Tuesday, February 1, 2011

American History (1): What's It All About?

This is a part of a series of "conversation starters," organized in 2007-'08, for my American history students at Grand Valley State University.

American Civilization:
The People, the Triumphs, the Tragedies

Here you are in class, and you think you hate history.

You may think you hate history – but you do not. You hate the way history has been taught. Really, it is almost impossible to hate history because the subject goes to the core of our lives: who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we’ve come to think the things we do. History is about people like you and me who have loved and hated, known triumph and tragedy, and been heroic and petty.

Every day you are steeped in “American civilization,” and you have a good intuitive grasp and working knowledge of what that means, but it takes a lifetime of reflection to understand the most significant implications of being American. The goal of this ambitious course is to introduce (or reintroduce) you to some of the principal people, events, ideas, institutions, movements, and forces that have shaped our lives as Americans, and to encourage you, in light of this history, to think about our obligations to each other and to the world.

History is about the diversity of human change over time. Historians like to debate why some things change, and others do not. For example, politically the United States was founded as a constitutional republic, but virtually everyone today calls us a "democracy" – an idea the nation’s founders criticized. Why? In our early economic history, we were a relatively insignificant agrarian people on the fringes of a great empire, yet today we are the "hyperpower" that dominates global markets and geopolitics. How did such a remarkable transformation occur? Culturally our taproot was mostly British and Protestant, whereas in the 21st century we have become the most diverse society the world has ever seen. Who ushered in the change?

Bottom line: come to this series passionate to learn more about our connected history, other Americans, and -- you.

A Penny for Your Thoughts If you encountered a curious foreigner, could you tell him about your country? You undoubtedly have a good intuitive grasp and working knowledge of American civilization. But how would you prioritize what to say?

You might start with one of the most commonplace objects at hand -- the humble penny, which can yield rich insights about what we Americans value and where we came from. The penny looks backward by recording time in millennia. More specifically, it pays homage to the ancient Romans (Latin cent and e pluribus unum, and the classically inspired Lincoln Memorial); the Italian Renaissance (explorer Amerigo Vespucci); and the 19th-century wartime leader who struggled to save the Union. The penny looks forward by having that wartime leader face to our left on an imaginary timeline into the future; affirming liberty (the dominant one-word motto); permanence (again, the classical temple); and hope in a providential power ("In God We Trust"). Both the motto e pluribus unum and the name of the country refer to Americans' commitment to a republican form of government -- it is a nation of self-governing, sovereign citizens. Inspection of the penny's physical characteristics reveals that advanced mathematics, metallurgy, and manufacturing techniques were required to produce it. A closer look at Abraham Lincoln's profile shows artistic skill grounded in a sophisticated knowledge of human anatomy. The very existence of the coin suggests a relatively advanced economy. A tutorial in American civilization, this little penny.

Historians' Rhetorical Strategies

The historian's work involves entering a debate over what happened and why it happened. The literature generated by these debates is called "historiography," literally, historical writing. Any given historical problem presents certain interpretive challenges to deal with incomplete or contradictory primary sources on the one hand, and with influential but biased secondary literature on the other.

If history is about the diversity of human change over time, the abiding task of the historian is to confront change versus continuity during any period: what changes, and what stays essentially the same? The resulting historical narrative will be steeped in interpretive challenges. To deal effectively with interpretive challenges, historians draw on certain rhetorical strategies. The following are five of the most common.

1. Since at the heart of all historical inquiry is change versus continuity, historians often arrange narratives chronologically so that causal relations are easier to establish. For example, in discussing the causes of the American Revolution, they pay particular attention to the fallout from previous conflicts like King Philip's War and the Seven Years' War.

2. Historians like to discover the origins of institutions, nations, life-ways: the argument ab ovum. When is the first time something appears among humans? Why did it appear?

3. Historians also like to compare various eras, peoples, leaders, or events to see what might be learned by analogy. The American and French revolutions have frequently been compared, for instance. These two North Atlantic revolutions occurred in the last quarter of the 18th century, but they were very different from one another.

4. Historians like to look for patterns vis-a-vis exceptions in human thought and action. The question has increasingly been posed, for example, whether the United States is a republic or an empire. Depending on the evidence marshalled, they might make the case that American foreign policy is exceptional ... or that it follows an imperial paradigm.

