Two people witnessing an automobile accident often come away with conflicting accounts, even within moments of the event. Ask them six months later to recall the same accident, and their stories will have been transformed by the repeated telling of the story to friends, reading other accounts of the same event and, most relevant to my point here, the general acceptance or rejection of their accounts. Indeed, in the end, the history of the accident will be what society accepted or rejected. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this collective recollection is the truth. It is, rather, a story filtered through all the biases, needs, and preconceived notions of society. All history is this; as society changes, so, too, does history.
I offer a few examples to illustrate my point.
We simply do not value Christopher Columbus like we once did—the first “we” being us and the second “we” being the dominant members of American society for the first few centuries of its existence. Those that worshiped the intrepid explorer, Columbus, and celebrated the anniversary of the moment he bumped into the Americas, simply looked the other way as tens of millions of people seem to have just disappeared. We, today—or, at least, most of us—are no longer looking the other way. The difference in the history of Columbus is us.
Andrew Jackson has been transformed as well; not as a result of the discovery of new information or long-lost archives, but because we, as a society, more or less, have moved
on from valuing the warrior-turned-common man-president to sympathizing with those he vanquished. Whether in war or as president, it’s pretty clear that Jackson had little sympathy for Native Americans. In turn, our history of him is a reflection of what we think of these things.
He’s still on the $20 bill, though, and President Trump seems rather fond of him; so, I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself how much moving on we have actually done.
The most recent character subjected to this historiographical* transformation is Robert
E. Lee. As it turns out, what we know of Lee appears to be much more a product of what later generations attempted to make of him—if all the statues are any measure—than the real Lee.
Of course, this statement is a reflection of us—or me, as I struggle as a not-so famous
historian. Although, what you make of what I think—what all of you collectively make of what I think—becomes a history of sorts or, perhaps, a potential history. The test is whether there is anyone out there reading and listening and pondering these ideas, maybe repeating them in conversation with others. This is what Professor Carr meant when he said that if an event is not written down, it is not history. And, even that which is written down can drift into the shadows. To borrow from Dr. Franklin, “If you
would not be forgotten, once you are long dead and rotten; either do things worth the writing or write things worth the reading.”
On a side note, I apologize to Professor Carr and Dr. Franklin for pretending to be their
acquaintance. As historians, though, both of them understood that what they wrote would be subject to scrutiny; a fine thing, I believe.
As to Columbus, Jackson, and Lee, this is not an attempt to assign irrelevance to their
stories. Understanding what these characters meant to previous generations has become
history in its own right. Indeed, I believe I can say quite a bit about those who, in the early
twentieth century, erected statues of Lee and his Confederate comrades. First and foremost, they were myth builders. And, I say this with all due respect because myth is the first cousin of history. Both are human attempts at making sense of a world that, more often than not, is very difficult to explain.
If history is a set of competing narratives over time—historiography, actually—what are
we to make of competing narratives over very little time? For instance, James Comey, the fired FBI Director says he did; the president says he didn’t. Adult film actress Stormy Daniels says he did; the president says he didn’t. Playboy model Karen McDougal says he did; the president says he didn’t. Author Michael Wolfe says he did; the president says he didn’t. Former White House Aide Omarosa Manigault Newman says he did; the president says he didn’t. The tape says he grabbed at it; the president says “maybe that wasn’t me.”
Most disturbing is when the competing narratives are emitted from the same mouth. We
call these lies, of course, but as with history, it is up to us—society—to measure the viability of these conflicting narratives, to pass collective judgment upon their veracity. For it is what we conclude now, in addition to all these digital bits of information we are leaving behind, which will become the fodder for future historians. And, as we have all learned recently, they most certainly do have their eyes on us.
I, for one, am a bit concerned about what they are going to say. For those expecting truth in their history, I am sorry to disappoint. For those who suggest that these fluid interpretations of history are subject to manipulation and being put to nefarious purposes, I say, touché. This is why we must attend to it; for to ignore it is to leave it to
others who may not be so kind as to love their neighbors as you and I do.
*Historiography is the study of the “measure of history,” what previous generations
have done with history over time; what we, largely through our historians, are doing with it now.