Stupidity in America:
A Short Prolegomena

By R. D. Flavin

2- 5-2016


     Stupidity (from the Latin stupiditās) is likely a hard-wired behavioral trait in humans, and perhaps some other life-forms as well, though in this column I wish to address American stupidity, that is, the American collective lack of common sense or behaving in an obtuse manner. And, though America is the greatest nation on Earth, we also possess some of the stupidest people, who regularly do stupid things, and most unfortunately our government and elected officials, chosen from and elected by an unknown percentage of stupid people, is very familiar with the habit of doing stupid things. Stupid is as stupid does and America, always leading and never following, has shown the world precisely what 'stupid' means. Let's discuss stupidity in America, shall we?

[Note: Let's skip over Native Americans or the First Nation aboriginal people who came from Asia in several waves between 35,000 BCE sometime shortly after 15,000 BCE, as well as the first century CE arrival of the Inuit or Eskimos. That the Norse made it to L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland ca. 1000 CE and Indonesians were trading sweet potatoes with the Peruvians in the early 15th century is a given – Japanese pottery influence in pre-Columbian Mexico is still being debated. And, it goes without saying, Columbus was looking for the India when he bumped into the Caribbean and in four trips NEVER set foot on North, Central, or South American soil. That America was mistakenly named after the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, by a German translating Latin versions of Vespucci's letters is ...just one of those things. And, avoiding trivia for once, let's pass over the first name for North America in 1513, La Florida ([la floˈɾia] "The Flowery”) given by the Spanish conquistador and believer in a Fountain of Youth, Juan Ponce de Len. Besides the Spanish, this prolegomena on the United States of America has to begin and describe stupidity with and after the settlements in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA.]

     After Columbus flirted with the Caribbean, Spain went full-tilt boogie war on Central and South America, with Corts taking out Montezuma II (also, Moctezuma) and the Aztecs with an army at his back between 1519-1521. From 1532, Francisco Pizarro his brothers, Juan and Gonzalo, a cousin Hernandez, and an uncle Francisco Martin de Alantra, along with the support of Hernando de Soto and his men and horses (both units had a cannon apiece) progressively defeated the Incas, with the last Inca emperor killed in 1572, by an associate of the Pizarro's, Diego de Almagro. The Spanish advanced partially into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and coastal California with much less militaristic and little confrontations from Native Americans. The Alamo, Mexican Revolution, and the casual take-over of California by the new “Americans” were far into the future.

     So, England was at war with Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic on casual basis. The French took to Canada and furs and lots of Jesuit missionaries. The Dutch seemed content with the New York City area (“New Amsterdam”) after Henry Hudson's favorable report in 1609. The English, however played it cool and straightforward with its settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Sure, in 1609 John Smith was a clever scoundrel, arrested for mutiny and expected to be hanged once the three ships landed in Virginia, yet Fate intervened and upon the opening of a sealed instruction letter Smith was named as a leader of a council of eight. Yes, he was likely captured by the local Native Americans, is said to have traded a fine compass for his freedom, with the invention (read: fiction) of saving from death tale concerning Pocahontas.  Later, she and her husband were 'kidnapped' in 1613 by renegade and opportunistic Englishmen to the north of Jamestown, and later sold to an Englishman, John Rolfe, to the south of Jamestown, eventually converted to Christianity and assumed the name “Rebecca.” Rolfe and Pocahontas with their son, Thomas, to London on a fund-raising mission, were treated as royalty, and even eventually encountered John Smith with mixed results. A week before they were scheduled to return to Virginia, she died from some illness, perhaps smallpox or pneumonia, and was buried in Kent, England. Jamestown struggled, Pocahontas had (without any involvement with Smith) intervened in times of war and brought foodstuffs.  Jamestown was subsequently sent more men (including crafts-men and carpenters), then more men and a couple of women, all while having occasional skirmishes with the local Native Americans, as well as a couple of 'wars' which were described as massacres with the Native Americans overpowering the Englishmen. Yet, Virginia was established and continued, even accepting in 1619 twenty African freemen and ex-slaves, handed over by a Dutch ship with the Africans gathered from the Caribbean. The 20 Africans were treated as equals or servants (though listed as 'slaves' in certain documents), until a 1640 incident with one African and two white indentured servants who had fleed Maryland, were captured, and the African, John Punch, was officially returned to his Virginian plantation owner, Hugh Gwyn, as a slave in permanent servitude with the same rights as a cow or bale of hay. John Punch is the first 'legal' slave in what became the United States of America. A horrific number of Africans followed Punch into American 'legal' slavery. Slavery is associated with power and fear. Every culture around the globe has put weaker people to work as slaves with the ultimate threat of death when disobeying. Yes, we were taking land away from foreigners, the aboriginal Native Americans, who had lived and died in their homeland for thousands and tens of thousands of years, ...by force with an occasional monetary or property trade (read: scam). However, this was the “New World” and the Old World was committed to oust the Native Americans and occupy their lands and homes. Apparently, “New” takes its time to truly happen. At Jamestown there were the English, Germans, Poles, Dutch, the Irish as indentured servants, and eventually examples of all people, ethnicities, and religions. War is war and the Native Americans fought for centuries and some still do. Black Africans were 'slaves' in America for around 245 years. War is war, could easily be argued as stupid, and slavery is regarded as morally and socially stupid (and much worse) by an estimated 20.9 million current human slaves around the world.