5. Historians seek to discover types that explain whole classes of people, institutions, and movements. From Plutarch forward, biography has benefited from identifying types. That is why Alexander the Great can be seen alongside Julius Caesar; they are similar types. And George Washington's military fame was an electoral boon, making him a type that at least partially explains the electoral success of future presidents Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, U.S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Sometimes historians just want to tell a good story -- it's one of the glories of our profession. But these five rhetorical strategies -- around origins, causes, analogies, patterns, and types -- structure much historical writing because of their analytical and narrative power.

The Questions Historians Ask

Whatever rhetorical strategy a historian picks, he must cull much material. Not everything can be included in the narrative. The following questions help shape the raw materials of this American history you are reading now:

1. In any given span of years, what is the BIG EVENT that occurred, why did it come about, and what was the impact on the people who followed?

2. In this time and place, how did human beings confront -- and to what extent did they solve -- persistent problems in the human condition?

3. Who were the heroes with the halos [Chadwick, History of Christianity, 90]? What was their struggle? How did they lead? What did they overcome? How did they express the angels of our nature?

4. Who were the knaves with the long-knives? How did they fail to lead well? How did they express the worst in the human creature, or the demons within?

5. Who had the most to win from the historical changes that were taking place? At what cost? Another way of expressing it: What groups of people benefited from the main events of this period?

6. Who had the most to lose? What groups of people were the tragic victims of the main events of the period? Were there later benefits?

7. What was the climate of opinion of the era -- the religious beliefs, the world views, the assumptions, the ethical choices they had, the unresolved intellectual tensions, the intellectual tasks they set before themselves, the celebrities and popular works that expressed the spirit of the times?

8. What are the geography lessons? (Geography is something between an inert stage and destiny.)

9. How did people make a living?

10. How did the political-economy (the how-shall-we-live-together question) change or stay the same during the period? More specifically, how did the people of the time answer these basic questions of political economy: What are all of the people going to give to some of the people? Likewise, what are some of the people going to give to all of the people?

11. For the people of any given period, what was the history they knew (as opposed to what we know now)? What were the options they understood were open to them? Awareness of historical context helps us avoid the fallacy of presentism -- judging the past in terms of the present -- and understand their perspective.

American Themes

Questioned by a foreigner, you would no doubt talk about some of the important qualities we value as Americans -- freedom, for example, and the jealousy with which we guard our rights (especially the First and Second amendments and property rights). You'd also want say something about popular government or self government and affirming the ideal of equal opportunity under the rule of law.

Although freedom is the centerpiece of American political discourse, it is often misunderstood. It does not just mean doing what you want. Ordered freedom is the ideal.

You would also note our herculean struggles as a people -- against an arrogant empire (the British), against ourselves (the Civil War), against militaristic totalitarians (fascists, Nazis, and Japanese imperialists during World War II, then against the Soviet Union in the Cold War), and against racism and prejudice.

Since no nation is a utopia, you would also confront the blights on our reputation -- generations of unjust treatment of the Indians, slavery, Jim Crow laws, unwise wars, and sometimes obscene extravagance in the marketplace. We even debate whether Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant!

To tell of America to non Americans, certain themes would emerge again and again. Even though we are often described as a forward-looking people, we actually look back quite a lot and where it really counts. I offer a seminar called "Desert Island Books" in which I challenge American audiences to think about all the non-American sources they draw from to live the good life as Americans: their spiritual comfort and their norms of behavior (the legacy of Judaism and Christianity); the canons of evidence and logic, their aesthetic sense, and the adventure of embarking on an unfinishable philosophical quest (the legacy of ancient Athens); their sense of universal law and order, admiration for great public works, politics in a republic, and the quest for empire (the legacy of ancient Rome); their support of representative institutions, respect for common law, local control, and a commerical empire (the legacy of Britian).

We call ourselves Americans, yet so much of the way we think comes from non-American sources -- ideas and institutions built up before there was even a United States of America!

Reflection on our debts to the past raises a sobering question, however. Where are so many of those past civilizations anyway? The Toynbee challenge to us....

