Whigishness in Williamsburg

When talking to merchants in colonial Williamsburg, one of the stories several of them repeated were of tourists asking “Don’t you wish you lived in the colonial period?  Everything was so simple back then, and they wore such pretty dresses…”  Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but the gists of the interpreter’s responses were that they would have hated living in the colonial era.  Pretty dresses and fancy swords were only for the 1% of the 1%, and would not make up for living in a society with large class and racial divisions.   But we romanticize our past, and these preconceptions we have led to errors in our analysis of it. Romanticism leads us to adopt the “Whig” interpretation of history: “to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present” (Butterfield via Cronon 1).  In short, we think of the people as the past as patriots, and glorify the causes and motives behind the American revolution.  Our knowledge of the past will never be 100% accurate because we can never be sure of conclusions drawn from artifacts, primary sources have bias, and how we interpret history changes with our modern day views.

Dr. Dave Brown showed us items found in the remnants of what was believed to be a slave quarter during his introductory archaeology presentation.  Among these was a raccoon baculum, in ordinary English what you could call a raccoon penis bone (shown on the right, image from Wikipedia).  It would have belonged to a slave, but the meaning it held for the slave is up to debate.  Since the bone is associated with reproduction, a male slave may have worn it to represent his virility.  When Dr. Brown mentioned this theory to one of his classes, a student who enjoyed hunting raised his hand and said “I know what that is for!  You use it to stir your coffee!”  I’m paraphrasing again, but this argument showcases one of the hardest parts of archaeology.  Do we assume the bone was a simple tool, or a symbol in the slave culture?  Finding artifacts leads archaeologists to make assumptions that can be completely off, leading us to make up inaccurate stories about a culture.  And we see objects through lenses of our present experiences; we know that often bones could be used as symbols, so we assume that was the slave’s intent for keeping it.  Or we see it as a tool used still today, and try to give it the same purpose in the past.  Either way we could be wildly misinterpreting evidence.

According to Dr. Carl Lounsebury, archaeology may also raise more questions than we can answer, and sometimes we will just have to accept the fact that we cannot come to an answer at all, instead of making one up that could be possibly wrong.  At the Walker House dichotomy preformed on one of the roof rafters, window styling, and use of machine and hand-made nails all point to it being one built in the early 1800’s, probably between 1805 and 1820.  But 1790 is inscribed in the brick of the house’s left chimney, which initially led architectural historians to believe that was the true year the Walker House was built.  Drawing easy conclusions from the inscription lead them to make a mistake- proving how in history, all evidence needs to be taken into account to reach the correct answer.  And often not all of that evidence is available to us.  Further inspection of the Walker House led to a more accurate estimate of its origin, but we still can not know the day it was built.

The Walker House- 7/27/14 by Jo Weech

Both Dr. Brown’s and Dr. Lounsebury’s stories prove how difficult it is to analyze artifacts, and how we can make completely wrong assumptions about them and therefore past events.  If archaeological evidence is flawed then due to our interpretation of it, should we turn to written documents for the truth?  Rachel Hermman’s essay, “The ‘tragicall historie’: Cannabalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown,” debates whether or not cannibalism may actually have occurred in Jamestown.  There are five primary sources addressing cannibalism during the starving time.  George Percy’s accounts should be the most accurate, as he was the only writers present in the fort during the winter of 1610-11.  But this account can be discredited, since it was in his best interests to make the winter seem as desperate and out of control as possible to justify his own failures to remedy the situation as the governor.  Smith also wrote of cannibalism in Jamestown, although he was not present and would have wanted to make it look like the colony fell apart after he left.  Also Smith was known to be a braggart who embellished upon his stories, changing them years after events occurred.  The lesser known Virginia Company’s account did report the same stories as Smith and Percy, but with variations.  And Gates wrote an account claiming the cannibalism never occurred at all, as a way to defend Jamestown so that investors did not worry they were losing money on a failing venture.  All together, these sources provide a different stories- did cannibalism occur or not?  The recent archaeological finding of the skull of a young girl dubbed “Lucy” at the Jamestown sight bearing knife marks seems to support the theory that cannibalism did occur.  But this skull could also have been bearing the marks of a brutal murder, which seems unlikely due to the incisions on the jaw and cheek bone.