A 1624 engraving of John Smith by John Barra and a 1616 engraving of Pocahontas in England by Simon van de Passe.

     Seldom mentioned, in 1606, the Plymouth Company, as part of the Virginia Company, acquired a charter to establish the Popham Colony in what is now known as the state of Maine. After a couple of years the colony failed with half returning to England in 1607 and the rest in 1608. England attempted once more to establish a colony in Maine and in 1622 the so-called Gorges Expedition (though Sir Ferdinando Gorges was just a financier and never journeyed to the New World). The established colony failed and split into two halves for financial matters, with almost all of the Gorges colonists returning to England in 1623 and 1629 – the other “half” of 'Maine' would be sold by his grandson to Massachusetts in 1677. One of the original Gorges colonists, the Reverend William Blaxton (also spelled Blackstone), got off the ship in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1623, taking his possessions and collection of books and boldly by himself, journeyed north along the coast and settled near a fresh-water spring in what is now called the Boston Common.

     Skipping past the Dutch in New Amsterdam and the French in Canada, stupidity occurred immediately and aplenty at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Jamestown was a settlement without any hopes of immediate profits by the 'Dutch Company' owned and run by English investors with returns perhaps decades away. The 'London Company', owned by English investors, with a charter signed by King James of England to settle a region just beyond the boundary of the Dutch and New Amsterdam to be called “New England” and to establish a fishing industry and build a plantation. Well, that was 1620, and just another piece of paper to the Separatists (aka Puritans, called “Pilgrims” in 1651, but the term didn't really catch on for a hundred years or so). Basically, the Mayflower was to land near Connecticut, but mistakenly went off-course and stopped at Cape Cod (named by John Smith in 1614), near present day Provincetown, MA. There, they found the land and a deserted village and pilfered some grain. They hadn't realized a plague had killed two-thirds of the Native Americans, the Wampanoag (also called the Massasoit and the Wpanak). While still at Cape Cod, on November 11, 1620, 41 adult male Separatists (Puritans) and Strangers (the crew of the Mayflower) out of 102 passengers (Separatists and some Anglicans) and around 30 members of the crew, affixed their names to what later became known as the “Mayflower Compact” effectfully disobeying King James and breaching their contract with the London Company. Breaking contracts is bad for business and rather stupid. They landed at Plymouth on Dec. 16, 1620, and had a bit of a rough winter with 45 passengers dead by spring.


A statue of Samoset overlooking the Annisquam in Gloucester, MA ca. 2000.

     The first Native American visitor on March 16, 1621, Samoset from Maine who was familiar with some English words, announced and asked, "Welcome, English! I am Samoset. Do you have beer?” Later, he would ask for brandy and received some, but the Puritans cut him off as they used brandy for medicinal purposes (though the crew sampled the supply at times). He spent the night, left, and returned with five local Wampanoags who wanted to trade some deer-skins. The Puritans refused because it was Sunday, the Sabbath, and they could do no work or conduct business, though they did give the Native Americans some food for their troubles. Samoset returned on March 22, 1621, with Squanto, said to have been the last of the Patuxet tribe, but who spoke better English than Samoset, and subsequently took a party of Puritans to meet Massasoit Sachem, the leader of the Wampanoags and negotiated a peace treaty. The Wampanoags shared much food with the Puritans for the first few struggling years of the Plymouth Colony. With half the crew dead from various ailments, the Mayflower returned to England on April 5, 1621.

