The HP is led by R. Sós, an independent scholar and freelance writer living in the historic present. Interests include long walks in Puritan New England, the application of the Second Amendment to the armed forces only, and the state of the 33-state Union.
The Historic Present – Why We’re Here
You have found The Historic Present! Here’s what it’s about.
I’m a freelance writer. I write for textbooks, workbooks, and a million other things for K-12 American history publishers. Not long ago I was working on a job that included the usual short passage on the differences between North and South on the eve of the Civil War. The instructions were pretty standard: cover northern industrialization v. the southern plantation system, rapidly expanding northern population v. stagnating southern population, the fight to control the western territories. But included in the laundry list was this phrase: “Northern indifference to slavery.”
This got my goat. It triggered memories of reading much the same thing in my own American history textbook when I was in high school, this bland, dampening, yet incendiary claim that before the Civil War “no one cared” about slavery. Northerners didn’t care, I had read; they were just as prejudiced against black people as southerners, they never saw slavery so they didn’t care about it.
When I read that stuff as a teen, I bought it. It seemed like a shame, but what could you do? No one had cared. Everyone in America before 1861 was either pro-slavery or neutral, turning a blind eye. The shame I felt about this was alleviated a little by the Civil War that followed. Somehow, despite everyone’s indifference to slavery, slavery had somehow ended. It was a lucky break.
This take on the north and slavery was just one of the many letdowns that made American history my least favorite subject. American history was a parade of disappointments: killing Native Americans and taking their land; enslaving black Americans; the celebration of corruption that was Reconstruction; Jim Crow; Japanese internment camps; Little Rock; escalation in Vietnam—and then my history book stopped. (Even though I was in high school from 1981-1983. The 1970s were so full of trouble, such dangerous political ground, that early 80s textbooks didn’t know how to safely touch it yet.) All the good things we Americans were supposed to stand for were lies. We never stood for liberty and equality, and justice for all. That was the message I got from American history.
But after this depressing initiation, I eventually came to a different understanding of American history. It started when, as an adult, I read Angel in the Whirlwind, by Benson Bobrick. That book taught me that there were real ideals in the Revolutionary period, that people really lived up to. Encouraged, I started to read more and more American history. It was too late to get my Ph.D. in American history; I had already gotten one in Comparative Literature. But I earned a technical degree in colonial American history over the next 10 years, focusing in particular on 17th-century New England.
By the time I was 40, I was a committed American historian. I was a convert. It’s like the man who knows that magnesium is the secret to the universe: all wisdom came from American history. It’s not that I had learned that American history was the story of happy, happy times and total integrity. The killing and enslavement and oppression were all still there. The difference was that while I, like many other Americans, had previously seen those failings as cynical proof that America was indeed a lie, I now saw them as just that: failings. Failures to live up to the real ideals that this country was really, actually founded on. Ideals that we can and must be proud of.
All the good things in our history have come from Americans who said, You know, this may happen all over the world, but it’s not supposed to happen here. America is supposed to be different, and by God, I’m going to see that America is different. I’m not going to live with slavery. I won’t accept school segregation. I won’t keep women from voting. I am not going to allow the president to be above the law. In America, the press is free. In America, there is habeas corpus. Americans don’t torture. Americans don’t build giant fences to keep out immigrants.
Hey, we’re Americans! We are Americans. All of us. Everyone living in this country. And that means we all have a responsibility to live up to the ideals this nation was founded on. No matter our race, gender, sexuality, nation of origin, native language, economic class, political affiliation, age, religion, or anything else, we are bound and obliged and privileged to make sure the ideals America was founded on are alive and well.
America was founded not by a few wig-wearing white men, but by every American who signed on to the principles of the new nation that was born during the Revolutionary War. All Americans are Founders. Those wig-wearing white men duking it out at Independence Hall took a chance on the average American out there in New Jersey or Georgia or Massachusetts being in sympathy with some very radical ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. Those famous men founded their hopes in the average American, and her devotion to justice and freedom.
So all Americans are Founders of this nation. But we have to keep founding it, over and over, every generation. Because it is unique. Liberty, equality, and justice for all goes against human nature. A nation founded on those ideals is always in danger of tripping, failing, and giving up. We must always do justice to those difficult ideals and principles for which we stand.
So here is my blog. Its purpose is to inspire the people who read it and comment on it by looking at our history and exploring the issues that crop up continually in our democracy. I also hope to explode a few myths along the way, and start a conversation about American history that helps, in its small way, to keep the flame of liberty alive in this country.