Cover Story

Historical site-seeing

The monuments to America's past transcend the revisionist historians' attempts to make them politically correct

Issue: "A vacation from PC," June 3, 2000

In the summertime, a family's fancy turns to thoughts of roadtrips. Now is the chance to see America-not only to see its purple mountain majesties and alabaster cities but also to walk in the footprints of those pilgrim feet, to honor the heroes in liberating strife, and to pass on to our children our forebears' patriot dream. America is rich with history, much of which is on display in well-preserved historical sites. For a generation that thinks of a "site" as something in the spaceless netherworld of the Web, these monuments to actual reality in space and time can become favorite places. Joshua had the Israelites stack stones from the river bottom when they crossed over into the promised land as a way to teach the children of future generations and to serve as "a memorial to the people of Israel forever" of God's saving presence in history (Joshua 4:6-7). In the same way, more secular monuments can serve as tangible reminders of our national heritage. It is not only educational but profoundly moving to visit the haunts of great Americans, the actual locations of great events, the locales where great ideas were conceived. Unfortunately, today's intellectual climate is not much interested in great Americans, great events, or great ideas. Mainline contemporary historians tend to downplay the contributions of "great men" in favor of studying the mundane lives of the ordinary folk of the day. The power of ideas and the significance of pivotal events are minimized in favor of vast, impersonal social forces. And the very notions of heroism, patriotism, and the American heritage are anathema to revisionist historians who interpret America in terms of oppression, leftist politics, and multiculturalism. This is why, on the family roadtrip, the kids in the backseat-if they have attended a conventional school-will not know very much about these historical sites. If they go to Mt. Vernon, they will never have heard about George Washington's brilliant tactics in trapping the British army at Yorktown, nor about the wise leadership he exercised in getting our nation off the ground. Instead, they will have learned about his wooden teeth and about how he owned slaves. They will not have learned anything about the battles, the tragedies, the instances of courage, the ideals of freedom, the sins, the accomplishments, or any of the sheerly exciting things that happened in the past. Instead, they will have smashed corn with a rock and made clay models of a Pueblo village to help them understand what it would have been like to be a Native American. Instead of studying history, they will have studied social science. As WORLD reported last July, America's museums now tend to reflect the revisionist view of history. The same is often true at America's historic sites, whose Visitor's Centers-sometimes now called "Interpretive Centers"-in their ubiquitous movies, cardboard cutouts, and indoctrinated guides often miss the point of what they are preserving. Nevertheless, there is something about a historic building, a battlefield, or even a roadside historical marker that cannot be spoiled by the killjoys of postmodernist academia. Call it the thrill of reality. In support of family vacations, here are profiles of some representative historical sites, based on recent visits. Though some reveal as much about our own times as they do about the times they are supposed to commemorate, they are all worth visiting. Since families will get more out of the experience if they prepare themselves for the visit rather than rely solely on the "interpretive centers," here's another perspective on what they will see, including suggestions for background reading. Independence Hall,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The actual state house, in which the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution debated, has been beautifully preserved, as have scores of historically significant buildings round about, with the Liberty Bell just across the street. The whole complex, with its trees, lawns, and gardens, constitutes "Independence Square," preserving the buildings, the cobbled streets, the printers' shops, and the churches that were once frequented by the Founding Fathers as they were planning a revolution and discussing how to make a free republic work. Independence Square offers more patriotic emotions per square block than perhaps any other place in America. How small the actual meeting room turns out to be where our nation was born-and how courageous this small ensemble of statesmen had to be to defy the overwhelming might of the British Empire. What conversations must have taken place in this 18th-century tavern, where one can still order the same dishes from the same recipes upon which Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson dined. Here are the churches where the signers of the Declaration of Independence worshipped, and here in the churchyards are some of their graves. Though the place could hardly be more satisfying, there are reminders that we and our nation have declined somewhat from those times when giants walked the earth. The obligatory movie in the Visitor's Center featured big-name stars playing Franklin, Jefferson, and other founders, but the premise of having their ghosts appear today and travel back into time was unutterably lame. As in many such Visitor's Center movies, the attempt is to bring the historical figures into the present, whereas what is really needed is to bring the modern visitors into the past. More disturbing and annoying, though, was our guide. Park service guides for the most part are friendly, helpful, and well-trained. They also