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Wednesday, June 29, 2011


"The American republic, which is still relatively young, was from the outset singularly favored. It started from scratch on a vast and virgin continent, which was so sparsely peopled by Indians that they could be eliminated or pushed aside. Such a magnificent opportunity for a great democratic experiment may never come again."

Thus begins The American Pageant by distinguished historian and past president of the Organization of American Historians Thomas A. Bailey. The American Pageant is one of the most successful of the many college American History texts. First published in 1956, it went through six editions before Bailey's death in 1983, but top-selling college texts take on a life of their own, and the fourteenth edition, still carrying Bailey's name, along with those of the current revisers, appeared in 2008. You can get it, deeply discounted, from for only $126.22. I have actually examined all six editions published during Bailey's lifetime, and I can report that the bitter irony of those opening lines is, so far as Bailey was concerned, completely unconscious.

This celebratory tone, rich in unintended irony, is echoed in the competing texts from that same period, written by teams of historians even more distinguished in the profession than Bailey. While preparing to write Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, a memoir of my experiences in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I actually engaged in what is, for me, a very rare act of scholarship. I examined multiple editions of three texts: Bailey's American Pageant; America: The Story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager; and The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morison and [again] Henry Steele Commager. Older readers of this blog may recognize the names Nevins, Morison, and Commager. All three were giants of the American History academic establishment, repeatedly chosen to preside over various professional associations and universally admired both for their scholarship and -- especially in the case of Commager -- for their deep devotion to the highest ideals and practices of American democracy.

The story they tell is one with which all Americans are familiar: A vast, virgin continent, populated by devout Protestants seeking freedom of religion and land from which to wrest a decent living, an exceptional country, the first in history to come into existence by a genuine social contract among all the men and women living in this new society carved from a fertile wilderness. Together, they threw off the shackles of Old World tyranny and fulfilled their promise as a "city upon a hill." Lest you imagine that I am exaggerating for comic effect, let me quote just one passage from Nevins and Commager's America: The Story of a Free People:

"America emerged out of obscurity into history only some four centuries ago. It is the newest of the great nations, yet it is in many respects the most interesting.... It is interesting because, from its earliest beginnings, its people have been conscious of a peculiar destiny, because upon it have been fastened the hopes and aspirations of the human race, and because it has not failed to fulfill that destiny or to justify those hopes. ... America [has become] the most ambitious experiment ever undertaken in the intermingling of peoples, in religious toleration, social equality, economic opportunity, and political democracy. ... [T]o a generation engaged in a mighty struggle for liberty and democracy [the book was published in 1942] there is something exhilarating in the story of the tenacious exaltation of liberty and the steady growth of democracy in the history of America."

But what of slavery, the "peculiar institution" as John C. Calhoun and others called it? Bailey, Nevins, Morison, and Commager devote so little attention to the institution of slavery, even in their discussion of the debates over the formation of the U. S. Constitution, that it must come as something of a surprise to the unwary reader to learn, many hundreds of pages later, that a civil war was fought over the matter. Their descriptions of ante-bellum slavery will strike the modern reader as parodies or satires. It is important, however, to take them seriously, for they articulate the collective historical amnesia and fantasies of White America well into the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, we are seeing today a revival of those myths in the bizarre claim by Michele Bachmann, received with rapturous applause by many millions of Americans, the Founding Fathers themselves led the fight against slavery. Listen to just a few passages on the subject, selected from these major college level history texts:

First, Commager and Morison:

"As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy. Competent observers reported that they performed less labor than the hired man of the Northern states. Their physical wants were better supplied than those of thousands of Northern laborers, English operatives, and Irish peasants; their liberty was not much less than that enjoyed by the North of England 'hinds` or the Finnish torpare. Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his 'white folks.' Slave insurrections were planned - usually by the free negroes - but invariably betrayed by some faithful darky; and trained obedience kept the slaves faithful throughout the Civil War."

When Commager joined forces with Nevins, the result was no better. Here is their description, in a chapter titled "The Sectional Struggle," of plantation slavery, based on an account given by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1854. Olmstead describes a Southern plantation he had seen on his travels, what Nevins and Commager describe as "one of the first-rate cotton plantations in Mississippi." "Every Christmas molasses, coffee, tobacco, and calico were generously distributed.... A black driver walked about among the field hands, urging them on, cracking his whip, and sometimes letting the lash fall slightly on their shoulders.... This was a typical plantation of the better sort."

Commager, recall, was famous not only as an historian but also as a fierce liberal defender of Constitutional guarantees and First Amendment rights. Morison was the very model of an upright upper class Harvard scholar and gentleman. Nevins was the star of the Columbia History Department and the author of a vast, detailed, multi-volume history of the Civil War. Collectively, they authored well over a hundred books, which were received as monuments of painstaking, scholarly, objective historiography.

