History, Meet Politics

By Nelson, Michael | The American Prospect, June 18, 2001 | Go to article overview
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History, Meet Politics


Nelson, Michael, The American Prospect


In the academic world, historians now view the past mostly through the lenses of race, class, and gender. Grants are won (and tenure gained) by those who write "history from below"--that is, the history of ordinary people--as well as the history of the marginalized "Other." You can get an idea of what constitutes voguish academic history from titles like Paternalism in a Southern City: Race, Religion, and Gender in Augusta, Georgia, and Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity.

Intent on driving out the older understanding of history as the sayings and doings of great political leaders, this contemporary notion of historical study arrived in a big way during the 1970s and 1980s. By 1990 the new approach was triumphant among college faculties. As Columbia University historian Eric Foner crowed that year in the introduction to his book The New American History, "The old 'presidential synthesis'--which understood the evolution of American society chiefly via presidential elections and administrations--is dead (and not lamented)."

Even some academic historians viewed this passing as untimely. Yale University's C. Vann Woodward, for example, regretted the New History's shift of focus from "elites and the powerful" to "popular culture; to the history of prisons, hospitals, villages, cities and churches." He argued that "people of a democratic tradition ... have a natural and abiding concern for power and those who have wielded it and to what effect--a concern that historians should never have neglected."

As if to bear out Woodward, there is popular history. One of its main outposts is cable television's History Channel, which attracts viewers in great numbers with programs like World War II in Color and History's Crimes and Trials: The Kennedy Assassination. Another is the History Book Club, which successfully woos new members with three-for-a-dollar introductory offers dominated by biographies of political and military leaders. A third bastion is, well, Stephen E. Ambrose, whose books on presidents, explorers, and soldiers are best-sellers the moment they are published. Academic historians sell most of their books to students who must buy them to pass a course. Popular historians survive because people choose to spend time and money on their work.

Until recently the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History stood squarely at the race-class-gender pole of historical studies, and it still is dominated by history-of-the-Other exhibitions such as A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution and history-from-below displays like After the Revolution: Everyday Life in America, 1780-1800. In the latter, room after room is devoted to Philadelphia mechanics, carpenters, and other trades-people with scarcely a mention of, say, Philadelphia's hosting of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. George Washington, who was president for much of the time that Philadelphia served as capital of the new nation, shows up in the exhibition only as the owner of slaves at Mt. Vernon. The not-too-subtle point of After the Revolution is that what people were doing on the job and with their families during the founding era is much more important than what the founders themselves were doing.

Not surprisingly, the main audience for After the Revolution and its nineteenth-century equivalent, Communities in a Changing Nation, consists of students brought to the Smithsonian by classroom teachers and college professors. For years the real draw for tourists planning their own itineraries has been the museum's one concession (sort of) to political history, an exhibition called First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image. As Julia Moore, a senior educator at the museum, says, "Those first ladies' gowns have been our Hope Diamond."

But now the museum is showcasing another political gem: a 9,000-square-foot exhibition called The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.

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