Recently I've been working on a piece about the Gettysburg Address.* As always, I've done more research than required,** wandered down some interesting by-ways that were not relevant to the project, and had my preconceptions about the topic turned upside down and shaken. As always, My Own True Love has convinced me to remove some bits that caught my imagination, but didn't belong in the article.
I came away with new ideas about battlefield cemeteries (apparently a Civil War innovation), Lincoln's reputation as a speaker, and the difficulty of finding saddle horses in a war-torn region. But the piece of information that knocked me off my metaphorical seat was finding out that the one thing everyone "knows" about the Gettysburg Address isn't true.*** Lincoln didn't write the speech at the last minute on the back of an envelope. He apparently wrote several careful drafts over a matter of weeks--a process that Lincoln scholars have unraveled with careful textual exegesis, though they don't always agree on the details.
I don't know why I'm surprised. It sometimes seems as if none of the historical stories that appear in our elementary school textbooks--and that find a permanent home in our collective consciousness--are factually true, thought they are often emotionally satisfying. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock was certainly not the first Thanksgiving in the New World and probably didn't happen quite the way we learn the story. People will get into shouting matches (or at least pissy written exchanges) over whether Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, but the story still appears in history books as if it were unquestionably true. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a PR creation from the first.
I would argue that these stories survive and thrive because they are simple--something historical "truth"**** rarely is--and because they are, in fact, stories. We use story to understand the world. Just like traditional fairy tales give us a framework for a moral universe, historical tales give us a framework for the past. The fact that sometimes the framework needs to be rebuilt, doesn't make the need for stories less real.
What do you think about the gap between historical tale and the moving target of historical truth? What are some of your favorite examples?
*Coming soon to a copy of History Channel magazine near you.
**If you're interested in Lincoln's thought and use of language, I highly recommend The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words by Ronald C. White, Jr. and Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words by Douglas L. Wilson. Both of them seduced me into reading far more than the chapters on the Gettysburg Address and reminded me of what a complicated man Lincoln was.
***Okay, the second thing everyone knows. Lincoln did, in fact, give the speech. Thank you, Amy Sue Nathan, for catching me on this.
**** A tricky concept at best since at some level all history is revisionist history.
Unlike many other shin-kickers from history, William Wilberforce was a card-carrying member of the privileged classes--wealthy, educated, male, white.
Born in 1759 to a wealthy merchant family in the Yorkshire port of Hull, Wilberforce spent his teen years and early adult life in what he later described as "utter idleness and dissipation". While a student at Cambridge--where he majored in gambling, drinking, and late night parties--he began a lifelong friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. In Pitt's company, he discovered a new source of excitement: politics. He was first elected to the House of Commons when he was only 21 and showed every sign of being nothing more than a political playboy.
His life changed five years later, when he discovered Evangelical Christianity--then a source of political and social radicalism. His first thought was to leave Parliament and enter the ministry. John Newton, best known today as the composer of "Amazing Grace", and Pitt* convinced him that he could do more good from Parliament than he could from the pulpit. Wilberforce soon found his cause: the movement to abolish the slave trade.
It was no small task. The Atlantic slave trade was an important part of the British economy, even though slavery was abolished in Britain itself in 1772. Britain made enormous profits on every step of the triangular trade: shipping textiles and other manufactured goods from Britain to Africa, slaves to the plantation owners of the West Indies and the American South, and slave-produced cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane back to Britain.
From 1787 until he retired from Parliament in 1825, Wilberforce was the public face of the abolitionist movement in England. He proposed legislation outlawing the slave trade every year for eighteen years. He was backed by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of British subjects and opposed by the powerful shipping interest.
In 1807, Parliament passed a law abolishing the slave trade in British colonies and making it illegal to carry slaves in British ships. The practical impact of the legislation was limited. The statute did not change the legal position of those who were already enslaved. Brazil replaced Britain as the most important slave-trading nation and British slave traders continued to sail under foreign ship registrations. The efforts of the British navy to enforce the ban by patrolling the African coastline and treating all slave ships as pirates simply resulted in higher prices.**
Wilberforce and his colleagues turned their attention to the next step in their campaign: abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.
