To the surprise of historians themselves, history–or at least its public presentation–has become big business. The Freedom Trail, a walking tour of monuments, buildings and historical markers, is Boston’s leading tourist attraction. The History Channel is among the most successful enterprises on cable television, and attendance at historical museums and other sites is at a record high.
What account of the past does our public history convey? This is the question James Loewen sets out to answer. A former professor at the University of Vermont, Loewen is a one-man historical truth squad, best known as the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argued that high school history texts are laced with misconceptions, omissions and outright lies [see Jon Wiener, “Don’t Know Much ‘Bout History,” April 3, 1995]. In Lies Across America, based on visits to historic markers, houses and monuments in all fifty states, Loewen comes to essentially the same conclusion about the public presentation of American history.
Friedrich Nietzsche once identified three approaches to history: monumental, antiquarian and critical (the last defined as “the history that judges and condemns”). Nearly all historical monuments, of course, are meant to be flattering to their subjects; it is probably asking too much to expect them to be critical in Nietzsche’s sense. But one can expect basic accuracy and honesty, and this test, as Loewen demonstrates, much of our public history fails.
Problems begin with the language commonly used to describe early American history, which suggests that the continent was uninhabited before white settlement and that only people of English origin qualify as “civilized.” Now excised from most historians’ accounts of Columbus’s voyages, the much-abused word “discovery” remains alive and well on historical markers, even where self-evidently inappropriate. A marker in Iowa declares that the French explorer Jean Nicolet “discovered” Okamanpadu Lake, although Indians had clearly named it well before Nicolet’s arrival. A Minnesota marker credits Henry Schoolcraft with the “discovery” of Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, even while acknowledging that the lake was “known to Indians and traders” well before Schoolcraft’s arrival in 1832. In Gardner, Kansas, where the Oregon and Santa Fe trails diverge, a marker honors the “pioneers who brought civilization to the western half of the United States”–thus expelling from history not only Indian populations but the Spanish, who planted their civilizations in the West centuries before the advent of overland settlers.
But what really concerns Loewen is not so much misrepresentations such as these but lies of omission. Nietzsche spoke of “creative forgetfulness” as essential to historical memory; what is not memorialized tells us as much about a society’s sense of the past as what is. For Loewen, the great scandal of our public history is the treatment of slavery, the Civil War and the country’s long history of racial injustice.
Amnesia best describes America’s official stance regarding slavery. Visitors to Washington, DC, will find a national museum devoted to the Holocaust, funded annually with millions of taxpayer dollars, but almost nothing related to slavery, our home-grown crime against humanity. Tours of historic plantations, Loewen notes, ignore or sugarcoat the lives of slaves. No whips, chains or other artifacts of discipline are on display, and presentations by guides focus on the furniture, gardens and architecture rather than the role of slave labor in creating the wealth they represent.