Future Massachusetts Colony governor John Winthrop stated the purpose of the New World quite clearly: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The Colossus by poet Emma Lazarus on the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty
When Donald Trump campaigned to be president in the 2016 election, he used the populist slogan “Make America Great Again” consciously reaching into one of the most powerful myths in the USA’s history that America was destined to be at the forefront of all countries in terms of wealth, status and power. This was, after all, its natural place in the World. It also appealed and united a core base of the American population, especially the rural and urban white working class of America in places as far apart as the coal mining towns of Appalachia to the breadbaskets of the mid-West to the steel towns of Pennsylvania. For these people, the power of “the American Dream” was paramount in what they believed in as Americans and this had defined them not only in the Dream being enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the USA Constitution but even before that in the wealth created in the original Thirteen colonies developed under the first British and European settlers from the early 1600s onwards. Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is the well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence. The phrase gives three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says have been given to all human beings by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect. Trump’s election triumph in 2016 looks less like a curious anomaly in the otherwise upward trajectory of American presidential politics between the Republicans and Democrats when seen in a wider and deeper historical context of the belief that every American will achieve their “happiness” by doing better than the previous generation. It is also worth noting that this is a country built by immigrants and has succeeded because of successive waves of immigrants. Latin Americans crossing the Rio Grande to the land of opportunity are no different from their Eastern European counterparts a 100 years before being processed through Ellis Island epitomising the very words on the foot of Lady Liberty herself welcoming them at the entrance of New York City harbour. This has been the story and the covenant of America since the first British settlers stood in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock over 400 years ago as the first immigrants beginning the great experiment in the New World of creating a land of opportunity.
Like all narratives in history, the flow of American history is not one where the obvious current can be seen clearly from its origins to its present time. Even the slogan Trump used to galvanise his voters in 2016 implies there has been nothing obvious that has set America off its course other than the usual demagogue populist tricks of seeing enemies everywhere and offering simple but unrealistic solutions such as the plan to build a wall with Mexico or re-open the coal mines of West Virginia. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past is not a settled place and movements like the great US civil rights struggle in the 20th century and the subsequent momentum rushing through US society since the 1960s has led to a re-examination of America’s past from the very earliest times to see exactly what foundations the “shining city on the hill” was built upon. This revision of history does not sit comfortably with the sections of American society where for them it is easier for the past to be the past and settled. Many saw the election of the 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama, and the first black president, as the symbol of America’s maturity as a nation and society moving into the 21st century but for many inequalities remained and the narratives of the past still needed to be confronted. Civil War statues of CSA generals and politicians proudly standing outside the fine neo classical public buildings in southern county and state capitals have been brought into question and in some cases covered up or even removed. Michelle Obama herself ruminated that black slaves would have built the White House just at the moment the new democratic republic was proclaiming the rights of man and a new era of liberty and justice for all, the house her daughters lived in for 8 years of their father’s presidency.
Michelle Obama is in a long line of influential First Ladies and powerful American female role models. As different as Melania Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Dolly Parton, Nancy Reagan, Maya Angelou, Jacqui Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B Anthony, Mary Lincoln back to Martha Washington and Hannah Callowhill-Penn who almost singlehandedly set up the colony of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia for her Quaker husband, William Penn in the 1690s/1700s. “Lemonade Lucy”, the wife of President Rutherford B Hayes, a particular favourite, so called because she didn’t serve alcohol in the White House. It is the wife of often over-looked President No 2, John Adams, Abigail Adams, seen as one of the first of a long line of formidable, tenacious and fiercely intelligent American women in public life who have positively helped shape the USA. The Quincy-Adams family, original early c1600s New England farmers from Braintree, Massachusetts, are often seen as the quintessential American success story of hard working, prosperous, wise and committed public servants to the common good. John Adam’s son, John Quincy Adams, went onto become the sixth US President until defeated by the populist Andrew Jackson in 1829. He later served in the House of Representatives and was a fierce slavery abolitionist in the 1830s and 1840s successfully defending the “Amistad” slaves before the Supreme Court. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State, secured the presidential nomination for the Democrats and fought and lost in one of the ugliest, most controversial and unedifying presidential races against the Republicans nominee and party of Abraham Lincoln, reality TV star and tycoon, Donald Trump. Women were not included in the original proclamations of the Founding Fathers but since colonial times through to modern times have played a very full role in the story of America. The year 2016 was a watershed election and the next couple of years with the #metoo scandals illustrating the sordid and abusive world of powerful men in the media, Hollywood, politics and business. A glass ceiling being cracked but still not fully broken in so many areas of American life for women even in 2018. All men, and all women, are created equal.
