America’s primal myth is about freedom, self-determination, and self-reinvention, about breaking the shackles of history and forging a new identity and life. This is the America of John Winthrop’s City upon a Hill sermon, of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. It is also the America many believe has been undermined by the disastrous administration of George W. Bush.
But in his brilliant What Is America? Ronald Wright traces the origins of America, not to the Puritans’ longing for religious freedom or Jefferson’s democratic ideals, but to the genocidal takeover of the Americas that followed on the heels of Columbus’s voyage in 1492, perpetrated by unsavory figures like Cortés and de Soto. “With the conquests of Mexico and Peru,” Wright claims, “began the accumulation of loot, labour and land that would build the Columbian Age, at first in Europe and then in North America.” America, for Wright, was founded on a rapacious need for expansion.
He effectively debunks the early myth of America as a sylvan wilderness peopled by unsophisticated, nomadic tribes (everywhere de Soto travelled in the mid-sixteenth century, he found settled, agrarian societies that were “populous, hierarchical, ruled by haughty lords who lived on pyramids”), and then moves on through the transformation of the American idea into an empire of singular brutality: the destruction of the American Indian, relentless westward expansion, manifest destiny, and adventures in Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq. Nonetheless, Wright never wholly loses sight of the tragedy of that history, of that empire, now at its end. “The Columbian Age was built on colonial attitudes: on taming the wilderness, civilizing the savage, and the American dream of endless plenty,” he writes. “Now there is nothing left to colonize. Half a millennium of expansion has run out of room.”
Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.