Before starting this book review let’s understand what the featured picture of this dispatch represents. John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts, presented this flag after the war to a company of black soldiers for valor. We know little about the Bucks of America; they were among the thousands of black Revolutionary patriots. The initials, JGWH, are the initials of Governor Hancock’s son, John George Washington Hancock.
In 1943, author Rose Ingalls Wilder published a non-fiction book, The Discovery of Freedom with the subtitle “Man’s Struggle Against Authority.” She lived from 1886 to 1968, and was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She is widely considered a silent collaborator on the Little House On the Prairie TV series. A PDF format copy of this entire book can be downloaded here.
The title suggests a lengthy subject, the course of man’s struggle against authority and the discovery of freedom spanning more than 6,000 years of history. Her book is only 278 pages, but she does an excellent job of explaining better than current non-fiction writers, the importance and meaning of American Exceptionalism. The world today is much different than it was in 1943. Then Europe was burning from Hitler’s blitzkrieg, and today the Muslim world is burning from al Qaeda terrorism. However, some philosophical analysis about human behavior is timeless.
The book is divided in a prologue, part one, and part two. The prologue is a defining of the situation of human conditions. She asks the following questions:
Part One describes the Old World in terms of polytheism, communism, living authority, and government planned economies that all accounted for why there was slow or nonexistent improvement in human living conditions. Part Two describes three examples of revolutionary struggles against authorities.
The first attempt is Abraham rebelling against the polytheists near ancient Babylon, and gathering followers to his belief in only one God as he migrated away from Babylon to modern day Syria. Many of his descendants were captured by Egyptians and lived as slaves until Moses freed them from Egypt. They lived in the desert wilderness of the Sinai for 40 years with Moses persuading them to lose their slave mentality for the discovery of freedom to rely on their individual work efforts and independence for survival instead of dependence upon a master.
The second attempt is Mohammed rebelling against the polytheists in Mecca. He gathered followers to his monotheistic belief in nearby Medina, and his armies successfully defeated the Meccans who despised him for rebelling against their authority. The living conditions of the Arab people who followed Mohammed were an improvement from before with polytheists authorities.
The third attempt (third time is a charm) is the colonists in the 13 English colonies in America rebelling against English King George III. This is my favorite part of this book. Below are some excerpts; there are many great passages, and you should read the entire book.
To the scandalized French, the people in the English colonies seemed like undisciplined children, wild, rude, wretched subjects of bad rulers. Their villages were unplanned, their houses were scattered, they did not cultivate the land in common (though the towns did have communal pastures); their harvests were not equally divided, and they were always quarreling with each other and with the Indians. Their settlements split into factions; rebels left them and made other settlements. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf, in 1750, “Bostonian” meant what “Bolshevik” meant in this country twenty years ago. These unmanaged settlements all grew much more rapidly than the French and Spanish settlements. They grew so rapidly that in a hundred and fifty years they numbered more than a million persons, and the rate of population-growth was rapidly increasing.
Then a conscientious King, the first in generations, came to the British throne. With Germanic thoroughness, he worked hard to establish a good social order in England and in the colonies.
All the brilliant French intellectuals, then clamoring for the Rights of Man, profoundly admired George the Third. They praised his government as the best of all possible governments. And anyone must agree that an economy could not be more intelligently planned by any living Authority.
King George’s Government restricted emigration to the colonies, and stopped any expansion of settlement in America by strictly excluding the colonists from the Ohio country, which England had just taken from France by the French and Indian wars. This action also reserved the western Mississippi valley, forever, to the Indians who supported the valuable fur trade.
The colonies were to be permanently agricultural; industry was kept in the small, home island; and shipping was provided with the triangular voyage between England, the West Indies, and the American Atlantic ports.
The planned economy’s thoroughness included even the pine trees. The King’s men went through the American forests, marking the best pines, reserved for the Royal navy and merchant marine. This reasonable action so infuriated the colonists that they not only stole the King’s pines whenever they could, but they made the pine tree stand for liberty. The Pine Tree flag flew from the masts of America’s fighting ships through all the years of the first war for the Revolution.
