Questions About Historical Interpretation

DeadlineHave you ever had a looming deadline that forced you to drop all of your other projects so you could focus your attention on the one with the due date? This has happened to me.

In this post you will learn about my deadline and you will have the opportunity to explore two questions I am mulling over about historical interpretation.


Chapter 4 Deadline

On Tuesday March 3, I will present chapter 4 from AMERICA’S FIRST GATEWAY (my book-in-progress) at the Boston Area Early American Seminar. The seminar organizers requested that I submit my chapter no later than Friday February 6, 2015.

I have spent the last two months revising the dissertation chapter that forms the core of the book chapter. I read through the chapter, identified where I needed additional evidence, noted what topics I should add, and marked up all of the language and typos I wanted to fix.

I conducted my research throughout mid-to-late December. Kristen the ILL goddess at the Boston Athaneaum acquired the microfilm I needed from the New-York Historical Society and the New York State Library.

I drafted all of the new sections before I left for Florida in early January and since my return I have been piecing together the new, revised book chapter.

I have not completed my work, but I am close to having the chapter ready for the seminar. I am close because I dropped, or put off, many of my other projects, including a blog post for this week.

So instead of offering you a well thought-out post, I offer you the open-ended questions about historical interpretation that are floating through my mind.


2 Questions About Historical Interpretation


Question 1: How responsible is it for Walt Disney World to attempt to tell nearly the entire history of the United States in approximately 30 minutes?

In January, Tim and I spent a few days in Walt Disney World. As I thought I would find good fodder for a blog post, I went into the Hall of Presidents attraction in the Magic Kingdom and experienced “The American Adventure” in Epcot.

Disney’s Hall of Presidents The Hall of Presidents promises visitors the opportunity to “discover the unique relationship between the President and the American people” through a "rousing presentation."

Prior to the presentation visitors mill around a lobby area that contains a few display cases with presidential artifacts on loan from various presidential libraries and institutions.

A Disney employee mingles with guests and poses trivia questions that yield inane details about the presidents.

Example: Which president was a vegetarian?

Answer: Thomas Jefferson.

(It would have been far more interesting if the employee had told me why Jefferson abstained from meat. We could have had an interesting conversation about his thoughts regarding health and illness.)

The program begins with the American Revolution and the shadows of colonial American men, women, children (and presumably people of color) reciting the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence up to the “pursuit of happiness."

The program lasts about 20 minutes, during which time a movie and animatronic versions of all 43 U.S. Presidents lead vistors through how U.S. presidents have helped Americans obtain and live the American Dream through their support and embodiement of the dream, at least in the case of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

In case you are curious, in order to embody the American Dream you must possess the characteristscs of equality, courage, determination, and oppenness to possibility.

To be fair, Disney mentions slavery and relates that it above all other reasons caused the Civil War.

American visitors leave the presentation feeling uplifted and patriotic.

Disney’s “The American Adventure"

In Epcot visitors will find a 30-minute audio-animatronic stage show that will take them through “The American Adventure”; from 1620 to 2008.

Animatronic versions of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain guide visitors through the program, which starts with Twain quoting John Steinbeck who says something to the effect of America didn’t exist 400 years ago. (Sorry Native Americans.)

For Disney, the "American Adventure” begins with the voyage and landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. (What happened to the settlements at St. Augustine, Roanoke, Jamestown, Québec, or Fort Orange that predate Plymouth?) The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom, which Disney implies is what the religious separatists brought to North America.

The program moves from Plymouth to the Revolution. One of the voiceovers states “The British think fools we be over taxes and tea.” (Never mind that the colonists identified as “British” until the mid-1770s.)

Admittedly, it is fun to watch animatronic Benjamin Franklin.

Robo-Franklin discusses the Intolerable Acts and how people in the colonies divided over the politics of the period. He also takes the audience to meet Robo-Thomas Jefferson who struggles to write the Declaration of Independence.

(Incidentally, I read [simpleazon-link asin="087140690X" locale="us"]Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality[/simpleazon-link] by Danielle Allen* while in Florida and she demonstrates that the Continental Congress and the first four printers of the document authored the Declaration of Independence.)

From Jefferson the program moves through the winter at Valley Forge, western expansion and the California gold rush, and on to the Civil War.

Animatronic Mark Twain transitions to the Civil War by mentioning that America was great, but in the 1860s “We the People” did not mean all people; cue Robo-Frederick Douglass who rows in on a bayou raft.

The program lingers on two brothers who chose to fight for opposite sides in the Civil War. When their story ends America rebuilds itself using immigrant labor.

Chief Joseph pops up before “The American Adventure” takes us to an 1876 Women’s Rights rally with Susan B. Anthony. Joseph states that his people want to stop fighting and be brothers. (Chief Joseph feels out of place in this narrative. Disney added him as their token Native American voice.)

Animatronic Alexander Graham Bell and Andrew Carnegie discuss progress before a film montage takes us from the Wright Brothers to the mid-2000s.

By the end of Disney’s “The American Adventure,” I began to wonder: what do most visitors take away from these Disney history lessons and do these attractions spark any interest in further historical study?

I hope the answer to the latter question is “yes" because according to Wikipedia, approximately 29.8 million people visited Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot theme parks in 2013.


Question 2: Why did the History Channel warp the history of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and the other Boston Sons of Liberty as much as they did?

Why weren’t the facts of the period dramatic and compeling enough to follow more closely?

Will the miniseries inspire more Americans to explore their early American history? Or will many people view this flashy fictional tale as fact because it aired on a channel definitively called “History?"

If you haven’t seen the Sons of Liberty miniseries, you should watch it only if you want to spend 6 hours in an alternate universe with a hunky-looking Sam Adams* and an aloof John Hancock.

With that said, I offer you a preview that provides a glimpse of "hunky-looking" Sam Adams and contains more facts than made it into the show.


What Are You Thinking About?

What history-related issues do you have swimming around in your head?


*I recommend [simpleazon-link asin="087140690X" locale="us"]Our Declaration[/simpleazon-link], which Danielle Allen will discuss on episode 18 of Ben Franklin’s World. The episode will post on February 24, 2015.

*Please note that Samuel Adams did not go by the nickname "Sam." Scholars believe that his friends and family called him Samuel and everyone else addressed him as Mr. Adams.