How do we tell the American story?


This semester, I've had the pleasure of taking a course on the American Revolution and the Early Republic with Dr. Fred Anderson here at CU-Boulder. Even though I've spent a great portion of my life idolizing the Founding Fathers, and studying colonial American history while an undergrad in Boston, I've never actually taken a course on the subject of the Revolution and the creation of the Constitution. How that one slipped through the cracks, I'm not sure. Nevertheless, it's thrilling to be able to spend such focused time learning about this pivotal moment in our nation's history, and especially to be studying under such an brilliant historian of early American history as Fred Anderson.

I've had a few surprises along the way, as Dr. Anderson has made arguments about the narrative of the Revolution that I hadn't really thought of before. How timely, too, that I am jumping into this material when the nation is up in arms about the new AP U.S History curriculum. I've spent many an afternoon/evening talking with my husband about the existing narrative of the American revolution, and how this curriculum change may or many not affect our sense of national identity. In your mind, when did the Revolution begin? I asked him. 1776? he responded, unsure. Did it really? I shoot back. What if you're missing key elements of the story? 

We know the narrative so well - we put our Founding Fathers all around us, on our money, on our school buildings. We even name our towns and states after them - Washington, Jefferson, Madison... This story is obviously important to us, so isn't it a big deal if we're missing huge parts of the truth about what really happened?

There are two fundamental rules of history - you can't leave anything out, and you can't make anything up. After reviewing the historiographical phases of the American Revolution in class, we came to a point where we all our asked ourselves, Now what? Haven't we exhausted the story? We've been arguing about the nature of the Revolution since 1789, at least - if it was about ideas or self-interest - and from Whigs to Imperialists to Neo-Progressives, there are countless arguments and theses about the nature of who we are. American history has recently become popularized by the likes of Joseph Ellis and David McCullough. Even Dr. Anderson's 800-page book The Crucible of War, about the Seven Years War in British North America, is a best-seller. The American people still care deeply about this story, and why? Perhaps because it is a key to our personal identity and sense of nationalism.

These collections of stories about Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Horatio Gates leading his men from Ft. Ticondergo in the middle of winter, all the way through the Birkshires to Dorchester Heights with captured British guns that weighed upwards of two tons, Washington's crossing of the Delaware, the French Alliance... most of us know these stories well. The stories are examples of American resolve, resilience, courage, and our commitment to republican (lower-case 'R') ideals. But what about the other stories? The ones that aren't told very often. Did the revolution really begin in 1776? What if we expanded our timeframe, and started examining it in, say, 1750? Would we learn anything different? Would it change our story, our sense of who we are? And if it did, would that be a bad thing?


Would a change like the new AP U.S History curriculum change us so much that, as GOP presidential contender Ben Carson asserted, most American teenagers who completes the course will have such defunct national identity, and will be so anti-American, that they will be "ready to sign up for ISIS"? This example of the outrage over the change in how we tell the story shows, among other things, just how important these stories are to us.

So we know the stories are important, and we have an understanding as to why they are. Now the main question is: Do we have a moral obligation to tell the whole truth

When we teach our kids the important lessons of life - honesty, kindness, patience, resilience - do we only reflect on the good times in life? Or do we reflect on the mess-up's, the hardships to fight through (the ones that refine us), and the times where we just aren't sure what the outcome will be? Obviously, a good life is not made through good times alone. We learn patience through strife, resilience through difficulty, kindness through sorrow. We can't make stuff up about ourselves, and we can't leave things out. We are a product of years and years of experience, relationships, challenges, mistakes, and wins.

And it's the same with the United States.

I believe that we have a moral obligation to think critically about our national narrative. We must expand the time frame and learn more about our wins and losses. We cannot make anything up, and we cannot leave anything out! We need to know who the Seneca and Pequot and Delaware tribes were. We need to know about Pontiac's Rebellion. We need to know about Washington's "provincialism," as John Shy calls it, and how that may have been a potential flaw that threatened to change the outcome of the war. And beyond the 17th and 18th centuries, we need to know about the post-Reconstruction south, we need a deeper look at Jim Crow and Progressivism and Teddy Roosevelt breaking up corporate trusts and about how all of this changes, for good or for bad, our beliefs about who we are as a nation today and what choices we will make in the future. As Churchill (or Santayana, if you want to argue about it) said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." We are at a point now where we are changing how our history is told to the next generation. I believe that these changes will help keep them from repeating history. What do you think?

I will leave you with another quote from Churchill to get you thinking about the historical narrative and what it means to you and to your friends and to your children. How would our sense of who we are look different if we learned the American story in wholeness rather than in parts?

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

—House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria (quote via The National Churchill Museum)

Recommended reading:

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Prospero's America by Walter Woodward

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America -- The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn

The Crucible of War by Fred Anderson

John Adams by David McCullough

Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

The Birth of the Republic by Edmund Morgan

A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence by John Shy

Top image: "Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull via The Architect of the Capit. Political cartoon by Mike Keefe via The Colorado Independent.

Anne Taylor