Skip to main content

Feature

Historians Disagree About Everything, or So It Seems

Including what to remember, what to teach, and much else

By Peter Gibbon | HUMANITIES, Summer 2017 | Volume 38, Number 3

“Indeed the general natural tendency of reading good history must be, to fix in the minds of youth deep impressions of the

beauty and usefulness of virtue of all kinds.” —Benjamin Franklin

“To illustrate the glory of this nation is one of the offices of the historian.” —Washington Irving

“I start from the premise that there are terrible wrongs all about us.” —Howard Zinn

Today they sound antique. But for most of our history Ben Franklin and Washington Irving stated the obvious—what pedagogues, parents, and students believed—that the study of history promoted love of country and built character. This belief permeated Webster’s Spellers, McGuffey’s Readers, and Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It was enshrined in inscriptions carved on our public buildings. Etched along the top of the National Archives is “THE GLORY AND ROMANCE OF OUR HISTORY ARE HERE PRESERVED.”

Today we are wary of virtue and skeptical of glory, content to make history teachers “fix in the minds of youth” historical habits of mind: context, contingency, multiple causation, differing interpretations. History, many have concluded, is not a moral tale with inspirational value. If history is not a moral tale, what is it? How is the presentation of our colonial past and our American Revolution different? Why are there battles over the founding of America in the first place? How, since the 1960s, has the nature of history changed?

History has moved from the center to the periphery, from the elite to the everyday, from a preoccupation with the great to a preference for the oppressed. The study of history includes more topics and a larger cast of characters. We want to know about generals and foot soldiers, aristocrats and servants, merchants and midwives. This “total history” makes room for women, workers, slaves, and Native Americans. Today, historians, who no longer come just from the privileged and leisured, want to see beneath politics, beyond presidents and state houses. They offer recognition to the marginalized and grant justice to victims. They are more inclusive and democratic.

This trend in history makes room for a wide range of topics: disease (the influence of smallpox on the American Revolution); demography (the dramatic increase of the colonial population before the Revolution); ecology (the destruction of forests, deer, and beaver); sexuality (a high percentage of pregnant brides in Colonial New England); climate (a little ice age in the eighteenth century).

We can see this trend in our national monuments. On Cambridge Common in Massachusetts, for example, are a statue of Puritan John Bridge, three cannons captured from the British during the Revolutionary War, a plaque where George Washington assembled the Continental Army, and a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The newest memorial on the Common commemorates the Irish potato famine. Underneath a gaunt figure of a father reaching out to his wife, who is clutching their sick child, are the words: “NEVER AGAIN SHOULD A PEOPLE STARVE IN A WORLD OF PLENTY.” In America today, there is a movement to honor the victims of history.

We can also see this trend in books awarded Pulitzer Prizes. Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spent years deciphering the diary of Martha Ballard, an eighteenth-century midwife. Thatcher described how Ballard trudged through snow, crossed swollen rivers, and waited in drafty houses for anxious women to give birth, delivering 816 babies between 1785 and 1812. Ballard’s diary offers a portrait of daily life: weeding flax, killing turkeys, washing clothes, coping with fleas and sore breasts in cold houses. It also reveals fundamental assumptions: large families, infant mortality, defined social classes, fixed sex roles, slow travel, lack of privacy, physical discomfort, short life spans, and unpredictable death. Reading Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning microhistory, A Midwife’s Tale, propels us back into the eighteenth century, beneath the American Revolution and outside the Constitutional Convention, into a world radically different from our own—a rural, religious, hierarchal world, more medieval than modern, and remote from an urban, secular democracy.

Some historians have aspired to a kind of complete history. In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer not only demonstrates how colonial Virginians imported British folkways, he also illuminates an entire world: houses, churches, diet, dress, speech patterns, recreation, education, punishments, and prisons. He describes attitudes toward courtship, marriage, and sex; the naming and raising of children; the veneration of elders; and the omnipresence of sickness, disease, and death. We peer inside happy and unhappy marriages, follow the sexual adventures of William Byrd II, attend feasts, hunts, and dancing classes. We follow the lives of slaves and indentured servants as well as those of aristocrats.

In On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, the nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle wrote, “The history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here.” Today we are less interested in great men and exemplary lives, inclined to believe that history is determined by forces—such as technology, economics, and weather—beyond any individual’s control. Historians are sympathetic to Abraham Lincoln’s fatalism: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

After Vietnam and Watergate, we look for flaws. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Governor William Bradford murdered Native Americans. John Winthrop persecuted Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Otto Bettmann, author of The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible!, recommends, “We need to reverse the idealized picture of the past and turn the spotlight on its grimmer aspects.” Colonial historians have fulfilled Bettmann’s recommendations. A PBS episode of Secrets of the Dead reveals cannibalism at Jamestown. In the American Experience series, The Pilgrims, a grim William Bradford describes a harrowing voyage from England and a first winter in Plymouth in which half of the settlers died. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mary Dyer, a Quaker, is hanged for heresy. Vengeful soldiers burned to the ground the Pequot village near the Mystic River, and, in 1676 placed the head of the chief called King Philip on a pike. By the end of the century, blacks have been made slaves and the slave trade from Africa flourishes.

