From Anne Boleyn's Breasts to the Formation of the USA

by JoHarrington

History is an on-going tale, which directly affects the modern day. Each event is part of a domino effect causing ripples across the world.

Do you see history as a series of isolated events? This period, then that era, with nothing interlinking?

Then you are wrong. Each historical action and event reverberates through all of the others. We are still feeling the effects now. And they occurred because they, in their turn, were still reeling from all that had gone before.

Let me demonstrate by taking two random facts - the attractiveness of an English woman and the USA becoming a country - and firmly linking them together.

Too Soon to Tell: Taking the Wide View of History

Small events in one country can have major implications, centuries later, in another.

Image: 3D GlobeIn 1971, two presidents met in China. The US President Richard Nixon was visiting the country to secure trade agreements, but the conversation turned to other matters.

Three years before, students had been rioting in France. They had used slogans which recalled the 1789 storming of the Bastille, during the French Revolution.

President Nixon asked the Chinese President Zhou Enlai what he thought the long-term effects of this event might be. There was some confusion in the translation. Were they talking about the student riots of 1968 or the French Revolution itself? Most of those present thought that President Zhou was referring to the latter, when he responded, "It's too soon to tell."

The exchange has become famous, seized upon by generations of historians to describe why history is so important. It barely matters that President Zhou probably was talking about events three years previously. The alternate interpretation - that nearly 200 years is too soon for a full evaluation of the effects - is not only completely true, but also acts as a profound insight into the nature of history itself.

At school or on the History Channel, history is presented as isolated incidents. Each event is given a black and white interpretation. Moreover, they are falsely given a starting point, as if nothing had influenced its occurrence. Worst still, they are assigned an ending, like we are not currently living in the aftermath.

The reality is that even seemingly small footnotes of history can have massive repercussions further down the line. It can take centuries to play out. It might not even be in the same country. To prove this, I will take a tiny event - the lustful glance of a man towards a beautiful woman - and show how the ripples led to the rise of a modern superpower.

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How Anne Boleyn's Breasts Led to the Existence of the USA Today

Historical events should not be seen in isolation. This is just one (highly simplified) example of the domino effect that is really in operation.

There would be no USA, if Britain's Anne Boleyn hadn't possessed such attractive breasts. These things are all inter-related. Anyone who views history as a series of isolated events is not getting the full picture. The seeds of just about anything can be traced back into antiquity. Moreover, most things should be!

Let me justify such a bold assertion, in order to demonstrate how history builds upon itself to bring us into the present.

Britain's King Henry VIII had certainly taken a fancy to Anne Boleyn's 'paps'. He wrote letters about them. Eventually he broke with the Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife, so he could get his hands upon said breasts.

Henry's subsequent excommunication by the Pope led to the establishment of the Church of England and, more importantly here, the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Tearing down the Catholic religious houses meant that the Crown suddenly had a lot of money. Henry VIII used a large portion of it to build a navy for Britain. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, viewed the growth of her navy as a priority during her long reign. Over the centuries, better ships and more sea-going experience rendered Britain's navy a real force with which to be reckoned.

This was certainly the case by 1763, when Britain won the Seven Years War. The decisive battles had all been at sea and this fact was not lost on France's Louis XV. He was so anxious to create a better navy for his own country, that he spent well above his nation's means. France had been one of the world's most economically stable countries, but it was soon heavily in debt. His son, Louis XVI, also spent extravagantly, thus sending France onto the brink of bankruptcy.

Image: Miss Liberty at WarThe result was the French Revolution, which removed the monarchy from France and paved the way for the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Emperor wasn't satisfied with merely ruling his own country, so began a campaign stretching across Europe and the Americas. This required money and the removal of France's debts.

Both of these were accomplished by selling a vast tract of land to America (known there as the Louisiana Purchase). Then, after Napoleon had defeated the Spanish, he also gained control of Spain's colonies in the New World.

Mexico was amongst those countries now controlled by Napoleon, but the ruling classes there were loyal to Spain. The Mexican War of Independence followed very quickly. This left Mexico impoverished and led by inexperienced politicians. Their American neighbors to the north offered one solution, which was to allow Americans to settle in Mexico's province of Texas. Along with the money to facilitate this came friendly advice, from one republic to another, which naive Mexican politicians hadn't quite sussed was all in America's favor.

