Who is, and isn’t, “us?” Who deserves the protection and support of the community? Who is worthy of trust? Alternatively, who is unworthy, deserving suspicion and violence instead? We answer these questions in stories, songs, symbols and rituals, all the ingredients that come together to form our mythologies.
From Reconstruction to the present, Americans have defined us through a mythology of white supremacy. White supremacy defined America as a white Christian nation. Its arms were more or less open to “lower” peoples as long as they weren’t Black and they acknowledged the supreme position of white culture, working to assimilate into a dominant white culture rather than alter it. That definition of an American identity with its requisite definitions of good and evil held fairly steady until our time. But where did it begin?
History always looks like a straight line. From the perspective of the present, past events appear to fall like steps on a staircase, orderly and seemingly predictable. Sitting today in a world dominated for more than a century by white supremacy, we can see in our earliest colonial history the individual strands which would come together to form this noose. But whiteness and blackness didn’t always have the meaning they carry today. America was not always dominated by a white supremacist ethic, and it need not necessarily be dominated by this mythology into the future.
The story of how America became a white nationalist republic offers lessons for how we might replace that mythology. Its evolution demonstrates how power shapes our perception of the world.
Mythologies of us and them develop around the threats felt by the most influential people in a culture. While slavery was a presence in the colonies from their earliest days, up to the middle of the 18th century the colonies’ most influential settlers felt relatively little concern about African slaves or even native peoples. The mythologies that held the colonies together were still the dominant mythologies of the English homeland and their worried eyes were focused on threats we have largely forgotten.
Rivalries with other European kingdoms were the sharpest danger to white landholders’ power and even their lives. They didn’t see whiteness as a coherent identity around which to organize their communities or the wider world. There were currents of fear aimed at slaves and native people, but those currents only flowed so far, and only occupied limited real estate in the minds of the colony’s most powerful people. Powerful colonists in 18th century New York had little worry that Africans or Native Americans would sail up the Hudson to capture their settlement, replace their government, and take their property. Other European powers which later Americans would define as “white” were the still greatest threat to the colonies’ survival.
Up to about 1760, England wasn’t governing India, didn’t hold substantial territory in Africa or East Asia, and apart from its Caribbean holdings and South Carolina, didn’t hold a large slave population. Mythologies follow power. Dark-skinned people didn’t haunt the imaginations of the wealthiest and most influential people in England and North America. Their greatest worry was consolidating the crown’s still-tenuous hold on Scotland while preventing a European invasion from being launch on their Irish flank. Their most feared enemies were Europe’s powerful Catholic monarchies and those states’ overseas empires.
From about the time of the English Civil War to the late 18th century, England was developing a national mythology that came to be described as Anglo-Saxonism. This was the first unifying ethic of their North American colonies.
A popular pamphlet circulated during the English Civil War in 1647, written by an MP named John Hare, defined this theory of English identity, characterizing the English as a “member of the Teutonick nation, and descended out of Germany.” The feared “other” in this mythology was the Catholic world, especially the Catholics on England’s immediate margins in Ireland and Scotland. It became popular first as a touchstone for efforts to limit the power of the “Norman” Stuart monarchy. It gained even more relevance after 1714, as a means to justify the rise of a German dynasty to the English throne.
Mythologies tend to evolve to address the concerns of the most powerful people in a culture. Those powerful people aren’t always the people you’d expect, kings, bishops and so on. Sometimes they are poets, artists or philosophers, or the affluent class of bureaucrats, generals, merchants and judges who keep the wheels of a society rolling. In the period between the earliest English settlements in North America and the Seven Years War of 1756-1763 (arguably humanity’s first world war), the great bogeyman around which the English built their unifying mythology was Catholicism.
The Anglo-Saxons were viewed as a freedom-loving people, enjoying representative institutions and a flourishing primitive democracy. This early freedom was crushed by the Norman Conquest, and only gradually through the Magna Carta and the subsequent struggles were the English people able to regain their long-lost freedoms.
Anglo-Saxonism defined an “us” that included Protestants across Britain, coming to eventually include lowland Scots. Dutch, German and Scandinavian Protestants were grafted onto this identity. Sitting outside were the Irish and all the Catholic and Orthodox kingdoms of Europe. Mythology follows power, and power in 18th century England and her colonies needed a national identity that would meld the new Protestant states into alliance against their Catholic enemies.
By 1740, this new cultural identity, very broad for the time, was reduced to law in the Plantation Act, which defined the first rules for naturalization of colonists into the kingdom. The Act required only a period of residence and a broad statement of Protestant belief, with no racial exclusions. Special provisions were made to extend citizenship to Quakers and Jews as well. At the time, this was the most liberal and inclusive national mythology anywhere in the world.
That shouldn’t suggest that racism wasn’t a factor in English life, or that Africans could easily assimilate into a British identity. What it means is that blackness and whiteness didn’t define the threat landscape for powerful people involved in shaping the national identity at that time. When 18th century English parliamentarians thought about threats to their world, they weren’t thinking about race as much as religion.
Colonists in North America had their own local concerns which often differed from those of powerful English in the motherland, but they absorbed the dominant mythology. Rumors circulated in Boston in 1732 that a few of the dreaded Irish were secretly hiding a priest and celebrating mass, leading to a wave of panicked arrests. Similar paranoid outbreaks against secret Catholics broke out all over the colonies in the 18th century. Even fears of slave revolts included a Catholic dimension, incorporating accusations (sometimes valid) that slaves were being assisted by Spanish agitators.
Why is this important? Nothing about white supremacy is inevitably or irreplaceably bound up in the American experience. Mythologies evolve to meet changing needs. White supremacy emerged later in the American experience, and across the British Empire, to meet a set of needs that matured in the 19th century, out of strands that had been present earlier. Likewise, we can adapt a successor mythology out of the best ideological strands developed by our predecessors.
This relatively broad national mythology, with its romantic vision of “freedom” would influence the founding mythology of the new United States, but not without competition. North America’s southern colonies were taking a different direction, with a clashing set of priorities, influenced by their shared economic and political ties with the Caribbean plantation colonies.