American History According to Flashman

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Sir Harry Flashman, VC (Victoria Cross) was one of the most decorated military figures of the Victorian era.  He led an amazing life playing a key role in many of the most important battles of the 19th century. He was one of the two survivors of the British retreat from Kabul, at Balaclava he rode with the Light Brigade on their famous charge, he was with the besieged at Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny, he participated in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and somehow escaped Custer’s Last Stand, and was a patient at the hospital at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa during the Zulu attack to name just a few of his exploits.

Well … not really.

In fact everything you have just read about Sir Harry was the invention of George McDonald Fraser. He took the name from a character is a famous memoir (Tom Brown’s Schooldays) about life at Rugby School run by Dr. Arnold in the 1830’s, where the  Flashman character was a coward and bully. Frasers’ Flashman memoirs were said to be found by chance in 1966 over 50 years after his death. In these totally candid memoirs the antihero emerges who admits that he is a true coward, liar and addictive womanizer who has found glory often by subterfuge. Through eleven books Fraser acts as the editor of the so called Flashman papers, complete with extensive end notes. Thus these action and adventure stories are also entertaining historical primers.

American History up to the Civil War is explained by Flashman (Fraser) in the book Flashman and the Angel of the Lord that includes a conversation with President Lincoln. I thought this long passage would be interesting to LRC readers because it is as an excellent example of revisionist, counterfactual history and a representation of Lincoln’ character.

From that my thoughts turned to what Crixus [though many characters are based on historical figures this one, a rabid abolitionist, is invented] had told me, not only about the lunatic Brown, but about the state of play in the States generally, which had been absolute news to me. To hear him, the place seemed to be on the brink of civil war, and that was hard to take, I can tell you: such wars and revolutions were for foreigners — heaven knew, we’d seen that in ’48 — but not for us or our American cousins.  I didn’t understand, then, that America was two countries – but then, most Americans didn’t either.

As you know, it was slavery that drew the line and led to the war, but not quite in the way you might think. It wasn’t only a fine moral crusade, although fanatics like Crixus and John Brown viewed it as such and no more; the fact is that America rubbed along with slavery comfortably enough while the country was still young and growing (and getting over the shock of cutting loose from the mother country); it was only when the free North and the slave South discovered that they had quite different views about what kind of country the U.S.A. ought to be on that distant day when all the blank spaces on the map had been filled in, that the trouble started. Each saw the future in its own image; the North wanted a free society of farms and factories devoted to money and Yankee “know-how” and all the hot air in their ghastly Constitution, while the South dreamed, foolishly, of a massa paradise where they could make comfortable profits from inefficient cultivation, drinking juleps and lashing Sambo while the Yankees did what they dam’ well pleased north of the 36’ 30” line.

They couldn’t both happen, not with Northern money and morality racing forward in tandem while the South stood still, sniffing the magnolias. Slavery was plainly going to go, sooner or later—unless the South cut adrift and set up shop on their own.  There had been talk of this for years, and some Southerners had the amazing notion that left to themselves they could expand south and west (for cotton needs land, by the millions of acres), embracing Mexico and the Dago countries in a vast slave empire where the white boss would lord it forever.  But their wiser heads saw no need for this so long as the South controlled the Congress (and the Army), which they did because their states were united, while the Northerners were forever bickering amongst themselves.

The situation was confused by a thousand and one political and social factors (but, believe me, you don’t want to know about the Missouri Compromise or the “doughfaces” or the Taney ruling or the Western railroad or the Democratic split or the Know-Nothings or the Kansas-Nebraska Bill or the emergence of the Republican Party or the Little Giant or gradual emancipation, you really don’t). It’s worth noting, though, that there were folk in the South who wanted an end to slavery, and many in the North who didn’t mind its continuing so long as peace was kept and the Union preserved. Congressman Lincoln, for example, loathed slavery and believed it would wither away, but said that in the meantime, if the South wanted it, let ‘em have it; if slavery was the price of American unity, he was ready to pay it. Being a politician, of course, he had a fine forked tongue; on the one hand he spouted a lot of fustian about all men being equal (which he didn’t believe for a moment), while on t’other he was against blacks having a vote or holding office or marrying whites, and said that if the two were to live together, whites must have the upper hand.

