Revisionist history: Politicians rewrite the past to suit their present

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin appeared in Boston earlier this month on her “One Nation” bus tour, where she faced an unlikely adversary: history.

When asked about Paul Revere, Palin delivered a factually inaccurate description of the Revolutionary War hero’s famed midnight ride.

ADVERTISEMENT
“He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed,” Palin said.

When the press pounced on the fact the nearly everything about her statement was wrong — Revere was warning colonists and used lanterns rather than guns and bells — Palin publicly defended her version of events.

“Part of his ride was to warn the British that we’re already there, ‘Hey, you’re not going to succeed, you’re not going to take American arms, you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons, individual, private militia,’ ” she later told Fox News.

Incorrectly referencing historical events is nothing new for politicians. In recent months, Rep. Michele BachmannMichele BachmannTrump says 2016 is the GOP's last chance to win Bachmann: Clinton will prosecute churches and nonprofits The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Minn.) has had a string of historical gaffes, including suggesting that the Revolutionary War began in Concord, N.H., rather than Concord, Mass. Apparently the Revolutionary War is dangerous ground for politicians.

But what is more unusual — and more dangerous, according to historians — is a politician getting the facts indefensibly wrong.

“I don’t think there are that many of these kinds of gaffes,” American Historical Association Executive Director Jim Grossman said.

“The issue is the distinction between nuance and gaffe. ... Often people will make historical references that I would describe as naïve or lacking in nuance, or simplistic,” he said. “But that’s different from being flat-out, dead wrong. You can have differences in interpretation, and interpretations change.”

Politicians, and historians, for that matter, have been known to interpret history to fit their own ideology.

“I would expect politicians to have a partisan view of the past,” Anthony Grafton, Princeton University professor of history, told The Hill. “I would expect your view of the past, if you’re a politician, to be colored to some extent by your beliefs. It’s not as if there is a single truth about the past.”

Grafton and Grossman cited many examples in which politicians skewed historical events to defend a position. And while it’s not a wide, balanced view, it’s not exactly wrong.

“I think everybody does that,” said Senate Historian Don Ritchie, adding that the two most cited and twisted aspects of history he sees are the Constitutional Convention and Abraham Lincoln.

For Grossman, it makes perfect sense for politicians to look to the past when addressing the present.

“History provides legitimacy,” he said. “Regardless of what you’re talking about, if you can root what you’re saying in tradition, in legacies, in some kind of continuity from the past, that’s an excellent way to legitimize whatever it is you’re saying.”

ADVERTISEMENT
And while there are some aspects of history that are trivial — Grossman cited the type of buttons used on Civil War uniforms as an example — there is a danger in getting significant elements of history wrong.

“We draw analyses of public life, and we make policy, we justify policy, we make arguments, we draw our narratives based on notions of the past,” he said. “If you’re going to invoke the past, you’ve got to get it right.”

Grossman added that when our leaders don’t have an understanding of our nation’s history, it sends a negative message to our youth.

“How can we tell our children that they’re supposed to sit in a social studies class and learn their things and get them right ... and then they find out that prominent public officials really don’t care, either,” he said.

If recent tests are any indication, those kids already don’t have a solid grasp on history. In a recent Nation’s Report Card, only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above the “proficient level” on the 2010 U.S. history assessment.

When asked why it’s important for Americans to have a solid understanding of history, Grossman said, “Voters ought to be able to vote intelligently.

“A democracy is dependent on an educated electorate,” he said. “Second of all, if we’re going to have an economy that works at all, it has to be based on people who make financial and business decisions based on facts.”

But even well-read lawmakers can be caught off-guard or fall victim to misinformation, leading to “spurious quotations” that get circulated on the Internet, Ritchie said.

“Then the myth becomes greater than the fact,” he said.

For Grafton, this becomes part of “a kind of collective national memory which is highly inaccurate, and which is perpetuated by bad movies and by historical novels and by half-remembered visits to national monuments.”

While he expects politicians to “live in the realm of memory [rather] than the realm of history,” Grafton wishes they had a firmer grasp on our past to make them more effective leaders.

But busy careers spent traveling between Washington, D.C., and home districts, networking and fundraising leave little time for such endeavors, he theorized.

“I don’t see how most people living in those conditions are going to have time to either learn a lot of history or refresh their knowledge of it,” Grafton lamented.

That didn’t mean the historian had any pity for Palin.

“I can’t remember another politician going on a tour that was about reminding Americans of their history,” Grafton said. “In a sense, I think [she] kind of set herself up. If you’re going to go out there and tell people about history, then you probably should know your history reasonably well.”

While Palin’s version of historical events might be indefensible, she can take solace in knowing that even Revere’s tale continues to evolve.

More than two centuries after the legendary ride, biographer David Hackett Fischer uncovered a previously unknown interview between Revere and a Congregationalist minister.

In the interview, Revere portrayed the revolutionaries in a harsher light than they preferred to project.

“It didn’t quite follow the party line at the time ... [and] didn’t fit the innocent-victim image that the Patriots were putting forward,” Ritchie said. So “they didn’t release it at the time. They just sat on it.”

Cultivating an image, political posturing, withholding information to suit one’s needs, all before the nation was even founded. Who says politicians can’t learn from the past?