The debate over American iconography between the politically correct left and the patriotically correct right leaves out an essential factor—the sheer weirdness of the New World. We in the countries of the Western Hemisphere, North and South, are living in the ruins of various ambitious projects undertaken by long-dead people, many of whom were batshit crazy.
Let’s start with Christopher Columbus. At the moment the woke left is devoted to the damnatio memoriae of the former icon of the Italian American diaspora on the grounds of his brutal enslavement of Native Americans. But atrocities like his were committed by countless other Europeans and Euro-Americans, to say nothing of Native Americans themselves in the 13,000 years before the first contact between the Old World and the New.
What makes Columbus memorable is not his all-too-common brutality but his epic confusion. Euro-American civilization began with a mistake.
Columbus went to his grave stubbornly believing that the Americas were islands near Japan and China, like Taiwan or the Philippines. Moreover, during his first voyage, in a diary note of Dec. 26, 1492, he wrote of hoping to acquire enough gold and spices in what he thought would be Southeast Asia “in such quantity that the sovereigns ... will undertake and prepare to go conquer the Holy Sepulchre; for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.”
Columbus hoped that, while obtaining goods that could be sold back in Europe to pay for an anti-Muslim crusade in the Middle East, he might have opportunities to convert some of the Asians he would encounter to Christianity: “Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes, lovers and promoters of the Holy Christian Faith, and enemies of the false doctrine of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, you thought of sending me, Christóbal Colón to the said regions of India to see the said princes and the peoples and the lands, and the characteristics of the lands and of everything, and to see how their conversion to our Holy Faith might be undertaken.”
To this end he not only took blank letters of greeting from Ferdinand and Isabella to any Asian princes or “khans” he might encounter, but also brought along an ex-Jewish converso named Luis Torres who spoke Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic, in the hope that individuals at the courts of Eastern potentates might know one of those languages. When Columbus landed in Cuba he sent Torres and another crew member with some Native American guides to present the local king or kings with letters and gifts from “the sovereigns of Castile,” according to Carol Delaney in a wonderful essay titled “Columbus’s Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem.”
Like many of us in the New World today, Christopher Columbus had no idea what he was doing. The story of Columbus is the tale of a colossal blunder committed by a religious fanatic with world-historical consequences. An honest biopic about Columbus would be a mashup of Man of La Mancha and Aguirre, Wrath of God.
The Puritans in their mission in the wilderness of New England were just as deluded. Like Columbus, they believed that they were central actors in the unfolding of a divine plan. In their version, they were guardians of the pure, reformed, Calvinist version of Christianity. Persecuted in the Old World, the true church could take shelter in the New, provided of course that Satan and his agents like witches and heretics could be exposed and defeated. Like Columbus, the Puritans believed that history revolved around Jerusalem; the New World was a secondary theater of action.
Most of the founders of the Jamestown colony, in contrast to Columbus and the Puritans, were not motivated by religious fervor. They were just greedy. The Virginia project was an essentially commercial enterprise involving members of the British gentry and the middle class for whom the plantation in North America was a place to get rich quickly, while getting others to do the work. When their original plan of enlisting Native Americans to toil for them fell through, the Virginians tried importing British indentured servants (including some of my earliest American ancestors) as their serflike labor force. But it was too easy for white indentured servants to run away and blend in among other European colonists, so the Virginians eventually adopted the institution of African and African American chattel slavery from the older Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas.
The next grandiose project of European Americans in North America was a more or less secular one. Because of the persistent strength of New England Congregationalism, Enlightenment deism and neoclassical republicanism found much of its support among the religiously lax Anglo-American gentry of the Southern colonies and states. For the Southern elite, the Anglican (later Episcopalian) church was a social club; only vulgar, lower-class troublemakers like some of my Methodist ancestors took religion seriously. In addition to promoting the separation of church and state, Thomas Jefferson spent part of his time in the White House piecing together his own secularized edition of the New Testament with the miracles left out (American presidents did not have as much to do in those days).
