The distortion of history

279_civil-war-soldiers2eeeWithin the records of history, no nation or empire has ever survived a war declared on its own history. One of the earliest examples that easily comes to mind is the Roman Empire. Although English historian Edward Gibbons, author of the multi-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire presents the thesis that Christianity was one of the catalysts for the eventual collapse, he also presents that by the time of the appearance of Christianity within the empire, the intellectuals had already declared war on the empire’s own history. It had become frowned upon by the Roman authorities and intellectuals to study ancient Greece or anything related to that ancient pre-Roman civilization. As anyone who seriously studies the ancient Mediterranean world will know, Roman civilization, as great as it was, was nothing more than a latinification of what had existed at the heights of the ancient Greek civilization.

In adopting the best characteristics of the ancient Greek civilization, the Romans did nothing wrong nor did they do anything that any other civilization through time has done. Where Rome began experiencing problems is when the knowledge of where the Roman traditions originated and why they were adopted fell out of favor with its own political leaders and intellectuals. Nothing could be taught within the realm of state sanctioned education that was not Roman. By the time of the split of the empire into East and West, very few knew of the origins and reasons behind many of the Roman political, judicial, and social traditions. What was then studied as the history of the Rome was nothing more than a distortion of history to achieve the will of the emerging political class.

Without the knowledge of the origins and reasons for the traditions that had defined Rome for centuries, the average Roman citizen didn’t resist the changes that Julius Caesar brought across the Rubicon. For nearly two generations before his betrayal of the Roman Republic, Roman history had been rewritten to exclude its Etruscan and Greek roots. In its place, Romulus became the creator of Rome, from the foundation of the city, the establishment of the Senate, the first Roman Legions, and even the codes of Roman law itself. Rome became separated from its history to the extent that the myth became the new identity. We know from the history of the Roman Republic that the myth designed to replace the real history would not be strong enough to inspire the defense of Rome from its external enemies nor from the internal ones.

By the time of World War I, the French had rewritten its national history to make it more appealing and less violent. Napoleon Bonaparte, a dominant figure in French history and beloved by the French public, came to be seen as everything abhorrent of the French Revolution that allowed for his rise to power. Napoleon came at a time when the French revolutionists had overthrown the monarchy, declared war on French traditions (including the church), and had even begun to strip itself of its Gaulish/Roman heritage. A new calendar was put into place with new names given to the months, years renumbered to coincide with the overthrow of the monarchy. While Napoleon did set out to conquer Europe, he did bring stability to France and its citizenry. He was seen as being the stuff that legends come from, and from an intellectual viewpoint, a complete repudiation of everything the French Revolution stood against. After his defeat at Waterloo, the French intellectual decided to shun Napoleon rather than to incorporate his legacy into modern France. Never again would France rise to prominence as a world power or even be able to defend itself against foreign invaders. This distortion of history surrounding Napoleon continues with the youngest generation of French wondering why their national government should pay to continue to enshrine a man who has been equated as the French version of Adolph Hitler – even though such a comparison is unwarranted.

The American distortion of history

One of the challenges I faced in graduate school was when a college professor told us that everything we had ever heard or learned about American history was wrong. He told us that the most important thing we could do to contribute to what we understood as the “United States of America” was to go beyond the writings of Richard Hofstadter and other well-known historians from the 1960s and 1970s, but to go to the men who not only framed our nation’s Constitution but to the writings of the men that had been an influence on them. At the time in the early 2000s, there was already a movement of intellectuals continuing the distortions of the 1960s and 1970s of the United States being formed upon the backs of slaves and that the nation had intended to keep slavery at its core. As I began reading the writings of John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and others, I began to realize something that now seems common sense but is rarely mentioned in the halls of public education. Those men were willing to sacrifice the idea of emancipation of the slaves for one simple reason – they understood the dynamics of the larger picture and the main goal of national independence.

It was not an easy decision to make; John Adams found slavery as vile and wicked; an institution that should not be allowed to flourish on the shores of the nation he was helping to form. His vision for eliminating slavery almost cost him his loftier aims – national independence from Great Britain. After the delegates from the South walked out on July 1st, 1776 over his refusal to allow the removal of a portion of the text, he would later relent and consent to its removal on July 2nd, and the vote became unanimous. The paragraph reads:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither … And he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Continued on the next page.

Alan Simmons

Alan Simmons is an adjunct instructor of history at Henderson Community College. He has been teaching at the college/university level since 2004. Within the scope of his degrees, his areas of emphasis are U.S. foreign policy, public policy history, political history, and U.S. history.

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One response to “The distortion of history

  1. Thank you for your insightful writing.