You knew it was coming. It’s almost the 4th, and I have a hard on about the founders. Yeah, this is about freakin’ Betsy Ross and that stupid flag myth.
The story goes that George Washington, the Father of Our Country, went to Ross and asked her to make the nation’s new flag. Ross, a gifted seamstress, took up her sturdy needle and crafted the first of our beloved Stars and Stripes. This tale is recounted in children’s books and included in elementary school social studies lessons. Ross has been dubbed the Mother of Our Country, a female counterpart to the venerable Washington. You can tour Ross’s home in Pennsylvania (which may or may not be the actual house she lived in) and buy “Betsy Ross flags” (which are probably made in Taiwan or Honduras or some other foreign locale now).
Ross was the name of her first husband, who died in the Revolutionary War — as did her second. Ross later married a third time. (Yet, you know her only as Ross.) She was an upholsterer, actually, and was successful at that business — as well as in real estate. Her first two husbands were absent and the third was disabled in the war, so she was the major breadwinner for her family all her life. She did contract to make flags for the Pennsylvania navy (yeah, this was before centralized federal government); however, there is no documentary or contemporary testimonial evidence that she was involved in designing or making the first U.S. flag. That story was started by her grandson and family members after the Civil War. They spread the myth and turned her home into a civic tourist destination. For a fee, you can tour the house and imagine her as the humble housewife she was not, sewing the first flag by firelight with all the care due that momentous occasion. On your way out, you can purchase patriotic tokens in the gift shop.
Professional historians — to their credit — have largely repudiated this founding myth, but popular feel-good patriotism sustains support among the public. Regular citizens still buy books about Ross and make the pilgrimage to her home. The Betsy Ross House now notes that the story is a legend — and then proceeds to promote the lovely tale anyway. When they say “legend has it,” you are supposed to imagine back in time through the booming of Revolutionary cannons, billowing white smoke, and lilting fife, visualizing a delegation of founding fathers on a noble mission — perhaps in the secret of night — knocking at Betsy’s door (please, use her familiar nickname) to beseech her aid in giving her needy young nation a symbol to believe in. Perhaps the angels sang. Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis emerged from the fog with flowing hair, promising to return for the flag when word was sent to him — wherever he might be.
This feel-good story is popular because it gives us warm-fuzzies about our country and, again, our founders. It suits the emotional boosterism that passes for patriotism in our country. Love of country has no appeal to reason here. People cling to the story because it is what we want to believe, regardless of its veracity. We must have a mother, and female soldiers or activists of the Revolution (of whom we do have evidence) will not do. We need someone more nurturing and passive to fit that bill. So, the ideal of “Betsy Ross” is shoved down our throats — despite the fact that it is not an accurate depiction of that woman, female Revolutionaries, or the role of women in our country, even in that time. Her name was Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, bitch, and she was not some icon to abuse.
Partisans like to judge events. Historians like to examine the causes of events. I am interested in the causes of the causes. It is from this alone that we gain any true knowledge. Anything short of this kind of inquiry assumes a static past and is, therefore, artificial. More importantly, when we tell stories in isolation, we leave our audiences ignorant. They lack a historical view that engenders substantive knowledge. This is the difference between history that is analytic and history that is synthetic. For example, partisans want to laud or lament the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Historians want to talk about the legal and social changes that made the decision possible. But, true historical understanding of the issue only comes if we go back and talk about how abortion became illegal in the first place. When we don’t, our stories imply it was always illegal in the U.S. and treat the later event as exceptional because it lacks the necessary context to illuminate the issue as a whole.
This month marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (374 US 203 ), which barred government-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading in public schools. The Pennsylvania legislature had passed a law requiring schools to begin each day with the reading of Bible verses. The school district additionally required that students recite the Lord’s prayer afterwards. The Schempps, a family of religious Unitarians, sued the district because they felt the practice was onerous, as some of the passages that had been read were contrary to their religious views. The Court held that Bible-reading of this sort was undoubtedly a devotional exercise and the Constitution designated religion as a private, rather than public, endeavor. As such, the State was to maintain neutrality in this regard and not promote any one religion or particular religious practices. Hereafter, then, school-sponsored devotionals — voluntary or otherwise — were prohibited.
The really interesting detail here is that the State of Pennsylvania required the reading of at least TEN verses — not just one or even two. Ten is a substantive amount and begs the question: Why so many? One has to wonder at the volume and the purpose of it. Was the State promoting quantity over quality of religious devotion? Were the authors trying to indoctrinate sinners students by overwhelming them with volume? Was the purpose to add insult to injury? Or, was the practice a sign of Christians’ extreme fear that their religious dominance in America was under attack or waning?