Europeans could not understand it. Why, for instance, should anyone object to the Stamp Tax? a small, suitable tax put upon every required legal document. And when the King’s troops moved in to restore order, a rabble rose in arms. The dregs of the lower classes stood up and fired on the British Regulars.
So nothing in history, or on earth, is more valuable than an individual who knows that men are free. America began with a few hundred thousand of them. Only a few hundred thousand, then, but never before had individuals acted without a leader. These first Americans did not need a Fuehrer. They had no use for a shepherd; every one of them knew he was not a sheep. He had learned what reality is, from experience.
As human material, they were nothing to brag about. The colonists were the rag-tag and hobtail of Europe. No statue of Liberty stood in New York harbor, saying to Europe, “Send me the wretched refuse of your teeming shores,” but that was precisely what Europe sent. Starving wretches lucky to escape debtors’ prisons, vagrants from highways and slums who sold themselves to slavery for years to pay for their steerage passage across the Atlantic, peasants shipped like cattle, shiploads of hungry women and girls without dowries, auctioned in the ports to settlers who needed
In America these failures, outcasts and refugees came up against the actual human situation on this earth. The colonist could not help knowing that nothing whatever but human energy, attacking this earth, can keep any man alive. He could not afford the illusion that anyone or anything outside himself controlled him. He had to know that he was responsible for his own life; if he did not save it, nothing would.
So when British Government tried to control them, they ignored it. To them the King’s mark on a tree was only a mark; if they needed the tree, they used it. When Government stopped weaving in the colonies, weaving did not stop; women went right on working at their looms. When the King controlled trade, he did not control it; the colonists went right on trading.
Individuals began this Revolution. No one knows who began the American Revolution by firing the first shot heard round the world. Only his neighbors ever knew him, and no one now remembers any of them. He was an unknown man, an individual, the only force that can ever defend freedom.
The unknown Americans, the farmers, sailors, craftsmen, frontiersmen, who were driven by the necessity to live on this bare earth, broke loose from the economic “controls” that restricted their energies; they fought the feudal social order until they brought the British Regulars to America to subdue them. Then the American gentlemen—workers, themselves, who knew reality—accepted the destruction of social order here, and pledged their lives for the Revolution.
The French intellectuals lived on aristocrats, while writing books and plays to undermine the aristocrats, and looking for the Enlightened Despot who would establish the Age of Reason.
All this intellectual world was far above the heads of most Americans. Educated men were reading Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Chateaubriand, all along the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence and in all the British possessions, but the uncultured tradesmen, farmers, sailors, hunters, read practically nothing but almanacs, small-town papers, and the Bible.
Young Americans who have known nothing but this new world, naturally take it for granted. They see a great deal that is wrong in it; they can very easily imagine a better world. So can any honest person. The eternal hope of humankind is in the eternal human desire to make this world better than it is. But when they imagine that a control exists, or can exist, which can be used over individuals, to make a better world according to any plan, they are falling into the ancient delusion that Hitler now has. They are listening to Europeanminded Americans who never have awakened from that delusion.
Two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, people lived in caves in France and Spain. People are still living in caves in France and in the Spanish Pyrenees. The cliffs of Chinchilla have always been inhabited. The pottery workers at Coria live in holes in the hanks of the Guadalquivir, without windows or floors. In Italy, and in Greece, and in many places in France, human beings are still living underground.
When American Red Cross workers went into the Balkans after the first World War, they found families living in a clay bank in Montenegro’s largest city. They were horrified. So was I. I wrote a piece about those homeless victims of war that should have wrung dollars from the stoniest American pocketbook. Only, before I finished it, I went back with an interpreter to give some first aid to those miserable refugees. My sympathetic questions bewildered them. They were living as they always had lived, in their ancestral homes.
I should not have been surprised. Sixty-five years ago my own mother was living in a creek-bank in Minnesota, and it was not necessary then to say that her father was an upstanding, self-respecting, leading citizen of the community. Living underground was nothing unusual; less than sixty years ago, American families were living in dugouts all over the prairie States.