Yesterday, we watched the musical “Hamilton” together. Last night, President Trump made a speech at Mount Rushmore. And for weeks now, questions about “rewriting history” have been circulating on social media. Having read and written a bit about history myself over the years, I thought I’d share a couple of observations on the topic.
First, when people talk about history, we’re typically talking about one of two things: either 1) we’re talking about the actual facts of the past; or 2) we’re talking about the stories people currently tell about the past based on those facts. “Hamilton” would count as the latter. So would Mount Rushmore. And so would any history textbook. No sane and rational person would confuse any of these for what actually happened in the past. They are obviously artifacts: carefully crafted objects that exist in the present that point back to the past and represent it in certain ways.
The difference between such artifacts and the actual facts of the past may seem obvious, but people often confuse the two when they start debating “history.” Note, for example, the number of people who have recently fretted that removing statues of confederates generals from public places amounts to “rewriting history.”
This claim can only conceivably be true if by “history” we mean the storybook/artifact sort. After all, the actual facts of history can’t be rewritten by the removal of a statue or, for that matter, the revision of a textbook. They are what they are–or, rather, they were what they were.
The facts of history can certainly be debated (debating them is the stock-in-trade of historians). And people can certainly seek to hide or obscure them: holocaust deniers are heinously guilty of this crime. But reasonable people employing standard rules of evidence eventually see through such efforts. And anyway, that isn’t at all what’s happening in the case of the Confederate monuments and other artifacts of American history now being protested and in some cases pulled down.
No one is denying the existence of the confederacy or the men who led it. People are denying that those men and the institution they represent deserve to be (literally) put on pedestals in our shared public places. Far from trying to hide historical facts, such people are trying to bring more of them to light. They are rejecting the old storybook version of history and attempting to replace it with a different, fuller, better, one.
The people who are frightened by these efforts are flat wrong to suggest that this amounts to an effort to “rewrite history,” in any sense beyond changing the artifacts and the storybooks we use to talk about the past in the present. That said, they are right that any attempt to revise and replace the old storybook version of history is important. In fact, it’s arguably just as important as an actual attempt to hide the facts of history would be.
After all, we humans don’t come to understand ourselves, our communities, and our heritages by means of the bare facts of history, which reside in the archives or (more often) lie buried beneath the sands of time. We come to understand ourselves and our communities by seeing ourselves as characters in larger stories—as heroes and villains, struggling protagonists or long-suffering agents of ultimate change.
Debating what should and shouldn’t be part of those stories is central to how we shape and share our cultural identities. But we should understand this debate for what it is—an argument over what we should value from our past, now and going forward, not an argument over what happened way back when.
Put another way: when we argue about statues, we’re not debating history. We’re debating who should be seen as heroic and what should be seen as worthy of veneration and emulation. Statues aren’t history; they’re stones carved into symbols that are designed to celebrate something. If and when we decide not to celebrate—or even accept—what they symbolize, it’s time to re-purpose both the stones and the spaces in which they stand.
Are the men immortalized on Mount Rushmore worthy of veneration? Should we seek to emulate Alexander Hamilton or some other character? Debating such questions is not a threat to American history. On the contrary, it’s essential to the survival of a nation–and a people–capable of distinguishing facts from artifacts and deploying both to build a better future. It’s not an attempt to end American history. It’s a sign that American history isn’t over; it’s on the march and up to us to make.
Happy Independence Day!