Debunking the Myths of American History, Part I: The Problem
This essay is an extended version of a talk the late Roger Busbice invited me to give at a Conference of APEL (Association of Professional Educators of Louisiana) in Baton Rouge, June 2005.
History is bunk, said Henry Ford on a famous occasion. His sentiments were echoed, as I once heard Forrest McDonald remind a conservative audience, by President George H.W. Bush, who would mock anyone who lost a political squabble with him with the phrase, “He’s history,” as if to say that they were without significance.
As a lover of history, I have always been appalled by the dismissal of the lessons of history by ignorant industrialists and still more ignorant politicians. But after a lifetime of reading ancient, modern, and American history, I am beginning to wonder if Ford might not have had a point. So far as Americans are concerned—whether rich or poor, white or black, conservative or revolutionary—history is either irrelevant to their lives or, still worse, a propaganda tool that can occasionally picked up and hurled the windows of the other party’s offices.
As a child, I learned the old myths of American history—how good we were as a people, how perfect our heroes and presidents have been, how glorious our civilization—stuff that even as a child with a little Homer under my belt I could not swallow; and as a grown man I have heard of nothing but how evil we are as a people, how false, wicked and corrupt our heroes are, how evil our civilization has always been, that is, until tomorrow. I first heard it from college professors in the 1960’s that the history of the United States was nothing more than the story of how white men have subjugated women, massacred Indians, lynched blacks, and persecuted sexual minorities. Even as a child, with a smattering of knowledge of a few great American heroes, I would have had trouble swallowing that set of lies, which is now more or less the official history taught in most universities and commemorated in national holidays. It goes without saying that to hate their past, people must condemn their ancestors, and in condemning their ancestors—who collectively represent 100% of what they are—they are learning to despise themselves.
The pursuit of truth for the sake of truth is an occupation for civilized men and women, and while I hate to say it, we Americans have never been a very civilized people. We prefer to deceive ourselves with myths that tell us how important we are, either making us better or worse than other peoples. Most patriotic Americans, for example, believe that ours is the greatest nation in the history of the world, but few of them can say who the second president of the United States was or what right is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. As for the America-haters, they have swallowed every lie and every joke, from the myth of George Washington’s wooden false teeth to Mencken’s joke that the Puritans passed a law forbidding anyone to bathe more than once a year to the myth of the peaceful Red Man, the violent West, and the bigoted South.
Much of the confusion—or should I say self-deception—is involved in the modern use of the word history.
Properly speaking, history refers to the process of finding out about and interpreting the past. Herodotus is called the father of history because he went around the world looking at monuments and interviewing sources. He used a funny Greek word in the plural—historie (four syllables!)—which means something going to see and learn. I supposed the closest English words would be “investigations” or “researches.” History, was not a body of facts, much less that which had happened in previous generations. Like science, history was a way of finding things out, and it came to mean the process—the writing as well as the research—that resulted in a coherent account in which the historian attempted to make sense of the past.
In more recent times, we frequently use history to mean the past itself, much as we use psychology to mean someone’s personality or mentality and ecology to mean not the study of environment but the actual environment itself. In the case of history, this little confusion allows the manipulators of historical myths—by which I mean professional historians—to pretend that what they write and say is the same thing as what actually happened. In this sense, at least, Ford was right. History really is bunk.
I really cannot in one longish essay debunk all the nonsense that we have all been taught even about our own history—though in equating “our own” with American, I am falling into the trap that American history can be told in isolation from the history of ancient, Medieval, and modern Europe. I shall, therefore, concentrate on the propaganda surrounding key questions about the founding and development of the American republic: What kind of a people we were and why we rebelled against Britain, what kind of a government we set up, and how, in the middle of the 19th century, that system collapsed and was replaced by the political system that lasted down to 1932, only to be itself displaced by the moderate form of corporate state socialism under which we live today.