The timing of this legislation is telling: It was passed in 1949, in the early days of the Cold War. Prior to that, the legislature apparently felt no need to compel public devotion. Was this because prior to 1949 Pennsylvanians were less religious? It is unlikely. Rather, this seems to be part of a larger trend at that time where public religiosity was fueled by the increasing stature of the U.S. in world politics and the Cold War. Just five years after this statute was passed, the U.S. Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Before this, faith in God was not a requirement for patriotism, it seems. The push toward official Christianity was part and parcel of the Cold War in which the whole nation was then engaged. Edward Schempp said it best when he testified at trial that he was afraid that voluntarily exempting his children from participation in the school devotionals (rather than suing to get them stopped altogether) would get them branded “atheists.” Schempp pointed out that in that era atheism was “often connected with ‘atheistic communism’ and ha[d] very bad connotations, such as ‘un-American[ism].’” You could not separate anti-communism from the push for official Christianity. This tells us quite a good deal about the Cold War as a religious event and popular sentiment in the U.S. in the early fifties.
So, studying this case helps us understand changes in the law and society between the late 40′s and early 60′s. The Schempp’s suit (and related ones of the time) demonstrates that by the 1960′s some Americans found public religiosity an unbearable burden for citizens to bear in order to fight communism. That sentiment certainly hadn’t prevailed fifteen years earlier, sufficient to prevent the legislation’s passage. The suit also demonstrates how Americans of that time turned to the courts to protect them from their legislatures, which is an interesting development of that era as well (as with Griswold v. Connecticut and other cases). In addition to learning about these changes from studying the case, however, we can also learn something about the passage of the statute initially. A long view of the case reveals a connection between religion and anti-communism and illuminates the motive behind the law. Thus, studying the later event helps us understand the prior one better, and this is how synthetic studies provide superior understanding to analytic histories. If you look beyond the immediate cause, you can get to the cause of the cause.
I’m pretty brutal on traditional historiography. I despise the boosterish crap and don’t have much tolerance for academic studies that pretend objectivity. So, I criticize and lampoon. My mother says: “Why don’t you just write ‘The Misanthrope’s Guide to American History’ and be done with it?” It could be a valid story and might be useful. It’s dangerous to believe your own PR and immature to ignore your flaws. We think we’re great because we’ve not yet had our great comeuppance. Someday, it will visit us, and as painful as it will be, a fortunate consequence will be a wiser historiography.
C. Vann Woodward said that Southern history already bears the tinge of defeat. this is true, but it has also created a lot of side-stepping and lead to bogey-man history. The easy villain is the KKK. They, like the Nazis in Germany, cannot be rehabilitated and are often reduced to vile caricature. This actually helps protect the faceless mass that also bears culpability, and, at the same time, contributes to negative stereotyping. I think it will be a long time before we have any white (especially Southern) civil rights heroes or deal with the sin of acquiescence. This is both a product and contributor to our continued struggle with the issue of race in the U.S. I really think the only answer is embracing subjectivity and taking a nuanced literary approach to writing history where we can make use of gimmicks like the anti-hero and redeemable villain. This is why I rail against conventional historiography and will continue to do so.
There is another question behind my mother’s query; however, and that is: “Why are you always so critical?” An important part of the answer is that someone has to be our conscience. Someone has to keep us honest and the only way to do that is not to let things slide. We need a night watchman to, as the good book says, put a people’s souls in jeopardy while saving her own and police — not to enforce conformity — but to uncover violations for the jury’s judgment. We have enough feel-good historiographers. What we lack are those who can criticize while making the bitter pill palatable.
The other answer to that question is that writing history is an art. People have known this for thousands of years; it is only in the last century or so that we have forgotten this. Now, we want to make it a science. We want to know like God. So, we’ve been consumed building our tower of Babel, believing we can wrap our hands around anything. There are those of us on the outside who want no part in this endeavor, though. Some of us remember and want to take up the literary mantle we’ve inherited. I am one. I am the Native American storyteller and creative non-fiction writer and ancient chronicler. I don’t want to control my history; I want to artfully write it. Part of that is a duty to defend my approach — to make a place for creative historical work in our society. Literary history has been squeezed out by the professional. The critic of the academy, then, relentlessly raises the reanimated alternative and promotes pessimism about the promise of social science. I don’t think that’s misanthropy. I think it’s hope.
In America, we’re obsessed with rights. We feel entitled to this. We feel entitled to that. Anytime we feel we have a right to something, we turn to the Constitution to provide it — because, here, the final measure of everything is its constitutionality. We appeal to the courts for confirmation and keep appealing until the Supreme Court judges a thing by our highest standard: Is this a right that may not be abridged under our Constitution? Where might makes right, the salvation of any minority is this legal protection. We cannot rely on justice or equity. Your entitlements flow from this one grand document, which has necessarily been stretched to cover modern issues unforeseen by our founders in drafting the text.
