In which we see that far from inevitable or timeless, Imagined communities are contingent, even accidental
So, gang: Who do you think is going to win? Brits or Americans? Tories or Patriots?
—Jeez, Mr. K. That’s a tough one.
Well, now, Chris, I know it is. Education is about tough questions. That’s why I want you to give it your best shot.
—I’m going to take a chance here and go with my gut. I think the colonists are going to win.
Really? You sure?
—Call me crazy. Just a feeling I have.
Chris, I have to say: that strikes me as a bit odd. Have you forgotten that the British have the greatest military machine in the world? And that at this very moment—the summer of 1776—a gigantic invasion force of 32,000 troops, the largest armada this half of the world has ever seen, has just landed on Staten Island?
—I can honestly say I haven’t forgotten, Mr. K.
—That’s because Chris never knew it in the first place.
—Thanks for pointing that out, Em.
And yet you still think the Yanks are gonna win this thing.
Have you forgotten Britain’s immense financial sources?
Have you considered the difficulties for thirteen colonies trying to coordinate a response and stick together? The lack of resources, beginning with money? Their sheer inexperience?
You believe in magic, then.
—I can’t explain it, Mr. K. Really.
Well, if nothing else—and I do mean nothing else—I have to admire your consistency here, Chris.
—That means a lot, Mr. K. It really does.
How about the rest of you: do you share Chris’s magical thinking? Or do you have some reason to think the colonists can actually win? What advantages do they have? Go ahead, Kylie.
—They’re motivated. They’ve got a just cause.
Motivated, yes—at least some of them, anyway, the ones who aren’t Loyalists. Who may, by the way, amount to about a third of the population, at least in some parts of the country. But a just cause?
—I disagree with Kylie. I don’t think their cause is just.
Why not, Sadie? You don’t think they have a point about taxation and representation?
—Maybe. But what about the slaves?
Freedom has to be for everybody in order to be legitimate?
—I disagree. I mean, sure: freedom should be for everybody. Sadie’s right about that. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
—I’m with Kylie and Adam. Once they get their freedom, then other people can. Women, slaves, and so on.
I’m reminded of something the famous essayist Samuel Johnson said at the time: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” But putting aside the morality question for a moment, I’ll renew my question: what makes you think the colonists can win?
—They’re better fighters. They have better aim. They’re used to fighting in the woods and all that stuff.
I can tell you flatly that they don’t have better aim, Ethan. You didn’t really aim at all in those days. Instead, you got a group of guys together who loaded their rifles—this took a minute—and then shot all at once, creating a deadly hail of fire. You may be right about the fighting conditions, though the Brits were very well trained and had some experience with frontier warfare. On the other hand, a big part of their army consisted German mercenaries from the province of Hesse (King George III’s family was originally from that region, which had close ties to Britain). That’s why they were called Hessians. Which may speak to Ethan’s point—they were basically in it for the money. Actually, a number of them ultimately decided they liked it here and settled down.
—We give up, Mr. K. Tell us why we won.
Oh, it’s “we,” is it?
You tell me.
—No: you tell me. I mean, us.
That’s not my job.
—Of course it is!
Hmmm. I ran into Brianna’s father the other day. He tells, me, Brianna, that your family hails from Puerto Rico. Do I have that right?
So Brianna is a “we,” then? I mean, how connected to you feel to these people, Brianna? Do they feel like your Founding Fathers?
—I dunno. Not so much.
And yet they made the country you live in, the rules you live by.
—You sound racist, Mr. K. Like Puerto Ricans aren’t real Americans.
Not my point, Adam. Actually, it’s more like the opposite. The American Revolution created an imagined community of space, a set of geographic boundaries for a very diverse set of people to inhabit. (As of 1898, those boundaries came to include the island of Puerto Rico, a story we’ll get to next semester.) But it also created an imagined community of time. We’re part of a collective family. Not that we always like our relatives, mind you. But centuries after their deaths, many of us see them as ours, even if later generations may forge ties to other people or emphasize different branches of the family tree. We speak the same language, as fact and metaphor, even if we sometimes fail to recognize it.
—Isn’t that the point of history? To make those kinds of connections?
Indeed it is, Yin. It’s exactly the point: to see ourselves as part of something larger. We seem to need that. Which amazes me. Like the American victory in the Revolution, which in effect forged the ties that now bind us (even if those ties are not eternal, as Brianna’s uncertainty suggests). Some people seem to think the United States was inevitable: the colonies were growing in size and power, the Americans were bound to seek independence, and huge size of the their territory alone made conquering and holding their territory impractical at best and finally impossible. But as I get older I find myself more and more surprised, even astounded, that they pulled it off. And astounded that all of you in this classroom, a motley genealogical crew if ever there was one, sit in this room as equals, all subjected to the musings of your history teacher. But let’s go back to 1776. Yes, Sadie?
—So how did they do it, then? Why did they win?
—Oh come on. Really.
—You're telling us it was all a matter of luck.
Well, not all a matter of luck. But luck in general plays more of role that we likely to, or even can, admit.
Next: A New York revolution