The story of the modern USA began in two very different and diametrically opposed English colonies on the eastern seaboard settled in the early 1600s. Jamestown was founded in 1607 by a group of merchants and adventurers who made the long voyage across the Atlantic with the dreams and stories of easy gold and trade to be had. What followed was near annihilation. Unlike the earlier Roanoke colony in the 1580s of what is now North Carolina, dogged determination and iron discipline in the face of hostile Native Americans in the Powhatan people, famous for the story of Pocahontas & John Rolfe, and the humid swamp climate of the tidewater estuaries of coastal Virginia, a colony began to thrive in the 1620s based on growing the new cash crops of tobacco and later cotton. Captain John Smith probably responsible for the strong work ethic of all Americans subsequently and self-reliance when he famously announced in the years of struggle of early Jamestown: “He that will not work shall not eat.” The southern colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia soon attracted second sons of aristocrats from the mother country where there was money to be made from cotton, tobacco and sugar cane and a plantation lifestyle based on English-Norman feudalism was on offer. However, with feudalism, you need serfs and settlers from Britain, Ireland and northern Europe came to the New World on the promise of freedoms, a fresh start and their own dreams being realised. Not to be anyone’s serf with a lord and master. Another powerful connection to the American psyche today. They soon pushed into the Appalachian Mountains and astonishingly to this day, their direct descendants can be found and identified through folk songs, dialect and culture going back to the 1600s and 1700s. These proud Appalachian mountain folk would flock to Trump’s narrative and vote for him in droves in 2016. To re-create a feudal plantation aristocracy the labour issue was solved with the immoral slave trade taking people in chains against their will from their homes in Africa, loading them onto over-crowded inhumane slave ships for the long trip across the Atlantic where many died to be sold as animals to masters in the plantations of the southern colonies. This trade in human misery continued into the new republic and was finally stopped by a bloody and violent four-year Civil War. The remarkable wisdom and leadership of the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln, assassinated for his fortitude in stopping the slave trade and holding the two versions of a North/South-rural/urban-industrial/agrarian America together in the Union. Britain, by contrast, had abolished slavery in the Empire thanks to the leadership of William Wilberforce decades before. Despite the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution in the 1860s, the segregation, oppression, terrorising & lynching of black people by the KKK in the southern USA continued over the next 100 or so years deeply ingrained in the political and social attitudes of a country that had liberated itself in the 1770s under the vision of equality for all and the right to pursue your own individual happiness. MLK gave the nation a vision and a dream in 1963 of black and white people living together in harmony and being judged only on their content of their character not their skin colour. This deep fault line in bitter race relations that runs through American society, despite or even more so because of the first black president being elected in 2008, can be traced back to the development of Virginia and Jamestown in 1607. The “White Power” slogans, Alt-Right organisers and the neo-Nazi violence seen at Charlottesville in 2017, home of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, can be traced directly back to colonial Virginia and slavery. President Trump’s refusal to condemn the neo-Nazi crowd marching and claiming that there “were good people on all sides” when a car ploughed into anti-Nazi demonstrators killing a US citizen was seen as a watershed moment in modern America.
The other vision of modern America had another narrative to follow due to the second colony founded in the north in Massachusetts at Plymouth Rock in 1620 by the Pilgrim Fathers. Not merchant adventurers or second sons of aristocrats but protestant puritans who believed that God had granted them this New World to build their better society after escaping persecution in the old World. The “Thanksgiving” story, which is celebrated above all other US national holidays, is a celebration of family, of giving thanks to God for what Americans have and to bring people together. The story may have been lost in its origins from the first Thanksgiving meal but there is a powerful narrative of the Pilgrim Fathers sitting down with the Native Americans and building a New World through cooperation. Unfortunately most Native Americans in the colonies would die from European diseases or be pushed further West as the farms of New England expanded in the 18th century. Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 1630s, believed the Puritans would create their “model society” through industrious hard work, entrepreneurship and keeping their strict religious rules that governed their lives. The Founding Fathers did not commit the new USA to any religion in the Constitution of the 1780s but it is no coincidence that because of the role religion played in the early colonies especially of the north religion is such a cornerstone of modern America. The Second Amendment of the Constitution also has a throwback echo to those colonial days and the struggle on the frontier and with other European settlers, notably the French in the Ohio Valley from their colony in Quebec. It seems odd for non-American society to comprehend the gun issue in US society and how vicious this debate continues to be even when 17 teachers and students are gunned down & killed in a Florida school and a president aware of his NRA support suggests arming teachers as a solution rather than get rid of the guns many think the arcane 2nd Amendment allows them to own as their sacred constitutional right. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was not founded using slavery and the New England farm was about as far removed from the Deep South Plantation as was possible. Yet both these original colonies form a key part of the modern narrative of the USA and understanding these origins is the key to understanding modern America now. The “Puritan work ethic” that is often associated with Winthrop and colonial New England is sometimes associated with the modern USA approach to commerce, industry and especially land and resources. Even in the late 19th century with the continental USA crossed by people, the telegraph and railroad, environmental catastrophes such as the wiping out of the buffalo and not least the wiping out of the Plains Native Americans and those left moved onto reservations as the prairies were now huge farms, the scale of this industrial damage was beginning to be realised. The first national parks were created in this period but the natural resources of America was still seen to be there to be exploited to make money. An attitude that could be found in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock in the 1620s right through to announcements to frack for shale gas in the fragile environments of Alaska in 2018, blowing off mountain tops for coal in eastern Kentucky or the pollution of drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
In the Oval Office of the White House, sitting where his predecessors have sat to carry out the most powerful political office on the planet, Trump is looked down on by the very first President, slave owner and Founding Father, George Washington. Trump has also chosen the seventh President, Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory”, to gaze down from the Oval Office walls, who is seen by historians as the first populist president and outsider – the first six presidents all coming from esteemed colonial families from either Virginia or Massachusetts. Trump may not be that unusual in the grander sweep of US History and it may be worth noting that the very Declaration of Independence and subsequent Constitution written over 200 years ago to give the new USA its mission statement are also the very same documents that were deliberately designed to ensure the shining city on the hill continues to endure even under the most testing of elected US Presidents. “We the People” will always be where America starts and finishes.