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History as identity: The American past as contested terrain

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  1. Introduction
  2. Framing the American narrative
  3. The early national period: 1780-1840
  4. The challenge of events, 1840-1890
  5. The progressive historians, 1890-1940
  6. Conflict, consensus, complexity, 1940-1960
  7. The generation of '68'
  8. Popular reaction
  9. The historians' response
  10. The future of the past
  11. Conclusion

We look to the past to tell us who we are, where we are, and how we got here from there. History is identity, and thus it is contested terrain. Whose story is going to be told, and who is going to do the telling?

The American narrative ? the history of who we are, where we've been, and what it all may mean ? has been evolving in its written form for some four hundred years. The dominant and privileged narrative has been one of freedom, abundance, progress, and triumph. This is the narrative that defines popular memory of the epic events of American history: westward expansion and the settlement of the continent; the Revolution and the founding of the Republic; the Civil War; and, increasingly, World War II as the ultimate expression of American power and idealism.

The work of American historians in the 20th century has progressively challenged this view. The history of the historians has undermined what Lincoln called ?the dogmas of the quiet past.? The evolving narrative has become darker, more complex, and reveals profound disparities between ideals and realities. It challenges those who believe there is only one national narrative and only one version of the American experience.

[...] Franklin's electric rod smote the earth and out sprang George Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and henceforward these two conducted all policy negotiations, legislatures, and Thomas Jefferson, for his part, regarded Adams as impossible. hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English.? Rivalries and animosities among the Founders, accompanied by arguments over the character, meaning, and legacy of the Revolution fueled the bitter conflict between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, America's first political parties. [...]


[...] Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, pp. 17-18; New York See, for example, David Ramsay, History of the Revolution in South Carolina and Jeremy Belknap, History of New Hampshire, 1784-1792. See, for example, Hezekiah Niles, Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America and Jared Sparks, Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 1829-1830. George Bancroft, 1800-1891, author of History of the United States volumes, published 1834-1874. As Secretary of the Navy, he established the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Minister to Britain, 1846-1849; Minister to Prussia, 1867-1874. [...]


[...] The historical discipline of the Romantic historians their search for facts, accuracy, authenticity rested on their need to create a convincing dramatic narrative. The great exemplar of this tradition is Francis Parkman.[6] Parkman's theme was the long struggle between France and England for empire in North America and Canada. His protagonists were the Indians, Jesuit missionaries, and explorers. His setting was the vast virgin forest. His dramatic climax was the mortal confrontation between Montcalm and Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. This was history as drama, and drama with a moral charge. [...]


[...] By 1830 it was beginning to be possible to write general American history from authentic sources. Nevertheless, the writing of history was expensive and difficult to undertake, and the rewards, while potentially substantial, remained uncertain. The requisites for research and writing were money for travel, copyists, assistants, and extensive free time. Accordingly, history was the occupation of gentlemen of ample means or a few entrepreneurial spirits like George Bancroft and Jared Sparks who were able to combine the writing of history with politics, diplomacy, or publishing.[5] Apart from being affluent and educated, American historians before the Civil War came overwhelmingly from New England or the Northeast, had strong roots in the Puritan tradition, and often felt frustrated and at odds with the main drift of American society its growing materialism and egalitarianism, the vulgarities and corruption of democratic politics. [...]


[...] Historians would do well, Appleby noted, by making a comparison with science, where the constant revision of knowledge is driven by continuous research and investigation. In doing these things, however, Appleby did not envisage any effort that took historians beyond their traditional roles as teachers, researchers, writers, and occasional speakers at public events. It may be that memories of the traumatic events at the end of the 1960s made historians reluctant during the 1990s to confront partisan efforts to politicize the nation's history. [...]

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