Like Columbus and the Puritans, the votaries of the Enlightenment among the Founders believed that they were living at a turning point in world history. But in their secular version of providentialism, barbarous versions of Christianity would be replaced by a more enlightened version of the Christian religion or perhaps deism. Jefferson hoped that Christianity in the United States would be replaced by Epicurean naturalism.
Jefferson reconciled his pseudoscientific belief in Black inferiority with his enlightened belief in universal human rights by advocating the colonization of freed slaves abroad, a policy supported by his fellow Southern slaveowners James Madison and Henry Clay and given at least lip service by Clay’s disciple Abraham Lincoln well into the Civil War. Liberated from slavery and “voluntarily” deported to new homes in Liberia or elsewhere, African Americans would be replaced by European immigrants sailing in the opposite direction—to their new homes in an all-white United States of America.
While the appalling project of African American expulsion via colonization did not survive the Civil War, the U.S. maintained its white-only immigration regime from the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person,” to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which established a system of nonracist national quotas and other categories. That only people of European descent could be “real” Americans was the consensus of most white American populists, progressives, conservatives, and liberals until a couple of generations ago. If all the statues and portraits of racists who lived before the Civil Rights revolution are taken down, no white Americans will be left in the U.S. pantheon at all, except for a handful of abolitionists and Quakers.
America’s history of white nationalism is often described as a betrayal of the ideals of the American Founders, but this assumes that the major Founders intended for the United States to be a multiracial and mixed-race democracy. They did not. Instead, they took it for granted that the future population of the United States should be descendants of British settlers, plus a few of the right sort of Europeans, chiefly Northern and Western Europeans, who could blend in.
This assumption was reflected in the original design for the Great Seal of the United States proposed by a committee made up of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who had been appointed by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Some of the symbols that they recommended have survived in American iconography, like “the Eye of Providence in a Radiant Triangle” and the motto “e pluribus unum” (from many, one).
The committee also recommended that the Great Seal should depict images of the goddesses of Liberty and Justice holding a shield between them. In the center of the shield, surrounded by the initials of the 13 original states, would be six heraldic designs, representing the Western European ethnic nationalities who, in the judgment of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, made up the American people:
The Shield has six Quarters, parti one, coupé two. The 1st. Or, a Rose enamelled gules & argent for England: the 2d Argent, a Thistle proper, for Scotland: the 3d. Verd., a Harp Or, for Ireland the 4th. Azure a Flower de Luce Or for France the 5th. Or the Imperial Eagle Sable for Germany: and the 6th: Or the Belgic Lion Gules for Holland pointing out the Countries from which these states have been peopled.
The message could hardly have been clearer: The American nation was a melting pot of English, Scots, Irish, French, German and Dutch immigrants and their descendants. Persons of Native American and African ancestry were left out, along with the rest of humanity and, curiously, the Welsh.
Before the American Revolution, in his essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (1751), Franklin had observed that:
the number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the newcomers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people?
Ben Franklin’s jest that alien astronomers gazing from Mars or Venus might be pleased if myriads of palefaces brightened the albedo of the Earth’s Western Hemisphere deserves an honored place in the museum of American batshit craziness.
Notwithstanding Franklin’s earlier crack about “swarthy” Germans (and Swedes!) and the French, he, Adams, and Jefferson in 1776 were inclusive enough to propose heraldic symbols for the Latin French and the Celtic Scots and Irish, along with the Germans, in the Great Seal of the United States. Many Anglo-Americans at the time and later had their doubts about these nationalities, however.
In 1921 then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who favored restricting the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the United States, published an essay in Good Housekeeping titled “Whose Country Is This?” The future president wrote: “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides.” You have to keep an eye on those Swedish-Irish hybrids, like the late Charles Nelson Reilly.
