Disagreements In American History

Today, we are cautious about virtue and skeptical of fame, content to ”fix” the historical habits of the mind of history teachers ”in the spirit of youth”: context, contingency, multiple causality, different interpretations. History, as many have found, is not a moral story with inspiring value. If history is not a moral story, what is it? How does the representation of our colonial past and our American revolution differ? Why are there struggles for the founding of America? How has the nature of history changed since the 1960s? Gerardo Con Diaz is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the University of California, Davis and a fellow of the Society for the History of Technology`s Bernard S. Finn IEEE History Prize 2017. His first book, a history of software patents in the United States, will be published in 2019 by Yale University Press. This trend in history has been born into a wide range of topics: disease (the influence of smallpox on the American Revolution); Demographics (the dramatic increase in the colonial population before the revolution); ecology (destruction of forests, deer and beavers); sexuality (a high percentage of pregnant women in colonial New England); Climate (a small ice age in the 18th century). Four years before the Supreme Court made segregation the law of the land in Plessy v. Ferguson, Ida B. Wells – as most Americans did – could see that there would be little enforcement of civil rights laws that had been passed as a result of the Civil War. After the murder of three wells friends by a lynching in Memphis, she knew she couldn`t keep her mouth shut. She therefore methodically, meticulously and insistently exclaaled the country, which did not live up to its ideals of ”freedom and justice for all.” For too long, we have put aside this disturbing chapter of our past. But there is an inspiring story of strength lurking here — a woman who, long before her time, used her voice in a way that sent shockwaves through the country and fueled change. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in April of this year, with 4,400 names of victims lost as a result of the lynchings that Wells protested against in 1892.

I had never heard of Wells in graduate school — never studied lynching in American history. Today, I make sure that each of my students knows their names and studies their work. Kim Phillips-Fein is an associate professor of history at New York University and author of Fear City: New York`s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History. Howard Zinn asked that we remove the portraits of the presidents from the walls of the classroom. Ronald Reagan insisted that we consider our foundation as a bright ”city on a hill” and that our history is a march towards goodness and greatness. Professional historians demand reality, feel comfortable with pain, irony, tragedy and contingency. Was the American Revolution an event that changed the world, inspired equality in societies and inspired other countries, a revolution made by idealists who created an extraordinary nation? Or was it a colonial rebellion launched by men who wanted to avoid taxes and who waged an evil and divided war, which culminated with a compromised Constitution, supposed to stem the excesses of democracy? And above all, how can we offer a realistic portrait of the American past without erasing idealism? S. Deborah Kang is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Marcos, and recipient of the Henry Adams Award for History in the Federal Government, the Américo Paredes Book Award for Nonfiction, the Theodore Saloutos Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Bookze for The INS on the Line In: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954.

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