Complicated History

A couple of months ago, I went to the Sullivan Museum and History Museum at Norwich University for a talk by one of the history professors, Dr. Steven Sodergren, as part of an exhibit series on the Civil War. His talk was about the specific motivations for individuals on each side of the Civil War, refuting the idea that there was a uniform block of support behind both the Union and Confederate governments. Some Southern states, when the decision came to vote on the decision to split from the United States, had a close majority: no more than 55-60% of the population supporting the idea, leaving a substantial chunk in opposition.

The idea behind the talk was a sound one, taking on the idea of the very nature of taught history: it's not as simple as it's made out to be. History is a difficult topic to convey to a large audience: big, complicated and multi-facetted, the very instruction of the field is just as enlightening as a separate topic. The Civil War was never quite as clear cut when it came to the motivations of the soldiers on the field: according to Sodergren, it was a deeply personal and difficult choice for everyone who took up arms. More recently, a talk on VPR with Vermont Historian Howard Coffin noted that looking at enlistment numbers is important: high initially, support dropped off following the first major battles when bodies began to return home.

I recently presented a paper at the New England Historical Association, where I talked about Norwich University's efforts during the Battle of the Bulge. My panel's commentator noted that between the papers, there's a high level view of history, with the strategy and big decisions, and the ground level, with the individual soldiers fighting: my paper bridged the gap, telling the story of the Bulge through the soldiers who fought there, but also how their actions played into a much larger story. Their own actions were far from singular: they spanned the entire command structure, from a Private First Class to a Major General. In our continued study of Norwich History, my wife and I have found soldiers who enlisted in foreign militaries prior to the United States' entry into the Second World War, while others were drafted.

A recent article by Slate Magazine caught my eye: How Space-Age Nostalgia Hobbles Our Future: Contrary to popular belief, public support for space exploration in the 1960s was far from universal. It's an interesting read, presenting a very contrary view to the supposed popularity of the Apollo program during the 1960s-1970s. Far from the major popular support that we perceive, the public approval rating for the program only hit a majority around the time that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and individual accounts from around the country shows that there was a wide range of opinions as to the value of the program. Support for the space programs also varied wildly depending on age group, and undoubtedly, on location as well.

Looking at political records from the time, there's also an important story when it comes to how Congress approved wartime funding: the public easily remembers President John F. Kennedy's speech at Rice University. The reality of actually funding the space program is far more complicated, with competing national priorities. Even Kennedy's speech, while influential, isn't so clear cut: it was designed in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, and was issued to help divert attention away from the administration's blunder.

A book that I particularly detest is Victor David Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, an enormously popular and reviled book on the nature of culture and war: he outlines that the very nature of democracy makes a standing military inherently stronger, because the individual soldiers have a stake in their government and by extension, their destiny. It's a very appealing, straight-cut assumption, and one that breaks down when one considers the enormous complexity inherent in a democratic nation: no sane person makes the decision to take up arms for their country lightly, and Hanson's text does a disservice to the historical community by overly simplifying a situation that shouldn't be simplified.

In a lot of ways, this falls under the same public mentality that spawned the Greatest Generation from the Second World War and the Lost Cause line of thinking from the Civil War. Looking even further back into our nation's history, the War for Independence was likewise far from universally supported! Another specific example from one of my instructor's talks was the Boston Tea Party: essentially a rebranded name in an age of nostalgia to smooth over the fact that the 'Destruction of the Tea' was committed by political radicals.

I often wonder as I hear political reminiscing about the space age or the greatest generation or of Lincoln's efforts, whether people throughout the ages understand that the rosy memories upon which we build the future on is really nothing more than a shared fabrication, and why we reject the complicated story for something that has been watered down to the point that it's contrary to the original message.

History is our most wonderful, complicated Mandelbrot set that continues to bring out new levels and stories. Dr. Sodergren's talk highlighted a key point in how we approach history: it becomes defined by its major outcomes, as opposed to the actions that lead up to them, and increasingly, it feels as though the lessons that we can learn are missed, overlooked or simply ignored.

Who knows, though? Maybe we need the simple stories.

The Fourth of July

Fireworks and cookouts, along with the Red White and Blue that symbolizes our country, characterize July 4th of every year. At the same point, it serves as a good time for reflection on the creation of the country in which we live. The founding of the country is one that is becoming shrouded in myth, with its own set of misconceptions and happenings that are relatively unknown, which makes the constant 'Happy Birthday America' status and twitter updates that I've seen all along be somewhat of humorous statement.

