Abe and George have been taking a beating lately, and not just from the ads from the retail merchants.
Abe? There are folks out there who are now claiming they have proof he was gay.
George? While no historian has yet claimed they know the real reason why he was standing up in that boat crossing the Delaware, Washington’s sex life (or lack thereof) has been questioned more than a bit by some.
I recently bought an American history encyclopedia in which the article on the Revolutionary War doesn’t even mention him, and barely mentions the Declaration of Independence in passing. Quite a bit of material about slaves, though.
You can say some people have political agendas and are using history as a tool to further that agenda. This is true, but that is nothing new. History has always been used that way.
What troubles me is something a lot more basic.
The American history that was taught thirty or fifty or a hundred years turned American leaders into plaster saints. People like Washington and Franklin and Lincoln were turned into demigods who never, ever, ever did anything wrong. This was ridiculous. They were men, and they made mistakes in their lives.
Washington wasn’t a very good general. Franklin made Bill Clinton look chaste. Lincoln probably prolonged the Civil War with his horrible choices for military commanders.
However, the trend nowadays is to go to the other absolute extreme, which is just as untrue as the earlier version.
Washington wasn’t the greatest military general in history, not even a terribly good one, but if not for his dogged stubbornness the United States would likely be Canada today.
If Franklin didn’t get out of bed occasionally to negotiate a treaty with France, George’s stubbornness likely would have just had him playing the wrong side of Hangman.
If not for Lincoln’s stubborness, what is now the United States of America would likely be the very disunited squabbling states of America, and we might be living Harry Turtledove’s fantasies (and Lincoln not being a ladykiller like Franklin doesn’t make him gay).
What we need to learn from history is that these were fallible men who despite their fallacies, managed to do great things. The choice is not between perfect and worthless.
If you want to say that earlier versions of American history didn’t take into account the contributions of ___________, and that Washington or Lincoln didn’t win their wars all by themselves, there’s much to be said for that, but little to be said for saying they had nothing to do with it.
Sometimes individuals don’t matter very much in an historical situation, just about anybody else would have done much the same thing. But sometimes they do, and in the cases of Washington and Lincoln, they did.
Nor can you judge the past solely in terms of some politically correct current litmus test. For instance, all three men undoubtedly would be considered racists today. Then again, it would have been pretty hard to find anybody who wasn’t in their times.
Even the vast majority of the abolistionists thought blacks were generally inferior to whites. Then again, they generally didn’t think too much about white people that weren’t WASPs, or poorer WASPs, either.
Nonetheless, despite their biases and prejudices, Washington did free his slaves, and Lincoln freed all slaves. We should not ignore the faults, but neither should we ignore the virtues.
American history is hardly the only place where we see this bipolarity. A generation or two ago, all ancient Egyptians were portrayed as white. That was clearly untrue, just who were those obviously black folks portrayed in all those paintings?
Now some folks would have you believe all ancient Egyptians were black. That’s just as absurd, who were those obviously white folks portrayed in all those paintings? What about all those people portrayed who look kind of inbetween?
I could go on and on, but in all these cases, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes, and if people’s brains aren’t big enough to hold more than one fact about something, that’s hardly the truth’s fault.