Category Archives: History and Memory

How big is your mental map of colonial America?

A good friend of mine is moving to Los Angeles this weekend.  Last night we had a going-away party for him at a local pizza joint.  I’ve never been to California myself.  The West Coast is about the only major region of the country I have yet to visit.

I’ve never really felt much compulsion to go there, especially when it comes to seeing historic sites.  As a paleophile, I’d love to see the La Brea Tar Pits and do the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal. (One of my more unrealistic bucket list items is to experience all four Jurassic Park water rides before I die; so far I’ve only hit the one in Florida, which leaves Hollywood, Japan, and Singapore, and I doubt I’ll be going to Singapore in the foreseeable future.)  But as a guy who’s into early American history, I think I’ve always had this assumption that there isn’t really anything in California that’s right up my alley, so I haven’t felt the urgency to make it to the West Coast in the same way that I badly wanted to go to New England for many years.

Of course, this attitude of mine is based on misconceptions about colonial America.  Both California in particular and the West in general have an early American history.  It just doesn’t fall within the boundaries of early Anglo-American history.

Mission San Juan Capistrano. By Lordkinbote at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

A lot of us get our sense of the basic contours of history from the introductory classes we take in high school and college.  And in American history surveys, there tends to be a sort of “progression” toward the English colonial experience.  You get your early Iberian explorers, then Columbus, then the conquistadors, then maybe a brief detour up to New Mexico for the Pueblo revolt, then the French, and finally Roanoke and Jamestown, and English-speaking Protestants take center stage from there on out.

This “progression” scheme partly has its roots in chronology.  The English were relative latecomers in establishing New World colonies, so it makes sense to examine their efforts last.  The problem is that we tend to drop the Spanish and French experience altogether once the Englishmen show up.  Yet after the English colonies were well established, there were still French fur traders in the Mississippi River Valley, mestizo ranchers in the southwestern deserts, and friars in California.

Indeed, in the period between Jamestown and the annexation of California, entire populations rose up in the American West under the rule of Catholic monarchs or the government of Mexico.  In 1776, while Washington reeled from Howe’s campaign in New York, Spanish Franciscans were celebrating Mass at San Juan Capistrano.  And by that time there had been Spanish missions in the Sonoran desert of Arizona for nearly a century.

But how many people think of southern Arizona and California as places associated with eighteenth-century American history?  I’ll confess that I generally don’t.  Instead, we think of the “history” of the Far West as something that started in the 1800s, when settlers of mostly British extraction started pushing back the frontier and displacing the Indians.  But the Indians weren’t the only people in the way.  The descendants of the original colonists were still there, too, so the contest wasn’t simply two-sided.

The Euro-American frontier didn’t just move westward from the English-controlled seaboard, but also southward from French Canada and northward from New Spain.  All this was very much a part of early American history, and I’m still trying to get my head around it.

3 Comments

Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Some Tennessee lawmakers want to change the history curriculum

Looks like they want to see a greater emphasis on American exceptionalism, textualism, and white people:

House Bill 1129 would require school districts to adopt curriculums that stress the “positive difference” the United States has made in the world and “the political and cultural elements that distinguished America.” The measure also deletes a current guideline that encourages teaching about diversity and contributions from minorities in history classes.

The state Department of Education opposes the measure, saying curriculum decisions should be left to the State Board of Education and local school boards.

Backers of the legislation, a version of which has passed the Senate, say it remains a work in progress. But its main sponsor in the House, state Rep. Timothy Hill, conceded Wednesday that the measure is meant to leave students with certain beliefs, such as the view that the wording of the U.S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation.…

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking in terms of we live in the greatest state in the greatest nation,” said Hill, R-Blountville.

And a-one and a-two and…

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative…

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History, Tennessee History

TV personality claims Americans are ignorant about history, then proves her own point

While bemoaning the lack of historical knowledge in the U.S., Andrea Tantaros of Fox News claimed that Americans “don’t even know why some guy in Boston got his head blown off because he tried to secretly raise the tax on tea. Most people don’t know that.”  Asked to comment, historians of the American Revolution responded, “Wait, what?”

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

“He won’t stay in these woods forever”

Remember that movie about a young Abe Lincoln that’s been in the works?  Well, if you’re going to Sundance, you can see it this weekend.  The rest of us will have to settle for this quick peek that’s popped up online:

Leave a comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

What impact will minority museums have on majority visitors?

There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system.  The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015).  There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums.  Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.

Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history.  The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people.  Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects.  But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history.  How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration?  Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.

I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum.  I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest.  The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility.  White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.

And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing.  I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.

On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect.  Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.

Your thoughts?

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

The Patriot and rites of passage

As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.

Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination.  In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage.  Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood.  For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country.  Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.

Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery.  He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material.  In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.

In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T.  The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons.  Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist.  The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.

The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children.  For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence.  Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep.  The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile.  Check out this deleted scene:

There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis.  He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history.  We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability.  If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated.  The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.

The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end.  When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling.  The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation.  The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved.  And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

Pastor reveals the sinister forces behind the Civil War

Brief digression on the origins of the NAACP thrown in for good measure.  This church is about an hour from my hometown.  Maybe a field trip is in order.

I award this fellow two facepalms: one for propagating ludicrous pseudohistory, and another for wasting his pulpit to do so.

By the way, if you’re looking for Internet conspiracy theory horseflop at its very best, Google “Abraham Lincoln Rothschilds.”  This site in particular is a masterpiece of unintentional hilarity.  Apparently Lincoln was Jewish, he fathered twins with a German ruler’s illegitimate daughter, and Mary Todd killed her own husband and pinned the murder on Booth, who was also her drug pusher.  Good times.

2 Comments

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web