We are post-Charlottesville now and we must think post-Charlottesville. That is, we must think in revolutionary, not reformist terms.
Yes, we must oppose Trump, a megalomaniac who becomes more of a fascist daily, while the nation’s white supremacist forces stroke his ego. But we also must oppose Republicans and Democrats, who have done nothing for decades to stop the nation’s migration to the right. We are at a turning point. We can either go forward or watch the struggle get derailed once again.
We can’t merely take to the streets. We must take to the streets AND STAY THERE until we turn the corner on what kind of country we want the United States to be.
Along with this struggle, though, other actions are also required. Among them is the coincident development/acceptance of a cohesive vision. A vision that doesn’t merely view white supremacy as a morally flawed value, but that recognizes it as integral to U.S. history as we know it. Recognizing it as integral means that moving forward on this issue requires a substantive rewriting of U.S. history in order to show the ways in which white supremacy has defined the nation from the beginning. It also means investigating all the nation’s institutions in order to root out white supremacy’s hidden presence within them.
None of this will be easy. It will be resisted, sometimes violently. To succeed will require much struggle and the emergence of a new mass movement.
Think of Heather Heyer. Think of innocent dead black males in the streets. Think of how the cops who kill those black men never go to jail.
What follows is a model for a re-visioned portrait of the nation’s beginnings.
July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, was not only the day the colonies declared independence from Britain, it was also the day they sentenced the American Indian to death.
The imposition of capital punishment on the continent’s native peoples wasn’t because they’d committed a crime, but because they were in the way. From the earliest colonists’ initial expropriations of native land through the natives’ later confinement on impoverished reservations, the history of the continent’s occupation by Europeans was a history of the methodical elimination of the indigenous inhabitants. White megalomania, untempered greed, broken treaties, and policies of humiliation characterized this project.
Out of these activities, a “democratic” nation was eventually created. Its foundation was built from the corpses of natives who were killed because without their land the newcomers couldn’t build towns and cities or claim the right to use the continent’s resources however they saw fit.
The American Revolution was not a revolution. It was a civil war between two European factions — colonizing settlers on the one hand and their distant government in England on the other. This civil war was motivated by each group’s desire to control North America’s land and natural resources. Neither faction was concerned with the indigenous inhabitants’ ultimate wellbeing, except as possible mercenaries to be used during the conflict.
The fact that the 1776 Civil War has been mislabeled a revolution for over 200 years is traceable to the fact that it has been written about primarily from a White/European perspective — i.e., in terms of what the conflict signifies about European-originated concepts of political democracy. In order to mythicize this historical moment as a giant step forward in the history of nations, it was necessary for historians to depict the colonists who rebelled against British rule as revolutionaries driven by a single thought: the right of all human beings to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and therefore was profoundly unlike any of the period’s other political malcontents (e.g., French republicans whose revolution collapsed into tyranny and bloodbath, or the Pinto Revolt of indigenous peoples against Portuguese colonialism in Goa on India’s western coast in the late 1780s).
Although it was true that an embryonic concept of political democracy was a driving force in the colonists’ rebellion against their British rulers, the exaggeration of this point has obscured the fact that the American rebels weren’t an anti-colonial fighting force but a pro-colonial one, making them far less distinct politically than they’ve been touted to be by status quo histories. Like their opponents in England, the rebels in the colonies viewed North America’s indigenous peoples as inferior and the continent as theirs for the taking. There was no disagreement on these basic imperial assumptions. Although quick to employ new democratic theories to argue for the expansion of their own political power (vis-a-vis the distant government in England), the colonies’ inhabitants had no intention of expanding that power to include indigenous populations, but instead, in traditional imperial fashion, planned to use this power to occupy North America, subjugate the land’s local populations and use slave labor (a majority of it brought in chains from Africa) in order to build their paradise.
The fact that North America’s colonization deviated over the decades from the standard (at the time) British Empire model of colonization, doesn’t change the colonial character of what transpired. That in North America colonization involved displacement and extermination of the native inhabitants rather than their transformation into a subjugated workforce, as in India, isn’t an example of a fundamental difference between the rebelling colonists and the British government, but rather of developing a different approach to achieving the same aim: control of the continent.