     In 1623, a group of men from Dorchester, England, was given a grant from King James to build a fish-drying station at Gloucester on Cape Ann. It didn't take long for the Puritans of Plymouth to dispatch Miles Standish, in the role of righteous bully, to check on the work being down in Gloucester. Not much had been accomplished, Standish returned to Plymouth and the Dorchester men fled Gloucester inland and found an abandoned Native American village in what later became Salem in 1626, with the landing of a contingent of fisherman, with Roger Conant in charge, hired by the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Company.

     The “Cambridge Agreement” of 1628 between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and more Puritans in England, traveled to the “New World” led by John Winthrop. In 1630, the Winthrop fleet entered Salem, who said they didn't have enough food to share with all the passengers. Disembarking, they walked from Salem to Charlestown, losing half their number to starvation, dehydration, and illness. Once in Charlestown, the handful of residents freely admitted they did not have the resources to assist the Winthrop colonists. Across the Charles River, Anglican Rev. Blackstone heard of their plight and invited them unto his land where they at least has access to fresh water. Winthrop gave Rev, Blackstone some money for 'his' land and Blackstone gave it back. The Anglican didn't care for the Puritans and soon took off and settled near the Rhode Island border. And, Beantown was born, from the generosity of an Anglican to the narrow-minded Puritans. Some may maintain it was stupid for Blackstone to refuse the Puritan's money, though I believe he wanted NOTHING to do with the Puritans and kept his word and honor.  By the way, Boston is Gotham City and Metropolis is New York City. Sure, the comic-book character of The Batman originally lived in Manhattan, then Gotham variously located from New Jersey to Connecticut, before finally settling as Boston. However, that's background for a future column.

     The Puritans of Massachusetts behaved poorly, treated the various local Native American tribes as they had their English financial backers – they lied and broke treaties. King Philip's War (1675-1678) was building for years – rampant Chrisianization, demanding weapons be surrendered, and finally hanging three Wampanoag for the murder of a Christianized Native American. The so-called Salem Witch trials and killings has been revealed to be mainly about the acquisitions of land was stupid and fatally mean. The subsequent celebration of the Fifth of November (my mom's birthday) commonally referred to as the Gunpowder Plot Day or Anti-Pope Day was straight up bigotry against Catholics (though Guy Fawkes did try to blow up the British Parliament) with the burning of pope effigies, much partying, and scooter races between the North End and the South End resulting in several deaths, as well as contest between neighborhoods on the Charles River. Notables like John Adams wrote about such 'celebrations'. Maybe just vengeful... It was uplifting when Gen. George Washington forbade his Continental Army honoring the anti-Catholic holiday.  Bigotry or stupidity?  And, wonder of wonders, we won our independence from England.

     Stupidity, the elephant in the room, charged into our Constitution, as some of our Founding Fathers were slave owners and would not allow Africans or African-Americans to be full and free citizens. And, to think one of the very first persons to die in America's War of Independence was Crispus Attucks (said to be a mulatto of African and Native American descent, recently from the Christianized Natick or perhaps a runaway slave from Framingham) took to sailing out of Boston Harbor. He heard a commotion from the State House and shots were fired into the crowd (supposedly unordered to) and killed three men instantly (Attaucks, Samuel Gray, and James Caldwell), with a wounded Sam Maverick who died from a fatal wound a few hours later, and an Irish immigrant, Patrick Carr, two weeks later. It's said Christopher Monk who was wounded, recovered, and though passing in 1780, the reasons were given as from the Boston Massacre in front of the State House. Even with the beginnings of abolitionism as relatively new, it was also ethnically sound and our Founding Fathers, supposedly to gain the support of the Southern states to form the Union, procceded to found a country for the people, run by the people, and take a foolishly long time to agree on the definition of what makes an American person. Stupidity, cowardliness, and a horrible side-street of Capitalism are all candidates.

     The American Civil War when the Southern states behaved in true American fashion and broke a contract. Leaving the Union because of slavery and the color of a person's skin? The Emancipation Proclamation was a start, the Civil Rights movement in the '60s advanced the cause of racial equality, yet even with a mixed-race (Kansas-white European and African Kenyan) President leading these United States, bigots abound and African-Americans are at risk from legions of American racists. Women? Okay, they eventually got the right to vote and some other legal hush-puppies, but equal wages and the constant attacks on Roe v. Wade place American women continuing an uphill battle. The LGBT community has somewhat benefited from civil unions and same-sex marriage, yet ...acceptance is way, way down the road. Pagans became legal at some point and apparently the baby-boomers and folks with serious medical problems get to legally smoke pot (while everyone else still buys the cheap stuff off the street). More than once have I considered our Statue of Liberty to be a monument to hypocrisy.

