Mythologies of ancient Anglo-Saxon identity in America's "stand your ground" culture
A few years ago, late into Barack Obama’s presidential administration, maybe in 2015 or even early 2016, I had a long messaging conversation with an acquaintance about some of the right-wing movements and talking points that had become prevalent over the previous few years, specifically the fear-mongering over “they’re going to take our guns.” “They” being liberal people or more specifically Democrats. Guns being in America of course not just a tool or even a weapon but an enormous flashpoint of a longstanding culture war.
(This is not an essay about guns.)
Why, I asked this acquaintance, did people keep believing and investing emotion in “They’re going to take our guns” when for the previous eight years it simply . . . hadn’t happened? How did people keep believing in this fear month after month, year after year?
In response, this acquaintance gave me the first good explanation I had yet had about echo chambers and the dissolution of our information ecosystems (long predating the rise of social media, which just further weaponized forces already in motion) and a detailed history of her own upbringing in Rapture-oriented Baptist culture. In her life, she told me, no matter how many years went by, the Rapture was always just around the corner, God always just about to bathe the world in blood and flame and spirit the righteous to heaven.
The key, she said, was that the adults in her world managed to keep the fear of impending doom fresh and alive, month after month, year after year, down to her entire school sobbing in terror one morning when they’d been told the Rapture was coming shortly after noon that day. “During the formative years of many conservatives’ lives,” she told me, “this was the experience.” A constant drumbeat of being told that the end of days was just around the corner, and a nonstop fear of the future. Whatever people were told was going to happen, she said, was always in the future, and the future was always to be feared.
There was a lot more to the conversation, and it was one of the best and earliest explanations I’d read—aside from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, as I wrote about a while back—that showed how deeply identity is involved in choices and decisions that from an outsider’s perspective make no sense.
Ever since then, I have intentionally looked for works and projects that either explain or engage with identity. Not shallow identity politics-related culture spats, but real identity, the way that our perception of ourselves dictates how we’ll vote or even what we’ll believe, far more than facts or opinion pieces in flagship newspapers. It’s why this anthropology article about the blow to identity when steel mills in America’s midwest closed down being just as important as the blow to income sticks in my mind, as does this personal essay about growing up in a homeschooling evangelical world that trained children to be warriors in American culture battles, and to win those battles in legislatures and courtrooms. It’s why this essay from Aeon about echo chambers and epistemic bubbles has ended up being the one I recommend to people more than almost any other.
Some identities have deeper roots than others. Some of them are in conflict. Being a hunter and a conservationist, for example, means crossing two identities that have long been perceived to oppose each other. Coming to hunting as a lifelong environmentalist (though admittedly having grown up mostly eating game hunted by my parents), I can appreciate the work it takes for many lifelong hunters to accept themselves as conservationists.
(This is also not an essay about hunting.)
I can’t think of many more entrenched identities in America and several other countries (I’m looking at you, Russia) than whiteness. Religion, wealth-based heirarchical structures, and patriarchy are the only things that perhaps have deeper roots.
Kelly Brown Douglas’s 2015 book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God tries to get to the source of this identity and its staying power. Looking for the roots of “stand your ground” laws (which in many U.S. states allow someone to shoot another if they feel threatened; the book centers around the case of Trayvon Martin, a teenager who was killed while walking home by a man who used the “stand your ground” defense in Florida), Douglas traces American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny not back to 1776 or even 1619, but much further, back to the first century CE and the writings of Tacitus, a Roman general who wrote A Treatise on the Situation, Manners and Inhabitants of Germany, commonly known as Germania:
“In 98 CE Tacitus published Germania, which has been called ‘one of the most dangerous books ever written.’ Perhaps it is. The danger is not so much in what Tacitus said, but in how his words have been construed. In the brief space of thirty pages, he offered an ethnological perspective that would have tragic consequences for centuries to come. This perspective played a significant role in the Nazis’ monstrous program for ‘racial purity.’ It is the racial specter behind the stand-your-ground culture that robbed Trayvon of his life.
“In Germania Tacitus provides a meticulous portrait, based on others’ writings and observations, of the Germanic tribes who fended off Rome’s first-century empire-building agenda. . . . Perhaps what is most significant, at least in garnering the attention of political architects for centuries to come, is that Tacitus portrayed these ancient Germans as possessing a peculiar respect for individual rights and an almost ‘instinctive love for freedom.’ . . . According to many later interpreters, Tacitus was describing the perfect form of government.”