After the colonies’ victory in their civil war with the British homeland, their takeover of the colonial experiment on the continent transformed that experiment into a new prototype for making the colonial project efficient. Whereas in India, the local populations, although certainly oppressed by the British, managed to a significant degree to survive the British Raj, in the United States the story was tragically different. The use of advanced weaponry, the harassment of endless forced relocations, the persistence through the decades of white-supremacist maltreatment and genocidal neglect gutted indigenous communities, pummeling them to a tiny percent of their original size.
The U.S. had discovered the ultimate colonizing policy: don’t enslave the colonized population, kill them off instead — it’s more thorough.
The work of creating legalistic rationales for the expropriation of native lands didn’t wait until the 1776 Civil War to begin. It began even prior to the Puritans’ migration from England to part of what is today Massachusetts. In the early 1600s, John Winthrop, who eventually became the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote a paper, “General Considerations for the Plantations in New England, with an Answer to Several Objections,” which laid out a series of rationales for why, by law, European settlers possessed the right to take ownership of native lands in the New World. This paper was written before his voyage to the New World and was penned by him as a repudiation of those in England concerned with the propriety of Englishmen traveling across the sea in order to appropriate land that already belonged to others. Winthrop’s response to this concern was based on notions of land use and ownership that conveniently omitted native conceptions of what it meant to inhabit the land.
According to Winthrop, three aspects of native life rendered them ineligible for laying claim to lands they inhabited. First was that they held no legal titles to their lands nor any system for producing such titles and that therefore, although they “ruleth over many lands,” they did so without legal sanction. Second was that because they did nothing to fence off or “enclose” their dwelling areas in order to give those areas proper borders, natives had no reasonable expectation that the Puritans and Pilgrims wouldn’t take these lands for themselves. Third was that the natives were nomadic (they “remove their dwellings as they have occasion”) and consequently possessed no civilized sense of being rooted to place. Winthrop’s underlying point was “that which is common to all is proper to none” and therefore subject to becoming the property of any individual or group who claimed it as such and maintained it accordingly. From this tenet he concluded that the British and other Europeans were free to lay claim to the New World’s territories without legal worries about native concerns.
This, of course, is precisely what the settlers did, pounding a new nail in the coffin of native life each step of the way.
If, as its subtext, the Declaration of Independence was a white power document that boded ill for the continent’s native inhabitants, so was the U.S. Constitution.
When the Constitution was made into law in 1789, blacks were defined in Article I, Section 2 as a fragment (three-fifths) of a human being.
Technically, the reason for classifying individual blacks as a fraction of a person rather than a whole one wasn’t to degrade them as only partially human. Instead, it was to settle a dispute within Congress about how states should be taxed by the federal government. When a proposal from the northern states suggested a state’s tax rate be in direct proportion to its total population, including not only free whites and blacks but also black slaves, the southern states rejected the idea of including slaves in the population numbers since doing so would maximize the southern states’ payments to the federal government. As a result, a debate over a compromise was launched. Although the eventual decision to count each black slave as three-fifths of a person raised the southern states’ federal tax rates higher than they wanted, it had a secondary consequence more to their liking. This second effect was that, since each state’s number of members in the House of Representatives was to be calculated by the same population numbers used to determine states’ federal taxes, the three-fifths compromise gave southern states more representation in the House than they otherwise would have had. The practical consequence of this was that the southern states achieved census numbers that guaranteed them a sufficient quota of congressional delegates to control the federal government for decades to come
But just as important as the compromise’s technical aspects was the process leading up to the compromise’s acceptance. That process possessed a symbolic meaning as important, if not more so, than any of the compromise’s other features. Not only did the compromise, for whatever reason, hit upon a numerical formula that concretized the idea that blacks possessed only a fraction of the value of whites, but it further established that no matter how a black was defined legally, whether as fully human or as a fragment of a human, that definition was to be determined, as in the constitution-writing process itself, by white discussion, not black decision-making. In this sense, the creation of the constitution’s Article I, Section 2 was a seminal act; a sort of primeval moment in U.S. history, a moment which, from that point on, would structure how the history of race would be written in the U.S.: primarily as a record of collisions between various white analyses of the issue. Blacks remained (as they often still do) secondary to the story of their own history and liberation struggles.
