An Honest Assessment of American History

Jordan Peterson likes to say that each of us is a bridge between two worlds, in which we take what we are given from the past, and carry it into the future.  We start our lives, for example, wherever our parents put us, and as we build our lives and raise our children, we create the starting points for their lives.  We can build on what our parents gave us to place our children further ahead than we were, or we can squander whatever our parents gave us, placing our children further back.  Not everything our parents gave us helps us along our way, but nor does everything our parents gave us hinder us.  It is up to us to decide what to discard, and what to carry forward for our children.

There is an old saying that history is written by the winners.  Will Durant questioned that, writing that history is written three times.  First, history is written by the winners, but then it is written a second time by detractors.  Eventually, often after hundreds, or even thousands of years, after all of the emotion is gone, history is written by historians, and only then is the goal to tell the truth.

Actually, history is written by the winners, detractors, and true historians, right out of the gate, but initially what sells is the winner’s story.  Later, the detractor’s version becomes more popular.  Nobody cares about true history until there are no more political axes to grind, and that can take a while.  One would think that only historians would care about Roman Emperor Trajan, for example, but Trajan created the first minimum wage (sometime around 110 AD), and we still debate the efficacy of the minimum wage, keeping Emperor Trajan politically charged.

The Civil War is a great example of how history changes based on who is telling it.  For over 100 years, the South glorified the Confederacy, and now it is vilified.  For over 100 years, the war was said to have been about states’ rights, and today we say it was solely about slavery.  Both statements are correct.  The North and South had grown apart, with the economic and political power moving North.  The North became more and more industrialized while the South was strictly agrarian, and the South was justifiably concerned about Northern dominance – not just in relation to slavery.  At the same time, the specific states’ right the South seceded over was slavery, and the Southern states were very clear about that.  There were no calls for war, however, until Abraham Lincoln began to raise an army with the express purpose of invading the South.

Most of the Confederate troops did not fight for slavery, but to defend their homes and families against what they viewed as an unconstitutional, invading army.  Robert E. Lee was Abraham Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Army of the Potomac against the Confederacy, and both Robert E. Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson petitioned Jefferson Davis (the Confederate President) to end slavery, as did many other people in the South.  England wanted to intervene to ensure a Southern victory, but could not do so while the South still had slaves.  Both Robert E. Lee and ‘Stonewall Jackson’ owned slaves, but Lee inherited his, against his wishes, and freed them early in the war.  Jackson had six slaves.  Three were a wedding gift, and two had personally asked Jackson to buy them.  The sixth was a four year old girl with a learning disability that the Jacksons raised.  Thomas Jackson was revered by the African Americans (both free and slave) in Lexington, Virginia, where he and his wife opened a Sunday School to educate African Americans.  Thomas Jackson even taught one of his uncle’s slaves to read – at a time when educating slaves was a serious crime – and helped that slave get into the Underground Railroad.  It was an open secret that the slaves in the Jackson household were literate.

Slavery was the primary bone of contention between the North and the South, but another issue was that the United States funded the Federal Government through import and export duties.  As the North became industrialized (and the South did not), the North became less reliant on imports, and the tax burden shifted South.  Anyone who thinks that the Civil War was only about slavery needs to understand that the South’s economy was dependent on England, and England was hell bent on ending slavery everywhere on Earth.  England had already ended slavery throughout its empire, and there was no way England was going to allow the South to keep slavery going.  England, incidentally, wanted to intervene in the war to ensure a Southern victory.  England only stayed out because the South allowed slavery.

I’m not going to defend the South in the Civil War.  I firmly believe the North did the right thing, but we should teach the history of the Civil War in its entirety.  Not everyone in the Confederate Army was evil.

Some historical figures really have been evil, and it is important to recognize that, but most historians believe in judging people relative to the times they were a part of.  We can judge different eras, and we can judge different people.  Most historians believe in judging those things separately.

When I was a kid, I loved School House Rocks, but some episodes are no longer politically correct.  Elbow Room justified Westward expansion.  The Great American Melting Pot celebrated cultural appropriation.  Even some of the milder ones, such as No More Kings, have parts that are offensive.  If you watch No More Kings, note the depiction of Native Americans when the Mayflower lands at Plymouth Rock.  These videos would be considered grossly offensive today, and yet forty years ago they were played on Saturdays, between cartoons, as a public service.

School House Rocks glorified European expansion across North America, without also chronicling the decimation of Native Americans, and without mentioning slavery and Jim Crow.  These videos were clearly a ‘winners’ history, and though they were accurate from the ‘winners’ perspective, they were not honest.  To be an honest history, one has to acknowledge that there are multiple accurate perspectives, and that history is seldom as simple as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

There is another skewed perspective one can look at American History with, and that is to color everything this nation has ever done or stood for, based solely on the decimation of Native Americans, on slavery, and on Jim Crow.  This is the detractor’s history, and it is what is in vogue today.  Today’s ‘patriotism’ is one that hates everything America has ever done or stood for, and that wants to radically transform our nation into something fundamentally different from what it has ever been.  I find that if I ask what that ‘fundamentally different’ something looks like, I get very vague answers, but it is nonetheless true that today’s Politically Correct history is one that paints American history in a purely negative light.

What is the true American history that historians will write about thousands of years from now, when only scholars care?  Did we decimate the Native Americans?  Yes, but small pox killed far more Native Americans than did bullets, and though there were cases where small pox was used as a chemical weapon, for the most part bringing small pox was an accident.  Native American history is not all love and roses either.  Before the white man came and started taking land from Native Americans, Native Americans had been taking land from one another.

Listen to Colonial Nelson Miles drop a huge truth bomb on Chief Sitting Bull.  This video clip is from a movie, but the exchange shown really did take place.  The Native Americans were no more, and no less peaceful, than were the white people who landed at Plymouth Rock and expanded West.

Wars are fought by two sides.  There are some wars, such as World War Two, or the American Civil War, in which one side is right, and one side is wrong, but most wars are nuanced.  In most wars, both sides are equally honorable, and both sides are equally wicked, based purely on the subjective perspectives of the people involved.  The only two unique things about the wars with Native American tribes were the technological disparities involved, and the ability of the European Americans to pit different Native American tribes against each other.  What happened to the Native Americans is one of the ugliest aspects of American history, but it no more defines American History than did the glorifying histories I grew up with.  There is truth in both accounts.

The United States has done some wonderful things.  We were founded on libertarian principles, and flourished as a libertarian nation for 124 years before we slowly began to backpedal toward where we are today.  The ideals in our founding documents came out of the very heart of the Enlightenment, and though those ideals were imperfectly implemented by imperfect people, to throw those ideals away because of the imperfections of the people who implemented them is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  We need more liberty rather than less, and we need to afford liberty to everyone.  We need to learn from history, not to cast blame on those long since dead, but to learn from past mistakes such that we can improve.  Whether we like it or not, we really are a bridge between the past and the future.  Our job is to be the best bridge possible.

This notion that our past is evil, that our culture is abhorrent, and that our prevailing economic model is wrong – that’s all garbage based on an incomplete understanding of American history.  Earlier Americans have done bad things, and we need to be cognoscente of that, but we did not do those things, and certainly our children did not do those things.  The future is defined by those living in the present, and we need to build a future that understands both the good and the bad from our past if we are to build a bridge to a better future.  To do this, we need to write history, not as ‘winners’, and not as detractors, but as historians.  We need to study the truth.

Leave a Reply