Douglas’s arguments track through the conflation of idealized Anglo-Saxon society with Christianity in England, and how early English immigrants brought that attitude to North America intact because they thought that even the reformed English church wasn’t Anglo-Saxon enough:
“The English considered themselves the descendants of the Germanic tribes identified by Tacitus. They believed that these tribes were their Anglo-Saxon ancestors. . . . Notwithstanding the fact that some of Tacitus’s ancient tribes were probably of Norse heritage, these reformers generally agreed that corruptions entered into English church and society with the Norman conquest in 1066. Popular belief held that the Normans adulterated the very English laws and institutions that served to protect individual liberties. . . .
“The reformers who would have the greatest impact on America’s religious and political culture, and thus transport the Anglo-Saxon myth to America, were the Pilgrims, Puritans, and even radical Whigs, such as the Levelers. Both the Pilgrims and Puritans thought the Church of England did not go far enough in the eradication of Catholic and Norman abuses. . . .
“The Pilgrims and Puritans fled from the Church of England to build a religious institution more befitting Anglo-Saxon virtue and freedom. They considered themselves the Anglo-Saxon remnant that was continuing a divine mission. They traced this mission beyond the woods of Germany to the Bible. Thus, they saw themselves ‘as the Iraelites in God’s master plan.’”
This faith, Douglas reiterates later in the book, is crucial to understanding the lasting power of American exceptionalism:
“Not only did the early American Anglo-Saxons believe their mission to be one of erecting God’s ‘city on a hill’ but they also came to believe that they essentially had divinity running through their veins. The Protestant evangelicals in particular believed themselves to be as close a human manifestation of God on earth as one can get. In general, however, the religious legitimation of America’s exceptionalist narrative suggests that to be against Anglo-Saxon America is to be against God.”
The crux of Douglas’s arguments lie in the development of whiteness as treasured property—property created through the myth of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism (which she calls the “wizard behind the curtain of white supremacy”) mixed with belief in preordained Christian dominionism:
“Whiteness in this respect is not simply cherished property, but it is also sacred property. . . . Within the religious narrative of America’s exceptionalism, anything that cannot pass the test of whiteness cannot get to God.”*
The concept of whiteness as property snared my attention because private property versus the commons is the basis of this newsletter, and I’d never thought of racializing people as essentially the creation of property and hence a property right to be defended and protected. I’d thought a lot about humans as property—women most universally, and slavery in many countries, reaching back thousands of years and continuing through the present day—but hadn’t thought about how the creation of a class of people as property to be treasured and protected easily turns everyone else into something to be controlled, something—not someone—that becomes a threat when it invades the space or entitlements of the treasured, protected class.
A key component of property rights, Douglas reminds us, is the right to exclude, which “ultimately ushers in the stand-your-ground culture.”
“This right to exclude inexorably gives way to other fundamental rights—the right to claim land and the right to stake out space. These rights, Harris [Cheryl Harris, in her book Whiteness as Property] points out, were actually ‘ratified’ at America’s beginnings with ‘the conquest, removal, and extermination of Native American life and culture.’† From then on, she says, ‘Possession and occupation of land was validated and therefore privileged’ as a white property right. . . . These rights of exclusion, land, and space are the definining characteristics of whiteness as treasured property.”
Stand Your Ground, glaringly, lacks reference to the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th-century papal decree that, as I’ve written about several times before (most recently about the book Buying America from the Indians and earlier about Mark Charles’s Unsettling Truths), forms the continuing legal basis for much of America’s outright theft of land from Native American nations. I wish Douglas would have examined the intersection of the Doctrine with mythological Anglo-Saxon supremacy because I’m sure they’re deeply intertwined, but in general her points still hold.
According to Douglas, it’s in the ancient idea of the Anglo-Saxons as some sort of mythically perfect society and people that we find the roots of much of America’s founding ideals (freedom and individual liberty specifically) mixed wholesale with the belief that specific white Northern Europeans (Eastern and Southern Europeans, as well as Irish, Scottish, and Swedish people, initially weren’t included—in a 1751 essay Benjamin Franklin also threw out the French and most non-Saxon Germans as not white enough) were the only people who could understand and embody those ideals. Even before its founding, the country inherited the unalloyed belief of culture as synonymous with bloodline, and therefore race:
“Building on Tacitus’s admiration for the way these Germanic tribes ruled their communities, the myth stressed the unique superiority of Anglo-Saxon religious and political institutions. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the myth shifted its focus to Anglo-Saxon blood. In doing so, it seized upon Tacitus’s characterization of the ancient Germans as ‘free from taint,’ and suggested that the superiority of their institutions was a result of their blood.”