Even this, however, is only part of the story of Article 1 Section 2’s role in institutionalizing blacks’ status as subhumans; beings that, like farm animals, possessed value only to the extent that they performed tasks of use to whites. In this sense, blacks were absent as human beings from the new nation’s official moral vision. This absence, or lack of recognizable personhood, defined the black body as a nothing or a subhuman mutation. Article 1, Section 2 incarnates this notion, not explicitly but in the very way it uses language. When it discusses black slaves, it doesn’t mention them specifically or describe them in any distinguishing way. Instead, it refers to them generically as “those other persons” to be added to the census list in each state. So, existing but unnamed, there they are, present in the midst of the constitution as initially written, but not portrayed in detail, other than as less-than’s.
Unknown to the founding fathers, these other persons or invisibles held, in spite of their official nonexistence as human beings, the nation’s future in their hands.
The idea that a black person was three-fifths of a white person took on a life of its own whatever the technical reasons for the concept’s initial introduction into the Constitution. This was because the concept so aptly captured the white supremacist idea that the label complete human being belonged only to whites. The reduction of blacks to human fragments was therefore the flip side of the mythicization of the new nation’s white inhabitants as the planet’s vanguard of democracy and Christian values. Blacks’ supposed inferiority was the standard whites used to prove their own superiority; white arrogance needed black misery in order to thrive. Consequently, law and custom were used to strip blacks of their dignity, thereby constructing a new utilitarian black designed to suit white needs. The purpose of racial laws and codes wasn’t merely to restrict black behavior, but to recreate blacks into what whites wanted them to be: damaged less–than’s. It was a vicious cycle. The more brutalized blacks were physically and psychologically, the more the results of that brutalization proved them to be, according to white analyses, subhuman. Because of this alleged subhumanity, it was important (again, according to whites) that blacks never be mistakenly treated as human. They were therefore denied the right to marry, to take legal action against whites, to learn to read, to disobey commands made by their masters, or to in any way exercise the freedoms proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Supposedly subhuman, a black person’s destiny was merely to serve and, in any way required, satisfy white appetites. The irony of all this was that whites, whose laws and slave codes ensured that blacks lived in poverty and subjection, then used blacks’ degradation as a way of highlighting the glory of whites. Given this view, beating, raping, torturing, overworking, and putting to death such “creatures” was not a moral issue for the enslavers.
Psychologically, so-called black inferiority was the foundation upon which white supremacy was built. Racism and the slave system were twin machineries designed to crush blacks into soulless collections of muscles and sex organs capable of performing endless physical labor and of producing offspring meant to perform future physical labor.
Although slavery as practiced in North America was unique to the U.S., racial dehumanization in general wasn’t and has parallels in other historical episodes of mass suffering perpetuated by supposedly superior races.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler proclaimed he was “acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator” and that “by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Hitler’s zealousness, reminiscent of the New World’s white settlers’ belief that it was their God-ordained mission to gain dominion over the new continent, possessed a similar missionary fervor, a belief in the cleanliness of the sanctified race and the inferior, infected character of outsiders. What such Nazi evangelism meant for non-Aryans and other unwanteds, particularly Jews, is well-known.
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and survivor of the German Holocaust, wrote about his experience in Survival in Auschwitz. When first confined to the camp, his prisoner number, 17451, was tattooed on his left arm. According to him, the camp was “a gigantic biological and social experiment” that included advanced technology for streamlining mass executions and cremations. But the experiment in Levi’s eyes was more than merely a death factory. Through the use of forced labor and constant rituals of humiliation designed to destroy inmates’ humanity, the whole of Auschwitz was more than simply an assembly line for murder, it was an elaborate industrial device for destabilizing minds and spirits, “a great machine to reduce us to beasts.”