But over all, the anti-slavery feeling grew ever stronger in the North, which naturally made the South dig in its heels in harder than ever. The Fugitive Slave law for recovering runaways was passed in ’50, to the rage of the abolitionists; Uncle Tom’s Cabin added fuel to the fire; and Crixus wasn’t far out when he said that it only needed a spark to the powder-rain to set off the explosion. I didn’t pay him to much heed, though; what I’ve just been telling you was unknown to me then, and I figured Crixus’s talk of gathering storms and trials by combat was just the kind of stuff that he, being a crazed abolitionist, wanted to believe.

Well, he was right, and I, in my excusable ignorance, was wrong; the storm was gathering in ’59—but what astonishes me today is that all the wiseacres who discuss its origins and inevitability, never give a thought to where it really began, back in 1776, with their idiotic Declaration of Independence. If they’d had the wit to stay in the Empire then, instead of getting  drunk on humbug about “freedom” and letting a pack of firebrands (who had a fine eye to their own advantage) drag ‘em into pointless rebellion, there would never have been an American Civil War, and that’s as sure as any “if” can be.  How so? Well, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and slavery in 1833, and the South would have been bound to go along with that, grumbling, to be sure, but helpless against the will of Britain and her northern American colonies.  It would all have happened quietly, no doubt with compensation, and there’d have been nothing for North and South to fight about Q.E.D.

But try telling that to a smart New Yorker, or an Arkansas chawbacon, or a pot-bellied Virginia Senator; point out that Canada and Australia managed their way to peaceful independence without any tomfool Declarations or Bunker Hills or Shilohs or Gettysburgs, and are every bit as much “land of the free” as Kentucky or Oregon, and all you’ll get is a great harangue about “liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, damn your Limey impudence, from the first; a derisive haw-haw and a stream of tobacco juice across your boots from the second; and a deal of pious fustian about a new nation forged in blood and emerging into the sunlight under Freedom’s flag, from the third.  You might as well be listening to an intoxicated Frog.

It’s understandable, to be sure: they have to live with their ancestors’ folly and pretend that it was all for the best, and that the monstrous collection of platitudes which they call a Constitution, which is worse than useless because it can be twisted to mean anything you please by crooked lawyers and grafting politicos, is the ultimate human wisdom.  Well, it ain’t, and it wasn’t worth one life, American or British, in the War of Independence, let alone the vile slaughter of the Anglo-Saxon-Norman-Celtic race in the Civil War.  But perhaps you had to stand on Cemetery Ridge after Pickett’s charge to understand that.

I put these thoughts to Lincoln, you know, after the war, and he sat back, cracking his knuckles and eyeing me slantendicular.

“Flashman the non-Founding Father is a wonderous thought,” says he. “Come, now, do I detect a mite of imperial resentment? You know, paternal jealousy because the mutinous son didn’t turn out prodigal after all?”

“You can’t get much more prodigal than Gettysburg, Mr. President,” says I. “And I ain’t jealous one little bit. I just wish our ancestors had been wiser. I’d be happy to see the Queen reigning in Washington, with yourself as Prime Minister of the British-American Empire.” Toady, if you like, but true.

“Lord Lincoln . . . of Kaintuck’?” laughs he. “Doesn’t sound half bad. D’you suppose they’d make me a Duke? No, better not—the boys would never let me in the store at New Salem again!”

He was the only American, by the way, who ever gave me a straight answer to a question I’ve asked occasionally, out of pure mischief: why was it right for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, but wrong for the Southern States to secede from the Union?

“Setting aside the Constitution, of which you think so poorly—and which I’d abandon gladly in order to preserve the Union, if you’ll pardon the paradox—I’m astonished that a man of your worldly experience can ever ask such a question,” says he. “What has ‘right’ got to do with it? The Revolution of ’76 succeeded, the recent rebellion did not, and there, as the darkie said when he’d et the melon, is an end of it.”

Fraser puts into Lincoln’s mouth an explanation of the founding and history of America, in a somewhat racist way to boot, as the famous dictum of Lenin “Who whom?” but in colloquial American language.  This is apt historically because Lincoln’s actions as president where typically reduced to questions of power.  And this is the important message of American history too, or any history of states and governments.  So a further conclusion to be drawn is that from the beginning there was no such thing as American exceptionalism and that this hypocritical propaganda line is simply a tool of American imperialist power.

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