In any case, the committee’s design for the seal was rejected. Congress ultimately adopted the present design that depicts a pyramid with the Eye of Sauron on one side and a squashed eagle on the other, thus depriving the woke iconoclasts of our day of the pleasure of signaling their virtue by vandalizing the Great Seal of the United States.
Jefferson failed to win adoption of his own, even kookier alternate design for the Great Seal, which would have depicted Moses leading the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt on one side of the seal (thanks to Ben Franklin), and, on the other, the brothers Hengist and Horsa, two Saxon mercenaries who around 455 CE invited their tribe to invade and conquer Britain after they betrayed and murdered their British employer, a Celtic warlord named Vortigern. Like 18th-century English Whigs, Jefferson attributed Anglo-American freedom to the “Saxon liberty” that was supposed to have flourished before the imposition of “the Norman Yoke” of feudalism on England following the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066.
The sage of Monticello considered the Anglo-American colonization of North America to be the second westward migration of the Saxon tribe, the settlement of the British Isles by Teutons after the fall of the Roman Empire having been the first. This theory of history explains Jefferson’s batshit crazy description of the barbarian warriors of the Dark Ages whom he nominated for commemoration on the Great Seal of the United States as “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
To many in the 21st century it seems odd that an American philosophe like Jefferson could preach enlightened republicanism, whether Greco-Roman or Anglo-Saxon, while enjoying the aristocratic prerogatives of a rich slaveowner, buying and selling (and bedding) his human chattel. But the landlord classes of the Americas—Southern planters, Dutch patroons of the Hudson River valley, French-Canadian seigneurs, Mexican haciendados, Brazilian fazendeiros—have sometimes found it useful to espouse ultramodern imported European ideologies, while exploiting the unfree labor of lower classes and castes of various origins.
For example, when an upperclass faction in Brazil deposed Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared that Brazil was a republic in 1889, its members borrowed the slogan “Order and Progress” as the national motto from the positivism of Auguste Comte. Positivism is largely forgotten today, but in the 19th century it was a secular religion almost as influential as Marxism became in the 20th. Comte (1798-1857) coined the term “sociology” and went on to found the Religion of Humanity, of which he was high priest and prophet, a cult with its own pseudo-Catholic priesthood and its own positivist temples from France to Brazil, where it found followers in the elite.
In the same way that the First Republic of the United States, from the Founding to the Civil War, was dominated most of the time by Southern slaveowners who diverted attention from the most brutal form of labor exploitation with inspiring rhetoric about republican liberty, so the First Brazilian Republic, using imagery from the positivist Religion of Humanity, was controlled from the 1890s until the 1930s by the “café come leite” or “coffee with milk” oligarchs of São Paulo (coffee) and Minas Gerais (dairy).
There is no moral to this story, except perhaps the statement by James Joyce in Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
All of us who call the Western Hemisphere home—old stock or immigrant, Native American or white, African American or Asian American, Mexican mestizo or Brazilian pardo or Canadian meti—live in countries littered with the ruins of various failed schemes promoted by long-dead Europeans and European settler elites. Their visions of the future included the reconquest of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire by Counter-Reformation Catholic crusaders, the regeneration of humanity by Calvinist evangelism from its headquarters in New England, the creation of a racially pure, all-white United States that exemplified neo-Roman republicanism or revived Dark Age Saxon liberty, and the foundation of a Brazilian republic inspired by the pseudoscientific ideology of a 19th-century French crackpot. None of these zealots and empresarios and revolutionaries—neither Christopher Columbus, nor Cotton Mather, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor Brazil’s “Humanity Apostle” Raimundo Texeira Mendes—intended for our present to be their future.
Their failures leave us with a choice. We can tear down all that they left behind and curse them for their delusions and crimes. Like the prosecutors of the Cadaver Synod that took place in 897 CE, when the corpse of the late Pope Formosus was dug up and brought to court in Rome, we can put the dead on trial. Or we can recycle some of the rubble and build the best societies we can right here and right now—bearing in mind that the North and South Americans of the future may believe that we were batshit crazy, too.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.