know more than they tell in their general-purpose spiels, so asking good and informed questions can add greatly to what one can learn. But our guide to Independence Hall had to have been a casualty of a contemporary graduate program who considered himself underemployed. In his park ranger uniform and Smokey-the-bear hat, he lectured us on how the Founders were really just motivated by their economic interests, how only wealthy white men were allowed to vote, how many of them were agitating for freedom while they themselves owned slaves, and the whole revisionist line. His cynical tone and simplistic, reductionist analysis just did not fit in with the atmosphere and gravitas of these hallowed halls of liberty. As we traipsed behind the velvet ropes, admiring the colonial furniture and listening to his harangue, it was not the Founders but our own clueless times that seemed diminished. Background reading: The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition by M. Stanton Evans, which explores the Christian connection to the ideals of American liberty and refutes the liberal misreading of history. The House of the Seven Gables,
Salem, Massachusetts
In parts of New England, visitors who throw a dead lobster in any direction are likely to hit some historical site. Revolutionary War battlefields, important early sea ports, and colonial villages abound. At Plymouth, site of the first Puritan settlement, stands Plimouth Plantation, a re-creation of the 17th-century colony, complete with role-playing villagers who take on the customs, the theology, and even the old country accents of the Thanksgiving Pilgrims. This is an example of the "ordinary life" school of history at its best, which indeed can be interesting when it does not confine itself to a study of antique cooking implements but rather brings to life the way real human beings thought and felt. Plimouth Plantation is a good antidote to the stereotypes of Puritans and Pilgrims as black-garbed killjoys; a visitor can see not only that they wore bright colors and knew how to have a good time, but that they were real people trying with impressive success to live out their faith. A "witch hunt" at Salem, a Puritan village north of Boston, made a major contribution to the negative Puritan stereotype. When Puritan leaders such as Increase Mather tried to put a stop to the hysteria, they pointed to the absence of evidence that citizens accused of witchcraft (by hysterical young girls who had been flirting with the occult) actually were witches. Today, dozens of palm readers, occult book stores, and practicing Wiccans make money off the tourists who visit Salem because of this sad historical chapter, and the city has even adopted as its logo a witch riding a broomstick. But there is much more to Salem, whose merchant ships carried on the trade that made the United States from its earliest days a paragon of free enterprise economics. Today, Salem has a fine maritime museum, with a reconstructed three-masted ship in its harbor. Salem was also the home of one of America's first great writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Visitors can see not only his childhood home, but the Custom House where he worked at a cushy government job that left him plenty of time to write The Scarlet Letter. And across the alley from the Hawthorne residence is the home of some of his relatives, a house that has seven gables, the inspiration for one of his greatest novels. The time-honored genre of the gothic novel originally had nothing to do with monsters, vampires, or teenagers in black clothes and pale makeup. It was essentially a type of mystery story centering around some kind of strange, atmospheric house. Spooky things would happen, but, in the end-as in a Scooby Doo cartoon-they would always be given a rational explanation. In The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne presented a spooky house haunted not by ghosts but by guilt and by the sins of the fathers being visited upon the next generations. The real house of the seven gables is an instructive example of the historical homes that have been immaculately restored and are open to the public across the country. The house is filled to the brim with period furniture and historical artifacts, to the point that the actual reason for its fame sometimes gets lost amidst all of the quaintness. Our guide asked one group of tourists whether any of them had read Hawthorne's novel. Only an English professor and, in an object lesson on U.S. educational quality, a group of teenagers from Germany, raised hands. It would have helped greatly if our guide had given us at least a plot summary or something about Hawthorne's characters and themes, some imaginative context for what we were seeing and why it was significant. Instead, we were shown lots of period table settings and given a mini-lecture on 19th-century cooking implements. Houses in gothic novels tend to be in a state of mysterious decay, an atmosphere largely missing in this fixed-up, spruced-up structure. But it's easy to see why it captured the imagination of young Nathaniel. It even has a secret passage that visitors get to go through. But it probably will not capture the imagination of future novelists today-unless they have read the book. Background reading: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The U.S.S. Constitution,
Boston, Massachusetts
