10 June 2011

Rethinking Sarah Palin and Paul Revere

The prescriptions for how to create a more effective high school history course that I discussed this morning in "The American Story" might serve as guideposts for the place of history in modern life. Consider the recent controversy regarding former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's creative misreading of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. The debate hinged upon whether her facts were garbled, grossly in error, or perhaps even strangely accurate (whether by accident or by design). Is factual inaccuracy the crux of the problem the Left and some of the Right have with her comments?

Central to Palin's view of America is her understanding of the heart of the American story. Her initial statement as it appeared on CNN ended with two key words: free and secure. The American revolution was a struggle against tyranny, a quest for freedom. She explained to Chris Wallace how Americans need to look to the past, to the victories of our founders, in order to navigate our way through the present and build a strong future. She sees in the American past, especially in the American revolution and the foundations of our government, a model for our future. America for Palin is an idea that needs restoration.
I'm publicizing Americana, and our foundation, and how important it is that we learn about our past and our challenges, and victories throughout American history, so that we can successfully proceed forward. Very heady days, rough waters ahead of us, Chris. We need to make sure that we have a strong grasp of our foundational victories so that we can move forward.
Palin to Chris Wallace, FOX News Sunday, at 14:13
There's not a clear sense in her comments that she is practicing "sourcing" as historians do, grounding her work in primary texts. On the other hand, visiting historic sites is another form of sourcing. Gazing at the U.S. Constitution under glass is not the same thing as reading The Federalist Papers or The Anti-Federalist Papers, but it's an activity few historians would discourage.

Palin's gaffe drove me to Paul Revere's 1798 letter, as it did for some of her supporters. We found different things there: I found in Revere's words a clear narrative at odds with Palin's, but Conservatives4Palin found support for her claim that he warned the British.
Those quibbling with Governor Palin’s statements have their history incomplete. During Paul Revere’s ride he was stopped by British soldiers, which Revere recounts in a 1789 letter maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Society ,in his original language (emphasis mine):

I observed a Wood at a Small distance, & made for that. When I got there, out Started Six officers, on Horse back,and orderd me to dismount;-one of them, who appeared to have the command, examined me, where I came from,& what my Name Was? I told him. it was Revere, he asked if it was Paul? I told him yes He asked me if I was an express? I answered in the afirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston? I told him; and aded, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.
"Governor Palin Gives the Media a History Lesson on Paul Revere's Midnight Ride"
Despite the typos (1789 instead of 1798, for instance), their history is a credible example of sourcing. Several other historians have acknowledged that Palin got this fact more or less correct, even if by accident. Even more important, it seems to me, Conservatives for Palin emphasize the heart of the American story as Palin and most of her admirers understand it: "Governor Palin’s bus tour has been successful in allowing her to highlight the greatness of the history of America."

In his concession speech in the 2008 election, Senator John McCain emphasized the greatness of America. But his spin differed from that now advocated by Palin. He noted and congratulated Barack Obama as the first African American elected President, contrasting it with shameful episodes when a Black man having dinner in the White House created grief for the President who invited him--Republican Theodore Roosevelt (see "Booker T Washington's White House Dinner").

Whether or not Paul Revere rang bells, whether or not he warned the British are questions that keep us fixated on the factoids--those pieces of historical knowledge that drove my classmates as far from history as they could get. We should be debating and discussing Sarah Palin's vision, and even more the visions of those who have actually declared their candidacy for President. We should be discussing and debating the American story. Do we look to the past for heroes who guide us into the future? Do we emulate the leaders of earlier generations, or do we rise above their prejudices?

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