Get Right With History

My historian friend Morty Horwitz of the Harvard Law School faculty is fond of saying that those who abuse history by using it selectively to prove a point, are “looking for their friends in history.”  This sort of instrumental use of history is common, especially when it is by nations to falsify their pasts.  This is why so many countries try to control the interpretation of history in school textbooks in an attempt to keep school children from learning about the misdeeds of earlier generations.  An even more egregious state abuse of history occurs when nations manipulate history texts and teaching in order to promote desired values, ordinarily by portraying as heroes those who stand for the desired national values. 

I was trained professionally as an historian, and although I have not formally taught history for a number of years, I cannot escape my commitment to what I understand to be the proper use of history.  The conscious abuse of history offends me deeply, which is why I was so engaged by the controversy over the adoption of national standards for the teaching of American history in the early 1990s.  One of the principal objections of conservatives at that time to the proposed new standards was that they were insufficiently attentive to the historical role of the “Founding Fathers.”  Interpreting the role of the “heroes” of the early republic has long been a political touchstone in the politics of history in this country. 

Both liberals and conservatives want to claim the allegiance of the founders in order to provide historical justification for their causes.  But a trained historian should know that it is not so obvious just where Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams would come down on current questions (such as the war in Afghanistan, the Obama health plan, the TARP).  But that does not stop both sides from claiming the authorization of history for their policy preferences.

I’ll come to what I consider conservative abuse in a moment, but as a liberal I am particularly distressed when the abusers are people I take to be on my side of current politics.  The most recent example turned up in my  e-mail inbox this morning, straight from Common Cause.  The message led off by saying, “I, Thomas Jefferson, have re-joined my fellow American Patriots, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Betsy Ross, to help take our country back from the corporate interests controlling our political system.”  And it went on to say that “it’s time to make sure our politicians are accountable to voters.  We need a government of, by and for the people.  So take a minute and answer our question:  Where should the Founding Fathers go next?”  The message is signed by “Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father”. 

Please!  Where should the Founders go next?  I suppose the technically correct answer is “back to sleep, rest in peace.”  This is just not an intelligent, intelligible, or responsible way to discuss urgent contemporary issues.

Ironically, what Common Cause is doing here is to mimic the most common form of abuse of history by conservatives.  Last Sunday, the Washington Post ran a nicely written story by Amy Gardner on how Colonial Williamsburg (“CW” to early American history types) has been attracting large numbers of visitors who are supporters of the Tea Party.  Apparently Glenn Beck has been promoting CW on Fox News.  The Tea Party visitors apparently share the reaction of a fellow quoted by Gardner:  “I want to get to know our Founding Fathers . . . I think we’ve forgotten them.  It’s like we’ve almost erased them from history.” 

That cannot be what he really means, of course, since our K-12 curriculum is replete with reference to the nation’s founding and to its founders.  It’s the capital “F” that counts here—there is a difference in some minds (probably Beck’s) between a founder and a Founder.  These people (just like Common Cause) are looking for their friends in history. 

Their friends oppose strong central government and prefer both local self-determination and individual rights.  But of course they also have some contemporary policy preferences they would be happy to have the central government regulate.  Gardner quotes another CW visitor who asked the CW actor playing George Washington “to reflect on the role of prayer and religion in politics.”  He was disappointed in the actor’s historically correct response:  “Prayers, sir, are a man’s private concern.  They are not a matter of public interest.  And nor should they be.”  The Washington actor also said, when asked about the Boston Tea Party, that it should never have taken place.  “It’s hurt our cause, sir.” CW has got historical interpretation right, though it took them a good many years to do so.  It will be much harder for our country as a whole to get it right.

I suppose the Common Cause message this morning is yet another attempt by liberals not to allow conservatives to take American history away from us by claiming ownership of certain ideas.  But two wrongs don’t make a right. 

The best-case scenario for getting right with history would be to improve the teaching of American history so that all of our compatriots would have a sophisticated appreciation of the uses, and limits, of historical understanding.  Alas, however, even professional historians all too frequently use history for instrumental purposes. 

I believe that the proper use of history is simply to enable us to contextualize knowledge in a sophisticated way. History in itself cannot and will not solve contemporary problems.  But historical dispute, conducted in a well-informed, civilized manner, could indeed help an educated, democratic people, to conduct its affairs in a wiser and better way.

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