Knowing history and knowing who we are

If interest in the American Revolution abated, it seems to have undergone a revival in recent years. Witness, for example, the first-rate best sellers written by David McCullough on John Adams and on the revolution’s seminal year. The popularity of these books is in part a tribute to McCullough’s craftsmanship, but their popularity also testifies to the intensity of interest in the subject. Reflecting on the need to know our history, McCullough has observed:

In the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington hangs John Trumbull’s great painting, “The Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776.” It’s been seen by more people than any other American painting. It’s our best known scene from our past. And almost nothing about it is accurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4th. They didn’t start to sign the Declaration until August 2nd, and only a part of the Congress was then present. They kept coming back in the months that followed from their distant states to take their turn signing the document. The chairs are wrong, the doors are in the wrong place, there were no heavy draperies at the windows, and the display of military flags and banners on the back wall is strictly a figment of Trumbull’s imagination. But what is accurate about it are the faces. Every single one of the 47 men in that painting is an identifiable, and thus accountable, individual. We know what they look like. We know who they were. And that’s what Trumbull wanted. He wanted us to know them and, by God, not to forget them. Because this momentous step wasn’t a paper being handed down by a potentate or a king or a czar, it was the decision of a Congress acting freely.

And yet, McCullough observers: “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate.” We do not know the names or faces of most of those 47 men.
The American Revolution Center has been founded to improve upon the state of affairs acknowledged by McCullough. The center has just published a report on the first national survey to assess adult knowledge of the American Revolution. The survey results document two facts that can be discerned from the report’s subtitle: “Americans are yearning to learn, failing to know.”
The survey results show that a whopping 83 percent of Americans failed a basic test on knowledge of the American Revolution and its principles. But the results also revealed that 90 percent of Americans think that knowledge of the American Revolution and its principles is very important.
Among other things, the results also show that 89 percent of Americans expected to pass a test on basic knowledge of the American Revolution. We do not suffer for lack of self-esteem. But we do suffer for lack of knowledge. More than a third of adults could not place the American Revolution in the correct century. Equal numbers of Americans believe that the Constitution established a direct democracy as correctly identify our form of government as a democratic republic. Survey respondents overall scored an average of 44 percent — and, I should add, not because the survey was too difficult.

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