Why are some people so ignorant about history?

Thomas Sowell is a highly educated political pundit, with an AB from Harvard, an AM from Columbia and a PhD from the University of Chicago, all in Economics. So why is he so ignorant about History? A recent column, part of which is quoted here, is a shining example of the way in which expertise in one field does not necessarily translate to comparable knowledge about other subjects. Rather ironic when one writes that one is “schooling” an opponent and proceeds to make statements that are easily shown as untrue.

Schooling Time mag on the Constitution
Posted: June 28, 2011
1:00 am Eastern

© 2011

The Fourth of July may be just a holiday for fireworks to some people. But it was a momentous day for the history of this country and the history of the world.

Not only did July 4, 1776, mark American independence from England, it marked a radically different kind of government from the governments that prevailed around the world at the time – and the kinds of governments that had prevailed for thousands of years before.

The American Revolution was not simply a rebellion against the king of England, it was a rebellion against being ruled by kings in general. That is why the opening salvo of the American Revolution was called “the shot heard round the world.”

Autocratic rulers and their subjects heard that shot – and things that had not been questioned for millennia were now open to challenge. As the generations went by, more and more autocratic governments around the world proved unable to meet that challenge.

Some clever people today ask whether the United States has really been “exceptional.” You couldn’t be more exceptional in the 18th century than to create your fundamental document – the Constitution of the United States – by opening with the momentous words, “We the people …”

Those three words were a slap in the face to those who thought themselves entitled to rule and who regarded the people as if they were simply human livestock, destined to be herded and shepherded by their betters. Indeed, to this very day, elites who think that way – and that includes many among the intelligentsia, as well as political messiahs – find the Constitution of the United States a real pain because it stands in the way of their imposing their will and their presumptions on the rest of us.

Explanation for why I write — Dr Sowell is ignorant about history:

1) “July 4, 1776, mark(s) American independence from England”
No, it doesn’t. It marks the day on which the Declaration of Independence was signed but actual separation and independence from England came only following a little matter we today know as the American Revolutionary War. A war that the Thirteen Colonies would not have won without the assistance of France, Netherlands and Spain. True independence from Great Britain came only with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

2) “it marked a radically different kind of government”
No, it didn’t. In Iceland, the Althing had been meeting since 930 CE as an assembly of all “free men” once a year to discuss and formulate new laws, you know that democracy ‘thing’. Speaking only of the British tradition, Dr Sowell seems to have forgotten a document known as the “Magna Carta” which was the beginning of restraints on the monarchy that eventually culminated in a democratically elected Parliament. He does get a bit of a pass when he uses the word, “prevailed”. Certainly, autocracy was the dominant form of government in the world but it was not the only form of governance, even in the 18th C. At the time of the American Revolution, King George III was not a dictator, Parliament actually ran the country.

3) American Revolution was not simply a rebellion against the king of England, it was a rebellion against being ruled by kings in general
This is a commonly held belief but still wrong.
Stubborn Washington Spurned Kingdom

Then there is the matter of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charles) being offered the “kingship of America” on at least two occasions; once during the Revolution by a group of businessmen from Boston and also after the British defeat at Yorktown but before the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

It wasn’t the concept of monarchy that the Founding Fathers opposed, it was rule by an autocratic, dictatorial governing body located in a distant land that they fought against. The American Revolution came about primarily, but not solely, because governance by a distant body – Parliament – meant control by an institution that could not readily respond to changing circumstances in America and could not easily understand the needs and desires of a distant population. Most Americans of the 18th Century would have accepted an American monarch working with a democratically elected Parliament that actually ran things.

4) “You couldn’t be more exceptional in the 18th century than to create your fundamental document – the Constitution of the United States – by opening with the momentous words, “We the people …”

Those three words were a slap in the face to those who thought themselves entitled to rule and who regarded the people as if they were simply human livestock”
Yes, they were “exceptional words” but then they really didn’t apply at that time to all the “people” living in the Thirteen States but only to those white males who owned property; in other words, the “free men” of the country.