     As much as I appreciate our country allowing women the right to vote in 1920's Nineteenth Amendment, it was also earlier that year our country listened to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Volstead Act or the Eighteenth Amendment which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol was enacted and enforced. It was nice the Kennedy's got rich smuggling whiskey down the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Boston and that Al Capone brought booze from Canada into Chicago and set up soup-kitchens for the poor, but most today regard the U. S. Prohibition years (1920-1933) as a reflex act of stupidity which preceded and contributed to the Great Depression of 1929. The crime was tragic, but the loss of tax dollars hurt our country a lot. Morality changes from one culture to another, yet the arrogant seldom learn from their mistakes, as our current “War on Drugs” demonstrates. Stupidity? Our country elected an actor who made a movie with a monkey (1951's Bedtime for Bonzo, though a sequel was made, Reagan and the original chimpanzee declined to return). Yes, the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth, and to negatively paraphrase Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great stupidity...”

     In my personal opinion, we should not have entered into a war with communist Viet-Nam simply because the French were getting their colonial butts kicked and America was still caught up with McCarthy-ism and beginning the useless Cold War. Sure, French cuisine greatly influenced Vietnamese cuisine with color, new ingredients, the baguette (of all things), but especially in their coffees, which the French introduced in the 1800s. My father, as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corp. (telephone and communications) spent 1963 in South Viet-Nam as a 'Military Adviser' and later did a second tour in 1968. My half-brother, Tom, also did a tour of South Viet-Nam as a U.S. Marine in 1967-1968. The war ended in 1975, I turned 18 on December 31, 1975, mad 1976 was the only year in decades which 18 year-olds did not have to register for selective service – it started again in 1977. I grew up as an Army-brat traveling around the world and the U.S. and didn't particularly care for the U.S. military in general. However, after the premature death of my father, I joined the U.S. Army Lynn, Massachusetts National Guard, as “week-end” warriors could go to any state college or university tuition-free. Some still scream out “Hanoi Jane” at Jane Fonda, too many 'Nam vets display MIA buttons and bumper stickers, while “communist” Viet-Nam has become an excellent trading partner with the U.S. and makes a good chunk of cash on their successful tourist industry. Of course, my heart goes out to all those who lost their lives or were maimed obeying orders from the U.S. government, it just seems stupid we got involved in the first place.

     There's nothing more to be said about Pres. Nixon... Pres. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was slow to enter into the Kosovo conflict (Iran was already sending weapons to help the Muslims), and down-right stupid to get caught with Monica Lewinsky via the infamous stained blue dress. A great many levels of stupidity there. However, he did successfully argue the meaning of the word “so” in front of Congress for over an hour. Equally stupid was the personal lives of nearly ALL who hounded Clinton as almost to a man, all were eventually divorced for having fellatio with another woman. And, Newt Gingrish's “Contract with America” failed, as did his marriage when he was discovered cheating on his wife. Pres. Bill did leave his office with a surplus of cash in the government coffers, however the Cheney/Bush administration blew through it faster than a starving man at a free buffet. Even with so much stupidity in our past, America was far from done...

     There's too much stupidity in America for this column to be anything but a short prolegomena, that is, an introduction to the topic. We live in an America which has raced ahead of 1958's The Ugly American and now, besides sticking our collective (and government) noses where they don't belong, we have devolved into a Honey Boo-Boo society of 'reality' television shows, two History cable channels which show no 'history' whatsoever, anti-vaxxers who are citing pseudoscience, but also jeopardize the nations health as some diseases are making a comeback, like measles. The “Birther” controversy is a tad more stupid than Congress trying to repeal our new health-care system some 148 times or so (and the number keeps rising), and just a smidgeon above the Benghazi Embassy attack which they blame on Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State for Pres. Obama. And, now, the stupid Republicans are after her private e-mails. That for the last several years our Congress has done little except attack Obama, Clinton, and Democratic initiatives, basically ANYTHING but doing their jobs, is by far the stupidest thing America is currently doing. They even shut down the government in a classic “cut off your nose to spite your face” move. The behavior of Congress has recently been concentrated on vengefully attacking Democrats and their ideals, rather than doing the jobs they were elected to do, and as such, is most assuredly the best example of stupidity in America. I wish to stand beside Her, but I've got a bum knee so I'm going to sit down while I help guide Her by voting for Hillary.

And, I didn't have to mention either Sarah Palen or Donald Trump,


Return to