Photo: Statue commemorating the American annexation of California.When enough Americans had colonized Texas, then the stage was set for the Texas War of Independence and the Mexican-American War. By 1853, America had seized over 55% of Mexico for itself. The states of California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas were all part of Mexico less than 200 years ago.

Naturally the Mexican people were not impressed, which sparked off the Mexican Civil War.

An independent Mexico had abolished slavery, which had seen anxious American diplomats rushing into Mexico City to ensure that law wouldn't apply to Texas too. Now that not only Texas, but over half of Mexico was in the hands of the USA, issues of slave ownership and money were causing tension in that country too. Within ten years, the nation was embroiled in the American Civil War.

Back in France, the Emperor had not just been sitting back twiddling his thumbs, while all of this was going on. As far as he was concerned, Mexico belonged to France and this was his big moment. Napoleon III sent his navy to take back bankrupt, war-weary Mexico.

Image: Napoleon IIIHe also made no secret of his plans immediately after that. He would arm and fund the American South, which most historians conclude would have undoubtedly resulted in a victory for the Confederacy. 

In return, Napoleon III would have demanded the return of all Mexican land. The Louisiana Purchase had always been mired in concerns about illegality (Napoleon I hadn't had the right to sell it), so that might have been returned to France too. After all, a divided and weakened USA could not have effectively defended the territory.

It's also enticing to speculate about whether Napoleon would have simply carried on going and taken the rest of America too. Then he would have been right on the border of French-speaking Canada, with the might of Mexico and America combined behind him. Thus world history hung in the balance.

There was a certain sense of inevitability to it all. France had not lost a war in 50 years. Mexico had been decimated by a series of lost wars. Its national morale was at a low ebb. Only half of the country remained, limping through poverty and uncertainty. Psychologically, the Mexicans had no love for the USA. Their greatest revenge for their losses would have been to just invite Napoleon in. They had no hope of winning the battle anyway.

Except they did.

On May 5th 1862, an out-numbered and out-gunned force of Mexicans beat Napoleon's army at Puebla. Jaws dropped in shock around the world, while the American Union forces exhaled a loud sigh of relief.

Of course, it couldn't last. Napoleon returned a year later and took the entirety of Mexico, but, by then, it was too late. The Battle of Gettysburg had been fought and the Union had won the American Civil War. The USA had survived and it was now strong enough to repel any imperial designs coming from French Mexico.

Timeline: Anne Boleyn to the Modern USA

For the sake of simplicity, here is that domino effect again, but in bullet-points:

  • Anne Boleyn's breasts were admired by Britain's Henry VIII.
  • Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon (his wife) to marry Anne Boleyn.
  • The Pope excommunicated Henry VIII as part of the condemnation of the Catholic Church for the divorce.
  • Henry VIII established the Church of England instead, resulting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
  • The money raised from this was used to create Britain's navy.
  • The British navy was instrumental in winning the Seven Years War.
  • Louis XV of France wanted a navy which would never be defeated by Britain again.
  • France became heavily in debt and bankrupt due, in large part, to the building of their navy.
  • The French Revolution was a reaction to the extravagant spending of the French nobility, primarily that of the monarch.
  • The collapse of the French nobility allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to rise to power.
  • He stabilized the French economy (and funded his future campaigns) partially through the Louisiana Purchase.

Today's USA 1: Much of the middle section of the country was added.

The Louisiana Purchase

Napoleon I sold this area to the USA in order to stabilise France's economy and fund his imperial campaigns.
The Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase
  • An economically stable France was able to form an empire. Napoleon was able to launch a series of campaigns to invade countries across the continent.
  • Spain fell to Napoleon's armies.
  • As one of Spain's colonies, Mexico automatically became ruled by Napoleon.
  • A Peasant's Revolt erupted into a full scale Mexican War of Independence against Napoleon's control.
  • An impoverished Mexican republic needed money, so allowed Americans to settle in Texas.
  • The Texan settlers staged their own War of Independence over the right to own slaves. They were supported by the USA.
  • This escalated into a full blown Mexican-American War, after which 55% of Mexico was taken by the USA.