America’s original sin, Douglas articulates, lies in the belief that white Americans are both the genetic and spirtual descendants of Anglo-Saxons; Anglo-Saxons in the white imagination represent not just the purest form of humanity, but the purest form of society. (Again, I think the Doctrine of Discovery plays an unmentioned role here, but her research lines up almost exactly with modern white nationalist and white supremacist talking points.)
The conflation of skin color with race and therefore culture was fully integrated into the dominant American psyche by 1923 (by which time Franklin’s objectionable French, German, and Swedish people were considered white), when the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind and declared that no matter how integrated Thind was into American/Aryan culture, his skin color denied him the right to claim whiteness, which allowed rejection of his citizenship application. “At this point,” writes Douglas, “[Thind’s] willingness to adapt did not matter.” She quotes the majority opinion of the Supreme Court at length:
“What we now hold is that the words ‘free white persons’ are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’‡ only as the word is popularly understood. . . . It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. . . . What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.”
The decision on its own proves Douglas’s point: that whiteness is property to be protected. Denied the possession of whiteness, Thind was therefore denied citizenship.
The project of whiteness by this time overlapped almost completely with the project of Manifest Destiny, and it’s here where a foray into the Doctrine of Discovery would have been most helpful, because the book dives into a core tension of privatization versus the commons (without naming it as such), which is the question of who has a right to land and therefore to life. Douglas quotes an 1846 speech by Senator Thomas Hart Benton in which he makes the case that the white race is the only one that has obeyed the “divine command” to “subdue and replenish the earth.” All other races, he claimed, were subsumed before this civilizing project:
“Benton’s remarks make clear the other defining feature of Manifest Destiny. It was not just about land and race. It was also about life. . . . Those who had the right to land were also those who had a right to live. Manifest Destiny was about more than who was destined to occupy a certain land, it was also about who was destined to live. If the manifest vision was the expansion of Anglo-Saxonism from east to west, then those who did not capitulate to Anglo-Saxon ways were destined to become extinct. Benton was clear: it was whites who had the right to land and life; others were eligible for extinction.” (Emphasis added.)
It’s not just a war on non-Anglo-Saxon people, but a war on life itself. Protecting the treasured property of whiteness is an overwhelming and centuries-long iteration of that war.
Given this historical context, America’s most recent manufactured culture war—over the nonexistent teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public schools—makes more sense. As haphazard and frankly weird as that particular moral panic is, the “threat” that’s being responded to is perceived as real in the realm of identity, and in the dismantling of a powerful creation myth underlying that identity. Not just the myth of American exceptionalism, but the older myth, that England and then white America were inheritors of a somehow pure and noble people, strong and intelligent and just (also red-haired, according to Tacitus). That somewhere way back then was a perfect society of perfect people who knew their position and their purpose and ran their societies along the purest of principles along with the purest of blood, and if we could just find our way back to it everything would be all right.
This hankering for a previous idealized society can be seen in critiques of social justice movements as well as of critical race theory, critiques that seem to rest on the notion that studying the bases of America’s laws, politics, and culture through an understanding of whiteness’s influence is somehow anti-Enlightenment and anti-intellectual—in a sense, anti-Anglo-Saxon. Which is odd because trying to ignore real events in favor of a safer narrative for the sake of cohesion seems in itself to be an anti-Enlightenment endeavor. If we can’t quote Thomas Jefferson’s high ideals about democracy and freedom without feeling that we have to bury his active efforts to trick Indigenous people out of land and his position as a slaveowner, then we’re not doing a very good job of crafting a society based on any kind of shared reality.
The American settler story, to give another example of a history many people find threatening to crack open, is often framed as one of intrepid yeomen farmers-to-be making the uncertain journey to an unknown land to prove their worth in building an independent and productive life, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur-style, providing the basis for society based on democratic principles and without a monarch. What’s left out almost completely is the reality of many of those lives: if they weren’t land speculators with a bit of cash backing back home, many were landless due to centuries of feudalism, many escaping serfdom or barely out of it, unable to sustain their families from the commons due to enclosure and privatization of activities like hunting and fishing, and at the mercy of nobles, landlords, and rulers with a seemingly endless appetite for war. So. Much. War. As much as I love Montana, and I love it down to my smallest bones, I’d leave too if all I or my ancestors or my children had known or would ever know was the kinds of war-packed centuries like Europe saw in the 1400s-1600s and beyond.
