As the sands of time perpetually slip through the turning hourglass, history tends to evolve from fact. In fact, as a person with a degree in history, I would argue history is less fact than perception of fact.
No one alive saw the signing of the Declaration of Independence. No eyewitnesses exists of the forging of the bricks laid at the base of Great Wall of China. While the Bible documents it, faith alone carries on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Analysis of historical events and people can lead to any wide array of perceived outcomes that may change across time and place.
For example, I argued in my senior history thesis that western powers, including the United States, led to the emergence of China as the global superpower most recognize today.
Fact: Western powers eager to capture and monetize the resources of China set up ports along coastal China throughout the 19th century.
Fact: The ports introduced western methods of transportation, banking and urbanization that revolutionized the landscape of Chinese business culture.
20 pages of evidence and research later, I attributed the rapid rise of China’s profile on the world stage to the interjection of western culture.
Admittedly, the trouble with my argument is that it takes away the agency of the Chinese people to change and adapt on their own — a fault I readily accept.
The point of that spiel was not to engross you in how the world perceives China (nor impress you with my inordinate knowledge of 19th century China), but to prove that with the benefit of hindsight analysis, history can look a little different.
Steven Spielberg gives us another example of amorphic history in his scintillating film “Lincoln” — the story of the 16th president’s quest to end slavery in America.
If you’ve seen the film (I highly recommend it), you’ll know that Lincoln faced stiff opposition. You’ll know that Lincoln did many things that people in today’s society would cry unconstitutional. He used far more unchecked executive power that President Obama ever has. He silenced opposition, declared martial law, suspended habeas corpus....
You get the idea.
Removed from the circumstances, I’ll wager a fair percentage of people would call Lincoln a bad, or even dangerous, president. Yet, put in the context of history, he’s the benchmark for American leaders.
My blood turns to ice when someone suggests today’s America ought to model itself off American history from the time of the founding fathers.
We don’t live in the same world as the founding fathers of this country. If we did, no rational female voices could echo in the testosterone-filled halls of congress.
Page 2 of 2 - We wouldn’t have 24/7 media scrutiny on the government we do now.
And hell, we wouldn’t have electricity to fuel our million gadgets.
Let’s take off the rose-colored glasses when examining the early years of countryhood. Let’s not place the founding fathers on an automatic pedestal without analysis.
My favorite rose-colored assumption about early America is that the founding fathers were all devout Christians. That claim works if you’re trying to reinforce a certain point of view, but the reality is that the founding fathers accepted religious pluralism. Some are considered atheists (ahem, Thomas Jefferson). “In God we trust” wasn’t added to currency until the 1950s.
When looking at history, we can’t see just what we want to if it supports a view or opinion. To do this is to betray the vibrant, and sometimes uncomfortable, history of our country.