Over the past few weeks there has been a very interesting conversation going on at New York History, a blog that should be getting more attention due to the thoughtful posts from blogger and public historian Peter Feinman.
Recently Feinman attended The American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia (May 30-June 1, 2013) and wrote a series of excellent posts on his experience. In one post, Feinman noted that none of the participants in the conference were willing to recognize “the profound power of the revolutionary ideas of the American Revolution.”
The posts led to an exchange between Feinman and Penn historian Michael Zuckerman, the co-organizer of the conference. The exchange focused on academic historians, the American Revolution, and American exceptionalism. Here is a taste of Zuckerman’s response to Feinman’s series:
In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution. People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not. But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did. He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth. BUT WE DON’T. That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference. A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do. The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth. The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?
Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was. That is why messiness was, as Peter admits, the recurrent theme of our time together. That, I think, is why no one was eager to address the question of whether the Revolution was a good thing. That question begs a deeper one, on which no one wanted to pronounce pontifically: what was the Revolution? On that, we will be having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever. Or at least until the great corporate leaders who really don’t believe in We the People or in America finally win and tell us once and for all what the Revolution was.
How do scholars “market” themselves in the public arena so their image is positive, and not apologetic anti-American? If scholars seek a call to (political) arms as Mike Zuckerman seems to suggest, then those issuing the call need to do so as prophets who want America to live up to its ideals and oppose the wealthy, powerful, and the loudly ignorant.
If however, the language of academics today is condescending, doesn’t take pride in the American Revolution, and only criticizes America, then Mike Zuckerman is right: the battle over the changes America needs to live up to its potential is lost.
There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.
At one point in the exchange Feinman accuses historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of ducking a question about “whether the Revolution was a good thing.” Feinman sees this as a failure by academic historians to openly acknowledge what is exceptional about America. In fact, he called Ulrich’s failure to answer the question “embarrassing.”
Now I don’t know what Laurel Ulrich thinks about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the American Revolution. I do not turn to Ulrich or any of the scholars at the conference for their opinion on such a matter. But I do want historians like Ulrich to help me understand the meaning of the Revolution. In other words, to wonder whether the American Revolution was “good” is certainly a topic that can be debated and discussed, but it is not an issue that falls within the scope of the historian’s vocation. And the American Revolution Reborn was a historical conference.
As Zuckerman notes, “The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in (America’s) birth. The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth.”
Zuckerman also has some very good things to say about the place of history in our society, particularly the limits of our discipline. He writes:
I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do. The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric. But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all. The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues. The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds. But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities. If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world.
Zuckerman’s response here reminds me of Catherine O’Donnell’s recent op-ed in an Arizona newspaper, “History is a Useful Tool, Not Answer to Every Problem.” I encourage you to check it out.
On the other hand, Feinman certainly has a point when he writes, “If the new master narrative gives the appearance of being anti-American, then it will be rejected. If it is presented by people who have pride in being American and who are not always apologizing for it, then it has a better chance of resonating with the American people.”
I think Feinman has put his finger on one of the primary reasons academic historians have struggled to speak to the public. American exceptionalism and so-called “founders chic” is so popular today because academic historians have abandoned the public sphere. While there is definitely change on the horizon in this regard, historians should not be surprised that Americans get their American history from the likes of David McCullough, Bill O’Reilly, and David Barton.