Historians acknowledge that a painful past can result from their desire to be comprehensive, honest, and realistic. They assert, however, that it is not their mission to idealize or inspire. Educators worry about the effect of a dark past on the civic idealism of students. Grim and gloomy history can produce pessimistic, passive students who conclude that the world is a hopeless place. Some critics remind us that surviving sources emphasize the negative in human history, perhaps creating an excess of pain. “Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?” ask Will and Ariel Durant.

Contemporary historians feel confident that they have won the battle with older historians who focused on great men and political history, who looked for consensus instead of conflict, who believed in American exceptionalism. They celebrate total history with its commitment to digging deep, its insistence on reality, its sensitivity to race, gender, and class. Simultaneously, they admit the shortcomings of their craft. They acknowledge that objectivity is difficult and that we bring to the past individual temperament and the times we live in. To Samuel Eliot Morison, an optimist and a patriot, Christopher Columbus was a courageous explorer; to Howard Zinn, convinced that American history is permeated by greed and exploitation, Columbus was a cruel conqueror.

History is not a science. In old age, Thomas Jefferson admitted to John Adams, “The life and soul of history must be forever unknown.” It is easy to forget that history does not unroll in an orderly, predictable way, that the way things turned out was not inevitable. Events now past were once in the future and our ancestors, like us, were future blind. Just as we cannot predict our personal lives, so our leaders could not predict the nation’s future. Contributing to future blindness is chance and accident—the role of contingency. By accident, the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod instead of New Netherlands. Fog permitted George Washington’s army to escape near- certain defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. Neither an American victory nor the Constitution was inevitable.

Since sources are incomplete, historians subjective, and the past contingent, there is room for another kind of battle: a contested past. How many indigenous people inhabited the New World? How many were killed by disease, how many by bullets? To what extent were the Puritans idealistic, tough-minded reformers or superstitious, pleasure-hating fanatics? Did their “work ethic” come from Protestantism or economic opportunity in the New World? Did they try to live peacefully with Native Americans or cheat them? How did slavery get introduced to the Americas? Did racism produce slavery or did slavery produce racism?

Of course, the reputations of individuals rise and fall. Theodore Roosevelt called Thomas Paine “a dirty little atheist.” To secular, left-leaning historians, Paine has now become heroic. In the 1920s, debunking writers found George Washington ordinary, a man with little learning and less vision. Now he is unassailable, the indispensable general, the architect of victory, who gave up his sword and freed his slaves.

All nations want noble origins. So the founding of America, whose identity is based on ideals such as freedom and equality rather than on ethnicity and language, is particularly contested. Theodore Draper sees the coming of the American Revolution as a struggle for power over taxes and territory. Gordon Wood views it as a contest of ideas and a fight for rights. Robert Middlekauff titles his history of the revolution, The Glorious Cause. Alan Taylor emphasizes civil war, death by disease, and catastrophe for slaves and Native Americans in his 2016 book, American Revolutions.

Who were the founders? Who won the war and created our republic? Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier in the army, wrote: “Great men get great praise; little men nothing. . . . What could officers do without such men? Nothing at all.” Many historians now praise “little men,” arguing that farmers, mechanics, artisans, and women formed crowds that intimidated British officials, destroyed the mansions of the upper class, boycotted tea and wool, and agitated for democratic state constitutions. Looking at history from the bottom up, a historian such as Albert Young argues, “The American Revolution began on the waterfront.” He dismisses the glorification of famous white men as founder chic and champions a more radical, democratic, inclusive revolution in which “the people” have “agency.” “They, too, were founders,” insists Young.


Not all historians are sympathetic to the attack on leaders and elites. Joseph Ellis is critical of historians who see the founders as “creating a nation that was imperialist, racist, elitist, and patriarchal.” In his book Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer criticizes an academy that has no interest “in a dead white male on horseback.” Skeptical of the dominant social history, these historians see the founders as uniquely qualified men leading a world-altering revolution. Stressing context, they remind us that the eighteenth century was brutal and cruel and that ordinary men and women did not have a monopoly on virtue.

In 1913, Charles Beard began the battle over the founders’ motives in his incendiary book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. He asserted that the writers of the Constitution—mostly lawyers and usually wealthy—speculated in government bonds that a strong national government would redeem. In short, the founders had some degree of economic self-interest when drafting a blueprint for the nation. The insinuation that our founders were less than disinterested patriots ignited one of the earliest battles over history. Newspapers called Beard a traitor. Seattle banned the book from public schools. Morison claimed the book offered historians the “opportunity to smear and sneer.”

