In his disastrous rant about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville President Trump argued that the removal of Robert E Lee’s statue would change history. As usual, the great vulgarian got it wrong. He failed to recognise the difference between history and memory, which is always shifting. Pulling down a monument doesn’t change history but how we
remember it. As a novelist, I am fascinated by historical relativism; the theory that there is no objective standard of truth because the interpretation of data is subject to a host of subjective factors that pertain to the period in which the historian lives.
But what is even more interesting is historical blindness; the myths that countries weave about themselves that stand the test of time, if not of logical analysis. One such is the lasting American belief that they have never sought or possessed an empire. Yet what word but ‘empire’ can possibly describe the United States’ awesome might? It is, after all, the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands, with more than a million soldiers stationed on four continents. Faced with such incontrovertible evidence of territorial ambition, George W Bush could still proclaim that America ‘does not seek an empire.’ When asked to account for his president’s state of deep denial, the acerbic American novelist Gore Vidal diagnosed permanent amnesia. ‘We learn nothing,’ he said, ‘because we remember nothing.’
What Americans do remember is Thomas Jefferson’s famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that are among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Born out of revolution, the United States is the only nation in the world to be founded on a creed. To be American is an ideological commitment; a promise to protect the causes of freedom, democracy and justice. The difficulty comes in maintaining these values while being a world leader, which has led to a great deal of political double-talk in which colonialism is disguised as ‘democratic tutelage.’
Those with a clear view of the past like Yale historian Paul Kennedy consider that America had imperial intentions from the very outset of its history. He dates this back to when the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started to move westward. A century later, the Founding Fathers wrestled with how to reconcile a constitutional republic with the relentless pressures of expansionism and found convenient ways of disguising the truth. In office, President Jefferson promised peace with all nations, no entangling alliances and less military spending but the Sage of Monticello talked very differently in private. On April 27, 1809, one month into his retirement, Jefferson wrote to his friend and successor in the White House, James Madison, about the land deals that might be done with the Emperor
‘He ought to conciliate our good will, as we can be such an obstacle to the new career opening on him in the Spanish colonies, that he would give us the Floridas to withhold intercourse with the residue of those colonies cannot be doubted. But that is no price; because they are ours in the first moment of the first war, and until a war, they are of no particular necessity to us. But altho’ with difficulty, he will consent to our receiving Cuba into our union to prevent our aid to Mexico and other provinces … We should then have only to include the North in our confederacy, which would be of course in the first war, and should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: and I am persuaded no constitution was ever so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.’
The message is clear. Jefferson was ready to go to war to expand America’s borders to include East and West Florida, Cuba and Canada in a United States recently enlarged by the Louisiana Purchase. Stripped of the sublime rhetoric of his public utterances, Jefferson’s letter reveals the cold, calculating heart of an imperialist. Three years later, in another letter, he urged Madison to declare war on Britain with the express intention of seizing Canada.
Feeling that this duplicity should be recognised for what it was, I have made the Madison correspondence a central feature of my novel, The Man Who Lived Twice.