Understanding the Roots of the War on History

"Our first contribution is one of omission. The time-honored stories of exploration and the biographies of heroes are left out." Charles A. and Mary Beard, The History of the United States (1921)

I am a historian by trade. One of the most important moments I experienced in my graduate training was when a professor explained that her doctorate was in the “philosophy of history,” not history itself. It is an important distinction because people equate history with mastering historical trivia. The possibility that there is a philosophy of or a way to think about history is rarely raised.

Actually, there are several different philosophies of history—often at odds with each other—not just one universal philosophy. During the early years of the American republic, history helped create a national identity and instill positive virtues in the public. Parson Mason Locke Weems turned to George Washington’s famous cherry tree-chopping incident to invent a memorable fable to teach children honesty. Other contemporaries agreed with this approach. Early feminist educator Emma Willard wrote in The History of the United States, Or, American Republic that “The most important advantage of the study of history, is improvement in individual and national virtue . . . [especially in] the history of the American Republic.” These authors presented the Founding Fathers and military heroes as role models. The fact that white males dominated the nation’s early historical narrative reflected society as it existed at that time. Nevertheless, the pursuit of republican ideology, conveyed by words like liberty and freedom, was believed to be the engine that drove the United States toward a new enlightened age.

Even as the new age dawned, others lamented that only a few groups really prospered. Industrialization showered wealth on those who controlled capital but what about those who worked the machines and tilled the fields as well as the women and minorities who had even lower status? There could only be prosperity and justice when society shared its treasure with all its members. To these early critics, economic factors—not ideology—motivated human actions. Karl Marx became the spokesperson for this emerging philosophy—Marxism.

In the early 20th century, a group of historians connected with the progressive movement declared war on traditional history. In 1921, husband and wife Charles A. and Mary R. Beard co-authored a high school textbook simply titled The History of the United States, a work that detailed the progressive movement’s plan to revolutionize teaching history. An online version of this important work can be found here. The volume’s introduction stated: “If the study of history cannot be made truly progressive [or organized] like the study of mathematics, science, and languages, then the historians assume a grave responsibility in adding their subject to the already overloaded curriculum.” Their approach expunged “The time-honored stories of exploration and biographies of heroes” and “all descriptions of battles” as unnecessary and even detrimental.

The Beards listed seven changes to the traditional narrative approach to history. First, their curriculum was topic-based. Second, these topics revealed how each had contributed to the nation’s development. Third, their approach “dwelt fully upon the social and economic aspects” of American history. Fourth, the causes and results of wars and the problems of financing and sustaining armed forces replaced military strategy. Fifth, discovery and exploration were omitted to make room for citizenship. Sixth, although recognizing America’s uniqueness in some areas, they believed attention must be paid to diplomacy, foreign affairs, world relations, and the influence of other nations. And seventh, they claimed that their approach would stimulate students to think and analyze, resulting in graduates ready for the modern world. Like Weems, the Beards believed historical instruction could mold the character of future citizens. We heard the fruit of the Beards' philosophical approach in Barrack Obama’s famous Berlin speech, where an American president declared himself a citizen of the world.

Other progressive historians reinforced this view of history in which economic factors drive history. In particular, the Marxist notions of property and class struggle began to gain favor. These authors and their works shaped several generations of students, who would, in turn, become authors and teachers. While the Beards and most progressive historians have largely been relegated to historiographic reading lists, their influence on the modern history profession cannot be overstated. The popularity of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States demonstrates how widely accepted and entrenched the progressive interpretation of history launched by the Beards has become.

This economic approach to history has been popular on campuses and in textbooks for years. Examples are familiar: the American Revolution was a war for economic independence; the Founding Fathers were rich white men who established a government to protect their own interests; the nation was built by the labor of workers who toiled for the benefit of slave owners and industrialists; the Westward Expansion stole land at the expense of Native Americans and Mexicans; and women and minorities endured a menial and minimal existence. Words such as liberty or freedom masked bigotry and greed. Heroes were not the misguided men who fought for kings and capitalists on faraway battlefields but those who struggled in factories and fields against oppression. It was a world that cried out for fairness and change as well as a world, too, in which the individual triumphed only if assisted by the power of the government, the basic tenet of progressivism. The case can be made that all historical interpretations have a political agenda at heart. However, progressive historians created a world view designed to help politicians reconstruct society.

Victimhood is key to the progressive interpretation of history. Basically, if someone gains then someone else loses. Thus, history becomes a scorecard for identifying winners and losers. Those with wealth and power use it to oppress others. The goal of progressive history is not to understand the past but to identify guilty parties. Assigning roles of oppressor and oppressed (i.e., victim) signal which past wrongs must be righted. Since the guilty culprits are dead, the responsibility to make things right rests with their progeny. The beneficiaries aren’t the original victims but their descendants. An economic redistribution of wealth is usually suggested to demonstrate contrition.

To modern progressives, no narrative can exist other than the claim that powerful groups oppress less powerful groups, which supports the moral, legal, and political implications that history’s victims deserve restitution. Progressive history strikes at the very root of the early American republican historical narrative by rejecting the notion of American exceptionalism. Rather than acknowledge and celebrate the Founding Fathers and other early heroes, progressive historians denigrate them and work to remove them from the public discourse. Look no further for an explanation of what is happening to statues deemed offensive and guilty of some past injustice.

Why do historical interpretations matter? The boundary between history and politics is razor-thin and too many practitioners claim to be historians when in fact they are political operatives. I am not referring to just the academic voices in the classroom crying for social justice but the advocational historians who strive to maintain their group heritage and/or identity. Both can be extreme in their own way, picking the historical “facts” that support their view of the past. Moreover, the struggle for control of the historical narrative has made the field unappealing to the public in general and students in particular. It is an unhealthy situation for both the profession and the society it professes to serve.

We have all heard the well-worn rejoinder, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." Nevertheless, many in our society go about their daily lives with little or no regard for history or those who write it. It is enough to beg the question, "Is history obsolete?" The answer, of course, is no. However, it is time that those in the profession reevaluate how we present history to the public and adopt strategies to address the problem of societal disinterest. If no remedy is found, it is historians themselves who face becoming irrelevant.

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Richard Bruce Winders, Ph.D., served as the curator and historian for the Alamo for more than two decades. He is the author of a number of books on borderland history including Crisis in the Southwest: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle of Texas and Sacrificed at the Alamo: Tragedy and Triumph in the Texas Revolution.