Cultural Memory vs. Historical Reality

“Handicapped by History” by James Loewen  cross examines twelve American history textbooks and concludes that the authors propagate distorted views of American history. Through a critical examination of the textbooks, he explains that the textbooks omit certain facts from actual events because of the “desire to shield children from harm or conflict, the perceived need to control children and avoid classroom disharmony, [and] pressure to provide answers” all through “heroification.” These textbooks also create the inaccurate social archetypes that are taught in schools, which explains why historical memories differ from actual history.

For example, he pointed out that many know Helen Keller as the “blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren.”

However, in truth, “Helen Keller was a radical socialist.” Former President Woodrow Wilson was an equally controversial individual. Wilson is seen as “‘good,’ ‘idealist,’ ‘for self-determination, not colonial intervention,’” But according to Loewen, “students seldom know or speak about two anti-democratic policies that Wilson carried out: his racial segregation of the federal government and his military interventions in foreign countries.

” Socialism and racism are abhorrent to most Americans, so textbooks selectively exclude details like these because any blemish would tarnish the view of a figure’s historical legacy. “They Knew They Were Pilgrims” by Nathaniel Philbrick (Through their Eyes) Philbrick explains the circumstances that led the group to flee England for somewhere where they would have greater opportunities to worship freely.

The voyage began with a group of English Separatists in Leiden, Holland.

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Because they thought that the church “must be purged of its many excesses and abuses,” they decided to leave for the New World. Seeing as outright rebellion against the church was “an illegal act in Jacobean England,” they did so secretively. They knew the dangers of their decision (crossing the Atlantic, starting over in unfamiliar territory, and Native Americans) but were still willing to endure because they believed that their faith would sustain them and it was worth the risk if it meant religious freedom. The group faced numerous setbacks from the start, including means of leaving the country, since “a person needed official permission to voyage to the Continent, something the authorities refused to grant religious nonconformists.” They had difficulties securing a proper ship/crew to last the entirety of the voyage. But eventually, they set sail for the New World in the Mayflower.

“Change and Crisis: North American on the Eve of the European Invasion” by Christopher L. Miller (Using the Past) It was explained, through the story of Hiawatha and Dekanawideh, that “conflicts became common” amongst the Iroquois Indians due to “long-lasting change in the weather” and “diminishing resources.” This led to the unification of the Iroquois nations because an alliance was in every tribe’s best interest in terms of power and strength. The Iroquois Confederacy started using its newfound alliances to its advantage, but it soon faced the arrival of European colonists. Many tribes were destroyed by the constant warfare that took place (the general response to European expansion and settlement) and catastrophic diseases. This helps make sense of the present because according to Miller, “the observations recorded by these [colonists] have led to a long-standing impression of what traditional Indian life was like.”

“The Therapy of Distance” by Daniel J. Boorstin (Change and Continuity) Though the Pilgrims were originally set to land near the mouth of the Hudson River, they ended up landing in the Cape Cod area which was beyond the extent of English jurisdiction. Boorstin explores how the spatial distance between the colonies and Britain helped successfully colonize America. This geographic distance allowed the colonies to gain independence from Britain’s historic values and cultural institutions (primarily the Church), which aided the creation of new rules within a new society, starting with the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact was the “primary document of self-government in the British colonies in North America.” Aside from self-governance, the colonists created a more “tolerating landscape.”

Though most colonists still considered themselves Christians, they expressed religious freedom through having an “endless variety of religious factions.” Monopolies and guilds were less prominent in large part due to “nearly every major Christian sect [having] a degree-granting institution of its own, and thus occupations “in America [becoming commodities].” The distinctions between social classes “did not survive intact in the New World.” “The Stono Rebellion and Its Consequences” by Peter Wood (Cause and Effect) A series of factors caused the Stono Rebellion, but the most prominent cause was the severe mistreatment of slaves and the prospective freedom and protection that “Spanish Florida” had to offer. Though the rebellion was quelled by the militia which dispersed the group of slaves and resold or executed members of the group, it still left many of the white colonists in a state of paranoia. This rebellion resulted in tighter government control over the activities of slaves and owners.

South Carolina’s colonial government responded to the rebellion by diminishing “slave importations” to change the ratio between the slave and “white minority”, placing even more restrictions on the slaves’ activities, as well as attempting to limit slave owners’ excessively cruel treatment of slaves, attempting to prevent further uprisings. However, none of these “tactics were entirely successful.” Essentially, there were no drastic changes, much less improvement. “A New Kind of Revolution” by Carl Degler (Change and Continuity) Degler argued that the American Revolution was a conservative movement “that left untouched the prewar economic and social class structure” by noting the similarities between pre-revolution structures and post-revolution structures. Degler also compared the American Revolution with that of France and Russia, seeing as the effects of the American Revolution cannot “be equated with the massive social changes which shook France and Russia in later years.”

There were “no new social class [that] came to power” or “major shifts in leadership” that succeeded the Revolution. Americans were content and prosperous under the British crown, they merely fought against the tightening control Britain was attempting to implement, which was nothing compared to “the disgruntled lawyers, the frustrated bourgeois, the tyrannized workers, and the land-hungry peasants” from the French and Russian revolutions. “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” by Gordon Wood (Using the Past) Wood argued that the American revolution was a radical event in that “the Revolution produced major social changes:” a self-governed democratic society. Although he was aware of the colonists’ better circumstances in relation to those in the Russian and French Revolution, he claimed that it “[did] not mean that [America] was not susceptible to revolution.” According to Wood, it was the Revolution that contributed to the process of modernization that “made America into the most liberal, democratic, and modern nation in the world.” After the revolution, the image of the initial government lost its relevance and America emerged as something completely contrastive.

The revolution facilitated “anti-slavery and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all [the] current egalitarian thinking,” “[eliminated] monarchy and created republics,” increase “luxury and conspicuous consumption,” caused“Indentured servitude [to] virtually [disappear],” all resembling the more familiar aspects of America that stands today. “The Republican Mother” by Linda K. Kerber (Turning Point) Before the Revolutionary War, women were widely considered inferior to their male counterparts. But during the war, women had more active and essential roles which got women to rethink their place in society after the war. This can be seen as a turning point because the Republican Motherhood was a call for increased women’s rights that changed the way women viewed their roles in society. Linda Kerber discusses the intellectual idea of the “Republican Mother.” The Republican Mother was an image that women created to combine female political involvement with their domestic sphere through the notion that women should provide guidance for their husbands and raise their sons all to be “virtuous citizens,” for the Republican Mother was “dedicated to the service of civic virtue.”

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Cultural Memory vs. Historical Reality. (2022, May 01). Retrieved from

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