Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2006) by British Historian Simon Schama

Reviewed by Ira Smolensky


Recommended reading for Independence Day


       By the time this is read, Independence Day, 2007, will have come and gone.

       Countless folks will have taken part in cookouts, picnics, firework displays, and other such forms of celebration, most of which are only vaguely related (if at all) to the day’s substantive meaning. 

       Of course, numerous Fourth of July speeches will have been made.

       But few will go beyond the level of clichéd platitudes.

       For the truth of the matter is that Independence Day is not seen by most of us as a day for serious reflection about the past, present, and future of our republic.

       It is seen, rather, as an excuse to party.

       Don’t get me wrong.  I like to party.  I also like fireworks and hamburgers freshly off the grill.

       It’s just that I also think our republic is in dire need of candid deliberation not only about what we do well, but also about the areas in which we fall short.

       Two of these areas are interrelated and obvious to anyone with an open mind.  The U.S. has deeply rooted, debilitating socio-economic inequalities. These inequalities are linked, in turn, to our long history of race bias.

       This assessment should not really be controversial. 

       Indeed, our current President, a self-identified conservative, launched No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in response to this grim reality.

        And, so, I will be spending Independence Day reading a book about the American Revolution that zeroes in on the inegalitarian and racist part of our heritage.

       In Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2006), British Historian Simon Schama tells the sad story of how slavery played a role in the quest for American Independence.  Much to our shame, it was the Americans, purported believers in “inalienable” God-given rights, who played the role of slavery’s defenders.  The British, on the other hand, became the promoters of emancipation.

         Of course, the motivation of the British was largely to gain leverage in their struggle against the wayward colonies.  Nor did the results do much to help slaves.  Since the colonies won out, the promise of emancipation was an empty one for most slaves.  Those who did escape bondage by reaching the British lines ended up in less than stellar conditions in the inhospitable wilds of Nova Scotia or back in Africa as guinea pigs in the half-baked political experiment that was Sierra Leone.

       Still, the truth remains that, rather than extending freedom to all Americans, the War for Independence actually solidified slavery and laid the foundation for the virulent inequalities that still plague us.

       Lest I be accused by folks like Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter of undermining and even hating America, let me say right up front that I honestly believe the Bibical injunction that the truth will set us free.  It is, thus, out of love for my country that I seek to understand the full depth of our sinfulness.  How can we make ourselves better when we are afraid to look ourselves full in the eye?

       For example, it may well be that a program like NCLB is doomed to failure if we do not look at the psychological ramifications of our exclusionist past.

       Can children whose forebears were treated like second-class citizens (or worse) and whose current socio-economic surroundings strongly infer the same message of inferiority really be expected to routinely make full use of their academic faculties? 

       Put more simply, can we get children to learn who, on some deep level, have been prevented from believing in themselves?

       I am optimistic that we can, indeed, meet the challenge if we have a profound understanding of who we are and the nature of the problems we face. 

       By offering a candid look at our past, books like Rough Crossings help to give us a more secure handle on the future.

       I therefore recommend that reading such books become a prominent part of our Independence Day celebrations.

       Just think of them like firecrackers, only you get more bang for your buck.