This engineering experiment in the destruction of human will, of the transformation of human beings into inhumanly treated brutes, is the connection that links the Nazi concentration camp to the U.S. slave plantation as well as to the policy of systematically taking native lives and lands. It is unnerving but true that there’s nothing to suggest that Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief and Hitler’s right-hand man, wouldn’t have been at home as an 18th century colonial Christian minister breathing fire and brimstone from his pulpit as he praised the glorious activity of brutalizing blacks in the New World and exterminating the indigenous peoples.
Whatever the general contours of U.S. history, not all settlers were products of the same mold, however.
Benjamin Lay was a 4-foot-7-inch tall humpback who lived in colonial Abington near Philadelphia. According to one of the first publications (in 1803) to document Lay’s behavior, he was an austere Quaker whose antislavery convictions repeatedly embroiled him in community turmoil because of people’s belief that he expressed himself “with so much indiscreet zeal, as to cause great offense.” On one occasion, having been dragged out of a Quaker meeting house after challenging the minister and congregation on a slavery-related point, Lay sprawled in front of the doorway in the rain and wouldn’t move until the service was over, thereby forcing the attendees, after they exited the building, to step over him one by one.
On another occasion, frustrated by an unsuccessful slavery dialogue with a farming couple who lived in nearby Chester, Lay initiated a frightening drama to make his point. When the husband and wife were off guard, unknown to them Lay seized their only child, a 3-year-old girl, then ran off with her in order to make the couple think she had been kidnapped. Only after allowing the parents to experience hours of panic, did Lay return the girl. After doing so, he informed the parents, “Now you know what a horrible thing it is to lose your child. Possibly this will give you some idea what it’s like for African parents whose children are taken from them in order to be made into slaves.”
Lay had clearly made his point.
But did he? Exactly how clear was it? After all, the act of making his point was at least partially muddied by the fact that it entailed breaking the law and terrorizing a couple who had committed no crime other than disagreeing with Lay on the slavery issue. Reasonable people might well ask, “Did such verbal disagreement justify Lay’s tactics?”
In terms of the law, the answer is no, Lay was not justified in kidnapping the child to make a political point. However, in terms of the issue of what kinds of actions are required to actually change or abolish grave historical wrongs, many believe that going beyond what is legal is sometimes necessary in order to effect change.
Although Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor, didn’t ponder the U.S. history of black slavery per se, his insights into concentration camp life provide a perspective that can be useful in evaluating Lay’s behavior. Levi argued that the highly orchestrated dehumanization and barbarity of the concentration camps was so beyond the scope of the normal, that normal language could not give adequate expression to the camp experience, and therefore “a new, harsh language” had to be created in order to express what is, in normal language, inexpressible.
From this perspective, Benjamin Lay can be viewed as a man attempting to begin, through his actions, the process of inventing “a new, harsh language” that would express the slave experience to those incapable of or unwilling to comprehend its horror. Not surprisingly, many people thought Lay went too far. Ironically, by going “too far” in his actions, Lay showed people not something in the distance but something right in front of them that they refused to see, “a gigantic biological and social experiment” in how to carve, on the bodies of black slaves, an epic of wretchedness.
This is a point not to be forgotten: to describe events or behaviors a society doesn’t want to acknowledge, what is often required is a language, raw, harsh and extreme enough, to flout good taste and jolt people awake.
Etiquette, and even the law, no longer have priority.
Although white allies like Lay played an important role in blacks’ liberation struggles, it was slaves and ex-slaves, not their white supporters, who were most likely to experience the pro-slavery establishment’s full wrath when blacks and/or their advocates resisted it, plotted against it, or in any other way castigated it. Nonetheless, blacks plodded forward, testing a variety of survival tactics, including passive resistance, low‑key sabotage, the development of an alternative culture, and the underground railway, a slavery disruption system that helped fugitive slaves to flee north while periodically stopping to rest at safe houses where they were assisted by black or white abolitionists.