History isn’t some smooth narrative of simple stories that can only ever make a nation proud. It lurches around the needs and ambitions of people who did not agree on much of anything, not who should be king or whom land belonged to or who had a right to the basic necessities of life nor what form of religion to follow. The war between Catholics and Protestants that started in 1619 lasted thirty years and resulted in an estimated eight million dead, from famine and disease as well as battle. England’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 came after those in power imposed a poll tax and legally prohibited higher wages even though labor was in high demand after massive population loss due to the plague. It ended only after the East Anglian rebels were crushed and King Richard agreed to the peasants’ demands, which he then reneged on, perpetuating more centuries of inequality, injustice, and subsequent revolt.
People don’t fight racism and misogyny and unjust wealth resource distribution and crushing hierarchies—much less the narratives that underlie them—because they have a sense of shared reality. They fight them because the reality in front of them makes no sense.
The Anglo-Saxon myth holds just as much sway over American identity—even if it’s less understood or known—as the idealized (and very white) nuclear family life of the 1950s does. And there is very little daylight between the mythologies born out of Tacitus’s publication and modern white nationalist calls for pride in culture and people—what culture and people is never specified, only that it be pale-skinned.
Truly facing this history and its consequences could not only slow the devastation wrought by centuries of injustices, it could even have unforeseen beneficial outcomes, like seeing if the Anglo-Saxons that Tacitus wrote about so enthusiastically might have healthier societal models to emulate. They evidently had no hankering for gold or silver, for example: “The possession of them is not coveted by these people as it is by us.” Their sacred places were “woods and groves” rather than temples; they also valued the counsel of women, assuming “somewhat of sanctity and prescience to be inherent in the female sex; and therefore neither despise their counsels, nor disregard their responses.” And undercutting his own claim of a people whose bloodlines were “free of taint,” Tacitus actually described the lives of peoples/countries/clans like the Gauls, Langobardia, and Varini—I counted 35 before losing track—and their wide differences in law, worship, dress, governance, battle, and hairstyles. In other words, Germany as he depicted it was likely a mixed and multicultural land whose inter-clan relations we know little about.
We could, if we wanted, aim for those other ideals and skip the idolization of blue eyes and “russet” hair along with Tactitus’s later delight at sixty thousand Germans dying in battle without help of the Romans on either side but “as it were for our pleasure and entertainment.”§
Returning to Trayvon Martin and too many others who could only be victims of stand-your-ground thinking and never the beneficiaries of it, Douglas writes that:
“The Anglo-Saxon myth, which emerged from Tacitus’s Germania, has shaped and continues to shape America’s sense of self. This myth is the unspoken, but pervasive, narrative that determines who is and who is not entitled to the rights of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ . . .
“The deaths of these young black people are about more than a Stand Your Ground law. They are about a culture that is bound and determined to protect the Anglo-Saxon ‘white country’ that both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin imagined and worked to build.”
As my acquaintance taught me some years ago, adherence to identity has tremendous power. And threats to identity are painful, so much so that many will engage in violence before questioning or walking away from it. But until we learn to face some of our more destructive identities, and our beliefs about them, they will continue to harm vast numbers of people as well as our communities and the commons, the generous gifts of this planet, that we all depend on for survival.
Douglas’s hard work unpacking the myths of Anglo-Saxon society and Tacitus’s admiration of it and its people gives us permission to know what we’re facing—to give the Anglo-Saxons a rightful place in history without insisting that the world they created for themselves is one we need to carbon copy for the present day. Like all other peoples, the Anglo-Saxons lived, they loved, they quarrelled, they cultivated, they died, and they changed. As we all must, hopefully for the better.
*Douglas, it’s important to note, is an Episcopal priest as well as a Black woman. Part II of Stand Your Ground is a heartfelt examination of Black faith and the absence of whiteness in God. It lays out her case that the racist uses of God employed by many who call themselves Christian are in fact sinful acts.