Telling the American Story -- Your Story -- A Play in Four Acts

So how would you tell the story of America, of us? Here is one way to do it. Historians like narrative tension. It's easy to come by since life presents many ironies and paradoxes to us. American civilization can be seen as working out the tensions between past, present, and future.

American Civilization --
A Re-enactment of Old Roots and New Shoots in Four Acts

Act I: American Roots

America has drawn from other cultures and civilizations. It is not a clone of any of them, but it re-enacts important things from previous civilizations. Like any re-enactment in real time, there are some great impromptu moments on the world stage.

Scene 1: Hebrews (See Kirk's Roots, Noble's Western civ, etc.)

- Abraham sets a major historic pattern: a wandering herder who leaves the settled farmlands (Mesopotamia) to live in a new land. Herders and farmers have never gotten along well, and we see the range wars of the American West in our own history to prove it. Abraham, believing he has a covenant with God and probably also "invited" by the rulers of Mesopotamia to leave, goes to a new but barren land much the way Joseph Smith sent his people, led by Brigham Young, to Utah.

- Moses: the story of the Exodus, from slavery under pharoah to freedom in a new land, is the greatest freedom story of the ancient world, and parallels the way Americans frequently renew their quest for freedom -- the Pilgrim errand in the wilderness, the Emancipation Proclamation, frontier Homestead Act (including a wandering in the Great American Desert to the new land), the Civil Rights Movement.

- Hebrew universalism: One of the significant points of Jonah is that he goes to preach to a hostile, foreign people. Everyone should adapt the Hebrew way. Americans also became universalists.

- reluctantly unify: The Hebrews were most like anti-federalists. They liked local rule under local rulers called judges. With outside pressure, however, the (13?) tribes unified, much like the Americans in 13 colonies managed to under the Articles in the face of the British threat. The Israelites were not very good "federalists," either. After foreign threats subsided somewhat, they split in two, like what happened in our American Civil War.

- importance of a covenant: the Hebrews' three covenants (Abraham, Moses, Ezra -- hear Noble) is somewhat analogous to our insistence on living under the rule of law and having a written constitution.

- Why is Western civilization different? The ancient Jews hold one key to the answer and also to our way of life. They were monotheists. God the creator who is separate from his creation. Linear time. Causation. Science. Ethical critiques of power, historians criticizing the king, the end of human sacrifice -- until Jesus.

Scene 2: Greeks

- Herodotus on the Greek resistance to the mighty Persian Empire and its four kings. Americans, like the Greeks, were underdogs.

Scene 3: Rome

Scene 4: Andulsia/Madrid/Iberia

Scene 5: London

Scene 6: Glasgow/Edinburgh/Scottish Enlightenment

Assessment of roots. Where is American civilization re-enacting whatever has already been done? Where are we unique, exceptional?
The scale in America is unique in several respects. Tocqueville on voluntary human migration. Madison creates a new genre with the Debates on the Constitutional Convention. We are on the cutting edge of the historic debate over abolishing slavery from the earth (Gouvernor Morris and George Mason remarks especially).

Act 2: Uncertain Expansion to the West on the Frontier

The Civil War was the result of our failed attempts to resolve the paradoxes and tensions that came out of 1787. Because the North won, the question of sovereignty was settled in favor of the national government -- just as nationalism was growing around the world in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere -- and the question of slavery was finally put to the rest.

Act 3: Confident, vigorous expansion West

Strong roots drawing nutrients from ancient civs prepared for growth, vigorous American expansion along a large frontier. Set up by annis mirabilis 1787 -- 2 great gatherings, 2 great acts ... Constitutional Convention and Confederated Congress passing the NW Ordinance
note the 5 frontiers. We were continental imperialists in the 19th century.

Act 4: imperial and republican tensions in the 20th century

Americans began the century in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. The war inaugurated a relatively brief but intense period of bald imperialism, influenced by social Darwinist theories of nature and nations.

There were efforts after the First World War and Second World War to form an international alliance in which the U.S. showed republican restraint in its foreign policy. By joining the United Nations, NATO, etc., the United States was tempering the imperial pulse of earlier decades.

How would you write a 5th act?
What are we today?

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