Today historians give founders multiple motives, find ideas and interests intertwined, and question some of Beard’s data. The Constitutional Convention is no longer called “The Miracle at Philadelphia.” Controversy about the Constitution has shifted from money to slaves, since all agree that slavery, along with the decimation of Native Americans, is the major stain on our nation’s history, the cause of a lethal civil war and persistent racism. Books such as Dark Bargain and Negro President condemn the founders as amoral, cowardly, and shortsighted. Apologists remind critics of constraints and context.

Colonial historians not only clash over how to view America’s founding, they also battle over the purpose of history. Historians who shine light on the marginalized hope to build a more democratic, just, inclusive America. Narrative historians want to entice their readers with a good story and vivid prose. De- fenders of monographs claim that the big picture depends on small studies. Professional historians sometimes see narrative historians as trespassers, short on analysis, shaky on the latest scholarship.

Biography, insists Allan Nevins, is the gateway to history, the ordinary person being more interested in his fellow humans than in facts and dates. Biography used to portray exemplary lives. We prefer intimate history. Eagerly, we detect glimpses of our common human nature. Cotton Mather tries to keep up with his father; Ben Franklin fights with his brother; John Adams dreams of fame. Abigail Adams worries about a wayward son and a daughter with breast cancer. Thomas Jefferson grieves for his dead wife. In an age of full disclosure, which claims no one is perfect, biographers are hard-hitting and realistic, attracting some of our most talented writers. They are not, however, likely to get tenure, the academy favoring books that ask questions, solve problems, and purport to be original.

All historians hope that immersion in the past will make readers more sympathetic, tolerant, and kind, that it will inculcate skills—close reading, appreciation of context, and understanding of multiple causation. Historians of the marginalized claim more. They tend to be reformers who believe that knowledge of the past can improve the present. Most historians, however, are wary of claiming too much for their craft. Skeptical of George Santayana’s claim that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” they doubt history’s predictive power and reject facile analogies. Contemporary historians do not see many lessons in the past. Looking back, they seem comfortable with the words irony and tragedy. For statesmen, they recommend humility.

Historians battle over the nature of history, the uses of history, and different interpretations of the past. They, along with teachers, publishers, and parents, also argue about how history is depicted to young people—whom they all agree are ignorant of the nation’s past. Progressive historians are opposed to myths and legends that nations have always used to unify and uplift themselves. In Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, Ray Raphael reminds us that Paul Revere did not ride alone, that some soldiers at Valley Forge threatened mutiny and deserted, and that some American slaves fought for the British. Raphael is opposed to mythical history because it romanticizes war and emphasizes single causes, privileges individuals, and slights collective actions.

Not so, say traditionalists. History is about collective memory and national identity, which build unity and pride, encourage gratitude and civic engagement, and validate sacrifice in defense of our nation. “Romanticizing our past is something to be cultivated, rather than to be ashamed of,” argues Robert Kaplan. Ironically, one of the most effective defenders of mythological history was Charles Thompson, secretary to the Continental Congress, who decided to write secret memoirs of the American Revolution. He burned his account and his notes, giving this explanation: “I could not tell the truth without giving great offense. Let the world admire our patriots and heroes.”

Famous philosophers have warned of the danger of overly realistic history. In his 1692 classic, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke denounced seventeenth-century history instruction because it celebrated soldiers and conquerors and thus implanted “unnatural cruelty” in young minds. In the early 1800s, the great Swiss educator Johann Heimlich Pestalozzi banned history from the elementary school curriculum because he believed history exposed innocent children to “learning about the wickedness and evils of the world before they were able to understand their significance.” Thus, traditionalists and progressives fight fierce battles over standards, curriculum, and textbooks. From their past, traditionalists want God, heroes, pride, nationalism. From their past, progressives want reason, complexity, honesty, and cosmopolitanism.

In the fall of 1994, a battle over history standards erupted. The UCLA Center for History, with funding from the federal government and input from the history community, developed voluntary standards that reflected the new social history and a more diverse America. Before they were published, Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the organization that funded the standards, denounced them in a blistering Wall Street Journal article as a “grim and gloomy” portrayal of American history. The Constitution was slighted, Ulysses S. Grant ignored, and John D. Rockefeller maligned. The U.S. Senate sided with Cheney, condemning the standards in January 1995 by a vote of 99 to 1. The standards were sent back to UCLA and revised (deleting many of the teaching examples) in an uneasy compromise.

In 2015 the battle continued, this time over the College Board guidelines for the revised Advanced Placement Test in American History. Larry Krieger, a retired New Jersey high school history teacher, declared that he likes to start the year talking about a “City upon a Hill,” which sets the theme of American exceptionalism and the ideals of the country, but as he read through the new Frameworks, he saw a consistently negative view of American history, highlighting oppressors and exploiters. The Oklahoma State House of Representatives threatened to defund the Frameworks, and in Jefferson County, Colorado, students staged a walkout to protest what they felt was censorship of the new College Board Curriculum.

