America’s shockingly violent birth

The war that began at Lexington and Concord 14 months before the Declaration of Independence was America’s first civil war. And it had all the messiness and nastiness that always accompany protracted fratricide.

..  The war caused “proportionately more” deaths — from battle, captivity and disease — than any war other than that of 1861-1865. The perhaps 37,000 deaths were about five times more per capita than America lost in World War II. Sixty thousand loyalists became refugees.

.. Taylor’s “American Revolutions ” (2016) hammers home the war’s human costs. A Connecticut critic of the Continental Congress was tarred, carried to a sty and covered with hog’s dung, some of which was forced down his throat. Connecticut loyalists were imprisoned in a copper mine, in darkness 120 feet underground. Georgia patriots knocked a loyalist unconscious, “tied him to a tree, tarred his legs, and set them on fire” and then partially scalped him. Some courts ordered loyalists “branded on the face or cut off their ears” to make them recognizable.

Happy Birthday, America. One Small Suggestion …

They incorporated, in many places word for word, the British Parliament’s Bill of Rights of 1689, a farseeing document that limited the powers of the king and laid out for us the lineaments of what was to be Britain’s enduring (and endearing) constitutional monarchy. But they took a further step — a most egregious and regrettable step

.. During the heat of the Revolutionary War, Americans looked — as nations at war always will — for a name and a face to represent the hated foe. The prime minister, Lord North, would have made a colorless and feeble icon of enmity, and so, perhaps naturally, they settled on the person and character of King George.

.. But in fact, George III was far from a tyrant. He was a constitutional monarch with almost no real political power at all. In nearly 60 years, a reign only recently surpassed in longevity by that of the current Elizabeth, he earned the love and respect of his people for his simplicity, kindness, frugality and diligence. The “farmer king” liked nothing better than to wander among his fields, talking happily to peasants, pigs and princes alike, not a tyrannical thought in his amiable, befuddled old mind.

.. The president was to be the highest citizen in the land, executive head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. That, I submit, was the mistake.

.. If you watched the excellent Netflix series “The Crown,” you will remember those scenes in the first few episodes in which the newly acceded Elizabeth received her prime minister, Winston Churchill. During these weekly audiences, the great political lion had to stand before her, explain the conduct of his administration, outline governmental plans and problems and keep her informed as to the state of the nation before bowing himself backward from the room. Constitutional constraints decreed that she could do no more than “advise and consent.” A powerless monarch

.. Every week, the elected president has to call at Uncle Sam’s mansion, stand before him and explain himself and his administration. Uncle Sam can question him, tell him a story about how another president 20 years back had faced a similar quandary

.. Do you not agree that it would be a very healthy thing for presidents to make such a humble, supplicatory journey every week and be reminded that they serve a bigger idea than power, a nobler entity than a political party or a trending ideology?

.. America has an elected executive, but Britain has an elected executive and something else, too: a head of state who stands above the fray, personifying and representing our nation and its history.

.. Rationally, a monarchy is an absurdity. Of course it is. But we British are not rationalists. We are empiricists and seem always to have been.

.. Looking at 10 Downing Street and the American White House now, I wonder which nation is constitutionally most in danger of allowing a tyrant to arise.

.. My modest proposal on this, America’s great national holiday weekend, is that you choose an Uncle Sam or Aunt Samantha by lottery (which is all the birth of a monarch is) and give this person the powers of a constitutional sovereign, with precedence of state over the elected president.

A New Museum of the American Revolution, Warts and All

the 18th-century privy at the back of the lot that was excavated during construction.

“It was dug in 1776 and filled in 1789,” Mr. Stephenson said during a recent tour of the building. “So, basically, it held trash spanning from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.”

.. “We tend to think there was a script we were all speaking from, but the reality was messy,” Mr. Stephenson said. “I guess we might be considered a little bit critical of originalism in that sense.”

.. The guiding design idea, Mr. Stephenson said, “was creating a movie you can walk through, rather than a book we’re illustrating.”

.. One tableau depicts some of the thousands of enslaved people who fought for the British. “Sometimes,” as a large wall text bluntly puts it, “freedom wore a red coat.”

.. Another gallery uses life-cast figures and a six-minute film to recreate a debate among the Oneida nation about which side to take. The Oneida sided with the Revolution, but wall text makes the quandary of Native Americans plain: “How could they preserve their independence in the midst of this vicious civil war”?

.. similar panels explore the meaning of events for Native Americans, enslaved African-Americans and other marginalized people. “We call these our ‘wait just a damn minute’ panels,”

.. juxtaposes a copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and a defense of British rule called “Plain Truth” attributed to James Chalmers, one of many places where loyalists get their due.

