"Print the Legend": History and Heritage

Gordon Wood ends his reflection on his 1997 review of Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence with a quote from the newspaper editor in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In chapter 13 of The Purpose of the Past Wood uses Maier’s book to reflect upon the relationship between history and heritage in American culture. Wood praises Maier for offering a critical history of the Declaration of Independence that seeks to correct many of the popular myths about the document. She is particularly interested in questioning the sense of reverence that ordinary Americans have for the document.

Maier tries to humanize the the Declaration. It was written by a committee, it was unoriginal, and it was one of many so-called “Declarations of Independence” (90 in all) that were written and published throughout the colonies. But most people don’t realize this. They prefer to view the Declaration as a symbol of a dead age–a document to visit and pay homage to rather than a document to discuss and debate as a part of the civic responsibility of every generation of Americans.

But Wood wonders whether Maier is too hard on those who tend to worship relics like the Declaration of Independence as part of a broader American civil religion. He argues that people may need these national shrines in order to “maintain their heritage and affirm their nationhood.” According to Wood, Maier has no patience for those who want to believe that Jefferson was the sole author or those who want to see the Declaration as an original and new statement of political philosophy or those who have misinterpreted it to be something it was never intended to be.

This, of course, leads us to the larger issue of the relationship between critical history and heritage or memory. Historians pride themselves on debunking popularly held myths, and Maier does this better than most. I find that my history courses have become increasingly focused on this myth-busting agenda. It works quite well in the classroom.

But Wood raises an interesting question when he asks whether people really want to hear the myth-busting conclusions of critical historians. Perhaps memory and heritage–whether it is completely accurate or not–is the primary way ordinary people “keep the past alive and meaningful.”

Some of my own work seems to confirm this, especially as it relates to the attempt by many evangelicals to defend the notion that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Most critical historians, myself included, find it difficult to side with the Christian America historians. But at the same time, scholarly attempts to debunk this myth have gone nowhere. Most ordinary Christians do not want to hear it. They prefer their own version of American history. They want an eighteenth-century America without the separation of church and state or a founding era dominated by evangelical statesmen. After reading Wood, I must admit that this “Christian America” version of American history has been effective in getting more and more people interested in the past. In this sense, maybe it has done some good.

As Wood concludes: “We haven’t yet worked out the precise role of critical history in the culture.”