Today, civil servants must pledge their loyalty to the Constitution as a condition of employment. Schoolchildren write essays on the value of and justice enshrined in the document. Legal and academic scholars write studies endlessly dissecting and extolling it. People burn flags, bras, and draft cards in protest — but not the Constitution. Its appeal is close to universal, but that’s certainly due in part to civic indoctrination to revere it.
History textbooks, when speaking of the Constitution, describe it as an almost infallible document (with some amendment). They don’t (like Antonin Scalia has dared) call it insufficient or brand it a tool of the powers that be. No grade school teacher encouraged you to look for its flaws. To the contrary, you were proudly informed that it is the oldest constitution still in use. This claim implies perfection and perpetuity. It has served us for so long because it is the most preferable of all such instruments and enduringly sufficient. Undoubtedly, it will continue to serve so for ages without end. Our confidence in its perfection has led us to export it to the less-fortunate and needy nations.
Our assumption of its superlative quality is born of our training. You didn’t study the Constitution in comparison to others to see how it stacks up. Indeed, the only comparison that was likely ever presented to you was between this and the Articles of Confederation, and the purpose of that was to demonstrate the superiority of the former. You weren’t meant to notice the lack of comparative study. The omission is invisible to the layperson and allows you to uncritically adore the document in isolation. This is one of the ways we worship ours: we don’t look outside ourselves, so unfamiliarity breeds loyalty to what is.
This loyalty and its partner, awe, help sustain our republic and stave off rebellion. Thus, your love of our great Constitution is both a means and a product of socialization. The historical conspiracy to promote loyalty to the text and keep you ignorant of alternatives, then, pacifies and encourages faith in the myth that our country was born of a great and perfect contract drafted by noble men guided by Providence to establish a godly nation that endures, with our sacred Constitution, forever and ever. Amen. The system can brook no indifference to constitutional perfectionism, in light of this. It is central to our identity and civic fiction.
I have never understood people’s fascinations with our “Founding Fathers.” Maybe that kind of hero-worship just isn’t part of my psychological make-up. In any case, I remember a conversation in one of my graduate classes where we were discussing Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemmings. Many of my classmates were seriously disturbed by the matter (some 200 years later). They didn’t understand how Jefferson could own slaves and even father the same when he was the author of the American principle that men are created equal. I couldn’t understand their personal consternation, and that must be related to the fact that I have never held the founding fathers in special esteem. I avoided taking classes in Colonial history as an undergrad simply because I didn’t want to have to endure any more myth-making about our great white fathers.
“Great Man” history is supposedly out of favor, but there remains a booming industry producing literature about our beloved founders. The public — and even scholars — still eat up biographies and histories lionizing Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and their peers. The religiously-minded extol their divine inspiration — to establish a great country founded on the virtuous principles of equality, democracy, and personal freedom. Secular scholars too celebrate these men as wise visionaries who, out of their enlightened thought and love of freedom, shaped a great nation and established the greatest of all governments this world has ever known. They set down principles that would one day be our gift to the world. Authors of studies about these peerless leaders win Pulitzers and receive endowed chairs. Their books are popular sellers — unlike the usual monographic fare.
The public heartily embraces the myths about our founders, believing, for example, that Washington was some paragon of virtue incapable of lying (notably, the legend about the chopping of the cherry tree was the result of 19th century mythologizing and has no basis in fact). We indoctrinate our children early to worship the “Founding Fathers” and gloss over facts that indicate they had feet of clay. Supporters once held a mock trial to judge Jefferson’s character in light of the Hemmings scandal — of course, the verdict was in his favor. Despite his participation in human trafficking, he remains worthy of veneration. Whew! We can forgive our founders their slavery, their privilege, and their double standards. They are our forefathers, after all. Ours is not the only society to engage in ancestor worship.
We will defy all logic to perpetuate our faith in their virtue. Slave-owners regularly had coerced sex with slaves. Washington, et al. were slave-owners. The natural conclusion to draw is that they also participated in this practice. Instead, we break the syllogism and then feel hurt and betrayed when the facts belie our false faith. We want to believe it was a sign of Providence’s guidance and patriotism that Adams died on July 4th on the fiftieth anniversary of our Independence Day. What we don’t want to believe is that he was a moderate supporter of independence who fell out of favor with his contemporaries as he grew increasingly conservative and hostile to his country-men.
Why does it matter that they were only human anyway? Why do we have to heroize them? No one would write a history claiming that these lucky souls stumbled into a successful formula and set ideals in motion when they knew not what they were doing. That interpretation would never take root here. In a nation of boosters, Truth is spin and history is advertising.