.. Another case holds a German-language Declaration of Independence, printed in Philadelphia a few days after July 4, 1776. It’s a reminder, Mr. Stephenson said, that the American Revolution didn’t happen only in English.

The Captive Aliens Who Remain Our Shame

But he goes back to 1775, when the American Revolution turned into the Revolutionary War, to locate the origins of racial exclusion in the society that would become the United States of America. It was during these days, Parkinson says, that patriot leaders made a fateful choice. They embarked upon a specific and concerted plan to place blacks and Native Americans—no matter what their condition, whether they believed in the patriots’ ideals or not—firmly outside the boundaries of America’s experiment with democratic republicanism.

.. “Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington,” Parkinson writes, “developed a myth about who was and was not a part of the Revolutionary movement; about who had an interest and who did not.” Other esteemed advocates of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, joined the effort. According to Parkinson, these men chose to prosecute the American war for independence in a way that put race at the heart of the matter. They used—actually helped foment—racial prejudice as the principal means of creating unity across the thirteen colonies in order to prepare Americans to do battle with Great Britain. The base sentiments they promoted for “political expediency” survived the fighting, and the “narrative” that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated “white” and “citizen”—“lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come.”

.. Effective war stories were definitely required because despite the colonists’ complaints about tyranny and being reduced to—of all things—“slavery,” they were “the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest landowning, arguably most prosperous people in the western world.”

.. Eloquent words about abstract rights would not do. History has taught the sad lesson that fear and contempt are the most predictably powerful motivators for galvanizing one group to move against another.

.. They tied blacks and Indians and, for a time, Hessian mercenaries to George III, labeling them as his “proxies.” They were all to be considered “strangers,” even though blacks (enslaved and free) had lived among white Americans for years and, in spite of the many conflicts with Native peoples, whites and Indians did not only meet in battles.

.. British overtures to Indians and blacks were, according to Benjamin Franklin, enough to “dissolve all Allegiance” with the Mother Country.

.. Franklin made up stories about groups being used by the British—proxies—and worked with Lafayette to prepare a book (never published) with illustrations for “children and Posterity” detailing British abuses of Americans. Of the twenty-six proposed illustrations—we have Franklin’s suggested twenty and Lafayette’s six in their own hands—many revolve around proxies. Lafayette suggested an illustration showing “prisoners being ‘Roasted for a great festival where the Canadian Indians are eating American flesh.’” He also proposed a scene depicting “British officers” taking the “opportunity of corrupting Negroes and Engaging them to desert from the house, to Robb, and even to Murder they [sic] Masters.”

.. By “the summer of 1775,” the “majority” of the stories on the inside of colonial newspapers were about “the role African Americans and Indians might play in the burgeoning war.” While historians have focused much attention on George Washington’s going to Cambridge to head the Continental Army, the real story of 1775, Parkinson says, was the “hundreds of smaller messages” that were pushed through colonial newspapers about the threat that blacks and Indians, allegedly under the total control of the British, posed to patriot lives.

.. The offer of Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, to free men enslaved by patriots in return for their military service inflamed white colonists and brought scores of blacks to the British side. And some Native Americans, long accustomed to playing European power politics, sided with the British. Patriot leaders “worked assiduously to make this the foundation of why colonists should support resistance [to the British] and, eventually, independence.” They did so despite the fact that other blacks and Indians fought alongside white patriots, and more would have done so had the patriots been willing to put more of them in uniform.

.. Parkinson shows, however, that the newspapers did not circulate stories about black and Indian patriots:

Unless Americans watched the army march by, they had scarcely any idea that there were hundreds of African Americans and Indian soldiers serving under Washington’s command. Even though the Continental Army would be the most integrated army the United States would field until the Vietnam War, most Americans had little knowledge of their service in fighting for the common cause.

.. After Washington soundly defeated them at the Battle of Trenton, these white men were gradually transformed into sympathetic victims of the British. Eventually they were offered permanent places—land—in the new country they had tried to prevent from coming into being. There would be no redemption for their fellow “proxies.”

.. the patriots’ rhetoric of the common cause exploited fears about the “proxies” of George III, it is likely because of Jefferson’s recitation, at the end of the Declaration of Independence, of the monarch’s “long train of abuses.” These included “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death,” inciting “domestic insurrections amongst us,” and endeavoring “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” Parkinson sees that language, and the other grievances, as central to the patriots’ cause. In his view,

the Declaration was an effort to draw a line between friends and enemies, between “us” and “them”—or…between “we” [the Americans] and “he” [the King].

It is the “first assertion of an ‘American people.’”