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Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 4.47.31 PMThe first function of the founders of nations, after the founding itself, is to devise a set of true falsehoods about origin—a mythology—that will make it desirable for nationals to continue to live under common authority, and, indeed, make it impossible for them to entertain contrary thoughts. Ordinarily the founding, being the less subtle of the tasks, is also the easier, but with the American Founding Fathers the order of difficulty was reversed. On the one hand, widely different and deeply rooted local traditions separated the thirteen British colonies in North America, and space and the available means of communication separated them even further. Accordingly, logic dictated that if the colonies were to be independent of Britain they should be independent of one another also. They should not be one nation but several, and most Americans, including many devoutly patriotic leaders, so thought.

On the other hand, a condition inherent in British North America dictated that if the founding could be accomplished, the necessary myths would create themselves. For Americans reckoned values in the marketplace and by consensus, unlike the Europeans, who reckoned them through traditional institutions and by absolute standards. Now, one of the peculiarities of the new American way is that when contests of ideas arise, the view held by the winning side comes in time to be regarded as the unqualified truth, the only possible view; indeed, all subsequent battles must begin with the outcomes of earlier battles as unquestioned premises. Before independence, for example, few Americans espoused the doctrines about to be set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and hosts of divergent opinions were perfectly tolerable; but once the Declaration was made, it became not only immoral but virtually unthinkable to hold any other position. Similarly, those who in the 1780s believed that the nation should be one instead of many had rivals in abundance, but if they won, the winning itself would create the necessary mythology, for it would retroactively transform the winners’ view into the only view.

These are the first two paragraphs of the Preface to the First Edition of E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790. Books by Forrest McDonald may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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  1. Yes, thus the spectacular myth of Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought fourth on this continent a new nation .. .. .. ” The opening words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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