Frontier fighters and American exceptionalism

OK. Another rant. Sort of. I don’t plan on writing posts based entirely on anger or indignation, not always at least, but as I’m on a roll I think I’ll go with it.

And, like the previous rant – the one on warfare and the French – this comes from an interesting (read unfortunate / awkward) conversation I had while I was promoting Whites of Their Eyes. In this case it was a radio interview. I think I did about twenty or so radio interviews in my “radio tour” to promote Whites of Their Eyes, most of them for early morning AM talk radio or NPR affiliates. They’re usually brisk and stimulating, and though sometimes my five-year-old son interrupts (his bedroom is opposite our home office; it’s all too easy for him to venture out of his bedroom, in pajamas or just wearing his socks, and announce loudly – loud enough to be heard by the interviewer on the other end of the line – that he can’t find his underwear or that the cat is stealing his Star Wars toys) they usually go very well. Often they’re fun. Sometimes there are call-ins, which adds an entirely different dimension to the interview.

One morning, I was scheduled to “appear” on a book-talk show for a Midwest NPR affiliate. Great show, great host, great questions from most of the callers. Several of them were intrigued by a point I had made in the book and in the interview: that the American militiamen who laid siege to Boston in 1775 were not frontiersmen, not dead-eyed marksmen who had learned from Native Americans how to fight in the wilderness. The conventional wisdom was – is, actually – that American soldiers were toughened Indian-fighters, crack shots, while the British were stubbornly unwilling to learn how to fight in the American wilderness. In fact, as one historian after another proclaims, British officers actively discouraged their men from actually taking careful aim while firing because it kept the rate of fire unacceptably low. The latter argument falls perfectly in line with the common American historical stereotype of the foppish, impractical, aristocratic Briton – what a colleague of mine calls “the legend of the silly Brit” – while reinforcing the age-old notion that Americans are inherently more practical, more resourceful, and less hide-bound by tradition than their European cousins.

Instead, though some of the American soldiers present at Lexington and Concord, or at Bunker Hill for that matter, had undoubtedly fought in the French and Indian War two decades before, most had not. There’s evidence that some militia companies indulged in occasional target practice in the spring and summer of 1775, and even learned the rudiments of drill, but this hardly makes them marksmen. And, conversely, the British commander in Boston – General Thomas Gage – made sure that the men in his command regularly practiced “shooting at marks.” Target practice, in other words. In short: in 1775, at least, professional British soldiers were probably handier with a musket than American colonists were.

I’m certainly not the first historian to make that point. But one caller that morning not only took exception to the argument; he was positively infuriated by it.

“How can you sit there and say [actually, I was standing at the time, but it’s a minor point and probably not discernable via radio] that American soldiers in the Revolution weren’t familiar with firearms?” Already his voice started to crack; there was no doubting that this man was angry.

“I didn’t say they weren’t familiar with them,” I replied. “I said that they were less familiar with them than we like to believe. The British trained daily not only in the manual of arms and in the ‘higher schools’ of drill, but also very frequently in marksmanship. Americans didn’t. It’s pretty simple.” I know it sounds like I was being smug, but honestly I wasn’t. I knew this guy was hostile and it made me uncomfortable. I did my level best to keep things cordial.

He practically spat out his next words. “That’s wrong. Just plain wrong. The colonists used firearms every day – to protect themselves and their homes, to hunt. They would have starved if they didn’t know how to use firearms. They depended on hunting for survival.” There was a distinct “Well, if you’re so smart, how do you explain this?” tone to his reply.

“You have to remember,” I tried to be as soothing as possible, “that eastern Massachusetts – that most of New England – was no longer on the frontier. It had been a few generations since people along the coast had had to worry about raids by Native Americans or by the French. And as for hunting: these men were farmers. Hunting was not unknown, but no one in eastern New England depended upon it for their survival.”

The caller tried to interrupt, sputtering, but I kept at it. “Besides, there’s so much evidence to the contrary. The frequency of injury and death from accidental shootings in camp, for instance.”

At that point, mercifully, my interviewer cut the caller off. I’m pretty sure he tried to call back and continue, but the interviewer didn’t take the call. I’m thankful she did. It had been a truly unpleasant exchange.

I found, with writing The Whites of Their Eyes, just how tightly Americans like to cling to their historical mythology. It made a big impression on me. In part, that’s because people tend to be conservative when it comes to the stories they’ve come to accept as part of their national heritage. They don’t like to find out that they might have been wrong. But that clinginess seems to be the worst when it undermines cherished ideas about American exceptionalism – the notion that there is something special, or everything special, about America from the very moment of its violent birth…in this case, that Americans were natural-born warriors, distinct from and superior to the professional soldiers – the mercenaries – of European armies, the slaves of despotic regimes…or so we like to view them. There’s no doubting that Americans have many good reasons to be proud of their history. But allowing an unquestioning belief in the uniqueness of Americans in everything – or the unique superiority of Americans in everything…that’s tantamount to throwing away any pretense at objectivity in looking at our past. That’s not history; that’s heritage, the conscious and self-serving use of the past to make us feel better about ourselves, or to justify feelings of superiority. Unfortunately, it’s all too common in the way we view our history. It’s been all too common in the political rhetoric of the past few months as the established political parties have geared up for the presidential election campaign of 2012. But it’s useless as history and dangerous as a political instrument.

I’ll leave that be for now…but I’m coming back to it. There’s just too much to say about history and American exceptionalism to reduce to a single post.

About Paul Lockhart

I'm a history professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio...and I write books about history.
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2 Responses to Frontier fighters and American exceptionalism

  1. Kate says:

    I wonder what creates the most annoying popular misconceptions about history: American exceptionalism or biblical literalism?

  2. That’s a good question, Kate. Maybe it’s just the election-jadedness talking, but I’d put my vote (so to speak) on biblical literalism.

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