|Parson Weems' Fable, by Grant Wood (Courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art)
Friday we saw our president stand before Mount Rushmore and make an impassioned plea against what he called “a merciless campaign to erase our history” and in favor of what we can call the Parson Weems’ Fable view of the past.
You remember Parson Weems’ Fable. Or maybe you don’t. That’s one problem with history: There’s so much. The Rev. Mason Weems wrote about a young George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. The lad is confronted by his father and confesses, “I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” Such is the honesty of our leaders!
In the view of our current president, who cannot tell the truth, the founders who created this country were perfect, while participants in the national drama who were not white men are flawed, fringe figures, Betsy Ross sewing a flag.
The problems with the Parson Weems’ Fable view of history are many, but two stand out.
First, it didn’t happen. Despite Weems calling the story “too true to be doubted,” the cherry tree episode was invented, historians agree, to sell books. Hence Parson Weems’ Fable; kind of a giveaway really.
Second, history as a series of saints to venerate instead of study implies that these men are responsible for everything that transpired. Also untrue — if history were about ordinary people bending to the will of leaders, we’d all be happily nodding along with Donald Trump. When only 38% of us are. The rest are bouncing in our chairs, eager to toss him onto the ash heap come November.
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