Ernest Renan, a nineteenth-century French philosopher, noted, “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.”
This truth has profound implications, chief among which is that the cultural and political trajectory of a nation is determined not only by its past, but also – and to a greater extent – by the stories it tells itself about its past.
The United States’ founding myth rests on the idea that suppressed Americans fought for liberty against some tyrannical and foreign “other”.
The fact that Americans still enjoy more freedoms in practice than nearly all other citizens on the planet owes much to the good fortune that the one piece of the country’s founding myth that is true happens to be the most important fact about the nation’s founding: that it arose, broadly, out of a fight for liberty. Indeed, thanks to the way the Founders Constituted the nation, America became the freest and richest nation in the world in a very short time. They understood so much that even at the rate at which our civil liberties are presently being impinged upon, we are still ahead of much of the world in our everyday experience of freedom and prosperity, and the average American’s deep sense of entitlement to liberty, by virtue of no more than humanity, means that the Establishment, despite its efforts to concentrate power, still has much hard and covert work to do before it can fully control the citizenry.
But what about the second part of the myth – that American liberty was in some way crafted in opposition to the colonial power that it had shaken off? Not only is that wrong: it is dangerous, because believing American liberty started with our nation’s founding is to remain ignorant of the very tradition of liberty on which our Founders depended when they formed these United States. The United States represent not a rejection of this liberal Anglo-tradition, but a distillation of it.