When looking at the founding of the country, the 4th is an obvious holiday to look at, for it was the signing of the Declaration of Independence that formally succeeded the United States from the United Kingdom, and represented the first time that the colonies became a country that stood on their own. However, the founding of the country is something that has happened numerous times throughout our history, and at points, I wonder if the 4th is really a celebration of the beginnings of America, or something else entirely.

If looking at the founding of the country, it is also best to remember that the Europeans who came to the country weren't the first here. The numerous tribes of native Americans have been on this landmass for thousands of years, presumably since the end of the last ice age, when the glacier sheets receded and isolated the continent. They came down through North America and into Central and South Americas, creating their own vast civilizations. The Vikings landed in Newfoundland, Canada around 985-1008 by Lief Eriksson, but later abandoned the settlement. It was not until 1492, on October the 12th that Christopher Columbus, with the three ships under his command, the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Piñta, discovered the Bahamas, believing that he reached the Indies, before continuing down towards Cuba and Haiti. Return trips were planned in the years following his expedition, and soon, Europe was traveling to the newly discovered landmass in larger expeditions. In 1499, the new world was named 'America', after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered that the new world was not Asia, but a large landmass in between the two. The first European to reach North America was commissioned by Henry VII of England, John Cabot, while others discovered more and more of this new world.

Looking forward three hundred years, the secession of the United States was preceded by decades of events and mismanagement by their British overlords, who taxed the colonies to help offset the massive expenditures of war and government abroad. Various taxes, such as the Stamp Act, Molasses Act Quartering Act and the Tea Tax fanned the flames of irritation against the British government, inciting riots and protests. The famous Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, as the British government aided the failing East India Tea Company, bringing about the Tea Act, prompting a riot and protest on the part of the Boston merchants. War began a couple of years later in 1775, but clearly, the seeds of discontent had been laid far earlier, bringing about the declaration of independence from the colonies. On August 22nd 1775, the colonies were declared to be in rebellion, and by October of 1781, the British surrendered, and opted to not continue the war by March of the following year, and in November, the United Kingdom recognized the independence of the United States.

In March of 1781, the Continental Congress, began to work on a permanent form of government to lead the country, with plans stretching as far back as 1776, and by the time the war ended in 1781, the Articles of Confederation became effective, setting up a government that granted responsibilities, but almost no authority to maintain those responsibilities. There was a current of distrust in a stronger central government that ultimately crippled the Congress, for it could not regulate commerce, negotiate treaties, declare war or raise an army, create a currency, maintain a judicial branch, and no head of government that was separate from the Congress. While there were upsides to the government, it was unable to effectively govern, and a series of crises arose that threatened the stability of the nation. Shay's Rebellion provides a good example of this, when western Massachusetts went into open revolt in 1786 when the legislature failed to provide debt relief. This was but a singular example of the times, and there were more advocates of a stronger centralized government, where a revision to the Articles of Confederation were demanded, for a government that could regulate interstate and international commerce, raise revenue for the country and raise a single army to confront threats. The Constitutional Convention that arose sparked numerous debates over the rights of the state vs. the federal government (antifederalists vs. federalists, respectively). Despite the intense debate, the Continental Congress closed down on October 10th, 1788, and on March 4th, 1789, the new congress elected George Washington (who believed that the Constitution would only last about 20 years), and a new federal government was born. In a every way, this was the date in which the United States that we know today was formed.

This story of the birth of the United States and 'America', the concept, are important ones to remember, for not only the sequence of events that built upon the last, but their significance in relation to one another. Current ideology amongst popular culture nowadays seems to contort many of the lessons that can be learned from this period of formation within the U.S.. The United Kingdom was thrown off because of an apathetic and overbearing monarchy that failed to represent the interests of the colonies, rather than simply because of the taxes that were levied upon them. To hear senators and public representatives speak that the colonists rebelled simply because of a tax upon tea belies the complicated nature of American independence, and the lessons that were learned in the years afterwards of the failure of a weak centralized government, but also the simple fact that the Constitution of the nation was not the direct product of the American Revolution, but that it was a work in progress, of sorts. America itself, however, has had a series of births and rebirths, and the Declaration of Independence was but one such moment in the history of the nation, concept and location. Still, July 4th is a good of a time as any to celebrate the process, and the existence of the nation itself.