Another survival tactic was more aggressive: a spate of black uprisings in the 1820s and 1830s. A Virginia revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, which did not end until more than fifty whites were killed and approximately seventy black rebels were slain by state troops and U.S. army units, terrified southern whites because Turner’s leadership not only came on the heels of other episodes of slavery unrest but also because Turner’s rationale for the rebellion was, from a white perspective, disturbingly ideological in nature, particularly in the way Turner employed Christian symbolism and prophetic language to justify black upheaval. As he proclaimed months prior to the upsurge, he knew from reading God’s signs that “the time was fast approaching when the last should be first and the first should be last.” The prospect of black visionaries shaking southern society’s foundations appalled the elites who controlled that society. White leaders also were aware that events like the Turner upheaval reverberated beyond the question of race and raised issues pertaining to the relationship of the poor to the rich. During the first stage of Turner’s uprising, slave-holding whites were killed, although one white household was allegedly sparred because Turner considered the inhabitants so poor and degraded that they lacked the belief that their whiteness made them superior to blacks.
As the nation moved ever closer to war over slavery, black thinkers increasingly developed complex analyses that dissected not only slavery as an institution but also the psychological oppression that often prevented blacks from doing what white colonists had done during the 1776 Civil War: take their destiny into their own hands.
One such analyst was David Walker, an ex-slave who in 1929 wrote the pamphlet, “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.” The essay presented a fiery overview not only of slavery and the white rationales for it, but of the types of black consciousness that Walker believed immobilized the black impulse toward rebellion. One of the ways Walker (who owned a used clothing shop in Boston) distributed his “Appeal” was by using his shop, at which he did business with sailors who traveled to ports along the southeastern coast, as a circulation center. He persuaded a number of these sailors to distribute pamphlets to interested southern blacks. Because of the pamphlet’s fiery insurrectional style, however, it started an uproar among slave‑owners upon its appearance in the south. It was rumored that a standing reward of one thousand dollars would be paid to Walker’s assassin. The mayor of Savannah, Georgia, unsuccessfully attempted to have Walker handed over to him by northern authorities. On June 28, 1830, Walker was discovered dead near his shop’s doorway. Although the cause of death was declared to be unknown, the suspicion was that he’d been poisoned because of his anti-slavery activities.
Walker’s “Appeal” argued not for the slave system’s reform or for the helping-hand intervention of white sympathizers, but rather for a black-initiated and black-controlled upsurge aimed at slavery’s total abolishment. Many of the examples Walker employed to make this argument were taken from daily life and consequently possessed an immediate, and often highly emotional, clarity. In his analysis of such examples, Walker probed not only for political and moral meanings, but also into what today would be called “the psychology of the oppressed.” One such example (an actual historical incident) and Walker’s response to it follow.
Three white men were delivering 70 newly purchased slaves to a location in Kentucky. During the journey, a few of the slaves managed to unlock their chains. When their overseers discovered this, a scuffle broke out. Two of the overseers were killed, one with a pistol, the other from being struck with a club. A third, left for dead, was still alive, but barely conscious. After most of the slaves escaped, a black woman who stayed behind helped the surviving overseer to flee. Walker’s comment on the woman’s behavior was that she had capitulated to a morally erroneous, self‑defeating notion of charity that had incapacitated her at a crucial moment in the war against slavery. Walker summed up his feelings on the matter by advocating a vision of black resistance to slavery that recognized the right of blacks to kill slave owners and slavery supporters. He saw this right as fundamental, even instinctual. “Believe this,” he wrote, “it is no more harm to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is to take a drink of water when you are thirsty.” Walker, believing that the very fact of slavery entailed an attempt to murder the slave’s soul, saw no reason not to kill slavers when the chance arose. Therefore, he condemned the woman for not letting the overseer die.
Walker’s vision of the enslaved’s right to employ violence in the struggle for freedom paralleled the political rationales for the 1776 Civil War. The Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that an essential equality characterized all people and therefore people were justified in abolishing governments that didn’t incarnate this principle was no less a vision that supported violent upheaval than was Walker’s.
