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Director’s Note January 2018

“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation.” – Edward Said (1981)

There can be no doubt that 2017 was a year infused with history. Yes, historic things happened (they always do). But more interestingly, we spent some considerable time reflecting on, facing, and resisting our national historic legacy. And why that matters was also highlighted – we watched on a national stage how much we are influenced in our thinking and our actions by how we think about the past. But neither the we, nor “the past” are fixed points. Our definitions shape the conversation, and differences among us — both recognized and unspoken — define our national discourse.

One of the biggest spotlights shone on the debate about Confederate monuments. Here the differences in how many of us think about the past, its legacy, and our place in history were in obvious relief. These are not subtle differences in historical interpretation, nor is there much dispute, among historians, about the actual evidence of history. In short, here are the basic facts that current academic history gives us: the American Civil War was fought over slavery, and the South’s desire to continue it. Yes, state’s rights, economic issues, and political jockeying between North and South all played a role. But the primary dispute, well-articulated at the time, was slavery. And the Confederacy was a secessionist government, set up in opposition to the United States.

Those of you who read the above paragraph and felt uncomfortable, or even angry, are demonstrating the task at hand. The facts are in conflict with how many of us perceive the past: through a lens constructed by family memories, national myth, and a sense of our heritage. The fact that we celebrate any part of the Confederacy has much to do with Reconstruction, and a desire by the federal government to reunite the country by avoiding the most inflammatory aspects of the recent past – a deliberate gloss on the historical facts, meant to serve the country best based on what was understood at the time. But with the perspective of time, it seems clear that this policy has had long-lasting and negative consequences.

As we see, our current understanding is also not a fixed point. As each group of us, however defined, will “see” the past differently, all of us will also understand the past based on current perceptions and conditions. And this puts aside the fact that we are, in this day and age, bombarded with partisan propaganda at every turn, which muddies the waters more.

Learning to deal with this is imperative, if we wish to retain any of our national integrity and unity. How can we examine how we construct our sense of the past, and how does that sense influence our perceptions and actions today? Doing so requires some shared assumptions about the facts, and how we understand them. Starting with the past, and learning to create a shared sense of reality as we know it, should also help us to evaluate and assess the present.

“Basically all democratic theory is built around the idea people have a roughly accurate and shared view of what’s going on. What if they don’t?” – Ezra Klein (2017)

It seems that as a people, we are, at this moment in time, impatient with complexity. But we are certainly capable of it. And this is a topic that deserves some complicated thinking. Why this is an issue of concern for the NHS is two-fold. First, we are, as an organization, dedicated to presenting historical information to the public, but we are also determined to demonstrate why it is both interesting and important to know our history. This large issue, which encompasses politics, civics and sociology as well as history, is still in our wheelhouse. History matters. And while it is easy to suggest that we need more history, and historical thinking in school — and we do — this is also a “here and now” concern. As communities wrestle with the tangible markers of what they believe to be their heritage, as individuals seek to evaluate the news, and also how current events fit into the continuum of the American story, history matters.

As an Historical Society, the NHS has a role to play. We cannot tell people what to think, but we can do two things. We can present the historical facts as assembled, evaluated and interpreted by those trained to do this work: historians. And, we can help to show how those interpretations are made, guided and influenced by societal and temporal factors. And how they sometimes go awry. Because all interpretations are not, in fact, equally valid: some need to change when new facts come to light, and some are just based on false logic and un-vetted data.

Myth, memory, heritage and history entwine to create our sense of who we are, what is important, and why we are driven to act in one way or another. While the mix may be intoxicating, it is important to tease out the threads. We need to be able to agree on some basic information about the past and the present. Nationally and individually, I have to believe we are served best when we make our decisions based on what we know to be true. In addition, like Roger Williams, I am interested in the shared civic space as a way of transcending our differences. I look forward to exploring this at the NHS in the new year to come.