The “Lucy” Skull, with blade marks visible on the forehead.                Source: Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, May 1, 2013

Either way, the stories told by Hermann’s essay and Lucy’s skull are excellent example of the struggles in deciding what historical evidence is accurate.  Our country would rather believe that it was not founded by cannibals, and that our revolution led to a society where all men were created equal.  In reality our was nation born with half the population in slavery.  The Lemon Project, started by William and Mary in 2009, was begun to recognize the college had “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War; and that it had failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era” (wm.edu).  William and Mary is now working to discover the details of the slaves who worked at the college.  Previously, the college omitted mention of slavery in its history because it did not want to recognize such a terrible institution existed at the college.  By turning a blind eye, the college left out an integral part of their history.  Now that story is being rediscovered because of the emphasis today of recognizing the horrors of slavery, and rediscovering African American history that we tried to wipe from our memories.  Because of our changed societal values, we are retelling the story of William and Mary from a new perspective, from that of the slaves.  This is an example of how current societal values change how we view and what we focus on of history.  Another story told by Dr. Brown was of a sheriff and his son visiting an African American woman in the mid-1900s.  Automatically our group assumed that the sheriff was visiting her because she was in trouble, excluding the unlikely possibility that they may have been friends, because we think of all the racial relations of that era under the umbrella of slavery.  After all, the sheriff brought his son with him, so perhaps the visit was purely social.  Our current societal values can lead us to see new sides of history, but can also lead us to close off others.

Historiography, the study of history, has been around for centuries.  A new way of analyzing history, Progressive history, emerged in the 19th century.  Progressive history includes Herbert Butterfield’s novel, The Whig Interpretation of History, which calls to light how we glorify our past.  It also includes Charles Butterfield’s new interpretation of the American Revolution, that our revolution was not about which country was ruling the colonies, but about who specifically was ruling the colonies, the gentry. So why does our understanding of Jamestown, early American history, and the American revolution matter so much today?  Who cares if not all of our facts are right, and why does the NIAHD program focus on historiography?

In the past century, American has become a world power.  And our revolution has been an inspiration for revolutions around the world, those in Latin America and France, even before we became a major military and global force.  Ideals written in our constitution are now echoed around the world- so isn’t it important to understand what these ideals meant in the first place?

Source: BBC News

The might the US carries in politics and our international power has inspired recent articles comparing us to the Roman Empire.  However, in recent years, conflicts for resources, political stalemates and inaction, economic deficit, and an education system falling behind the rest of the world has lead historians to draw parallels between flaws in our country and the flaws that occurred during the fall of the Roman Empire.  Growing global criticisms of the American government and lifestyle has led us to question our status, and if the ideals our nation was founded on are still present in our country today.  So we have been trying to discover the lives our the founding fathers and the real “truths” behind them in a way to better understand our country today.  We look for validation, that the founding fathers really were saintly figures, to justify our country.  New understandings of how we view history have deflated our romantic bubble, causing us to come to terms with the idea that our American revolution was one driven by economics and just freedom, and that our first presidents and colonists were ordinary men with flaws.  I believe these realizations are necessary for realizing that our country needs to change- obviously, something isn’t working if our government had to be shut down.  I don’t want to get political, but the purpose of history really is to have knowledge to help us today.  And by realizing that our country started our flawed we can more easily see that it is still flawed now, instead of running around yelling “MURICA!!!” and feeling superior as we caw like eagles.  Once we recognize there are problems we can then move forwards to remedy them.   We like to paint people of the past in a better light because it makes us feel better about our own origins.

So by understanding history we can understand ourselves, and then how to improve ourselves, which is why studying the past is so important.  And to try to get the best, most truthful measure of history, we need to understand historiography and why we make the assumptions about the past that we do.  But we will always interpret something wrong- whether it is the date on a house, the purpose of a raccoon baculum, or the true nature of the people who founded our nation.  No matter what we do, we will never get the full picture, because we cannot have all the facts of what happened in the past, nor can we accurately interpret artifacts and documents with 100% surety, and the way we view history changes with current circumstances.

Works Cited

Cronon, William. “Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History.” American Historical Assocation. American Historical Association, Sept. 2012. Web. 01 Aug. 2014

“The Lemon Project.” William & Mary. William & Mary, n.d. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.

Dr. Brown and Dr. Lounsebury

Rachel Hermann’s article

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