Sure, the “three words were a slap in the face” to autocrats of the day but King George III wasn’t one of those autocrats, nor was Adolf Frederick of Sweden who also worked with a strong Parliament at the time of the American Revolution. Then there was the Dutch Republic (1581 to 1795) whose Constitution had some influence on the framers of the US Constitution: see Federalist Papers #20

Louis XIV of France did however believe in the “divine right of the king” and could be seen as one of those autocrats who treated his subjects as “livestock”, yet without the aid of the French monarchy it is very likely the American Revolution would have failed.

Update: As one can read in the comments, I made a mistake in the previous paragraph. Conflating Louis XIV and his political beliefs with the actions of the French government during the reign of his grandson, Louis XVI.

Louis XIV was one of the last European monarchs to believe in the “divine right of kings”, to hold that a monarch held absolute power over his people. His grandson, Louis XVI, held very different views and felt that a king should listen to his subjects, that a monarchy should be ruled in collaboration with a council of his subjects, a parliament. Although France’s support of the American Revolution could be seen as a furtherance of this new idea of collaborative governance, it must also be viewed as a continuation of a centuries-old conflict between two nations – England and France.

However, Louis XVI’s concept of collaborative government wasn’t quite as democratic as it might have been, as might be gathered when one reads the complaints of the French people during their revolution

Political power games often bring together forces that should be on opposite sides. A common enemy can make for strange alliances. At the time of the American Revolution, the system of political rule in Great Britain was much closer to that desired by the Revolutionaries than the systems found in their two major allies, France and Spain.

5) “…many among the intelligentsia, as well as political messiahs – find the Constitution of the United States a real pain because it stands in the way of their imposing their will and their presumptions on the rest of us.”

Ooh ooh – dog whistle! Who do you think is being called a “political messiah” by his opponents?

The poor, poor conservative thoughtful types — so oppressed and their speech is just censored all the time! (insert sarcasm gif here). Tell me Dr Sowell, just which group is it that wants to place a symbol of its religion in or on all government buildings? Which group is it that is supporting the monopoly of the broadcast media by those who support conservative ideology? Which group is it that wants a matter of religious belief taught in science classrooms? Which group is it that believes money is ‘free speech’?

In conclusion, may I say that I think Dr Sowell should get out of his office and go into a classroom to study a bit of 18th Century history.

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5 responses to “Why are some people so ignorant about history?

  1. Pingback: A war of independence that leads to the same behaviour. How the US was lost. A David Swanson article | ikners.com

  2. Pingback: Maliha Happy 4th of July !! « malihaexposed

  3. I have to agree, I’ve always been very reluctant to use the term ‘revolution’ with regards to the break away of the American colonies from British rule – and none of the Monarchs of 18th century Europe wielded ‘absolute power’ and the Monarchical system itself could hardly be referred to as a ‘dictatorship’ or even as a consistently ‘autocratic’ system of government. Much like the US President a Monarch was subject to a number of conditions and limitations that established his/her legitimacy and restricted his/her power and was required to negotiate with various elements of local government – the Dutch are an excellent example (as you indicate) revolting against Philip II (Spanish-Hapsburg) with success and against Joseph II (Austrian-Hapsburg) when he attempted to rescind their age-old constitutional privileges (this revolt was in fact coterminous with the French Revolution). Indeed if as is claimed the break away of the colonies was viewed as a ‘slap’ in Europe why would (as you point out) Louis XVI have bankrupted the French coffers in support of it? I would also question the unlikely thesis that the break away of the colonies begun in 1776 exerted any sort of preponderant influence over the truly radical, violent revolution of 1789. Historical development is slow and steady.

    Anyway agree with you but you might want to correct one small error – I think you may mean Louis XVI when you refer to the support given by the French Monarchy, as Louis XIV though certainly the most ‘autocratic’ in style of the French Monarchs died in 1715. Louis XVI being his great-grandson.

  4. peterkiernan You’re right. I did mess up the statement about Louis XIV and Louis XVI

    I meant to emphasise that #XIV was one of the last of Europe’s monarchs to believe in the divine right of kings while his grandson #XVI, although he didn’t hold such a belief was still “tarred with the same brush” as his grandfather.

    Looking at what I wrote, it is now obvious to me that I ‘misplaced’ most of what I meant to have as an explanation.

    Thanks for calling it to my attention – I’ll have to do an update.

  5. Understood – I could tell from how it was written that that was the intention.

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