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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Sunday, December 11, 2011

“Ideological distortions in the exhibit”

Last month I noted the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn”. History News Network has just published Alan Singer’s harsh critique of that exhibit and particularly how it presents the dominant American attitudes toward human rights in the early republic.

According to Singer’s quotes from the exhibit signage, “Revolution!” presents a generally Whiggish, sometimes triumphalist, and occasionally unreal overview of the changes produced by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions in the late 1700s:
A major theme of the exhibit is that “The Age of Revolution made us all citizens of the world as well as our own nation, loyal to global ideals as well as local and group bonds.” I only wish this were true. If it were, slavery in the United States might not have continued into the 1860s; European imperialists might not have sub-divided and colonized Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century; the United States and other countries might not have virtually exterminated their indigenous populations; . . .

A second theme was that “Remaking law rather than remaking society has been the nation’s strongest instrument of change for more than two centuries.” I think this represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between law and society. Laws are generally a reflection of a society rather than instruments for change. The American legal system has frequently codified social injustice. Fugitive slave laws, black codes, Jim Crow segregation laws, and numerous Supreme Court decisions, the most infamous being Dred Scott and Plessy, supported the enforcement of slavery and racism. The “strongest instrument of change” has been social movements to extend liberty and democracy that forced changes in the law. . . .

The exhibit maintains that “gradually during and after the Revolution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights, rights were defined as ‘universal.’” Actually, the Bill of Rights, which placed limits on the ability of Congress to interfere with religious practice, speech, assembly, and the press, placed no similar or restrictions on state governments. Hence the legality of slavery, which is unmentioned in the Constitution, remained up to the individual states. . . .

The exhibit concludes with the statement about what the modern world owes to the Age of Revolution. It claims the Age of Revolution “created several ‘new normals.’” They included the contentions that “slavery was fundamentally inhuman and had to be abolished”; “Nations should have the right to govern themselves”; and “Even the poor and weak should be treated with dignity.” But of course, these were not “normals” for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are still not “normals” in much of the world today.
Singer goes on to highlight how the exhibit minimizes Thomas Jefferson’s racism, maintenance of slavery in practice even as he deplored it in theory, and fear of the Haitian revolution. But he misses how George Washington changed his policy on black soldiers in the first year of the Revolutionary War. (I left a comment on that one issue.)

Singer’s critique reflects a distrust among some historians of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and its namesake founders.
The ideological distortions in the exhibit are consistent with political direction being imposed by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman,…who control the board of directors of the New York Historical Society. They are major right-wing players in the war over what should be taught as history. Richard Gilder is a founding member, and former chair, of the board of trustees of the Manhattan Institute. Lewis Lehrman is a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.
There’s no question that Gilder and Lehrman have made a lot of money in corporate finance and are conservative political activists. Lehrman even ran for governor of New York in 1982. There’s also no question that they’ve put a lot of their money into historical initiatives, including museum exhibits, teacher workshops, book prizes, and document collections. At times one or the other man has been explicit about wishing to promote conservative interpretations of American history.

Gilder and Lehrman didn’t necessarily have their thumbs on the scale of this exhibit. The idea of the American Revolution inspiring ideas of universal rights isn’t just a conservative one; it’s fairly mainstream in American thought because it’s so flattering to us as a nation. A willingness to overlook exceptions to our fine ideals is also fairly common among us humans. That said, folks really shouldn’t mount an exhibit titled “Revolution!” if they’re frightened of “remaking society.”


Larry Cebula said...

A former colleague recounted how when she first heard about Gilder-Lehrman and their financing of history exhibits and education she too was concerned about right-wing bias. So she went to their website and saw that one of their main historical experts at that point was Eric Foner. "If they are trying to push a right-wing agenda, they aren't very good at it." she concluded.

J. L. Bell said...

Either that, or extremely good. With funding from public sources so tight for so long, it’s hard to turn away funding from two fellows who, whatever their outlooks, seem to be quite committed to the study and teaching of American history.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to "wish" that the contemporary globalist paradigm falsely transposed onto he American Revolution were the truth.
After all, one thing you neglected to mention is had this been the case, I for one am at a total loss as to just exactly which nation would have taken the primary role in defeating the Third Reich some 160 years later....

J. L. Bell said...

“Just exactly which nation would have taken the primary role in defeating the Third Reich”? I’m not sure what you intend by bringing up the Soviet Union. At least 75% of Nazi Germany’s casualties were on the Eastern Front.

Obviously “primary” can’t mean “first to join the anti-Nazi alliance” since Britain, France, and Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939. In considering the U.S. of A. as a unique beacon of democracy because of its Revolution, I can’t help noting that Canada, a nation built in large part by Loyalists, entered World War I and II years before its bigger neighbor.