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, September 03, 2013

Pride Goeth After a Revolution?

In the ongoing debate over the “American Revolution Reborn” conference, one of the positions that baffles me most is Peter Feinman’s lament that “scholars at the conference failed to express pride in the American Revolution.” I caught the same regret in my conversation during the conference with J. F. Gearhart.

Of course, most of the people in that auditorium had devoted years of their lives to studying and teaching that very subject, so they obviously find it worthwhile. Yet Feinman wished those scholars had stated that they were “proud” of their topic. Not just that they view aspects or people or results of the American Revolution as admirable, but that they personally feel better for living in a country created from that Revolution 225+ years ago. But how would expressing pride in events we had no role in have shed any more light on that history?

By and large every society agrees that its own origin was a Good Thing. Stone-Age cultures no doubt celebrated their creation, however they understood it. Most Germans in 1939 probably agreed not only that the unification of Germany under Bismarck was a Good Thing, but so was the rise of Adolf Hitler. Very few people under any circumstances say that their society’s origin was a Bad Idea. After all, our education, upbringing, and sense of self are all tinged by our nation’s past.

Even when a society is engulfed in a civil war, as North America was during the Revolution, both sides still generally agree that the founding of their society was a Good Thing. They disagree violently on what was most important about that origin, what’s gone right and wrong since, and what to do now. That’s why both sides of the American political conflict up until 1776 insisted they were fighting for bedrock British values, and how even after independence Americans adopted many aspects of the British polity.

Therefore, for Americans to say that the Revolution was a Good Thing doesn’t distinguish us from most other nations, nor does it highlight what might distinguish our society’s origin and values from any other. It doesn’t shed new light on Revolutionary history. Good scholars go looking for harder, more meaningful questions. They also seek fresh and objective perspectives in their scholarly work, which means getting beyond the prejudgments that every human in society grows up with.

If we really need to confirm the American Revolution’s ultimate value, we’d probably get more interesting and thought-provoking answers from historians in Canada, Mexico, Britain, France, Australia, India, and other countries. Some of those people could remind us, for example, that it’s been possible to form independent republics without two big civil wars. (But is it possible to form new nations without expelling or oppressing others?) They might note that the American Revolution’s stated ideals of equality and “consent of the governed” can be found in many other societies today, sometimes in greater measure.

In fact, if it’s possible to create an objective “net-net” evaluation of the American Revolution, as Gearhart asked at the conference, I think that assessment must come from outside the American nation. It must be obvious to all, not just to those of us who are already primed to cheer the origin of our own society. As in science, the results must be the same in every laboratory, not just in the lab that made the initial discovery.

Finally, there’s the question of what value expressing pride would bring to the study or teaching of history. In Interpreting Our Heritage (originally published in 1957, this from the 1977 edition), Freeman Tilden told public historians:
In interpretive markers we should be chary of using words like “heroes.” Certainly the men were heroes who are so described; but it is better to tell what they did, and the visitor will not forget that the acts were heroic. Indeed, when it occurs to him that it was heroism, it is borne in upon him more forcefully than if he were told so. . . .

I say in another chapter that you do not make a scene more beautiful by calling it beautiful. In a sense, you make it a little less so.
If the American Revolution has indeed been an objective “net-net” positive for the world (and as I said yesterday, I believe it has been), then simply telling its history accurately should make that apparent. Proclaiming “pride” isn’t necessary to establishing the Revolution as valuable for the world, and may even “make it a little less so.”

TOMORROW: A clash of cultures.


Citoyen david said...

"If you want to safeguard our History, tell the truth.”

Bill Harshaw said...

If we must leave judging the "net-net" of the American Revolution to others, what judgments of historical events elsewhere could we make?

Maybe: the British Empire was, on the whole, a good thing, except as applied to the thirteen colonies?

John L Smith Jr said...

Well stated, J.L.! I agree with your obvious-but-not-stated concept that sometimes a person is too far into the forest to see the trees and that a good perspective is always valuable from someone outside the forest. Alistair Cooke, the British journalist, wrote the book "America" in the 1970s and it was one of my first introductions to the Founding Era. If I recall, other than forever burning into my mind Jefferson's quote about a "firebell in the night", Cooke loved America and its people, and said the world was infinitely better off because of the "Cause" fought against his own people.

G. Lovely said...

Grandad always said (quoting Ezikiel 21:26) "Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted." From that perspective the Revolution was something to be proud of, but taking pride in it, especially 227 years after the fact, is not.

William H. Otis said...

For what it's worth, J.L., this entry by far is your best work I've ever read - and I mean that. Your logic is beautiful and spot on the money - not to mention your choice of vocabulary.

The lesson I come away with humbles me toward the need to seperate emotion from research and, thus, opinion. My pride as an American and my effort as a researcher should never mix.