Friday, July 11, 2008

Gary Nash on "Conservative-Culture Warriors" and Historical "Revision"

Historian Gary Nash of UCLA is not only one of the most respected historians on early American history, but has also received praise for the fact that his scholarship has breathed new life into America's sense of historical appreciation. In recent years, Nash's work has challenged many of the traditional assumptions surrounding America' founding. Everything from the role of slavery and women to the influence of religion on America's 18th century revolution has been a part of Nash's "assault" on traditional early American historiography.

In his most recent book, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, Nash challenges the idea that the American Revolution was merely a conflict between rival elites in Britain and America. Instead, Nash boldly proclaims the revolution as being inspired and led by the masses.

In addition, Nash challenges a number of the beliefs held by Christian Nationalists in regards to America's founding. Nash proclaims America's establishment and success as being the result of enlightened secularist ideology, which caused the American populace to challenge the social, political and religious norms of their day. In so doing, America became not a "Christian" government but a secular institution, which sought to keep religion and government separate from one another.

Naturally, the scholarship of Gary Nash does not sit well with hard-core Christian apologists such as David Barton and others. In response, Christian zealots have sought to label historians like Nash as being "unpatriotic" or as "secular revisionists" that are bent on eliminating any and all remnants of America's "Christian heritage."

Gary Nash was not ignorant of the fact that his work would stir up hostilities. In his introduction, Nash addresses his critics by writing the following:

When historians fix their gaze downward or write a warts-and-all American history, they often offend people who cherish what they remember as a more coherent, worshipful, and supposedly annealing rendition of the past. In the history of the 1990s, many conservative-culture warriors called historians offering new interpretations of the American Revolution – or any other part of American history – “history bandits,” “history pirates,” or, sneeringly, “revisionists” intent on kidnapping history with no respect for a dignified rendition of the past. Yet the explosion of historical knowledge has invigorated history and increased its popularity...

Unsurprisingly, those of the old school do not like to hear the question "whose history?" It is unsettling for them to see the intellectual property of the American Revolution, once firmly in the hands of a smaller and more homogeneous historians' guild, taken out of their safe boxes, put on the table, and redivided. Yet what could be more democratic than to reopen questions about the Revolution's sources, conduct, and results? And what is the lasting value of a "coherent" history if the coherence is obtained by eliminating the jagged edges, where much of the vitality of the people is to be found? How can we expect people to think of the American Revolution as their own when they can see no trace of their forbears in it?
Then Nash puts the smack down on those who favor a "traditional" interpretation of the American Revolution as being exclusively a conflict of the elite:

A history of inclusion has another claim to make. Only a history that gives play to all the constituent parts of society can overcome the defeatist notion that the past was inevitably determined...Honest history can impart a sense of how the lone individual counts, how the possibilities of choice are infinite, how human capacity for both good and evil is ever present, and how dreams of a better society are in the hands of the dispossessed as much as in the possession of the putative brokers of our society's future.
If this is "secular revisionism," or "historical piracy" then count me in!


David Mabry said...

A great "read-a-long" with the Nash text would be "Inventing the People, The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America" by Edmund S. Morgan.

Anonymous said...

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