J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Politics and Postings

A week ago, I quoted a letter from the Boston Globe that offered a tongue-in-cheek derivation of the modern political term “Tea Party.” That prompted cheers, insults, and complaints about politics on this blog.

Yes, actual politics on a website about a revolution! Imagine the wailing if I’d concluded with statements about exactly how people should vote instead of writing, “Whatever your views, if you’re an American citizen I hope you’ve voted by the end of the day.”

More seriously, I want to address some issues raised by comments on that posting. First, when I consider Revolutionary history, that includes how we remember it and what principles it established. If a politician or political movement quotes, misquotes, or claims the mantle of the U.S. of A.’s founding, that catches my eye. If people invoke or break parts of the Constitution written in the 1700s, that’s relevant. Sometimes I see interesting parallels between events of the past and today.

Still, all Boston 1775 postings pertain to the eighteenth century. I haven’t focused on income tax brackets, prohibition, charter schools, campaign finance, public media, or regulation of financial derivatives, and not because I have no opinions about those topics. Maybe a link will surface, and I’ll be interested. But there would have to be a link.

Second, for Tea Party adherents to object to seeing ideas they dislike on a website they’re reading for free does nothing to dispel the notion that the movement’s emotional energy comes from privileged Americans whining about not getting everything they want. Instead, it looks a lot like evidence of people feeling entitled, unable to respond rationally, and not truly committed to their stated principles about freedoms.

I understand that much of the American right has come to see the nation’s history, and especially the founding era, as their exclusive property. Some Boston 1775 visitors might therefore be surprised to discover that people with other politics, like myself, are just as passionate about it. But learning new things is why we research, right?

Third and most important, I simply don’t agree with the idea that studying and discussing history can be segregated from politics. Especially when it comes to the Revolution and national founding, which is such an influential and emotionally freighted period.

There’s a political dimension to writing about ordinary people’s experiences and desires instead of just those of elite politicians and military leaders. There’s a political dimension to writing about George Washington as a person who needed outhouses and chamber pots instead of just as a paragon. There’s a political dimension to writing about enslaved people, or working children, or Loyalists who lost the war.

Simply sharing evidence that casts doubt on the legend of Declaration signer Richard Stockton has political implications today, as does highlighting how colonial Americans enjoyed burning the revered symbols of despised, suspected foreign religions. Even if I wanted to avoid modern resonance in discussing those topics, I couldn’t. Sometimes reader comments bring out the politics, as in my September posting about a museum in Virginia recognizing early Americans who came from West Africa.

Most Boston 1775 postings touch on political principles and attitudes rather than specific debates today. But political matters are no more than one step away from practically any historical topic. It’s bound up in most research, especially when so many great resources depend on public funding: the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the online Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, access to the Archive of Americana to Boston Public Library cardholders, &c.

As another example, one of my permanent links is to Gen. Washington’s Cambridge headquarters, now Longfellow National Historic Site. That house, maintained by the National Park Service, was once open for tours year round, but its current level of federal funding allows staff to welcome drop-in visitors five months of the year. Last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a., “the stimulus”) sped up some long-delayed repairs. When incoming leaders of the House of Representatives talk about balancing the federal budget without higher taxes and without changes to defense programs or entitlements, they can fulfill those promises only with large cuts to agencies like the Park Service. Access to and maintenance of that historic site depends on decisions within our national political process.

I see those connections floating behind each topic. I know Americans have a range of opinions about how to handle those issues. Rather than try to treat the Revolutionary past as somehow beyond political controversy, I prefer to express my political views sometimes, and recognize that there are other views I disagree with, sometimes strongly. That means occasionally being explicit about politics—because it’s unavoidably implicit the rest of the time.


Anonymous said...

You're comments are spot on today, John. Keep up the good work. I think you've been very careful in your blog to not express your own views.

Heather Rojo said...

I have a blog, too. I see blogging as personal, and if folks don't like your posts they can follow someone else. Post what you like, make up your own rules. Your readers will find you! Anyone who doesn't see history as a living, breathing, evolving thing that touches today and yesterday isn't really seeing history.

RFuller said...

JL, it's your blog, you run it as you see fit. But it is the Internet, and people feel free to say what they want, no matter how and what they say.

I like the facts I read here and I am always ready to hear anybody's opinions on them, be they the right, left, anybody. I am a firm believer that every honest historical researcher, no matter what POV they operate from, has something to say, and I am one of your biggest fans. You have certainly opened up my mind to many things I never knew about nor looked at in the same way until I read your work here.

Unfortunately, as you say, some on both the right (and the left) feel "their" history has been taken away from them, and distorted to fit modern political and social views and aims. Are they correct? Sometimes.

I do understand that some feel that America always seems to be the villain in so many academic studies. (So-called "Revisionist history"?) It's a different view than many people were brought up with, and it's hard to swallow for some.

