Don't Know Much

Whose History Is It?

(Originally posted July 13, 2020; revised and reposted August 20, 2022)

“The first documented arrival of Africans to the colony of Virginia was recorded by John Rolfe: About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. … He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuall[s].’ “

–National Parks Service, Historic Jamestown, “African Americans at Jamestown”

Whose history it is? And who gets to shape the narrative?

This is the hottest of hot potato questions, currently dominating the conversation about which dates we mark on the national calendar, whose statues we honor while others are pulled from their pedestals, and how we teach America’s past in our schools,

The comfortable, traditional American history so many Americans were once taught –sort of – has come down for centuries as a bedtime story. It is complete with a happy ending, a rousing tableau for a school pageant, or an instructive morality tale. Columbus’s first voyage and Washington’s cherry tree being Exhibits A and B.

Or it was the exclusive property of one powerful group that wanted to venerate its particular vision of pride. That was the reassuring tale of the first Thanksgiving Happy Meal, or Puritans arriving to establish a “shining city on a hill,” leaving out the indigenous and the dissidents –Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Quakers, and Catholics—who were unwelcome on that hill.

The conflict between that traditional telling of history as American Exceptionalism and a so-called “revisionist” version is boiling over in the wake of the former president’s discordantly curdled speech at Mount Rushmore on the eve of Independence Day in 2020.

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children…” (New York Times, July 3, 2020)

Back in 1790, John Adams, who was present at the creation, offered a gloomy prediction of how the story would be told.

“The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other,” he wrote fellow Declaration signer Benjamin Rush. “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington…. thenceforward these two conducted all the policies, negotiations, legislatures and the war.” [1]

Adams was right. From the beginning, American history became a national myth. Controlling that narrative is a powerful tool. As Winston Churchill once remarked,

“History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write history myself.”[2]

How we tell history and then drape it over national holidays or erect monuments to a selective account has always been subject to somebody’s agenda. Winners write history –usually. They tailored the story that became the national narrative, or the myth, depending on your perspective. But for the United States that proud, patriotic portrait came at the cost of the whole truth. And it left far too many people out of the picture.

The history widely celebrated on the Glorious Fourth rightly hailed a document that secured the timeless verities of “All men are created equal” and that all are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In crafting that laudable lesson, however, some inconvenient truths were swept into history’s dustbin. When it comes to Independence Day, that meant concealing America’s Great Contradiction – that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.

READ my essay “The American Contradiction” Social Education, March/April 2020

In the current moment of reckoning, there is another agenda. We now acknowledge the purchase of captive Africans in Jamestown in 1619. The Mount Vernon plantation dedicated to honoring the first president now openly confronts the fact that Washington had enslaved more than 300 people at Mount Vernon at his death in 1799. Similarly, Jefferson’s Monticello no longer conceals that the author of the Declaration enslaved people, including his own offspring, born of an enslaved woman.

That history is messy. And the true beauty of American history is that it is not a tale that can be told in simple terms. It is complicated and nuanced. There are few neat answers which fit in a bubble on a standardized test form.

For instance, it is pointless to teach how Washington won the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 without acknowledging that his first order of business after the surrender was to return thousands of enslaved people who had sought refuge with the British –including those from his Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello.

It’s absurd to teach a “melting pot” myth and a “religious freedom” narrative without talking about the deep vein of dominant anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments in America’s past that produced such moments as Philadelphia’s 1844 “Bible Riots,” a deadly sectarian battle begun over which version of the Bible was used in public schools.

Those are also American history “facts.” And as John Adams also famously said,

“Facts are stubborn things…whatever may be our wishes and inclinations or the dictums of our passions…”

Adams said that as he was defending the “bad guys” –the British soldiers who shot at some Boston townies in what became heralded as the Boston Massacre. It is a reminder that America’s rebellion began with an assault on authority. Some snowballs and stones were chucked at those British soldiers. That was followed by act of vandalism and property destruction, now hailed as the Boston Tea Party. And then some rebels tore down a statue—that of King George III, in New York City on July 9, 1776.  This is all hailed in the “winner’s history” so many have been taught for so long.

And those are extremely important American history lessons. The rock-throwers, the tea party vandals, and the riotous statue-topplers of the American Revolution were part of the unruly mob that sometimes changes history.

History doesn’t trickle down from the top. Most of the great social movements in this nation’s history came instead from the bottom up. Independence, abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and marriage equality were largely fashioned by those who demonstrated a clear disregard for the law, with the nation’s “leaders” being dragged, kicking and screaming all the way to the finish line.

This is a hard, uncomfortable lesson for some. But in that fact lies the essence of American Exceptionalism.


[1] Letter to Benjamin Rush, April 4, 1790.

[2] “In the Churchill Museum,” Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books, 7 May 1987 also  cited in Leonard Roy Frank Quotationary, p. 359.

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