Sunday, April 4, 2010

On Presenting American History: Don't Make Up Facts, and Don't Ignore the Existing Historical Record

Anyone who has studied the history of Reconstruction should be familiar with the Dunning School from Columbia University. In the main, William Dunning argued that blacks were wholly unprepared for being anything more than slaves, and that their participation in government was, as historian Claude Bowers suggested, representative of The Tragic Era. The historical period known as Redemption, when whites redeemed the South from the Reconstruction era governments (Radical Republican governments), was necessary in order to right the wrongs put forth by blacks, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. It was during Redemption when Jim Crow laws really solidified.

The historiographical stamp of the Dunning School lasted through the 1960s. W.E.B. DuBois was the first historian to challenge the Dunning School's interpretation in his work Black Reconstruction. Of course in 1935, when it was published, the historical community essentially ignored it. DuBois' prescience was ignored until the mid-20th century, when the historical community slowly, but surely, began re-examining the period, DuBois' work served to be a guide. Now, the definitive work on Reconstruction is Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (which is also my favorite history book, which I re-read periodically).

I bring all of this up now, because I feel like the folks now pushing for a "conservative" interpretation of U.S. history are Dunning-like. Check out this story from McClatchy about this issue. Dick Armey's take on Jamestown as a socialist experiment is laughable on its face, because it is clear that the Jamestown colony was purely a capitalist venture in every sense of the term. Alexander Hamilton, also mentioned by Armey, was most definitely in favor of a strong central government, and would have been horrified, most likely, by all of the rabble (me included) who now participate in government. These are clear examples of making up facts.

There have always been conservative, centrist and liberal interpretations of historical events. There always will be, and that is a good thing. We always have to be prepared for the discovery of new information, new papers, hidden diaries, lost records. These primary sources help us to learn more about what was happening in the past, and illuminates information that we may not have been aware of before.

Yet, as was shown with the Dunning School, where a socio-political acceptance of the inferiority of black folks reigned supreme, historians are neither allowed their own facts, nor should they ignore the historical record (or sources). And the political conservatives pushing to ignore some facts at the promotion of other facts is detrimental to the field (and liberals doing the same should also be admonished). The things happening in Texas give us a window into the problem. There is nothing wrong with talking about the important conservative resurgence of the 1980s. There are likely classes that will be dedicated to just that subject, one that I would happily take to be honest. But, when you have politicians creating facts about what the historical record reflects, or omitting facts because they don't support a specific political perspective, then I have a real problem.

I am confident that politically conservative historians would agree with me on the following points. Let the sources tell the story. Find as many relevant sources as possible, including those that provide oppositional perspectives. Review the work of your peers to see commonalities and differences in historical interpretation. Present those findings, and your interpretation, to the world. Doing anything else, I believe, compromises the history that one is attempting to share. Historians may not always be happy about their findings, but you present those findings nonetheless.

By the way, I am still waiting for a conservative interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement. If there is one out there, please let me know. It will be a fascinating read.


Joshua Greenberg said...

What you are not mentioning about the Texas situation, is that it is not historians that are pushing through these changes. The leading conservative voice on the committee is a dentist who self-identifies as a Christian fundamentalist with a particular religious and political agenda.

hscfree said...

Josh, you are correct. It is an important point that I didn't share. Now, I am a fan of lay historians. Their tenacity has helped to expand the historical record in many instances. Yet, even a lay historian would agree with the points I raised. I also think that a trained Christian fundamentalist historian would see it similarly. Newt Gingrich is a great example of a politically conservative historian who works to stay within the paramaters he learned as a graduate student in history. Hmmm, I wonder what his take on the Texas thing is. Does the historian or the politician dominate?