† The main flaw in the book, I felt, was not enough attention given to Native American genocide and the blatant lies and corruption in the various treaties unfaithfully represented, negotiated, and then broken by the supposed chosen race with its supposed superior culture. Douglas does spend a fair amount of time, however, on the importance of the Bible’s Exodus chapter and its role in white supremacy (that is, the Anglo-Saxon myth) in the early white Christian Americans’ self-narrative. Exodus chronicles God’s freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and into a “land of milk and honey.” Exodus itself, she points out, shows the troubling roots of exceptionalism: when promising to lead the Israelites to this new land where they would be free, God also promises to help them wipe out the Indigenous people who already live there. Paraphrasing theologian Delores Williams, Douglas writes that:
“If one takes into account the full exodus story, and not simply the event of a peoples’ deliverance from bondage, then it soon becomes clear that God does not show a concern for the freedom of all people. . . . The exodus story also reveals a God who permits victims to make victims of others,” who has no problem with non-Hebrew slavery, and who sanctions genocide. “The exodus story does indeed reveal troubling contradictions in understanding the freedom of God. Moreover, it portrays a God who sanctions Manifest Destiny missions. These contradictions are not to be casually dismissed.”
(The relevant verses are Exodus 23: 22-33 and Exodus 34: 11-16 in the New International Version [NIV] of the Bible. For example, Exodus 23: 23, “My angels will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” And 23: 30, “Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.”)
‡ The myth of Anglo-Saxons extends even further back, Douglas writes, into an older notion of the Caucasians, an imagined elite branch of “Urfolk,” Indo-Europeans originally from the Asian steppes. This deeper myth originated in a search for human origins that mixed itself up with philology research on the roots of Anglo-Saxon languages, which led to the Asian steppe and the myth of a “specific, gifted people—the Indo-Europeans—who spilled out from the mountains of central Asia to press westward following the sun” (quoted from Reginald Horsman’s 1981 book Race and Manifest Destiny) and eventually migrated to Germany to become the people Tacitus revered.
§ The full passage (text of the Oxford translation with introduction by Edward Brooks, Jr., via Project Gutenberg) reads:
“Contiguous to the Tencteri were formerly the Bructeri; but report now says that the Chamavi and Angrivarii, migrating into their country, have expelled and entirely extirpated them, with the concurrence of the neighboring nations, induced either by hatred of their arrogance, love of plunder, or the favor of the gods towards the Romans. For they even gratified us with the spectacle of a battle, in which above sixty thousand Germans were slain, not by Roman arms, but, what was still grander, by mutual hostilities, as it were for our pleasure and entertainment. May the nations retain and perpetuate, if not an affection for us, at least an animosity against each other! since, while the fate of the empire is thus urgent, fortune can bestow no higher benefit upon us, than the discord of our enemies.”
Truly a stand-up guy, Tacitus.
I’ve been reading this slowly, grateful for how deftly and clearly — not to mention empathically — you educate us.
This is a really interesting take. Thank you for processing this book that the algorithms probably never would have served to me. Being the ignoramus that I am, I did not know that there was a link between Tacitus and Nazi/white supremacist storytelling. But, you know, the classics are irrelevant to what is Happening Now. This will be on my mind when I finally read Germania.
I think there is validity in the thread, but as with everything, there is nuance. The white America that we want to indict fought against itself to free black slaves, and fought against the Nazi vision of the future.
Also, from my experience, while I've never personally heard a white-supremacist argument for gun ownership and stand your ground doctrine (until this article), I've heard plenty of arguments straight out of the Hebrew Bible. The law portion of the Pentateuch is full of examples how to adjudicate adverse situations-if your axe head flies off the handle and kills your coworker, if your ox gores your neighbor, if your ox gores someone a second time, if you are attacked in daylight, if your home is invaded at night, etc. These are passages that get cited directly, and while the task of the historian is often to make sense of why we accept one thing and reject another (kill the intruder, turn the other cheek), in terms of direct influence, those are the texts that many evangelicals are looking at. I've lived my entire life around the 45th parallel, so maybe the influence this author is discussing is more overt elsewhere.
Another angle on your opening scene: The premillennial eschatology (rapture theology) your friend mentions is a credible influence in my mind. How strange that those who think they are going to be raptured out of the tribulations are so fearful of them. However another (again, more direct) take is that there is a sizable contingent of people who say they want to take away their guns. Politicians campaign promising it. Constituents elect on it. There are political organizations and PACs and lobbying groups devoted to it. There are states and municipalities that have presently banned gun ownership.
I'm not here to defend the stance one way or another, but that makes me confused why anyone would need another reason for the perpetual fear that "they're going to take my guns." Sure, some might say, "We just want to ban assault-style rifles," (whatever that means) but you don't need to introduce the slippery-slope argument to find the voices that explicitly say they want to end gun ownership in America. If people stopped saying they want to take them away, and people keep being afraid of it, then we can dissect the psyche further to figure out why.