This is the story these men told as they stood on the crest of the hill and surveyed the pageant spread out before them. Try if you will to imagine what it was like to be a thoughtful, intelligent Black man or woman, reading this version of one's own history, struggling -- against the overwhelming weight of professional approbation, of degrees and honors, of universal acclaim -- to raise a voice and say, "That is not the true story of America."


Buck Batard said...

There's also an American Indian version of things. Buffy St. Marie sings about another version of history here on Pete Seegers famous Rainbow Quest that infamously didn't make it.

"chased across America's movie screens"

"school propaganda"

Not intentionally getting off topic here, but there's a 500 nation history (as Microsoft called it) of America that we don't ever talk about much.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

What is the "500 nation history"?

Buck Batard said...

It was a Microsoft Project in the 1990s back in the days when the internet hadn't taken off and people bought discs to get information. CD's or DVD's containing a great deal of information. You can still buy the discs but the 500 nations was a story about 500 (a very loose translation which really is a number which represents forgotten history - why they picked 500 is anyone's guess as we don't know the number of Indian societies as the history is lost to time. Like Ozymandius - said to be Ramses- except the Indians weren't necessarily so prone to vanity as the famous Ozymandius). I actually have never bought the disc although it's still available. Whether it will run on a modern PC is unknown. But here's a link to get one for less than 8 bucks and postage.

Here's the original Microsoft announcement of what it was: The history of the North American Indian tribes, or at least what we know.

I used to subscribe to some of the disc services as I used to live in a rural area and had no high speed internet and just used it for newsgroups (imagine the internet without pictures - just conversations - that was a simpler time and I met some interesting people online then - I once hugged Mary Travers through meeting Noel Paul Stuckey at a concert for instance - although I used to rack up phone bills calling bulletin boards which were mini-internets sort of. But I'm getting off topic.

In a nutshell, 500 Nations was an attempt to tell some of the history of the North American Indian tribes of this country.

Buck Batard said...

Here's some more 500 nation history. Obviously just a small portion as all of the "500 Nations" or however many there were and I know the archeologists keeping finding more and older civilizations that go way back her in North America. I know there is a very old dig in SC near where I grew up that goes back older than scientists had previously thought possible and has been said to change the theory of migration across the Russian and Alaskan continents to America that was once the rage.

The maze would be almost as complicated as African history. There are a some past things I have read that indicate there was trade between the South American civilizations and the Egyptians. Cocaine found in mummies for example, which only could have come from trade with South America. So the great mass of human history is a mystery that we are only beginning to understand.

But here's a link that indicates that Indian civilizations (nations is a misnomer I think) held slaves from opposing tribes. Not too difficult to imagine as many argue that we have our own slave systems in capitalist systems. We just don't acknowledge it.

Obviously many history books as you have described in your essays here could be written about all these civilizations or unique groups with unique languages and customs. But time is limited as always when one goes into detail with history.


I will state that I had a DNA test done for a relative who was doing some genealogy research on my family and I didn't see any American Indian genes in my profile which was only the male side of things. How much emphasis our experts on DNA put on studying American Indian cultures and differentiating the DNA could certainly alter future history books. So that might be a hot topic in some quarters. But there are too many quarters for one person to know about so I'm in the dark about this but it would be interesting to read some generalized information on American Indian DNA, much as work is being done on African DNA. DNA analysis might very well be a very important study for future historians who will probably rely on those elusive strands of DNA to determine history. Someone should be pushing in many directions to try to get as many groups included in DNA analysis as science can do now. Because future history books might very well place increased scrutiny on our genetic makeup to determine what happened thousands of years ago.

Buck Batard said...

This link is probably the best one I've found. It contains a very small amount of information about North American Indians in the small state of SC. Note that many were made slaves and shipped to Barbados or the Indies and many worked in SC. As the number of available Indians became lower, the slave trade from Africa picked up. So you have a convergence of interest here:

English Jerk said...

Buck Batard's link doesn't work for me. The phrase "500 nation history" presumably refers to this documentary:

In any case, those passages from history textbooks are astonishing. I know intellectually that such attitudes used to be de rigeur among intellectuals (and as far as I can tell, American History in particular still seems much more politically conservative than other areas of the discipline), but my intellectual knowledge somehow leaves my outrage undimmed.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Check out Chapter two of my AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN for some more appalling quotes. I didn't feel I could use them all. A Harvard friend, by the way, tells me that the famous Samuel Eliot Morrison was also an anti-semite. Later on, when I am talking about reactions to the field of Afro-American Studies, perhaps I will quote Arthur Schlesinger Junior,that famous liberal professor and aide to John F Kennedy.