But in spite of events like Turner’s daring uprising and Walker’s writing of “Appeal,” the birth of a black culture of resistance didn’t happen overnight or evolve only through overt revolutionary acts or radical philosophies. It was a deeper, more all-encompassing, slower-building process than that. It was a heavy weight to carry, being a slave, and that weight entered every cell of the slave’s being and became part of everything slaves did: sing, make up poems, invent fables, develop slang, evolve worship rituals, croon lullabies. Resistance, or at least its foundation, wasn’t someplace else, it was part of everything the slave was and did. It was the subtext in the fable told in the slave shack at night; it was, to quote W. E. B. Du Bois from his The Souls of Black Folk, the “suffering and unvoiced longing” echoed in the slaves’ music. All this was part of slaves’ collective refusal to surrender to the white belief that they were subhuman, uncreative. Instead, they responded with an always-growing underground culture that bore within it a more accurate view of America than most whites had.
One song in particular illustrates this. It was a lullaby sung by black nannies to their masters’ children. As the lyrics below show, the initially sweet-sounding words possess a harrowing undertone. The “poor little lambie” in the tune’s second stanza symbolizes the slave-mother’s child, whom she is unable to care for because she is forced to tend her owner’s child, to whom the song is sung. The lullaby’s bitterness is reflected in the comparison between the two children, one a protected white child of privilege who will eat cake when he awakens and see his parents’ “pretty little horses,” the other a black outcast, naked, vulnerable, and unprotected by his mother against nature’s brutal forces.
Hush‑a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep little baby,
When you awake, you will have a cake
And all the pretty little horses.
Way down yonder
Down in the meadow
There’s a poor little lambie,
The bees & the butterflies
Pecking out his eyes,
The poor little thing cried Mammy.
Go to sleep little baby.
When you wake, you will have cake,
& all the pretty little horses.
It is difficult to imagine language twisted more effectively into the expression of an anguish that seems inexpressible. This is truly a tortured song, its lyrics the product of a slave nanny’s almost deranged state of grief. Although in some ways “merely” a strange lullaby, the song was nonetheless more than that. It was part of a growing body of soulcries — folktales, legends, bible interpretations, adaptions of African musical strategies to a new continent and so on — that expressed an increasingly complex alternate vision of U.S. life as seen from a black perspective.
And so step by step, a new revolutionary culture was being born.
Defiance evolves in fits and starts, fueled by some combination of anger, desperation, revulsion and nonconformity. Only later, often much later, after people have mulled over their mistreatment and considered various ways of overcoming it, does defiance assume a more methodical air. But although developing a plan for defying the status quo makes defiance more likely to succeed than such a plan’s absence, success isn’t inevitable. Consequently, not everyone chooses the road of self-discipline. Instead, they often satisfy themselves with impulsive acts of insubordination that raise provocative questions about society but do little beyond that to change anything.
Still, such people, if their stories are studied closely, can teach us important things.
Consider the story of Thomas Morton, a white man, who rebelled against the Plymouth Plantation’s 17th century leadership. The details of Morton’s allegedly offensive behavior are available to us because they were recorded by one of those leaders, William Bradford, a Plymouth official, in his diary, thereby preserving for the ages Bradford’s rage against the dissenter.
According to Bradford, Morton was a God-insulting heavy-drinking nonconformist who thumbed his nose at local moralists. Branford viewed Morton as a pagan whose heathenism was evidenced when Morton and his crew of similar-minded ruffians erected a maypole and decorated it with vegetation, then danced around it for days, drinking and howling bawdy songs in nonstop celebration of satanic forces. What made matters even worse in Bradford’s eyes was that some of Morton’s fellow partyers were local servants whom Morton had convinced to leave their master and live with him “as equals” so they could all “support and protect one another.” Adding further to Bradford’s revulsion was the fact that, besides these servants, some of the other attendees at the maypole rites were native women with whom the men danced and participated in what Bradford referred to as “worse practices.”
