When I write about speeches that get people really riled up – as part of our research team’s ongoing study of genocide – one of my favorite examples is Slobodan Milošević’s Gazimestan speech. About a million Serbs showed up to hear this 1989 speech, which revitalized a 600-year-old grievance (the Serbian loss at the Battle of Kosovo, against the Ottoman Turks) and led to unthinkable violence (the Serbian “ethnic cleansing” and genocide against their Bosnian neighbors, who had largely adopted the Ottomans’ religion during centuries of occupation).
A 600-year-old grievance! That couldn’t happen here. Right? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old. The first permanent English settlement here wasn’t until 1620. And yet…
Let’s start with today’s partisan polarization. We have the Democrats, affiliated with an “urban elite,” and the Republicans, now dominated by a populist, nativist mindset most thoroughly entrenched in rural communities. And even though we often think of the split as epitomized by, say, New York City and Los Angeles versus “Flyover Country” in the Midwest, it’s also generally understood that the sense of grievance among Trump’s supporters is partly fed by unresolved resentments from the U.S. Civil War. This “Lost Cause” mentality fueled anger against plans to remove commemorations of Confederate leaders, flaring up at Charlottesville and shifting to a new Lost Cause in the January 6 riots.
What I hadn’t realized until reading a post somewhere recently was that the settlement patterns leading up to the North-South split in the U.S. Civil War had essentially mirrored the two sides of the English Civil War. The latter war came about when the English Puritans and their allies (the “Roundheads”) gained control of Parliament and sought to take control of the country from the aristocrats (“Cavaliers”) who supported the king. Meanwhile, in the United States, New England had been settled by Puritans and other religious dissenters, while the plantations in the South were largely owned by those with more aristocratic connections. (Books on this topic include Albion’s Seed by David Fischer and Colin Woodard’s American Nations; here’s an entertaining review and summary of the Fischer book.)
In William Taylor’s Cavalier and Yankee, he explains that at the start of the U.S. Civil War, it was commonly believed that the North had been settled by Roundheads and the South by Cavaliers, leading to two ways of life that came into conflict. (Even to this day, the University of Virginia’s sports teams are “Cavaliers.”) So, if you like, you can connect today’s Democrats with the Roundheads and today’s Republicans with the Cavaliers – although to be fair, we ought to note that the vast majority of English settlers in the South were poor folk working for the aristocrats, not aristocrats themselves. They just got roped into supporting their masters’ cause.
But the storyline goes back even further, as I learned yesterday when I read Political Myth (a 1972 book by Henry Tudor, who was a lecturer at Durham University, not a king of England). Political myths are more or less the same thing as meta-narratives, the topic of my own research. (He’s using “myth” in the scholarly sense, as a foundational belief in story form, not in the everyday sense of something that’s commonly believed but wrong.)
In his book, Tudor mostly focuses on the founding of Rome, but he keeps mentioning another meta-narrative, the Myth of the Norman Yoke. Eventually, he explains. It turns out that the meta-narrative pushed by one Roundhead faction, the rather anarchist Diggers, blamed the 1066 Norman conquest for England’s ails. They believed that Anglo-Saxon England had been fair and egalitarian and that the Normans replaced all that with a tyrannical aristocracy “enslaving” them.
So the same story of conflict has been passed along for generations. Anglo-Saxons versus Normans becomes Puritan Roundheads versus Royalist Cavaliers, which crosses an ocean to become Northern Unionists versus Southern Confederates, which becomes today’s Democrats versus Trump Republicans.
Now, obviously, the U.S. Democrats certainly don’t see themselves as modern Anglo-Saxons, versus U.S. Republicans as modern-day Normans. The identity links have been cut. It’s the Republicans who fear demographic extinction; it’s the Democrats who embrace ethnic diversity and cosmopolitanism. We may still share some of the Diggers’ romanticized view of the Anglo-Saxons – our folk hero Robin Hood is sometimes cast as a Saxon rebel against the Normans, like in Ivanhoe. Yet as one British social commentator points out, neither side was that great.
The successive levels of polarization and grievance, though, traced back all the way to 1066? That’s an amazingly persistent story.
As a Brit, I grew up with the whole “Norman yoke” idea (though having some Welsh blood in me, I was also aware of the Saxons as invaders). I realised how that trope was employed in the Civil War, but hadn’t thought about how it was exported to the American colonies – makes perfect sense.
I’d only thought about it as being relevant for the first few generations after the Conquest, plus whatever literary use it found later – I had no idea it was used as a theme in the English Civil Wars. Given the relatively high education level of the English population over the centuries, though, I should have realized that historical themes would be used to best advantage.