Other historians and conservative organizations joined the Krieger critique, asserting that the Frameworks neglected the military, slighted religion, and minimized the Cold War. The College Board replied that the Frameworks require “teachers and students to look at multiple sides of an issue” and that they impart critical thinking skills mandated by the Common Core. The College Board retreated, however, and drew up a 2015 new Frameworks, deleting the description of Ronald Reagan as “bellicose” and offering more nuanced portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

The battle over history is worldwidesince history is about national identity and can be wielded as a weapon in diplomatic disputes—and it will likely increase as nationalism intensifies.

Perceiving a decline in British power, Margaret Thatcher’s government wanted a positive history: facts, dates, pride, and a return to “Victorian values.” Critics wanted skills, self-criticism, empathy, and multiculturalism. Newspapers in England debated whether Captain Cook was an imperialist and whether the Beatles belonged in the National Portrait Gallery.

France has been especially anxious about its identity. In 2016, French educators debated how to depict Joan of Arc, resistance in World War II, and torture in Algeria. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy pushed back: Students should be taught, “I love France. I learn the history of France. I see myself as French.” In Germany, a country resolved to face its dark past, students are today regularly exposed to Nazi evils and educated to repudiate nationalism and militarism. It is a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust.

Authoritarian governments tolerate less debate. Vladimir Putin wants to expunge 1990s textbooks that promoted critical inquiry and Western values. Russian textbooks should nurture “patriotic consciousness” and traditional morals. A recent law criminalizes the “distortion of the Soviet’s role in the war.” China has transformed its economy, but its rulers do not want to debate its history. Tombstone, an account of
the famine of 1958–62, by Yang Jisheng, is banned. Jisheng wants Chinese citizens to remember the tragedy of the past so that history will not repeat itself. Chinese officials see dwelling on such events as “historical nihilism” that erodes the party’s authority.

Never has a nation offered such a complete and transparent account of its founding as America. The papers of its leaders are bound in hundreds of volumes, most now available on the Internet. Thousands of monographs pour out of university presses examining births, courtship, health, death, weather, and diet. Looking at diaries and letters, searching court records and wills, accessing manuscripts with the touch of a key, social historians are giving voice to the inarticulate. Books on Native Americans capture major prizes. The literature on women and slaves is enormous. A best-selling biography on John Adams becomes an HBO series and a biography on Alexander
Hamilton becomes a Broadway hit.

Such unparalleled access to our past, such a comprehensive and realistic portrait of our founding, stimulates conflicting interpretations and raises a number of questions. Can this or any history compete for the attention of busy, future-oriented, materialistic America devoted to social media? Do Americans understand that history is not just facts adding up to an agreed-upon narrative but rather a never-ending debate? Does this in-depth, inclusive history make its way into textbooks in schools, or do these books still portray a mythical, triumphant past, as James Loewen claims in Lies My Teacher Told Me? Should history build character and patriotism as Ben Franklin and Washington Irving hoped or should teachers concentrate on skills and citizenship?

In our realistic depiction of the past, is there room for myth, memory, and heritage, for paintings like John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence or movies like Gone with the Wind and The Patriot. In populist America, suspicious of elites, sympathetic to the forgotten, will there be an intensified interest in history’s outsiders? In anti-heroic America, can there be any admiration for leaders or respect for institutions? Can this new history be useful to citizens, instructive to policy makers, or is it just interesting?

Howard Zinn demanded that we remove the portraits of presidents from classroom walls. Ronald Reagan insisted that we look at our founding as a shining “City upon a Hill” and at our history as a march toward goodness and greatness. Professional historians demand reality, are comfortable with pain, irony, tragedy, and contingency. Was the American Revolution a world-altering event that injected equality into societies and inspired other countries, a revolution made by idealists who created an exceptional nation? Or was it a colonial rebellion started by men who wanted to avoid taxes and fought a nasty, divisive war that culminated in a compromised Constitution intended to curb the excesses of democracy? Most importantly, how do we offer a realistic portrait of America’s past without extinguishing idealism?

Sources: Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press, 1989; Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past by Ray Raphael, New Press, 2004; American Revolutions: A Continental History 17501804 by Alan Taylor, W. W. Norton, 2016; The Purpose of the Past: Reflection on the Uses of History by Gordon Wood, Penguin Press, 2008; and A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 17851812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Vintage Books, 1991.

About the Author

Peter Gibbon is a senior research scholar at the Boston University School of Education and the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). He has directed four Teaching American History programs and was the director of an NEH Summer Seminar, “Philosophers of Education: Major Thinkers from the Enlightenment to the Present.”