Vail Daily column: A sad story about ‘happy history’

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

“Happy history” records our nation’s virtuous past. It overlooks or explains away vices that blocked social advance for groups, such as: Women denied their right to vote, children pressed into factory work, African-Americans enslaved and Chicanos consigned to manual labor in produce fields.

Happy historians don’t savor these slices of the American pie because such stories aren’t appealing to their taste.

Acting like happy historians, the majority of Jefferson County School Board members pressed last fall to change the curriculum of College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. history. They want students to study historical figures who perfected capitalistic marketplace skills. This slant on U.S. history is the only kind that counts, say conservatives. They prefer founding fathers whose soaring ideals led to economic success.

They happily recount how our nation’s founding fathers acted larger-than-life, figures of heroic stature. When they did mess up, these founding fathers quickly corrected mistakes and learned from miscues.

Such happy history is comprised of motivational slogans, false promises of success, theatrical bragging and fool’s gold that sells. It fosters a whimsical Lake Wobegon history, that mystical Minnesota hometown Garrison Keillor concocts on radio “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

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Happy history is sadly out-of-sync with what actually happened during our nation’s formative years. Early American politics suffered strained relationships. The founders, mostly white males, bickered. They either held on to power or connived to grab political prestige and muscle.

Our nation’s founders quarreled over limits to the presidency’s executive power. Few agreed on how to fund the government or what limits defined “limited” government. New England factory owners and Southern slave-masters supported cheap labor needed to harvest the nation’s No. 1 cash crop — cotton. Most founders either privately objected to slavery or avoided its stigma by not mentioning it in public. Slavery was the jumbo elephant in the room.

It’s easy to avoid actual facts by painting happy historical pictures. Portrayed are citizens succeeding by hard work with support from strong traditional families. Their personal liberties aren’t restrained by government.

Joseph Ellis, who wrote the Jefferson biography “American Sphinx,” tells of a conservative Southern fan of T.J. who objected to Ellis’ handling of his subject.

“Mr. Jefferson appeared to me in my bedroom last night and warned me that you would tell lies about him,” she objected. “Mr. Ellis, you are a mere pigeon on the great statue of Thomas Jefferson!”

At the book signing afterwards, Ellis politely said to his critic, who sounded similar to Jefferson County School Board members, “Madame, it makes no difference whether or not you regard me as a pigeon. But you ought not to regard Jefferson as a statue.”

Happy history uses flattery to camouflage human vices. It sounds like Jefferson’s 19th century biographer James Parton. He gushed, “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson is right.” And since Jefferson is rarely pictured as wrong, the U.S.’s history must be mostly right. It is, if you are male and white.

Today, conservative Jeffco School Board members look at Jefferson as the author of personal freedoms. But do they balance contradictions within Jefferson by recognizing his slave-master past?

Biographer Ellis recognizes this happy view of American history is a hot-seller among conservatives. “Apparently, if American history were a casino, whoever held the Jefferson card could never lose,” he rightly judges. That is, if Jefferson is only remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence.

What’s needed to correct happy history’s excesses?

Start by truly studying and researching history rather than repeating a party line. Remember George Orwell’s caution, “Political (like happy history) language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Happy history blows hot air that’s not tethered to the U.S. historical record.

For six decades, I learned to read history by collecting U.S. postage stamps. Every stamp tells a story of the past. Stamps commemorate people who shaped our nation for good or ill. They relate transparent history, the kind that shows our founders’ foibles and courage.

“Our stamp collections reveal in intimate detail how history is often ugly, even brutal: Wars, invasions, occupations, persecution, imprisonment, censorship, retaliation, the alternating triumphs of good and evil — all these are well-documented in the pages of our albums,” writes Matthew Healey (Linn’s Stamp News, “What about those Confederate Symbols Lurking in Our Albums?”, July 27).

Americans who promote happy history blunder badly. Though the historical record can’t be erased; we learn from our ancestors’ lives. Dig deeply and intelligently into the past so that unbiased history comes alive.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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