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The Problems with Romanticizing our Past

Joined: 4/14/2013
Posts: 13
Columbus Day passed somewhat quietly last week. Aside from the lack of Catholic school students walking to my neighborhood bus stops in the morning, there were few other noticeable signs of the holiday.

I like to think, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that this is a sign of the increasing number of Americans who have come to reject the romanticized narrative of Christopher Columbus as a great explorer who conquered an untamed world in the name of Western civilization. In reality, Columbus’ greatest legacy is, or at least should be, the enslavement and systematic annihilation of millions of Native Americans. His policies on the island of Hispaniola reduced the population of the native Taino people from eight million to three million by 1496-only four years after his initial “voyage of discovery.”

But the legacy of Columbus is far from the only part of our history that we like to view through rose-colored glasses. The American Revolution is perhaps the greatest victim of our often misguided view of the past.

The popular conception of an organic uprising in which colonists of every ethnic, religious and socioeconomic background took up arms to fend off the British oppressors is deeply flawed. It ignores the fact that historians estimate that only about one third of colonists were supportive of the revolution, with another third being neutral and the final third being loyalists. It also ignores the facts that many American soldiers were poor immigrants who fought more for their own economic survival than for some great moral cause, and that the war was in many ways a proxy war between France and Britain, with the French providing weapons, uniforms, troops and naval support to the rebelling colonists.

Equally fallacious is the common perception of a young country that came out of the War for Independence with a profound sense of national unity centered upon its newfound freedom. The postwar years were some of the most chaotic in American history. The Articles of Confederation amounted to a failure in most respects, and the Founding Fathers soon recognized the need for a new constitution. The drafting and ratification of this new American Constitution sparked fierce debate between the Federalists, who favored a strong centralized government, and the Anti-federalists, who were more partial toward decentralization and “states’ rights.” This is a debate which has manifested itself in American politics ever since then, and which has often times been less than civil.

So what’s so dangerous about romanticizing our history? What’s the harm in indulging in a little pleasant revisionism?

The problem with an overly romantic view of history is that it forces us to look to the past instead of to the future. It makes us cynical about our current situation on both a national and an international level. After all, if the Founding Fathers agreed on everything, there must be something severely wrong with our polarized Congress. And if the American colonists had a neat, unified, and orderly revolution, there must be something intrinsically defective with the revolutions in the modern Middle East.

During the 1996 Presidential campaign, Republican candidate Bob Dole said that he would be a “bridge to the past” if elected. What too many people forget is that that bridge leads to a place as deeply flawed as our own, with the same timeless issues that we still struggle with and with old issues that we have since overcome.

The past is there to be learned from, not recreated.

Sources: “Encyclopedia of the Clinton Presidency” by Peter B. Levy;;
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Comment by michness

Joined: 1/25/2011
Posts: 210
Yes, yes, yes. Totally 100% agree.
Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 12:55:08 PM
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