Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The State of History in the United States

history opinion piece book promotion
The New York Times

On May 11, 2019, the New York Times published Rick Atkinson's “Why We Still Care About America’s Founders.” 

Atkinson is the author of the forthcoming book, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. Promotional articles are often written to build momentum for a nonfiction book launch. Regrettably, this op-ed says more about the state of history as a discipline than it does about Atkinson’s book.

Normally, a book launch is a joyous occasion, especially when the tome is by a prominent historian who has won Pulitzer Prizes in history and journalism. But these are tough times for historians, especially historians of American history. Progressive activists have belittled white men and toxic masculinity as the scourge of humankind, and American history is just filled with dead, white men.  Some of them slaveholders, as well. Atkinson spent years writing a history book fraught with landmines that could offend the political correctness vigilantes. What’s a historian to do?


Before getting into the meat of his article, Atkinson pays homage to social warriors hunting for offense. Here are the first three paragraphs of his article. 
There’s a lot to dislike about the founding fathers and the war they and others fought for American independence.

The stirring assertion that “all men are created equal” did not, of course, apply to 500,000 black slaves — one in five of all souls occupying the 13 colonies when those words were written in 1776. Nor was it valid for Native Americans, women or indigents.

Those who remained loyal to the British crown, and even fence-straddlers skeptical of armed rebellion, were often subjected to dreadful treatment, including public shaming, torture, exile and execution. In a defensive war waged for liberty and to secure basic rights, the Americans invaded Canada in an effort to win by force of arms what could not be won by negotiation and blandishment — a 14th colony.

Although voting rights did not extend to women, slaves, or Native Americans, Atkinson failed to mention that voting rights were broader in the United States than in any other major power. In fact, voting rights for free males were greater in the colonies than in Great Britain itself. (In the late 18th Century, English voting rights were still doled out by nobility.)

The third paragraph is just gratuitous genuflecting. Loyalists who didn’t actively work for the British were seldom subjected to the atrocities listed, and the Canadian invasion is likewise skewed to appear more belligerent toward Canadians than the British. Military leaders certainly hoped to spark a simultaneous rebellion in Canada, but if that failed, they would be content to draw British forces to the north. American colonialists had no intention of conquring new territory while simultaneously fighting the strongest military force on earth.

Historians should not skew the past to make our ancestors look better, nor should they present the past in a way to advance the narratives of present-day social warriors. People and events should be judged in their time, not ours.

Another irritation with modern historians is the tendency to over-play the perspective of ordinary people. Letters and diaries can provide contemporaneous insight, and as a historical novelist, I greatly appreciate research into past lifestyles. It provides me the details to bring my characters to life. But ordinary people don’t bend history. Extraordinary people do. If we want to change our world, we need to study how it has been done in the past.

As Theodore White wrote, In Search of History, “Threading an idea into the slipstream of politics, then into government, then into history…is a craft which I have since come to consider the most important in the world.”

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Up until 1776, with a few brief exceptions, world history was about rulers and empires. The American experiment shook the world. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them. Our Founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny, and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the world.

And that is why we still care about America’s Founders.