- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Over forty years my travels in the United States and Canada have taken me to many of these places. The network they form within the geography of North America is an essential key to the understanding of its natural barriers and highways and so to the military and thus the human geography of the continent. Chance was to make the continent home to the most elaborate and sustained effort to found a revolutionary civilization, based on philosophical principle, freed by distance and inaccessibility from external interference with its process of development. No one interested in history can ignore that of America. To me, a military historian, the pattern of fortification that human settlement has left since Europeans first began to venture inland from North America’s coasts four hundred and fifty years ago is a key to the American mystery.
For me, nothing better epitomizes the conflict between the ideals of the United States and the history of North America than the constructions that crown Liberty Island in New York Harbor. Topmost stands the Statue of Liberty, given by France, the losing power in the struggle for the continent, to its sister republic at the moment when the United States was about to overtake Britain, the victor, as the dominant state in the world’s economic system. On the base of the statue the visitor can read Emma Lazarus’s words: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”—which have become an unofficial poetic expression of the American dream. Beneath the base of the statue the visitor may also notice the distinctive star-shaped bastions of a fort. These are the traces of Fort Wood, built on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island to defend the harbor against the Royal Navy. The fort was adapted to be the foundation of the Statue of Liberty when it was erected in 1885, but it remained a military station until 1937. Throughout the period when nearby Ellis Island, also fortified as part of the Second System, was receiving up to a million immigrants a year, therefore, the symbol that had drawn them, “tempest-tost,” from the Old World was still a link in the fortification chain designed to hold the Old World at arm’s length. Here is a paradox between the idea of openness and the practice of seclusion, between free settlement and state power. North America is a land for everyone; it is also a land where the strongest do best.