But it wasn’t only Morton’s exaltation of physical pleasure that infuriated colony leaders. He also lacked, in their eyes, an understanding of the colonists’ precarious position as a people attempting to build a religious community on land inhabited by savages. According to officials like Bradford, Morton flaunted his disregard for the basics of colony self-protection by selling guns and ammunition to the natives, then teaching them how to use them. Bradford and other Puritan leaders saw this behavior on Morton’s part as traitorous in that Morton was not only arming a potential enemy force but was also jeopardizing the colony’s food supply by providing natives with the means to kill a greater quantity of game than they had been able to kill prior to owning firearms. In terms of the natives’ possible use of the new weapons in a war-like fashion, Bradford railed in his diary that “it was a terror” for the colonists to meet armed natives in the coastal forests and that “the horribleness of this villainy” was Morton’s responsibility. Unstated but present in Bradford’s and the other leaders’ fury was their belief that Morton, by treating the natives as equals, had dishonored the settlers’ racial solidarity.
Between Morton’s gun sales, his bawdiness, his refusal to accept the leading Puritans’ conception of the true religion, and his willingness to consort with natives, he was derided by Bradford as the reprobate mentor of “all the scum of the country and any other discontents.”
Such an accusation portrays Morton as the architect of a well-planned strategy for toppling Puritan rule. Yet although he was a political opponent of Puritanism even prior to his arrival in the Bay Colony, his behavior among the settlers was driven more by impulse and excessiveness than by an organized plan. A brandy-drinker prone to boisterous behavior, he was a Zorba-type individual who, although he had strong convictions and possessed the intellectual capacity to analyze the flaws in Puritan thinking, also was a riotous fellow who roared after pleasure while pissing on whatever got in his way. A person enamored of what he called “the cadences of the world’s motherly nature,” Puritan morality was of no more use to him than an empty drinking cup or a sensual craving left unfulfilled. So, he was less a methodical rebel than he was, within the Puritan community at least, the embodiment of negation. By sacralizing excess and deifying repudiation he tried to bull his way beyond the familiar and find a way of being that wasn’t dictated by the colony in which he lived. But his efforts cost him. For a racial insider (a white person) like him to break ranks with the budding nation’s white codes was a dangerous enterprise only made messier if you lacked self-discipline. In the end, having left the Puritan community, and having had a chance to spend his declining years in England, Morton instead spent them in the Maine wilderness at the edge of so-called new civilization.
Although not a revolutionary or self-proclaimed opponent of racism, Morton’s life nonetheless exemplified how a white person is treated by white authorities when he/she rejects white-centrism, no matter how unsystematically, in a pre-nation in the process of formulating white supremacist and manifest destiny rationales for its existence.
The narrative of the Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom on the New World’s northeastern coast in Plymouth Colony in 1620 is the nation’s founding myth.
English settlers may have established Jamestown in what is today Virginia 13 years earlier, and Columbus may have located the continent 222 years earlier, but the Pilgrim story possessed allegorical elements that made it more useful than the other events as the first installment of a salvation myth. According to this installment, the U.S. wasn’t just any nation, but had originated, in a sort of political immaculate conception, in the souls of settlers seeking a free and open relationship with God in the New World. This meant that the nation’s history wasn’t merely one more episode in the multi-episode saga of human development, but instead possessed a sacred quality: it was a nation whose evolution was linked to a desire for unity with God.
John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century developed the prototype for how to write in this vein about settlers’ lives on the new continent. According to him, the colonists’ destiny was to win, through their use of superior weapons and their belief in the Christian God, dominion over the lands they expropriated from the indigenous inhabitants, who would then have to look up at them in acknowledgment of their superiority. As Winthrop proclaimed in his essay “Christian Charity: A Model Hereof,” which was used as a preface in the 1996 Harvard University Press edition of his journals, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
And the eyes of the world would indeed soon be upon them. When the settlers visited doom and destruction on the Pequots, a tribe of between one and two thousand people at the time, during the Pequot War of 1637, the colonists took a major step toward fulfilling Winthrop’s prophecy. Having killed nearly half the Pequot population, and having shipped a significant portion of the survivors as slaves to the West Indies, the colonists for all practical purposes extinguished the tribe. Metaphorically speaking, the settlers’ victory, which included the appropriation of native land and the eradication of those who stood in their way, was the equivalent of building an imperial Christian “city upon a hill” — i.e., a white base from which the newcomers would eventually demand to be recognized as the God-ordained rulers of all they saw.