Approaching History


Looking up the Duke of Gloucester StreetI love history in general, but I have a special affinity for U.S. History. The subject fascinates me because, in it, I catch sight of the arcs which created the psyche of America — good, bad, and ugly. It’s though my historical studies I begin to understand the nature of religion in this country, the origins of the fear of government, and the compromises which help shaped our current political system. These insights help me navigate the mine-field that is the current religious/political climate of the USA. This navigation is not always happy, but it is always valuable.

My love of history makes me a rather peculiar form of traveller. I am a history tourist. My family has vacationed down the shore 1, because it’s impossible not to do so when you live in the Philly Area, but our real vacations have always been to historic areas. Williamsburg and the Virginia Historic Triangle is our favorite destination but we’ve been to Brandywine, Boston, and Gettysburg for extended vacations. We’ve also taken day trips to Philadelphia, Trenton, Washington’s Crossing, and Valley Forge 2.

I’ve watched how these locations have, over the years, expanded the presentations of their stories to include people groups which had been ignored in the past. Williamsburg, in particular, has entire programs dedicated to understanding the nature of slavery in 18th Century Virginia. It’s right to do so, given the percentage of enslaved people in the Capital was near fifty percent. Each time the foundation adds something to the program the story of Williamsburg is enriched.

But I’ve also noticed something else. Over the years the crowds have shrunk. Our family tends to head down to Williamsburg after the July 4th celebrations. The historic area has remained crowded, but not crazy-insane crowded. Our last few trips in this time-frame, however, have seen far less congestion. It used to be if you wanted to eat lunch in one of the historic taverns you needed to line up about twenty minutes before they opened to submit name and party size. Even then chances are you could wait for a bit after the taverns opened to be seated. Nowadays we show up just after opening and are seated right away. Dining rooms aren’t empty, but neither are they full.

The introverted part of me loves the new reality. I never have to wait to board a bus, be seated for a meal, or in line for a tour. I walk up and I’m ushered right in. The realist in me is a bit concerned, this is not a good trend.

I’ve wondered why attendance has dropped, and one big culprit seems to have been the financial crash of 2008. Attendance dropped with that collapse, and has never rebounded.

But I’m wondering if the 2008 crash was more a catalyst than anything else. Williamsburg, and other historic sites like it, seem to be victims of the same turmoil affecting our political system. There cynicism regarding historic exploration and study in our current climate.

When a site like Williamsburg wants expand their narrative to explore the reality of a slave-based economy, many folks push back saying, “We don’t want to hear about any of that 3!” Indeed, when the president of the Williamsburg Foundation posted about about some of the struggles facing the foundation at present, several threads of comments on Facebook followed this course of thinking — along with promises to return if the offending presentations were removed 4.

Other folks, who see themselves as the sworn enemies of the “barely latent racists,” reject historic exploration as a signal flare which marks their ideological purity 5. When the events of founding era is mentioned, they tend to be dismissed with comments about the hypocrisy of a bunch of slave owners ranting about liberty. This is not an incorrect assertion, but therein lies the point.

There is a great deal of jingoism to be found in the study of history. Good history, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with enshrining the past as a golden era. Nor it is intent on elevating great figures from the past into secular sainthood 6.

Good history is intent on ignoring neither the great achievements nor the hideous warts of the past. The reason for this is not complicated. In that volatile mix of greatness and ugliness we see a reflection of ourselves. In the events of the past, we see the same impulses which are played out in current events. History is important, because it’s the story of us.

So when people use history to paint a jingoistic picture of themselves, they fail to learn the negative lessons history has to teach us. When people treat history with contempt they likewise divorce themselves from any connection to history’s failures — becoming judges, rather than heirs, of the past. Both extremes leave people with a distorted view of their own story, and therefor a distorted view of themselves 7.

It’s time we liberated our study of history from our present cynical politics. If we’re to appreciate our story, and perhaps move the mistakes of the past toward different ends in both present and future, history must be allowed to challenge us. Because as it challenges us we develop a more clear understanding of the inheritance we’ve been granted from the past. Achievements, failures, blessings, curses, and all.

Don’t let present-day cynicism 8 dissuade you from the rabbit trails of your story or, for that matter, history tourism. There’s a joy to be found in learning about ourselves, even when the lessons are difficult.

  1. No, that statement is not missing any words. 
  2. Among others. 
  3. This is known as “barely latent racism.” 
  4. At which point the racism is no longer latent. 
  5. What I call, “incipient elitism.” 
  6. Ironically, some of the tributes to the founding era which are found in the Capital are examples of the worst kinds of jingoist history. The Apotheosis of Washington being the most flagrant. 
  7. Even worse than either of these extremes is the statement, “History is boring.” But that’s another topic. Or another footnote, I’m not certain.. 
  8. Or one of the great banes of Western Civilization, equating an adrenaline rush with “fun.”