A colleague tells me that this critique of current trends in American popular history is by "a rising star in the British historical profession." ...

By Tristram Hunt

Guardian (UK)
February 16, 2005


In his messianic inauguration address, President Bush spoke of America's global duty being defined by "the history we have seen together." Inevitably, this was a reference to the events of 9/11. But given how much a sense of U.S. revolutionary heritage is now informing current policy, the broader history that Americans are experiencing together should be an equal cause for concern.

The latter half of the 20th century saw U.S. scholars lead the way in popular social history. The world of the workplace, family life, native America and civil rights was chronicled with verve and style. The delicate oral histories of social chronicler Studs Terkel opened up the local and working-class past to mass audiences. He showed how the second world war was as much the people's as the statesmen's war. On National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, history was dissected professionally and polemically.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find such broad-ranging investigations of the American past. Instead, the bookshelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble are dominated by a very specific reading of the 18th century. This does not, in God-fearing America, represent a new found interest in the secular ideals of enlightenment and reason. Rather, an obsessive telling and retelling of that great struggle for liberty: the American Revolution.

Heroic biography has become the bestselling history brand of Bush's America. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln are all speaking from the grave with new-found loquaciousness. Barely a week passes without another definitive life of a Founding Father, Brother or Sister, each one more adulatory than the last.

Not least the vice-president's wife, Dr. Lynne Cheney, whose recent contribution, When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots, is the kind of "history" that any ministry of information would have been proud of. Museums and TV schedulers have not been slow to catch the mood. The New York Historical Society currently hosts a vast exhibition celebrating the life of Alexander Hamilton ("The Man who Made Modern America"); the History Channel has even cut into its second world war telethon to offer a series of bio-pics of great American revolutionaries.

Sadly, none of this has resulted in any substantive reinterpretation of the revolution or its principal actors. As Simon Schama rightly puts it, this is history as inspiration, not instruction. Instead of critical analysis, the public is being fed self-serving affirmation: war-time schlock designed to underpin the unique calling, manifest destiny and selfless heroism of the U.S. nation and, above all, its superhuman presidents.

Needless to say, this goes down very well at the White House. We are told that the president's current reading matter includes biographies of Washington as well as Alexander Hamilton. For the biographical emphasis on the Great Man who has the character and vision to transcend as well as define his times fits well with a presidency that values personal instinct and prayer above reason and empiricism.

In fact, the historical community seems to be providing the ideal conditions for the Nietzschean approach of the Bush administration. As one senior presidential adviser scarily informed journalist Ron Suskind: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality . . . we'll act again, creating other new realities . . . We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Rather than tempering such terrifying ambition, U.S. scholars are happy to play up to it. Historian Eliot Cohen penned an administration-friendly account of how former U.S. presidents have instinctively been right in matters military, compared with their hapless, diffident generals, while prolific biographer Joseph Ellis has sought to offer posthumous suggestions from George Washington to George W.

At a time when the U.S. imperium is rampaging across the globe, you might have thought there would be a historical concern to enlighten the domestic citizenry about foreign cultures and peoples. Instead, public scholars are feeding the nation's increasingly insulated mentality with a retreat into the cosy fables of their forebears. Amid the biography and hagiography, stories of Islamic civilization or Middle East nation-building are among the many histories the American people are not seeing.

--Tristram Hunt is the author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City.