History in These Times

John Singelton Copley, Portrait of Mrs. John Stevens, 1770-72.

By Jacob Bruggeman

Devotees to the study of history are quickly becoming a bygone breed.

In early June, I was honored to be one of fifteen undergraduate participants, a group of that bygone breed, in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s 2016-2017 History Scholar Program, through which I was flown out to New York City and housed at New York University with the fourteen other participants in the program.

The program’s length is just short of a week, and each day we engaged with several preeminent American historians, whose myriad specialties ranged from women’s roles in the War for Independence, Lincoln’s life, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s naval policies. The visiting scholars included Richard Brookhiser, Carol Berkin, Kenneth Jackson, Mae Ngai, David Blight, Martha Hodes, and Thomas Heinrich.

This year’s History Scholar cohort, hailing from universities, public and private, scattered across the continental United States, represented a near comprehensive scope of academic training, ideological commitments, and backgrounds.

Yet, in the face of our deep differences, we formed a cohesive group, each of us dedicated to the preservation, understanding, and consistent reevaluation of others’ interpretations, or ‘histories’, of the past. Indeed, our in-class discussions—some of them growing out of the designs of the visiting scholars’ syllabi, many more being approached organically, often being framed in the tumult of our current political climate—were dominated by the cohort thinking through the contrast between constructed narratives and reality.

To make clear the conclusion of the above paragraph, let me share with you an example from the week.

Carol Berkin of the City University of New York gave a presentation on “Women in the Revolutionary War,” the mere title of which contradicts the normative historical narrative of the American Revolution. Indeed, one could easily argue, as some historians have, that the United States’ origins are shrouded in collective mythology, one that excludes the women whose efforts were essential to the winning of the Revolutionary War, focusing instead on the ‘great men’ of the era: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the list goes on.

While there has been a steady winnowing of the number of historians whose principle means of understanding the past is through the deeds of ‘great men’—which is, to be frank, tantamount to a gendered political history—I would argue that the average citizen still understands American History as a story shaped only by men such as Washington. This understanding of the Revolutionary Era, of our past as Americans, is not so much wrong as it is critically incomplete.

Many of the Founding Fathers relied upon their wives’ efforts maintain order in home, on the farm, and all the while care for the family; in other words, the domestic, that sphere of communitas to which most women of the era were relegated. Here come to mind the dynamics of the Adams Household, in which John Adams required Abigail’s counsel and reassurances as much as her hours spent doing the wash, cooking, and caring for the children. Berkin attempts to make more people aware of the contributions of women such as Abigail Adams through one of her books, Revolutionary Mothers.

              Women such as Abigail Adams, women in high places, were not the only women who dedicated their lives to the Revolution. As Berkin noted during our lecture, women across race and class engaged in “political acts of heroism throughout the War,” often funding the War effort itself through its first (and massive) public fundraising campaigns. Women of the era, Colonial women, also moved into many of the vocational roles once occupied by their husbands, whose energies were being harnessed on the warfront, not in the homestead. Colonial women supported the War and maintained the home at the same time, often working hours on end, domestic work always being renewed ad infinitum.

The acts of women in the War—those from New Englander or Virginian elites to those of the common Colonial woman—are oft-forgotten in historical narratives, and certainly left out of our collective mythology of the War.

This lecture challenged the constructed narrative of the American Revolutionary War, instead presenting the realities of women’s contributions to the American Founding, thus reassembling a new narrative of the War—a narrative much truer to the efforts of women to win the War, while still acknowledging the essential contributions of the ‘great men’.

Here we see the power of history to reshape our own reality, to disassemble our understanding of particular people, places, and periods in the past, perhaps even the very foundation of our understanding, from the pieces of our understanding, conceiving, with the Historian’s help, a new image of that person, place, or period in the past.

Each student in the cohort cherishes different moments of American History, but each of us recognizes that stewarding the past is not a zero-sum game, and that attempting to comprehend our past, regardless of the particularities of a certain period, place, or person, is a worthwhile endeavor—indeed, and endeavor upon which rests the stability of our modest Republic.

In times such as these, when constructed narratives about race, gender, and politics seem to contradict our lived experiences, our realities, it is necessary to pull from the shelves the history books. In doing so, we may revisit the past, and thus inform the present, through others’ written interpretations, challenging, if we must, decades-old, oppressive regimes of truth, or even days-old ‘alternative’ realities.

If you are a history student, I highly recommend applying to the program. Through engaging American History, the visiting scholars, and likeminded students, you just might make studying history more interesting, encourage those in your social circles challenge narratives of and then reinterpret the past, and, just maybe, save the Republic.

About Stephen Norris