Today's USA 2: The entire south-west of the country was added.

Mexican Lands Lost to the USA

The area in white belonged to Mexico before 1853. It was lost to the USA as an indirect consequence of Napoleon's rise to power.
Mexican lands lost to the USA
Mexican lands lost to the USA
  • The addition of a large slave-owning state (Texas) into the USA prompted fears in the North that the majority of America would be pro-slavery.
  • This resulted in abolition becoming a hot topic throughout the USA.
  • Eleven states (the Confederacy) took the decision to leave the Union, in order to preserve their right to govern themselves (including safe-guarding their ability to retain slaves).
  • The American Civil War was fought to keep these eleven states within the Union.
  • The loss of so much land had also led to the Mexican Civil War.
  • Napoleon III saw his opportunity and went for it. He launched an attack on Mexico in full expectation of winning.
  • Mexico won.
  • In America, the Union were able to beat the Confederacy, thus consolidating the whole country against the very real danger of Napoleon's imperialism.

Today's USA 3: The south-eastern states were retained within the wider USA. The country is not part of France.

The Confederate States of America

If Napoleon had successfully invaded Mexico in 1862, these states would have undoubtedly ended up in his debt. Ultimately, he may have invaded them too.
The Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America

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To learn more about how past events formed the United States, explore its history.

Tracing History into the Modern Day

Stopping anywhere in historical studies is very arbitrary.

Photo: Rivers Skell and Laver

History can be viewed as a mighty river, rushing along and taking events with it. Small streams join its force; tiny leaks carry implications away. It's all connected and it's all part of the great human saga.

Anne Boleyn wasn't the real start of the story. She merely represented a convenient place to enter it. I didn't even take the most obvious route to the conclusion that we did reach. After all, the whole Boleyn incident sparked a huge religious upheaval in Great Britain, which we could have followed to the Puritans and taken the Mayflower into the USA.

Neither did we cover every other tributary flowing away from the other events mentioned in that timeline. There was another near miss for America's Founding Fathers, when Napoleon came close to taking Haiti. From any point in that timeline, dozens of direct or indirect consequences still affect the modern day and will go on doing so long after we're dead.

I stopped just 150 years ago, which was a random place to pause. You can follow through if you like to how Texas remaining in the USA allowed George W Bush to become president, precipitating the current wars in the Middle East. Or how the defeat of the Confederacy ran through anti-slavery into eventual racial civil rights movements and finally delivered Barack Obama into the White House. Or how the increased land, resources and wealth elevated the USA into becoming a superpower.

This is just one country. The ripples are still being felt throughout the world in a myriad of perhaps surprising ways.

The news that we hear each day will have a trail leading back into its own history. Current events will become just another bullet point in some future historian's studies. We build upon the past and then hand over to the next generation, as a tiny chapter in a vast timeline. This is why our histories cannot be segmented nor why each event does not exist in isolation.

It is a fascinating subject, which really does inform the world in which we live today.

Learn More about World History

The key to understanding world events is to find out what started them. Buy a history book to unlock the motivation behind today's powerful leaders.

Domino Scene from V for Vendetta

V demonstrates how his personal history and events conspire to influence the present day.

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Updated: 07/14/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 11/09/2012

That is the perfect compliment. Thank you very much. :D

I don't have to try very hard though. History IS fun.

Darla Sue Dollman on 11/09/2012

Great article! Very clever! I also think you should be teaching history, Jo. You make history fun!

JoHarrington on 01/09/2012

Thank you, Sheilamarie!

sheilamarie on 01/09/2012

Interesting perspective, Jo.

JoHarrington on 01/08/2012

Thank you, Ember!

Yes, this is precisely why I love history so much. It's seeing the overview and following where all of those jigsaw pieces fall into place. Just as fascinating is imagining all of those 'what ifs' of history. I'm doing that right now, in my mind, since you've prompted me with the musing!

Ember on 01/08/2012

You should have been my history teacher, that was really fun to read with the story put together like that. I think its interesting how many different vantage points there can be on the same event that happened in history, I never realized it quite like that before! It also seems a bit like seeing the butterfly effect retrospectively, which I think is a cool way of thinking about historical events. If Anne Boleyn's breasts had been less attractive, what might the world look like today! :o

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