In a an editorial last month, Stanley Kutler criticized American political conservatives for misusing history for their own purposes:

Serious history, serious scholarship and serious discussion of facts and ideas are dismissed with tunnel vision. In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” Humpty Dumpty scornfully said “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” When Alice protested, Humpty Dumpty replied that the issue was “which is to be master — that’s all.”

He took conservatives to task for a number of things. For example

[Dick] Armey now has given us a classic perversion of history. At a gathering to vent against President Barack Obama’s tax and health policies and alleged socialism, someone in the audience questioned how the movement could use the Federalist Papers, largely written by Alexander Hamilton, as any basis for its beliefs. After all, Hamilton, the questioner contended, was “widely regarded” as a strong nationalist, who advocated life terms for the president and senators, a strong national bank, protective tariffs, the assumption of state debts (to ensure their payment and thereby establish a creditable international standing), state governors appointed by the president, and the diminution of state authority to little more than an administrative role. That is History 101, of course, but a good question for those who insist on Hamilton as a patron saint of American “conservatism.”

Armey was incredulous, even contemptuous, and simply dismissed the questioner, as well as history. “Widely regarded by whom?” he asked suspiciously, and then answered his own question. “Today’s modern ill-informed political science professors … ? I just doubt that was the case, in fact, about Hamilton.”

Conservatives don’t have a stranglehold on misunderstanding history, but there’s a disturbing pattern developing. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) has been criticized for her recent take on slavery and the founders. [Comments begin at 9:00]. Her claim that the founders worked “tirelessly” to end slavery and her vision of a unified nation in which we were “all the same” regardless of skin color, class, etc., is simply wrong. (To her credit, she does get John Quincy Adams’ role in opposing slavery correct.)

In Tennessee, members of the Tea Party recently called on state legislators to make changes in the upcoming year. One of those changes focused on history: “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.” What truth? you might ask. “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal,

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at.”

I have to commend the Tennessee Tea Party for posting links to historical documents on its website and for encouraging members to read them. It needs a better spokesperson than Rounds, though, if it wants to make its case convincingly. Rounds claims to “teach the Constitution coast-to-coast for Tea Parties.” If so, then he needs to work on the presentation of his message, because it sounds like either he doesn’t believe that Washington, Madison, and Co. owned slaves (they did) or wanted to take Native American land (ditto) or that they shouldn’t be criticized for those things.

I’m used to having to interpret what my students wrote vs. what they actually meant to write, so let me take a stab at what Rounds was probably trying to say: Historians are determined to tear down the accomplishments of the founding fathers by emphasizing their negatives at the expense of celebrating their strengths. If my interpretation is correct, then it’s unfortunate that Rounds doesn’t understand what historians do.

These misrepresentations of history bother me as a scholar. The main responsibility of an historian is to analyze evidence objectively, then make an argument based on that analysis. If that means exposing the warts of a person or group, then so be it. That’s not political correctness–it’s accurate history. Call me naïve, but it seems that whatever our political leanings, we as Americans should want honesty from our public figures.

If you want another perspective on the Tennessee Tea Party issue, Gordon Belt has written a great post.

4 thoughts on “Humpty Dumpty History

  1. Why is it that many decades of the triumphalist approach dominating historical writing and teaching isn’t seen by its advocates as politics but when other voices start to be heard and their reaction to being ignored or even rolled over in the progress of the triumphalist approach is less than enthusiastic and, all of a sudden, it’s attacked as “political correctness.”? Sometimes, yes, the pendulum can swing too far but the advocates of this bill make it clear that truth is not their objective. “Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.” I’ve read statements during the Indian Wars from newspapers that, while far from being the most racist, talk about the fact that the Indians must accept that their time has past and now it is the time of the White man. I would think that being forcibly removed from their home territories and their sacred places and herded into reservations would, by any reasonable standard, be seen as being intrusive. As for hypocrisy, I admire James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, greatly, but, in his own Notes from the Federal Convention of 1787, in dealing with those who wanted the Constitutional provisions aiding slavery to admit to what was being done rather than using euphemisms, records himself as saying on August 25, 1787 “Mr. MADISON thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandize, consumed, &c”. This came from a man who owned a large number of slaves.

    My belief is that those who attempt to distort the historical record in the way that the advocates of this bill do don’t actually have faith in what they are saying. If these are great men and/or great ideas, then showing either or both weren’t perfect or that they failed to live up to their ideals doesn’t take away from that. Only in myths and fairy tales are things that clear cut. One of the reasons that the Founding Fathers/Framers take such heat is that they themselves set the bar so high on their ideals.

  2. “Historians are determined to tear down the accomplishments of the founding fathers by emphasizing their negatives at the expense of celebrating their strengths. If my interpretation is correct, then it’s unfortunate that Rounds doesn’t understand what historians do.”

    Your interpretation is almost correct; I would replace the first word, “Historians”, with “Liberal academics”. Whether you would agree with such a statement or not, I think it’s pretty clear that this is what many American Conservatives believe. I also think it’s pretty clear that the crux of this debate has been about this very thing- instead of pointing out to students “hey, these guys weren’t perfect and here’s why”, it seems, at least to Conservatives, that the public schools are talking about such admitted negatives “at the expense of celebrating their strengths,” rather than in addition to celebrating their strengths. We also hear arguments that much time is now spent on studying the traditionally overlooked groups of the time (Indians, African-Americans, women, etc.), not that they aren’t important, but that studying them in a classroom with finite time limits necessarily reduces time spent on the usual suspects to levels extremely disproportionate to their actual historical impact, so the logic goes, and I don’t totally disagree with these arguments myself.

    To try and discredit Rounds based on his thinking of what historians do while ignoring the current political rancor of the issue is either ignorant or disingenuous. Most people understand that the TEA Party’s claim is not about historians but about what they believe to be a Liberal agenda taking over the classrooms, and that the TEA Party believes that its “traditional” preference for the way history is presented in the textbooks is more historically accurate anyway. Some buy the TEA Party / Conservative arguments and some don’t, but I don’t think that you’re going to convince too many people that folks like Rounds are wrong by presenting a side-step argument about their misinterpretations of what historians do rather than taking on the modern-day politics of the issue.

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