Most historical sites are reminders or surviving relics of something that happened at that place long ago. In Boston Harbor one can find something far more, a historical object that is not reconstructed or made up after the fact, not a memorial, but the real thing: the U.S.S. Constitution, one of our nation's first naval vessels, whose stunning victories in the War of 1812 earned it the nickname "Old Ironsides." Never defeated in battle, the Constitution is still commissioned as a ship in the U.S. Navy. Instead of the usual perky college-student guides, young sailors-who have been taught the intricacies of sailing tall ships-escort visitors, explain what they are seeing, and answer questions. It can be an overwhelming experience to tread the decks that once ran with blood, to see the spars and ropes and cannon that were handled so expertly by American seamen, to contemplate the courage and heroism of those who sailed this very ship. The Visitor's Center does what it needs to: It explains the structure of the ship and the Yankee ingenuity that devised new shipbuilding techniques to enable it to carry heavier guns than its enemies, to be so strongly built as to seem like it had sides of iron, all while being able to outmaneuver British vessels. It also gives detailed accounts of its sea battles, including diagrams of its maneuvers and tactics. And yet, even here, at a living example of American glory, politically correct revisionism stows away. An exhibit on a post-war cruise in the Pacific focuses on the sailors' responses to the Polynesian women. It seems that some of them wrote home expressing their disapproval at the native girls' lack of clothing. At the same time, many of the sailors got in trouble for-shock, shock-"fraternizing" sexually with them. Instead of seeing this double reaction in terms of human sin, whereby we fail to practice what we know is right, the exhibit goes on about the racism, sexism, and lack of multicultural sensitivity of the times. The American sailors, we are told, were both repelled by and attracted to the dark woman, who symbolized a sexual freedom they were denied by their "Victorian" values-as if sailors on shore leave had not succumbed to such temptations from time immemorial. Background reading: The Age of Fighting Sail by C. S. Forester, a nonfictional account of the American navy in the War of 1812 by the author of the Hornblower series. Forester explains the technical superiority of the Constitution and draws the contrast between the free citizens who manned the American ships and the impressed, flogged, and poorly treated sailors of the British system. Also read the chapter in Patrick O'Brian's novel The Fortunes of War, in which the intrepid Captain Aubrey finds himself a passenger on the British warship Guerriere just as it goes into battle with the Constitution. O'Brian gives a historically accurate and thrilling description of the Constitution's first victory. The Alamo,
San Antonio, Texas
When the Mexican dictator Santa Anna slaughtered the garrison defending the mission-turned-fortress known as the Alamo, it would seem to have been a defeat. Some 200 men were put to the sword after a gallant fight, including Jim Bowie and David Crockett, who had already become legends on the American frontier. But remembering the Alamo inspired the rest of Texas to defeat the Mexican army and win their independence, forming a separate republic before finally joining the union in 1845. Even today the Alamo is a deeply moving place to visit, a tribute to a small band standing up against enormous odds and giving their lives in the name of freedom. The Alamo is now besieged by revisionists, who take the Mexican side (never mind that Hispanic Tejanos were also fighting for independence against the bloody Santa Anna and perished in the Alamo). Their attempt to portray the Mexicans as victims of Anglo racism and imperialism just does not work at a site where Santa Anna's forces were in fact victorious and where they took the unnecessary step of refusing to take prisoners, or (if they did take a few) murdering them. The 200 bodies they burned represented the true victims at the Alamo. Thankfully, there is little trace of liberal revisionism at the Alamo. Most historic sites are operated by the National Park Service of the federal government. The Alamo is operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who work hard to maintain the mystique and the solemnity of the site. The original Alamo was a large walled complex. Today all that remains is part of the barracks and the mission's church (the structure that most people identify as "the Alamo"). The barracks has been turned into a museum with the obligatory movie. But the church has been turned into "the Shrine of Texas Liberty." Entering into the baroque, 18th-century church building-which seems surprisingly tiny amid the San Antonio cityscape that has grown up around it--visitors read a plaque: "Be silent, friend/Here heroes died/To blaze a trail/for other men." A sign calls for quiet and asks gentlemen to remove their hats. They do. Otherwise noisy tourists and boisterous schoolchildren settle down. Voices fall to a whisper. The church's interior is dark and-as is the case with most events of history-much bigger when seen from the inside. Here the women and children huddled for refuge during the assault (Santa Anna did spare them), though the men defending them were killed in this very place. Exhibits in the side chapels show Davy Crockett's rifle and Jim Bowie's knife. Plaques memorialize the names of each and every man who was killed. A guide gives a lecture, giving the context and the details of the siege and the assault, distinguishing between fact and legend, and drawing on contemporary research while exposing the weak case of the debunkers. The effect is solemn, moving, inspiring. One comes away with the sense of having really encountered history, not just as some long-ago event, but something that has genuine meaning, both for then and for now. Background reading: Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis by William C. Davis. Adults will also enjoy the new historical novel on the subject, The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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