Week 25: The American Cause
In the 1781-1785 Minute Book for Shenandoah County, there is an odd entry regarding a community member of European descent "being bound over to this County for speaking words inimicable to the American Cause" (p. 11). When he refused to pay the proposed fine, he was thrown in jail.
This situation opens a lot of questions. What was the American Cause? With American independence, colonies were left without a unifying governing body. How would they tackle some of the most pressing issues of the day, such as already deteriorating relationships with the Indigenous Peoples, enslavement of Africans and management of a large class of indentured servants, and defining ways of being for those deemed citizens of this new entity? What of protection and provision, not only for families, but also communities? Governing, like leading a business or a non-profit or any type of agency that draws people together, is a balancing act. Different generations have highlighted different causes and different ways to address challenges often in deeply traumatic moments in time - these haven't always been the same, nor played out smoothly, but at the core of such decisions are human relationships and survival.
In The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Joseph Ellis shares the definition of The Cause as "a conveniently ambiguous label that provided a verbal canopy under which a diverse variety of political and regional persuasions could coexist, then change shape or coloration when history threw choices at them for which they were unprepared" (2021:xii). Even during the time period of this revolution or opposition to change, depending on the perspective, issues of "the end of the property qualification to vote, the expansion of women's rights, a gradual emancipation program to end slavery" (2021:xii) existed and were deferred. The focus was on unity over this single Cause of independence. And the unity was centered on what New Englanders, Virginians, colonists defined as what they were opposed to, not what they stood for. Ellis shares: "prepared to block any hostile takeover from above by any aspiring dictator or domestic version of British tyranny, [America was] incapable of decisive action at the national level to face or resolve the two embedded tragedies of slavery and Native American genocide in slow motion" (2021:325). In many ways the growth of America has been bumbling toward this acknowledgement of what America stands for.
I think it's important to be as informed as one can be about the challenges in the world today. That said, I also recognize that it's just as important to recognize the trajectory of history, because without that understanding, especially as it relates to specific countries, communities, and peoples, it's difficult to know where our various systems need alteration to be more inclusive and more equitable for all citizens. In the case of America, if we define the American Cause based on The Declaration of Independence and the trajectory of our country over the generations as human rights for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," we immediately have to ask: for whom? If it is for all American citizens, the answer would change like a sliding scale according to the historical time period, because of the laws defining citizenship in our country, as well as the social expectations and implicit stereotypes that have developed in even well meaning individuals and communities.
For the enslaved African, did America consider his or her "life, liberty," or "pursuit of happiness" prior to the 13th & 14th Amendments? For Indigenous Peoples, who had known this land long before the first European settlers arrived, did America consider them prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965? For women, prior to the 19th Amendment?
As we have been seeing over the last few weeks in examining the history of the place I know best in America, which is Shenandoah County, Va, without a clear understanding of what has happened here, leaders make poor decisions that distort a community formed for all American citizens, into a sliding scale community still caught up at one point in history with unequal representation and messages that connote biased views on human rights. The vote in July 2020 to retire public schools names that continued to resound the message of the Lost Cause narrative and the stalemate vote in 2022 which kept the new names, were examples in moving toward a community that supports and empowers all American citizens in Shenandoah County, Va - regardless of our differences in ancestry, affiliations, and affinities. The names Mountain View and Honey Run were chosen to create the canopy Ellis mentioned in The Cause - one that brings together "a diverse variety of political and regional persuasions" for our communities.
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SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.