American Historians and Their History

Scratching the Fleas

This article is drawn from the author’s speech on accepting The Rockford Institute’s first John Randolph Award at the historic Menger Hotel in San Antonio, a short distance from the Alamo.

For this occasion, I have been asked to reflect on “the historian’s task” and “the American republican tradition.”  To do so could be a gloomy undertaking—examining two things apparently suffering through terminal illness.  I shall try not to make it too gloomy.

First, let us consider that shrine of heroism nearby known as the Alamo.  How should we think about it—or, rather, what is wrong with the way most Americans do think about it?  We are taught to see the Alamo as one of the great exhibits of American valor.  I beg to differ: It depends on what you mean by “American.”  The Alamo is an exhibit of Texan valor and Southern valor.  If we call it “American,” we might be tempted to think of the U.S. Army and then of the U.S. government, neither of which deserves any credit for the Alamo.  Soon, we will have conflated the heroes of the Alamo with the U.S. government soldiers so eloquently eulogized by Lincoln, who destroyed the “Union” and founded the “nation” at Gettysburg.  When we have slipped into this way of thinking, we have falsified the central story of American history by erecting...

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