Why is the public biased towards colonial and Revolutionary history?

19 04 2009

The publication Historically Speaking has magically been showing up in my mailbox for a long time. I’m not sure,however, if I’ve ever actually read any of it until this month.  If the back issues are anything like the April 2009 edition I just finished than I’ve really been missing something. Unfortunately, it’s not online, but I would still like to thank Marshall Poe of the University of Iowa for convincing me to teach a class on History and New Media. I’ve got about nine months to figure out how to do it, and it will probably take that long so any suggestions left below will be much appreciated.

More urgently, there’s a piece in there by Edward Gray of Florida State with the fantastic title of “We Have Seen the Enemy and It Is Not David McCullough” which really has me thinking, and it’s not just because I like David McCulloch a lot. In fact, the part that’s got me thinking the most has only a tiny bit to do with McCullough:

[E]arly American history appears to be disproportionately represented among the history that most Americans read. A glance at the history titles that made the New York Times hardcover bestseller list during the ten years between 1997 and 2007 is perhaps indicative. David McCulloch’s two books, John Adams and 1776, spent ninety-four weeks on the list. Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and His Excellency spent a total of fifty-eight weeks there; Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin was there for twenty-six weeks; Ron Chernow’s massive Alexander Hamilton, twelve weeks; Cokie Roberts’s Founding Mothers, eleven weeks, and two books by Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea and The Mayflower, together enjoyed a thirty-nine-week run. When Americans read history, it seems, they prefer the history of their nation’s distant past.

This certainly aligns with my experience.  I’ve been joking for years that the Teaching American History Grant program is nothing but a make-work program for historians eighteenth-century America.  The question that I’m wondering which Gray doesn’t answer (and I’m not suggesting he should have) is “Why?”

I have two possible answers, one political and one not:

1)  Conservatives hate Franklin Roosevelt  In the middle of this long but fascinating post by Dave Neiwert I noticed that they’re going after Theodore Roosevelt now.  Maybe they’ll only read colonial and revolutionary history because those are the only figures they respect.

2)  History teachers for the last fifty years have never had enough time to get through all of American history, and since everybody likes to talk about the “Founding Fathers” they all start at the beginning and never make it far enough into the Nineteenth Century so that they’re now book-buying students have other figures to remember.

Other possible suggestions would be much appreciated too.




4 responses

20 04 2009

The odd thing about the school-book approach to the American Revolution is that it doesn’t probe much into the fact that it was a revolution.

If a group of citizens did anything remotely as aggressive as the colonists did, before real fighting started, they would be under arrest before they could blink.

Like all good foundational myths (religious and nationalistic) it is best not to look to deeply into the contradictions.

Sandra Day O’Connor has started a web site for school kids where they can learn about civics. She claims that this is hardly taught at all anymore and kids don’t even know the fundamental facts like how many branches of government their are.

When the uniformed go out into the greater world why would one expect that they know more about civics and history?

23 11 2009
Gordon Wood wants us to all write like David McCullough. « More or Less Bunk

[…] other words, we should all write like David McCullough. Now I happen to like David McCullough, but this strikes me as an overreaction. If “narrative” history is mostly political, […]

26 03 2010
tony the pitiful copywriter

Henry Ford was more or less a robber baron, racist and Hitler sympathizer.

Just sayin’.

26 03 2010
Jonathan Rees


On robber baron, have you ever heard of the $5 day? I’m not sure what your argument for racist is. I’ll grant you Hitler sympathizer.

Just because I named my blog after a Henry Ford quote, doesn’t mean I agree with everything he believed.

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