Good Things, Sacred Cows, and Writing about Settler Colonialism

Jason Opal

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Detail of cartoon for mural Westward the Course of Empire…, pencil and chalk on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1982.51

The great Edmund S. Morgan once noted that most Americans thought that the American Revolution had been a good thing. True to form, Morgan made a profound point with an economy of words.

At the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the year after Morgan published his most famous book, most Americans clearly approved of the events of 1776. They did not consider that approval controversial or complicated. In fact, they did not think much at all about the Revolution, other than to recall that it freed America from an unnatural dependence on England.

Morgan was too good a historian to dismiss these assumptions. He wanted early Americanists to grapple with the dominant beliefs around them, relating their discoveries about the Revolution—its vast complexities, its deep ironies—to society at large. For this is the whole point of historical inquiry: to get a better look at the world we have inherited, and then to describe the view to anyone who will listen.

At the risk of sounding optimistic, I think that something like this has happened with public memories of the Revolution. Thanks to the fine scholarship of Morgan’s many students and readers, we Americans are now more honest about our political genesis. We are more open about who the Founders were, what they wanted, and who they did and did not care about. We are more aware of the dark shadows cast by all those blazing invocations of “the People.” And this makes our society a bit better, or at least a bit more susceptible to improvement.

But the American Revolution wasn’t the only or even primary foundation of the national identity with which we are grappling today. Indeed, much about the Revolution wasn’t very American at all.

The patriots of the 1760s and 1770s reprised many themes from English and Scottish history, notably the fear of military rule and political “slavery.” They spoke in dialects of British liberty, much as colonists in Jamaica and Nova Scotia did. The Framers of 1787, for their part, were fundamentally concerned about the Union’s reputation in London and its adherence to the European law of nations. At century’s end, few Americans understood themselves to be a “nation” as they applied that word to English, French, Cherokee, Shawnee, or Coromantee peoples.

Rather than in the political events of the late 1700s, many historians now trace an American national character to the violent drama of western expansion, reconceived as settler colonialism.

From Jill Lepore’s rediscovery of King Philip’s War to Peter Silver’s analysis of Shawnee raids during the Seven Years’ War, scholars have shown how epic violence between white and Indigenous people defined much of colonial history. Nicole EustaceCarroll Smith-Rosenberg, and many others have explored similar themes in the early republican era.

One takeaway from this scholarship is that settler colonialism was a bloody nightmare, most obviously for Indigenous nations but also for traumatized and hateful settlers. Academic historians’ picture of western expansion finds its literary expression in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), which follows a nameless Tennessee “kid” into a depraved world of scalp hunting and necrophilia.

But as Edmund S. Morgan would surely remind us, the historical West that undergirds most Americans’ sense of the nation’s past is a very different place. It’s full of hardy farm folk and can-do entrepreneurs, of stubborn courage and common sense. It’s a dangerous Eden redeemed by people in white hats and covered wagons. And it comes in many variants, one of which traces the spread of New England’s signature institutions—the schools, the town meetings, the slave-free households—into the fertile plains of the Upper Midwest.

Nathaniel Currier, Arguing the Point (Politics on the American Frontier), n.d., lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of International Business Machines Corporation, 1966.48.3

David McCullough shares this view. His new book is an eloquent if simple story of virtue transported and rewarded. Most readers love it.

If we academic historians want to tell different and more difficult frontier stories to such audiences, we need to know what we’re up against.

The Pioneers is a best-seller not just because it’s well-written, but also because it tells Americans that western expansion was a good thing. And most Americans want to hear this—perhaps even need to hear this—much more than they want or need to hear about the Revolution being good. That’s because most Americans are the direct beneficiaries of settler colonialism. Historical revisions of the subject touch on their economic interests, not just their political assumptions.

For good reason, white Americans associate the low prices and wide availability of frontier lands with opportunity and equality for people like them. For good reason, they lionize the homesteaders who gobbled up the public domain, securing their posterity as freeholders and freemen. To question the goodness of such distant happenings is to question the legitimacy of the original deed. It is to expose the nation’s title to North America as a bloody heirloom, inviting other claimants, aggrieved claimants, into the Promised Land.

Western expansion, more than the Revolution, made America. Western expansion, more than the Revolution, is the sacred cow that a new generation of historians will need to confront.

7 June 2021

About the Author

Jason Opal is associate professor and chair of the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University.

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