Memory  /  Antecedent

A 1920s Lesson for the History Textbook Fight

The struggles of a century ago show that historians need to keep explaining their work and role to the public.

The teaching of history has become a flashpoint in the culture wars. But while the battle is fierce, it’s not new. An earlier round in the conflict in the 1920s — over the teaching of the American Revolution — indicates that it will be crucial for historians to weigh in loudly and forcefully during the current debate. That will give them the space to continue to teach the most accurate, up-to-date version of U.S. History and prevent forces that fundamentally don’t understand the job of historians from shaping what American children learn about the past.

In the late 19th century, the writing of American history was dominated by good writers who were not trained historians. They idealized the Founders and presented the American Revolution as heroic and fully justified.

After 1900, the writing of history shifted to professionals trained in recently established history Ph.D. programs. They replaced the one-sided, simplistic interpretation of the Revolution with discussion of the complexities behind the revolt.

Accustomed to the comforting pre-1900 hagiography, critics — including newspaper columnists, politicians, and patriotic organizations — considered the new interpretation an affront. In the early 1920s, they took to the attack against leading textbooks. Critics decried how the historian-authors questioned the motives of revolutionary leaders as well as their claims against British tyranny. The attacks resonated with much of the public in the wake of the emphasis on “100% Americanism” during World War I and the post-war “Red Scare.”

In 1921-1922, Charles Grant Miller, a columnist with the Chicago Herald and Examiner wrote a series of columns that targeted eight textbooks for allegedly unpatriotic, pro-British presentations of the Revolution. The Herald and Examiner was owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and other papers in the Hearst chain reprinted the columns. They were also edited and printed as a pamphlet. Other newspapers reported on Miller’s allegations.

As the furor grew, anxious Americans tuned in to what their children were learning. New York, Chicago, and other cities began investigating the history texts used in their schools. School boards and citizens’ committees started hunting for pro-British, “unpatriotic” interpretations of the Revolution. Patriotic groups also joined the fray. The campaign was, in the words of historian Joseph Moreau, a “revolt against the professors” who were peddling “Anglo-Saxonism.”