When I was a boy, growing up in Trinidad, in the then-British West Indies, America seemed a land not only different but better, admirable, enticing. The nightly Jazz Hour on the Voice of America brought home, like a musical diplomat, the excitement and vitality of this new order of the ages. Officially, of course, we didn't learn much about America except that they spelt things slightly differently. But there was no hostile instruction, either, concerning the former colonies. It was all friendly special-relationship stuff.
It came to pass that my parents moved back to Britain and I immigrated to America in the early 1960s. But I've travelled regularly between America and Britain during the last four lively decades, in recent years spending up to a third of my time "over here."
On a recent visit, I took in military historian Richard Holmes's fourpart documentary on the American War of Independence, broadcast in July on BBC 2. Although I didn't expect the show to boast a script by Tony Blair—reminding viewers of America's historic and ever vital role in the struggle against tyranny and barbarism—I was surprised by the program's relentless assault on America's revolutionary heroes and icons.
This was a show I wanted to like. But whether it was Holmes's intention or not–he isn't an angry man, and his unflagging enthusiasm as a war historian is admirable—he ends up with a fast-paced, good looking, anti-American screed. True, he reminds us continually that war is messy, that there are all sorts of lucky twists and unfortunate turns, terrible accidents, unanticipated consequences, much brutality by both sides, and unseemly betrayals. But, alas, for him that is virtually all there is to the American Revolution.
He begins in Boston. Bostonians in 1770 paid less tax than their British counterparts, and had never had it so good. The origins of the war, therefore, were not the myth of "no taxation without representation" and certainly not the "illusion" that all men are created equal. In good loyalist fashion, Holmes shows that the Boston Massacre was a mere skirmish until the rebel propagandists got hold of it; that the Boston Tea Party was launched by self-serving radicals in the tea business; and that the shots fired at Lexington and Concord weren't by-products of Paul Revere's heroism but of the likely betrayal of British Commander Thomas Gage by his American-born wife, who sent secrets to the patriots. This was a bloody civil war with towns and families split right down the middle. The side you found yourself on depended not on your ideas but on where you lived and which side controlled it—on accident and force, not reflection and choice.
By the end of the tale, we learn that it was not the Americans who won the war, but the British who lost it: the Redcoats were ill-fed, ill-clad, illled, and cut off from American loyalists by the rebels' intimidation and slaughter tactics. Forget the martial skills and prudent statesmanship of George Washington: he relied on LaFayette at Valley Forge, got desperate and lucky at Trenton, and was saved at Yorktown in 1781 only by the timely appearance of the French navy and French troops.
Holmes treats the American rebel fighters, with their use of guerrilla tactics, as proto-Vietcong warriors who fought hard against a well-trained army that failed, however, to win the hearts and minds of the people. Holmes does mention that the ongoing British defeats encouraged an anti-war movement back home in the form of Whig protests, but he doesn't dwell on the content of this protest which, of course, really was pro-republican rather than anti-war.
And what about the much-vaunted Declaration of Independence, particularly the "all men are created equal" clause? Holmes tells us that this certainly didn't include blacks, whose hopes for freedom were dashed with the defeat of the British. It's true, as he points out, that when the British invaded South Carolina, 20,000 slaves, half the population, went over to the British, who had promised emancipation. He takes the word of a current scholar who maintains that the slaves hoped the British would win because they had no illusion that "all men are created equal" applied or ever would apply to them. Nor, Holmes avers, did the clause include the Native Americans who were drawn into the civil war by both sides and whose land the Americans lusted after. And it didn't include the loyalists who were tarred and feathered and who fled to Canada. Somewhat contradictorily, he asserts that, whatever was in fact inspirational about the revolution was betrayed in Philadelphia in 1787, when the Framers created a constitution that was modelled on the old British rule of colonial America, only more efficient.
To a generation that learns history from TV, this BBC production is likely to be an influential interpretation. It will teach unwitting viewers that their former colonies have an odd capacity for self-delusion; that moral principles played little part in the practical affair of creating a great new country, and where they did come into play, were either ignored or betrayed. It was striking, in fact, the extent to which Progressive historiography, a home-grown critique of American iconography, undergirds Holmes's attempt to liberate his audience from American mythology. Though America long ago took leave of her British critics, they apparently have still not achieved independence from us. Fortunately, in America, the writings of J. Allen Smith, Charles A. Beard, and other Progressive debunkers have themselves largely been debunked and refuted. Perhaps Tony Blair should mention this to the BBC.