History Rewritten

When I first discovered and was almost immediately fascinated by history, especially ancient history, history book after history book postulated that the pyramids had to have been built by slave labor. More recent archeological discoveries have revealed that they were built by paid and comparatively well-fed skilled workers.

Likewise, in the 1950s and early 1960s, virtually all books about post-colonial western hemisphere grossly underestimated the pre-colonial population, especially that of North America, and presented the United States and Canada as sparsely populated by benighted and uncivilized “Indians.” Many history books of that period even reiterated the myth that a significant percentage of the European population believed that the earth was flat. Both sets of assertions have proved to be untrue.

During the Middle Ages and even after the Renaissance, much of Europe idolized and idealized the “great” civilization of the Roman Empire, but the majority of technology underlying the Roman Empire came from foreign, primarily Greek, sources. With the possible exception of concrete, the Romans didn’t excel at technological ideas, but at the wide-scale implementation of existing technology, often by slaves. In fact, at the time of Caesar, between twenty and thirty percent of the population of Italy consisted of slaves, something that is still seldom mentioned in references to the Roman Empire.

Despite the fact that the American South rebelled and tried to leave the Union in order to preserve slavery and effectively retain white supremacy, for almost a century after the Civil War, the social and political aristocracy of the south struggled to rewrite history, through literature, politics, and lots of statues and monuments, under the guise of states’ rights and to portray the soldiers and generals of the south as noble figures, rather than traitors and pawns of the old order.

Unfortunately, not all inaccurate writing or rewriting of history lies in the past. For whatever reason, these days no one seems comfortable pointing out that virtually all black slaves sold to southern American planters were originally enslaved by other blacks, and that the practice continues, if on a much, much smaller scale, even today in Africa. While that doesn’t excuse in the slightest the whites who bought blacks to enrich their coffers, not all the blame for the ills of slavery can or should be laid exclusively on whites.

Likewise, the current push by ultraconservatives to return to the idealized and conveniently “sterilized” time of free-enterprise ignores the wide-spread ills of early free-enterprise, from ten to twelve hour days six days a week, wide-spread child labor, unsafe working conditions, contaminated food, and more, all of which are overlooked.

Also, despite widescale revelations over the past two decades, most Americans still have no idea how much the American business community influenced American intervention and military pressure around the world and especially in Central and South America and how much of the immigration problem that meddling has led to.

Or, as Oscar Wilde said most cynically, “Our only duty to history is to rewrite it.”

3 thoughts on “History Rewritten”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Few people want a messy world history. When there are ugly nuances, glaring contradictions, and murky motives, it is difficult to think well of those who went on before us. And it might cause self-reflection in those living in the present – and that causes discomfort to those who have discernment and a modicum of honest. The people who manage to learn from all that can do amazing things (witness our founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) – even as they remain imperfect beings themselves.

    For some reason, the US wants the cleanest of clean in its leaders without the inevitable dirt that comes with difficult and often-times impossible decisions. In my opinion, it is a flaw in our national character.

  2. Darcherd says:

    I think the urge to Bowdlerize history (and the U.S. is hardly unique in this respect) has two primary underlying sources.

    1. Discomfort. As you mentioned, people don’t want to have their existing worldviews challenged, because if they did examine those views closely, they might have to (gasp!) do something about it.

    2. I also think there is a deep-seated, underlying fear that if children are not brought up to idolize our country and its leaders, they might (gasp!) challenge authority and the status quo and even (gasp! gasp!) refuse to join the military and defend the country.

  3. Tom says:


    All US Citizens who have been brought up in the USA voice, or have voiced, the Pledge of Allegiance every school day. Those US Citizens who are here by choice rather than happenstance have taken a pledge of allegiance with the accompanying caveat to renounce any and all other allegiances. Thus theoretically all US citizens are obliged to support their nation.

    Because all citizens of each nation desire the truth about their country and culture: the presence of lies and deceit diminishes the will to meaningfully ‘Pledge Allegiance’ to anything. Because the US is a democracy questioning of our elected leaders actions and reactions is appropriate and should be a requirement of US citizenship. Similarly because we are a democracy our elected leaders are obliged to tell citizens the truth (within the bounds of national ‘security’), no matter how good or bad it may be. Because the absolute truth to the minutest detail is not possible, new and added facts have to be explained if the “Truth” is significantly altered.

    Of course history is not stable; because it is not possible to place all the relevant data before the audience (few would read it all anyway) and what is considered relevant at one time may not be considered so another time. Whatever history is written or rewritten has to contain the facts which are least likely to change and should never be accompanied by emotive adjectives. That way there is least possibility of argument of bias or “indoctrination”!

    ‘ … the US wants the cleanest of clean … ‘ Perhaps, but it seems to me that history gets “rewritten” in order to present a bias or personal sovereign opinion rather than to get out ‘the Truth”.

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