Bibles & Swords
Spain came to America armed with swords as well as Bibles, the one inevitably followed by the other.
When the Europeans began to come to the Americas in droves they came as conquerers and to convert. When they found out a huge group of people had been untouched by Christianity, naturally they simply couldn’t allow a group of people to worship their own religion without interference.
What the Americas were most useful for during much of the 1500s was exploration, conquest, and searching for fortunes by the non-first born sons of wealthy Europeans who wouldn’t inherit anything of the estate of their parents.
A-ha - my favorite passage of the book. In 1514 the Spanish conquistador turned Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), known as the “Apostle of the Indies”, catalogued with righteous outrage a litany of his countrymen’s atrocities in his “Historia de las Indias” or History of the Indies. Las Casas’s writings paint a picture of what might be called the genocidal colonization of the Americas. This is the only time I can ever remember reading such a sentence, but it is beautiful in its simplicity and frankness. Please forgo the American history that paints educated and civilized Europeans bringing the gifts of their culture to the Native Americans - instead tell us what really happened and few will allow themselves to admit. The Europeans committed genocide because they could - because their technology allowed them military superiority, and because they were so filled with disease that they destroyed the paradise the Native Americans had cultivated for generations.
Christopher Columbus is an American legend. I don’t say hero because little of what you were told about Columbus in school as a child is true.
This is a presentation by a comedian, Robert Wuhl who details in video better than I can write about how Christopher Columbus is a legend sensationalized by Washington Irving, a writer in the 19th Century. The idea that Columbus was somehow trying to prove the Earth was round is a falsehood - educated Westerners had understood the Earth was round since Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC). What Columbus was really trying to do was convince someone you could sail west from Europe and ending up in Asia thus allowing him to bring spices back and SELL THEM faster than anyone else. Well, there just so happened to be a continent in his way, and since he had never been to Asia he had no idea what it looked like so he thought that the Caribbean Islands in habited by Arawaks (A Native American tribe who unfortunately wasn’t more war like) was Asia.
So, basically Columbus is an idiot who disregarded work done by astronomers and other scientists who had theorized at how big the Earth actually was, because he wanted to make money.
So, the Western world/European-nations-in-power-at-the-time-who-had-no-idea-the-Vikings-had-already-been-there “discovered” America, by mistake, for money.
Did I mention that Columbus was awful at conquering? He led five different trips back and forth to the New World and most of them ended poorly - like when on his first trip he left a garrison of 39 men in present day Haiti, who promptly upon him leaving began stealing from the Native Americans and raping women. So, obviously they were killed. If only the Native Americans had been smart enough to kill all the other European settlers who followed.
My favorite part of the Columbus “real” story is that one of his trips ended up with him in chains being returned to Spain! Naturally the King pardoned him upon his arrival, but I still like the idea that perhaps for a time he served some kind of punishment for the pains he would inflict upon the indigenous people of the Americas.
So the next time someone asks you to celebrate Columbus day, merely remark that it’s nice to have off from work (if you even have that) but there is little to celebrate about Christopher Columbus’ life.
Mr. Axelrod starts the book off on a sour note for me.
“Most of the world’s nations are places - places with a past, certainly, and with traditions and a heritage but places nevertheless. The United States is different. It’s a place but it’s also an idea. Sure, democracy was not exactly a new idea in 1776 - the word democracy meaning “government by the people” was coined in ancient Greece but no one had really tried it before. Few people thought it would actually work.”
The audacity of this statement kind of blows me away. Let’s start with the fact that democracy is a greek word for government by the people but they apparently just thought it was a great idea on paper and never tried to install it. That is the actual narrative that he would like you to believe here. Usually when a society creates a word it’s because it’s something that exists to them - democracy existed for the Greeks. They created it. Athens was ruled by a direct democracy where the issues were voted on by it’s citizens.
The Romans also had a democracy. It’s so interesting that Axelrod ignores them, since their system is what the American Constitution is based upon. Instead of a direct democracy voted on by it’s citizens by issues, the Romans installed a Republic with an executive ruled whose term lasted a single year balanced by a legislative group who drew up new laws. A little tweaking and you have the American executive and legislative branches of government.
I don’t understand what Axelrod gains from such a narrative - aside from continuing the idea that America is unique somehow. This is an idea that is given to most American school children - that America is special, unique, better, the best. It’s a fallacy that many cling to in an unhealthy fashion and is merely perpetuated here in what is supposed to be an American history book. How could anyone who writes a history text ignore the entire precedent for the American system?
Apparently Alan Axelrod can.
Alan Axelrod, Ph.D.
According to Wikipedia and several articles available from a quick google search, Alan Axelrod holds a doctorate in English with emphasis on American literature and culture. He’s written numerous books on historical topics. It is inappropriate for someone with a Bachelor’s in History to question why someone with a doctorate in English is writing History books?
I wanted to briefly explain the avatar I have chosen for this blog. Cincinnatus was a Roman politician who spend a period of his life living simply on a farm. Faces with imminent attack from their enemies, the Romans elected Cincinnatus dictator (a title with none of the negative connotation it holds in modern English) without even asking him first. Legend tells of a group of Roman Senators informing the farming Cincinnatus that he had been elected dictator, and the scene has been repeated in glorious form in various mediums.
Simply being elected dictator in such a fashion would perhaps be notable, especially when many other Romans become dictator through more persuasive means. Cincinnatus is unique in that he was elected dictator, carried out the objectives (defense of Rome) given to him by the Senate who elected him, and then immediately renounced his power and returned to his farm. The Romans loved Cincinnatus for the virtue in his actions - and it is a rare story of history where absolute power failed to corrupt.
The American experiment draws much inspiration from the Roman Republic. I have felt that through my study of Roman history I began to understand the realities of America by proxy. The closest American figure to Cincinnatus is the greatly revered George Washington who turned down the title of King at the end of the American Revolution. That was 229 years ago.
I’m currently in school to become a teacher. I have an Associates Degree in Social Sciences, and a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities. I study history. I would like to become a teacher because it’s one of the few practical applications for what I love to read, write and talk about. There aren’t a lot of historians out there with jobs just being historians - you have to find some way to make it relevant for someone to give you money.
I taught my first test lesson last week. I went over the Declaration of Independence with a group of adults at my night class. The theme I wanted them to walk away was the difference between popular accepted history, the version taught in text books, and the realities of what happened. During the lesson I made an erroneous statement and told my classmates that the primary force used by the British during the Revolution was not the redcoat but instead was the Hessian mercenary. They seemed surprised by this gross error in their own education to not know this.
Well, as it turns out, I was wrong. There were 56,000 British Redcoats in the American Revolutionary War, and 30,000 Hessian mercenaries. I realized after checking my numbers that I was severely lacking in American History knowledge. I can speak at length about various military conflicts going back upwards of 2,000 years, but unfortunately the American Revolution is not one of my strong points. I resolved to teach myself, so I went to the store and purchased “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History”. It felt like a good baseline. I have used other books in this series as outlines for use in grade school classes on more specific wars.
As I began to go through the book I found that the history contained within was an interesting mix of repeating the same narrative used in American History textbooks while also notations of the same concept I’d wanted to visit in my lesson: popular history vs real history. I began highlighting sections that I found specifically important and jotting down notes in the margins on what I thought it could do better. I’ve decided to begin publishing these notes, along with better developed thoughts here.