The American Experience: 1630-1890: A Collection

- by Bruce E. McKinney


Bigelow's Botary paid for the Austin Healey

Through the 17th century the focus was on establishing ownership via narrative. To look at early maps you might think the territories described had been explored but mostly they hadn't. An expedition west across North America on foot or by canoe and a ship coasting the American western shore, both provided only faint suggestion as to what lay between. Nevertheless flags, that could not be planted in person, were staked on maps and disparate places confirmed as colonies by competing realms in exchange for acknowledgment of their similarly grand claims, the "I'll trade you my Boardwalk for your Pacific and Pennsylvania." "I don't know what to call this continent but I claim it." The American Experience traces evolving hope and aspiration as it hardens into knowledge.

When Europeans came to settle these territories they brought three things, disease, perception and ambition. Their immunity to small pox in short order emptied both North and South America of most of its indigenous populations. Guns were hardly necessary. Immune systems that had never experienced small pox collapsed in its wake. Those who survived saw their communities decline. Where they cooperated they were often enslaved or at minimum, marginalized. In the empty space of the new world that emerged though the narratives of successive explorations and colonization the principal export from Europe, and import into the new world became the ideas that germinated into wildly new mutations. Religion, straight-jacketed in Europe, would explode into a thousand variations. Poisonous class and racial ideas would in some places be planted and became impossible to eradicate. In other areas tolerance took hold.

Along the way fear and avarice were sometimes coachmen on the wagons moving west. History wasn't always pretty but it could be cleaned and often was. It turns out historical memory has always been a suspect thing. The colonies rebelled but only landed white men could vote. Woman and slaves existed but just below the story line. In time we would remember that slavery ended but ignore that it had existed. In the post Civil War south the black was re-enslaved for another one hundred years under the rubric of Jim Crow. But never mind. If slavery was once the accepted standard we instead remember that it ended. If women were repressed and subjugated we remember they won the right to vote in 1920. If blacks were harried, suppressed and held in temporal bondage in the south and later corralled into circumscribed spaces in the north we choose instead to remember Martin Luther King. In doing this we remember our achievements but also distort the past. It's not wrong to remember heroes but it is a mistake to misremember history.

The American story is a difficult tale and its original source material the records that confirm its complexity, an extraordinary story but one told as often in omission as in declarative sentences. It is a mind-numbing indictment that reality is, and always has been, mostly a bystander when history has been written.