Remembering 1519

The start of the school year always means the start of the grand narrative of American history.  It dawned on me some years ago that, over the course of roughly 180 days, I undertake an annual, oral retelling of the story of the United States.  One day, I plan to record my lectures, taking the best bits, and compiling them into a lengthy podcast series.  After that, I’ll never have to teach again!

Regardless, the story always starts the same:  a brief overview of the pre-Columbian Americans (what we used to call “Indians,” and more clumsily “Native Americans”), followed up with Spanish exploration from Christopher Columbus through Hernan Cortez and on.

A major part of those early lessons is the encounter of the bloodthirsty Aztecs and the gold-mad Spaniards.  Students love the story of the advanced Aztecs, sacrificing humans to ensure the sunrise, and the arrival of the fiery-haired Cortez and his ragtag band of conquistadors and buccaneers.

The fashion in historical teaching is to paint the Native Americans as peace-loving moon maidens, living in harmony with nature and each other.  The idea of the “noble savage” dates back at least to the 17th century, but was perhaps most popularly attributed to that archfiend of modern philosophy—from whom all our present evils flow—Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   That tendency to view the natives as good and peaceful fits well with our current social justice, intersectional mode, but it doesn’t fit with reality.

As such, it was a pleasure to read this piece from The Federalist about the unlikely conquest of the Aztecs (a hat-tip to my girlfriend’s father for sharing this essay) this Labor Day weekend.  Adam Mill writes about the wicked blood cult of the Aztec Empire, which depended upon conquest of neighboring tribes.  Those tribes would pay a tribute to the Aztecs in the form of human lives, which were sacrificed daily in Tenochtitlan, the old Aztec capital (now Mexico City).

Into this mix arrived, in 1519, Cortez and a small band of men.  Cortez came for gold, but, as Mill writes, he set off an inadvertent liberation movement.  The tributaries of the Aztec Empire despised the bloodletting to which they were subject, and the arrival of the Spaniards sparked off an incredible upheaval that would topple an empire.

For the full, thrilling details, read Mill’s piece in full.  He also links to an 1855 book that tells the story of Cortez’s conquest with a great deal more color.  In one exciting chapter of this story, Cortez and his men, in a desperate attempt to flee the capital, ran into a force of around 200,000 Aztec soldiers.  In a wild gambit, Cortez and his group of about 500 grabbed the blood-red banner of the Aztec troops, the banner being a mystical totem of power.  With that bold seizure, the Aztec soldiers dispersed in disarray and chaos, and Cortez and his men lived to lead a native force against Tenochtitlan.

This story is a welcome corrective to the “white-man-are-evil” version of American history.  Indeed, Mill wrote this piece in reaction to the New York Times‘s cringe-inducing “1619 Project,” which purports to recast American history as only existing because of slavery.  We can surely acknowledge the backbreaking, forced contributions of African slaves to the foundation of our country while also noting that they were not the sole—or, I would argue, even the primary—contributors to America’s early growth.

Gordon Sheaffer at his blog Practically Historical shares a piece from Nebraska Energy Observer, “1619 Project, More Lies as History,” which explores some of the media reaction to the project.  NEO hits the nail on the head with his interpretation of the impetus behind this project:

I think the whole project/conspiracy is an attempt to further transfer the guilt of the slaveholding left, while burying their continued and continuous support for keeping blacks (and Hispanics, Chinese, poor whites) anybody, in fact, that is not a neo-liberal down on the plantation. The term for these people is useful idiots, as Ludwig von Mises termed those fools who joined the Comintern. Some things change very slowly.

In other words, it’s more Goodwhite propaganda.  The 1619 Project is not about accurately portraying African-American history; instead, it’s yet another form of high-brow virtue-signalling from wealthy white liberals who want to alleviate their white guilt.  It’s also part of an ongoing effort to discredit and devalue American history—if it’s all evil and wicked, why bother emulating any of it all?

We should remember the contributions of black Americans—free or otherwise—in the story of the United States.  But we should not do so at the expense of the great figures who made it possible.

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