The “fake news” pejorative has become commonplace in modern public discourse, so much so that social media outlets have taken it upon themselves to “police” so-called “fake news” stories and warn people about their dangers. This was largely due to the supposed impact “fake news” had on Trump supporters in 2016. To these self-appointed gatekeepers of truth, honesty, and the American way, nothing that contradicts their version of American history can be acceptable.
Their narrative goes something like this: America was created as a singular nation on the principles of “justice” and “equality.” You “anti-American” fools that argue the founding generation believed something different need to study Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, and Abraham Lincoln [sic]. They clearly and correctly argued that the Union predated the States, just read the Declaration of Independence.
There are several holes in this argument, not the least of which is the classification of the original Union from a federation of States to an amorphous mass of “one people.”
That would be 18th century fake news.
The earliest proponent of this position was not Hamilton but the Scottish immigrant and future Supreme Court Justice James Wilson of Pennsylvania.
Wilson argued in a 1785 speech supporting the unconstitutional (according to the Articles of Confederation) Bank of North America that:
To many purposes, the United States are to be considered as one undivided, independent nation; and as possessed of all the rights, and powers, and properties, by the law of nations incident to such. Whenever an object occurs, to the direction of which no particular state is competent, the management of it must, of necessity, belong to the United States in congress assembled. There are many objects of this extended nature. The purchase, the sale, the defence, and the government of lands and countries, not within any state, are all included under this description. An institution for circulating paper, and establishing its credit over the whole United States, is naturally ranged in the same class.
The act of independence was made before the articles of confederation. This act declares, that “these United Colonies…are free and independent states; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to do all acts and things which independent states may, of right, do.”
This was twisted logic unsupported by history. Wilson somehow believed that Thomas Jefferson intended the phrase “free and independent states” to mean the Union of “United Colonies,” not thirteen separate States bound together in common cause against a singular enemy. To Wilson, “they” represented the plural “United Colonies.” That would be news to Jefferson or virtually anyone else from the founding generation. “They” clearly meant each State individually as they were at one time “United Colonies” and were now “free and independent States” in the plural form, not as a singular community. If Wilson was correct, then it would have read “a free and independent state.”
The 1783 Treaty of Paris confirmed that each State was independent of the others, and Article II of the Articles of Confederation codified that each State “retained its sovereignty and independence.”
And the term “state” had real meaning. A “state” in the 18th century was a sovereign political entity, like the “State of Great Britain” as Jefferson calls it in the Declaration.
Wilson knew he had to engage in a grand game of sophistry for anyone to believe him, so to “prove” his point, he had the Declaration of Independence rewritten to reflect his wish to abolish the State designations. Wilson was fabricating history.
In other words, he was promoting “fake news.”
Two Harvard researchers uncovered his lie in a little archives in Great Britain in 2015. They have since argued in a paper that this “proves” Wilson was correct, that the Union predated the States and that the state centered approach to the founding period does not fit the record. That would be true if we only listened to Wilson.
His “clever and elegant” lie obviously influenced them, but it is still just a lie, a lie that has now been exposed for the world to see.
If you have to fabricate a document to make your point, then your point is built on a house of cards. It is no wonder this so-called “Sussex Declaration” was never accepted by any of the founding generation accept Wilson, or that it never saw the light of day until now.
Had the evidence remained buried in the English countryside historians would still have marveled at Wilson’s artful fallacy, but they would never have had proof that he was making things up as he went.
This discovery should finally discredit the “nationalist myth” of American history, but unfortunately, if the current reaction is any sign of things to come, the “one people” myth makers will double down and insist that Wilson’s understanding of American history is superior to every other interpretation, evidence to the contrary be damned.