Foundation Stories

Every modern nation has a foundation story, based in history and social structure as well as in fable, that is used to explain the origins of that particular nation and thereby their distinctiveness. Foundation stories, varied as they are, are cultural creations based on historical and social structural circumstances, often tell something very true and abiding about a society--but not always, as we shall see in the case of Australia.

The United States has, as part of its foundation story, the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, all of those wrapped up in the stories of the Founding Fathers, each of these shifting in prominence in the light of changing events. Thomas Jefferson, once much praised, is now always mentioned as having been compromised by his long term alliance with a slave girl. Hamilton is on the rise, despite his antagonism to the mob, because he came from extremely humble beginnings and was an immigrant to the Colonies, having been born in the West Indies.The idea behind this story of the collective founding of the United States is that it was formed as a social compact, an act of cooperation, through which the contending forces of the society--its small and large states; its slave and free states--could reach some kind of compromise with one another. That idea leads to the generalization that the nature of social order as well as liberty are founded on compacts, on people who live in separate entities surrendering their individual power for the common good as well as, through government, to insure the protection of rights which are thought to be natural to the human condition. What European thinkers had dreamed of had actually occurred, right here in the new United States. And so we have thought about politics ever since: as the competition between rights and how the government can do something about creating the right balance between them.

This story is further complicated by that other great notion, that the United States is a frontier nation and so the qualities of self-reliance and personal industry are to be prized because those are what it took to survive Indians and drought, every man forced to build his own cabin against the weather. And the heritage of that tradition, as David Brooks pointed out recently, is that people vote against their self interest because they are so taken with the elemental idea that everywhere, whether in food regulation or in health insurance, their liberty is being threatened, never mind that they do not want their Medicare disrupted, that having become one of their rights. The story is even further complicated by the American Civil War, which pitted region against region in a way very much as they are now, the South defiant about Northern intrusion in its affairs, though without any serious recent thought of Southern Secession, perhaps because the South contributes less to the Federal coffers than is given to them and perhaps also because that the South seems, with only some brief interludes otherwise, to always control at least the Congress. So American politics are caught in the same dilemmas that have characterized the entire history of the Republic: rights, individualism, and regionalism.

France also has a foundation story that is conflicting in its themes, ones that go on being unresolved and so continue to frame social controversies. There is, of course, the very strong imagery and events of the French Revolution and of its devotion to liberty, equality and brotherhood. That energizes a people who to this very day prize their tolerance of others and the rule of law. And France, after its Revolution was over, very quickly settled into a bourgeois society, long before the Revolution of 1830, because Napoleon emphasized nationalism rather than radicalism. He was on solid ground in doing so because another theme of the French foundation story is statism, which is the strong hand of the central government overseeing any number of things, from ceremonies, to local appointments, to education, all in the name of France itself. French Kings, unlike English ones, ruled without much disruption to their authority by Parliaments or Estates General. Everyone was done at the King’s pleasure, even if that often meant that he decided to do what one interest group or another was importuning him to do.

The battle between statism and universal human rights in France crops up in different forms but always does so. The Dreyfusards invoked liberty while the anti-Dreyfusards, those who backed the Army whether it was right or wrong, were at base supporters of the French state and of clericalism. That is to what their allegiances belonged. It crops up more recently in the battle between Macron and Le Pen, the first of whom is dedicated to a pragmatic, if not Manchester-ish, concern for universal economic and social processes, while Le Pen has the statist preoccupation with keeping French for the French alone rather than subsuming the French under the banner of universal human rights.

Sometimes, however, the foundation stories that are told about nations are misleading. Australia understands itself as having been founded not by a set of statesmen or under a set of principles, but by the First Fleet, which arrived in what is now Sydney Harbor in 1788. The fleet carried on board 800 convicts, of both sexes, who had been transported to this very out of the way place because the English prisons were overcrowded and these people could no longer be transported to Virginia because of the War of Independence. On the shore awaiting them were an aborigine people, and the convicts, poorly trained either in agriculture or fishing or in most trades, would nevertheless go on to form what Kennelly called in his book of that name, ”A Confederacy of Thieves”. What an amazing story, even if somewhat fanciful in that concern for the aborigines as well as an interest in the convicts was a part of the Twentieth Century Australian imagination rather than there for most of its history.

Far more amazing is the fact that within two generations Sydney was a thriving city, the hub for exporting wool and other agricultural goods from the New South Wales hinterlands, women strolling through a town of stately homes wearing fancy bonnets and twirling their parasols. The colony had survived many upheavals, including what can only be called a mutiny by the military against the famous Captain Bligh, who had been appointed Governor, the military holding power until the arrival of a new governor. Although convicts continued to be transported to Australia into the 1850’s, free settlers had been allowed since early on, in 1793. They were each awarded a large amount of land and agricultural instruments. Australia from very near its beginning was attractive on its own and so no longer just a penal colony. Indeed, the end of the transports was the result of a report to the Home Office that said that the colony had become something of a slave holding society in that newly arrived prisoners were assigned to one or another of the now dominant free settlers as servants and workers, or at least that is the way Robert Hughes tells the story in “The Fatal Shore”.

What accounts for the swift rise of Australia as a society? My own interpretation is that it is the result of the fact that the original settlement was run by the Royal Navy. They provided governors and law over what might very well have become a destitute and starved colony, the convicts having deteriorated into a set of gangs presided over only by mob rule. And, indeed, for a while, Norfolk Island, far off the mainland, served as a hellish punishment center for the worst of the worst of the convicts. Australia was successful because the English have a genius for government that stretches from their naval officers to their thieves. This genius accounts for what Churchill called “The History of the English Speaking Peoples”. Not only did England invent the Industrial Revolution, it also invented or replicated in so many of its colonies the institutions of representative government (if we also add and so give proper due to the institutions of the Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century). This double inheritance from England made the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand what they are, even though the question is still out about whether the inheritance has also been passed on to former British Colonies in Africa and in Asia, those not having been settled at first from England, Scotland and Ireland. The English inheritance is the true story of Australia, even as the national descendants of England are no longer bound to one another by direct political subordination. The Germans and the French and the Spanish are democratic nations but their colonies are long gone, while the English speaking nations cohere, and that is reason enough to consider the English Channel a far wider body of water than the Atlantic.