But nobody "owns" history. As Hubert Humphrey once said, you have the right to you own opinions, but not to your own facts. We must follow history where it takes us.

I would hope, however, they'd at least be polite about expressing their views. But if not, don't worry, keep doing what you're doing.

Jen said...

I was surprised to read the comments in last week's post. My first thought was "How does one manage to leave politics out of history?" History is not simply dates of military campaigns.

Peter Fisk said...

JL, thanks for defending American history against revisionist assault. This blog is terrific.

Dave Cesarano said...

The politics of the past have an impact on modern political realities, most certainly. Consider how FDR has become either a paragon of the Left or a boogeyman to the Right, for example. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the founding pillars of American imperialism. These events have political repercussions that impact us today.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the supportive comments. I especially appreciate those from folks who I know don’t share my politics even as they share my fondness for Revolutionary history.

But I may eventually need to do a posting on what “revisionism” means to me.

Rob Velella said...

Just remember that one of the most dangerous inventions in recent history is the "comment" button on blogs, news articles, and the like. Irony intended.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m actually usually impressed by the quality of comments here at Boston 1775, especially when compared to those at less serious websites like The New York Times. (I keep the filter on to kick out spam.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

highlighting how colonial Americans enjoyed burning the revered symbols of despised, suspected foreign religions.

Well, the danger is abstracting things like that into the current day, instead of sticking to the very specific history of the Roman Catholic Church and Britain.

I come from the RCC perspective, but I don't judge John Locke and the Brits of the time for their anti-Papism. [Or John Adams for his religious-philosophical disdain for Papism.]

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not sure what you mean by “judge,” Tom. I try to include all of a historical figure’s statements and actions when assessing him or her, while bearing in mind the social context. Anti-Catholic prejudice was part of most British men’s thinking in the eighteenth century.

As for “abstracting things…into the present day,” I think that’s how a lot of traditionalists use history. Thomas Jefferson said this, or Samuel Adams did that, so we should do the same today—even if our situation is nothing Jefferson or Adams never imagined.

I find history more useful as a reminder of how many different things people have said and done, how many ways events have worked out. There are parallels everywhere, but parallel lines never run through the same points.

Vern said...

I think it's great to link common misconceptions of history quoted in modern times, and to admit your politics. I see you in these types of posts as a sort of Nate Silver (of 538 fame) of 1776 era history - exploring and debunking the facts of of all these historical references.

I think one thing to be aware of with Tea Party folks is how they've been told by all the conventional "powers that be" on both sides of the spectrum that they are too dumb to have a seat at the table. Comparison to ignorance or madness with a Tea Partier is almost like using certain racial stereotypes. It's beyond the normal fun we all have debating politics and touches a raw nerve.

One thing you might link to is a bit reason.tv did taking actual quotes from the elections of 1800 or so and comparing them to today. Something like that might help put some perspective on the whole "you think I'm being too harsh" side of things.

(disclosure: personally, I'm more of a Ron Paul or Gary Johnson type than a true Tea Partier, myself.)

J. L. Bell said...

Polls show that Tea Party adherents are more wealthy, educated, old, and white than the average American, and a historical perspective makes it very hard to accept their worry that they don’t “have a seat at the table.” Not all the seats that group used to command, to be sure, but that’s not the same thing.

Tea Party adherents may indeed feel that seeing a letter that says they operate in a looking-glass world “is almost like using certain racial stereotypes.” However, since an unfortunate number of Tea Party adherents used actual racial stereotypes in their signs, emails, and rhetoric (until called on it), I don’t think the movement has a moral high ground or free pass there.

I agree that the first factional elections in American history were filled with accusations and invective, as were pre-Revolutionary political disputes. I think there’s only one bit of political behavior we’ve seen since January 2009 that has no recorded precedent: the accusation Rep. “Joe” Wilson shouted at the President from the floor of Congress during a joint session. Congress’s parliamentarian was unable to find a previous example of such behavior.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Interesting... I was off not paying to the blog for a few days, and things got quite heated. JL, I think you've been very fair, unbiased, and balanced about all the politics you've touched on. I think this post in particular goes a long way to proving my point. There are a lot of heated emotions in politics today (perhaps there always has been), and while I think discerning individuals can find themselves on either side of an issue, it seems to me that those who react with raw emotions and no critical point to well considered opinions of another view only prove themselves as not discerning. (Seemingly proven by the many negative comments on the week before's post by the anonymous.) That's not to say that those that react so emotionally are not capable of being discerning... I'd wager most of your audience is educated and discerning in general. Just sometimes people stubbornly follow an ideal (maybe even a good ideal), but act hotheadded when challenged. I would say, John, just keep on with your excellent work. Derek