are full of them. I am, I must admit, a huge fan of John Adams and his contribution to American history. Also, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Pretty much in that order. And they are all that term for good or ill.
But it's the ill that has me at the moment. That Machiavellian sensibility that pervades our history and probably the history of every history. We are no different from each other. Perhaps if I had been a part of the Donner party, I would have made the same choices. Perhaps I would have believed in freedom and self preservation at all costs. Perhaps I am just as ruggedly individualistic as the next guy.
Lucky for me, my life is so posh, I don't have to find out. Thanks, patriots. Thanks for my cushy, easy life. Thanks for setting me up in a free society where I can blog about how murderous your sacrifices were. Thanks for this life, this liberty, and this pursuit of judging the heck out of you and all you have done for this great country.