Wilberforce was on his deathbed when the Abolition of Slavery Act finally passed on July 23, 1833. Job done, he died three days later.
*Already prime minister at the age of 26. Hanging out in history can give a person an inferiority complex.
**Economics can be a bitch.
I often check in with My Own True Love when I'm unsure about a blog topic.* When I asked him what he knows about Thomas Babington Macaulay he said "He sounds very distinguished." I explained that Macaulay is best known as the most important writer of Whig history,** but that I think his real importance is his Education Minute. My Own True Love said, "He sounds like an obscure figure who has earned his obscurity."
At least I don't have to worry that this blog post is going to tell a story that everyone already knows.
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a literary lion in the mid-nineteenth century. He was one of the most popular contributors to the Edinburgh Review for more than twenty years. His Lays of Ancient Rome was a smash hit back in the days when poetry led the best-seller list.*** His five-volume History of England was marked not only by Whiggery, but by great story-telling. In 1857 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Macaulay of Rothly--the first of Britain's literary peers.
Like many writers, then and now, Macaulay needed a day job to support his writing habit so he became a lawyer. In 1834, he took the job of legal advisor to the Supreme Council of India and sailed for Calcutta, where his most significant and controversial contribution was his Education Minute.
In the 1830s, British administrators in India were butting heads over the question of education. In the early years of British rule, Englishmen in India were required to learn Indian languages, culture, and law so they could work effectively. New employees of the British East India Company hired tutors to teach them Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit as well as modern Indian vernaculars.**** The EIC supported schools where Indian languages and Muslim, Hindu, and English law were taught to Indians and Englishmen alike.
Around 1830, Evangelicalism and Utilitarianism were on the rise in England, bringing reform in their wake. Both "isms" were popular in the merchant classes that controlled the EIC, and their shared zeal for reform spilled over into the company's administration of India. A new generation of administrators in India argued in favor of a "trickle down" theory of education: instead of taking on the overwhelming task of creating elementary vernacular education for the masses***** they proposed creating a western-educated elite.
Macaulay came down heavily in favor of Western education in his controversial Minute. After acknowledging that he read neither Sanskrit nor Arabic, he then made the breathtaking declaration that " I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." He then went on to condemn Indian learning as "medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter."
(And you are now saying to yourselves, "Not only is the man rightly obscure, but he's a racist butthead. " Bear with me a moment.)
But while Macaulay condemned the literature, he did not condemn the ability of those who wrote it. Many who supported the orientalist position on education suggested Indians were unable to learn enough English to understand western science, history etc. Macaulay argued they were wrong. He knew many "native gentlemen" who were able to discuss political and scientific issues in English with not only precision and fluency but with "a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction". According to Macaulay, the goal of western education was to "form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, --a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."
Macaulay's Education Minute was critical in the decision for western education for the elite.
But why does it matter, you ask me.
Because they succeeded. Britain educated a class of Indians who were indeed English in opinions, in morals, and in intellect--but not in rights. Indians who wanted a voice in their own government. And who finally demanded independence when they were unable to have equality.
* As those of you who know me In Real Life can attest, my sense of what is common knowledge and what is not is--unreliable.
** Whig history presents the past as the inexorable progress of mankind toward constitutional government, personal liberty, and modern science. Basically, it is the opposite of nostalgia for the good ol' days.
*** The poems also had a long half-life in British schools. Children were forced to memorize them for more than a hundred years. The poems remain a permanent part of Britain's cultural landscape. One much so that one of the stanzas was quoted in a Dr. Who episode. ("The Impossible Planet." 2006). Now there's fame.
****Many also hired Indian mistresses, probably a more effective way to learn the vernacular if not classical Sanskrit.
****Just to put this in context, widespread elementary education did not become available in Britain itself until after the Reform Act of 1867, which gave the vote to most urban working men. When the vote passed, one of its strongest opponents, Robert Lowe,turned his attention to education,saying "We must now educate our masters."