Thursday, March 07, 2013

A week later, and I'm still revising that previous post and investigating the identities of various great great etc grandparents. I'm not sure why, but I could guess; but I won't here.

Anyways, in reading about all these Morgans and Boatmans and so on, I've been experiencing a very entertaining picture of the American colonization of Tennessee. As far as I can tell, all of my ancestors around the time of the Civil War and in the preceding generation were in Tennessee or in the border regions with Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. So, I am - and I guess I had never really thought of this - as much of a Tennesseean as a person can possibly be, if you qualify 'Tennessee' as the American colonial state, and not as the prior nations of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and others.

'Colonial state' isn't what you normally hear as a description of a state like Tennessee. 'Pioneer' is usually the term, and certainly that's a good term for the people who were at the very forefront of the colonization, but colonization is absolutely the right word for the phenomenon. And in thinking about it this way, I can't help but understand it through the lens of what I had most recently been reading about: Rome.

Comparisons between Rome and the USA are passe, I know. But that's because the comparisons are usually negative, about degeneration and decadence, but like Matthew White says, that's kind of a recent thing. Earlier Americans were better able to see the parallels between what they were doing and with what the Romans had done in the days of the Republic: enlarging the republic through colonization.

So, I've had in my head the past few days a little comparison and contrast between the two phenomena. The simultaneous similarities and differences are most interesting.

1. The Romans had a single 'home' city. From there, they defeated surrounding tribes and set up new towns on the foundations of the defeated ones, and Romans went out and populated these places, building new cities in the image of Rome; so, Roman culture and language spread across Europe, but it was always tied back to Rome. With the Americans, it was different: there was a string of home cities along the Atlantic coast, from Boston down to Savannah. From these, colonists went west and defeated the local tribes and set up new towns on the foundations of old ones.

2. The initial phase of the Roman Republic, where the Italic and Etruscan tribes were conquered one-by-one, and where the Republic could kinda-sorta be identified with cisalpine Italy, could easily be likened to the pre-Revolutionary American colonial period, where the 13 colonies were consolidated east of the Appalachian mountains. The gradual transition between the Republican and Imperial periods - basically during the 9900's - was also a transition between Rome-as-Italy and Rome-as-Mediterranea. Similar, but much faster, was the transition between pre- and post-revolutionary America; no longer bound by British restrictions to the Eastern Province, the American colonization of the rest of the continent began, and so you have the Continental USA.

3. We're just at the end of that phase now, something like the Nervan dynasty of the 112th century. The borders are more-or-less set, the colonies are all established and mature, and everything is Roman/American within those bounds. But then, there's the third interesting contrast, and a more disturbing one: Roman colonies often, or probably usually, included a mostly indigenous population; Gauls and Belgians and Iberians and Germans and etc. There were enough Romans to make it so that everyone wound up speaking Roman in the end, but the Romans weren't genocidal and didn't practice ethnic cleansing as a rule. Americans, though... our colonies were established almost entirely by the white colonists and their black slaves. The native tribes - the American equivalents of Germans, Belgians, and Gauls were Mohawks, Apache, and Cherokee - had little impact on the colonies; they were absorbed on the fringes at first, and in the end they were exiled and excluded. Like I said up above, most of my ancestors arrived in Tennessee in the first generation or two of colonization, before the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee and Chickasaw had happened, and while there was clearly a lot of mutual tolerance and intermarriage between the different societies, I don't think I have more than a percent or two of native ancestry. Their effect on the colonies was marginal, and then they were exiled.

I don't think the difference is that Romans were tolerant and Americans weren't. Romans were nasty people in a lot of ways. I think there were two important differences: First, there was a constant and inexhaustible supply of American colonists, coming in from England, Ireland, and elsewhere, whereas the Romans were limited by the numbers they already had in Rome and other big cities. So the Americans had a big positive multiplier to their numbers. Second, and this is more of a guess, there was a negative multiplier on the native Americans because of the century or so of plague that had destroyed their population and set their society in an inordinate degree of chaos; in contrast, the European tribes the Romans contended with hadn't been subjected to any terrible disasters or setbacks, they were just a little behind on the same curve as the Romans. With these two imbalances, the native Americans were overwhelmed too quickly, and so there wasn't time for the two groups to really learn to live together and combine. When differences arose, it was too easy for the whites just to force the Indians to leave, or as was the case earlier on, to exterminate them.

The Romans never could have forced all the Gauls out of France, just to end all the conflicts and yearly revolts and rebellions. The Roman military was strong enough to keep the Gauls from ever winning, but there were too many Gauls to drive out in a death march to Germany, and there wouldn't have been enough Romans to replace them anyways. The scenario just didn't make sense for the Romans, but it did for the Americans. Genocide was a viable alternative on the frontier. And so we have America, and Tennessee, and Me. Humanity is a difficult thing.

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