23.Braddock's Defeat: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
Unless you're a professional sports addict and know that Joe Montana, greatest quarterback of the modern era, went to Waverly school in Monongahela, or that Ron Neccai, only man in modern baseball history to strike out everybatter on the opposing team for a whole game did, too, or that Ken Griffey Jr. went to its high school as well, you can be forgiven if you never heard of Monongahela. But once upon a time at the
beginning of our national history, Monongahela marked the forward edge of a new nation, a wilder West than ever the more familiar West became. Teachers on a frontier cannot be bystanders.
Custer's Last Stand in Montana had no military significance. Braddock's Last Stand near Monongahela, on the other hand, changed American history forever because it proved that the invincible British could be taken. And twenty-one years later we did take them, an accomplishment the French and Spanish, their principal rivals, had been unable to do. Why that happened, what inspiration allowed crude colonials to succeed where powerful and polished nations could not, is so tied up with Monongahela that I want to bring the moment back for you. It will make a useful reference point, you'll see, as we consider the problem of modern schooling. Without Braddock's defeat we would never have had a successful American revolution; without getting rid of the British, the competence of ordinary people to educate themselves would never have had a fair test.
In July of 1755, at the age of twenty-three, possessing no university degrees, the alumnus of no military academy, with only two years of formal schooling under his belt, half- orphan George Washington was detailed an officer in the Virginia militia to accompany an English military expedition moving to take the French fort at the forks of the Monongahela and Allegheny, the point that became Pittsburgh. His general, Edward Braddock, was an aristocrat commanding a well-equipped and disciplined force considerably superior to any possible resistance. Braddock felt so confident of success, he dismissed the advice of Washington to put aside traditional ways of European combat in the New World.
On July 9, 1755, two decades and one year before our Revolution commenced under the direction of the same Washington, Braddock executed a brilliant textbook crossing of the Monongahela near the present Homestead High Bridge by Kennywood amusement park. With fife and drum firing the martial spirit, he led the largest force in British colonial America, all in red coats and polished metal, across the green river into the trees on the farther bank. Engineers went ahead to cut a road for men and cannon.
Suddenly the advance guard was enveloped in smoke. It fell back in panic. The main body moved up to relieve, but the groups meeting, going in opposite directions, caused pandemonium. On both sides of the milling redcoats, woods crackled with hostile gunfire. No enemy could be seen, but soldiers were caught between waves of bullets fanning both flanks. Men dropped in bunches. Bleeding bodies formed hills of screaming flesh, accelerating the panic.
Enter George, the Washington almost unknown to American schoolchildren. Making his way to Braddock, he asked permission to engage the enemy wilderness fashion; permission denied. Military theory held that allowing commands to emanate from inferiors was a precedent more dangerous than bullets. The British were too well trained to fight out of formation, too superbly schooled to adapt to the changing demands of the new situation. When my grandfather took me to the scene of that battle years after on the way to Kennywood, he muttered without explanation, "Goddamn bums couldn't think for themselves." Now I understand what he meant.
The greatest military defeat the British ever suffered in North America before Saratoga was underway. Washington's horse was shot from under him, his coat ripped by bullets. Leaping onto a second horse, his hat was lifted from his head by gunfire and the second horse went down. A legend was in the making on the Monongahela that day, passed to Britain, France, and the colonies by survivors of the battle. Mortally wounded, Braddock released his command. Washington led the retreat on his hands and knees, crawling through the twilight dragging the dying Braddock, symbolic of the imminent death of British rule in America.
Monongahela began as a town fourteen years later, crossing point for a river ferry connecting to the National Road (now Route 40) which began, appropriately enough, in the town of Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1791, leaders of the curious "Whiskey Rebellion" met in Monongahela about a block from the place I was born; Scots-Irish farmers sick of the oppression of federal rule in the new republic spoke of forging a Trans-Allegheny nation of free men. Monongahela might have been its capital had they succeeded. We know these men were taken seriously back East because Washington, who as general never raised an army larger than 7,000 to fight the British, as president assembled 13,000 in 1794 to march into western Pennsylvania to subdue the Whiskey rebels. Having fought with them as comrades, he knew the danger posed by these wild men of the farther forests was no pipedream. They were descendants of the original pioneers who broke into the virgin forest, an evergreen and aggressive strain of populism ran through their group character.
Monongahela appears in history as a place where people expected to make their own luck, a place where rich and poor talked face to face, not through representatives. In the 1830s it became a way station on the escape route from Horace Mann — style Whiggery, the notion that men should be bound minutely by rules and layered officialdom. Whiggery was a neo-Anglican governing idea grown strong in reaction to Andrew Jackson's dangerous democratic revolution. Whigs brought us forced schooling before they mutated into both Democrats and Republicans; history seemed to tell them that with School in hand their mission was accomplished. Thousands of Americans, sensibly fearing the worst, poured West to get clear of this new British consciousness coming back to life in the East, as if the spirit of General Braddock had survived after all. Many of the new pilgrims passed through Mon City on the road to a place that might allow them to continue seeing things their own way.
Each group passing through on its western migration left a testament to its own particular yearnings — there are no less than twenty-three separate religious denominations in Monongahela, although less than 5,000 souls live in the town. Most surprising of all, you can find there world headquarters of an autonomous Mormon sect, one that didn't go to Nauvoo with the rest of Smith's band but decamped here in a grimier Utopia. Monongahela Mormons never accepted polygamy. They read the Book of Mormon a different way. From 1755 until the Civil War, the libertarianism of places like Monongahela set the tone for the most brilliant experiment in self-governance the modern world has ever seen. Not since the end of the Pippin Kings in France had liberty been so abundantly available for such a long time. A revolution in education was at hand as knowledge of the benefits of learning to the vigor of the spirit spread far and wide across America. Formal schooling played a part in this transformation, but its role was far from decisive. Schooled or not, the United States was the best-educated nation in human history — because it had liberty.