- May 01, 2017
Ironically, until April 18, 2017, there had been no national museum devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution. Sadly, there is now one in Philadelphia. It tells the same kind of politically correct history that is offered in the National Museum of American History and the National Archives in Washington, DC, which I wrote about in Academic Social Science and Washington History on September 14, 2014.
The Museum of the American Revolution’s vice president for collections, exhibitions, and programming, historian R. Scott Stephenson, says the exhibits explore four questions: How did people become revolutionaries? How did the revolution survive its darkest hour? How revolutionary was the war? What kind of nation did the revolutionaries create?  That last question opened the door for the museum’s postmodern multicultural interpretation.
In her review of “A New Museum of the American Revolution, Warts and All” in The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler highlights that “the common man (and woman) is king.” What does she mean by that? Stephenson gives her the explanation:
Throughout,.panels explore the meaning of events for Native Americans, enslaved African-Americans, and other marginalized people. “We call these our ‘wait just a damn minute’ panels,” Mr. Stephenson said. “Every time the language gets a little lofty, we counter it.”…
The Declaration of Independence gallery…focuses not on the soaring rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson but on the raucous dialogue of independent people, who generated more than 80 local declarations. An interactive panel explores the perspectives of 10 individuals: men and women, free and enslaved, enthusiastic and ambivalent….
Mr. Stephenson demonstrates the worst kind of postmodern academic thinking here: the museum presents numerous opinions of marginal individuals that had no bearing on the future of our nation—to satisfy the ideologies of diversity and postmodernism and overshadow Jefferson’s reasoned foundational words that were essential to the freedom and unity of our nation.
In his review “A Politically Correct Revolution” in The Wall Street Journal, Richard Rothstein characterizes the museum as “an attempt to desacralize the Revolution.”
It is no longer portrayed as a struggle between colonists who were either far-seeing patriots or traitorous “loyalists.” The Stamp Act is portrayed as unexceptional. Examples are given of “propaganda” from both sides. This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.
This strengthens history, but weakens the event’s symbolic power. And though much is still excellent…a price is paid. What scenes, for example, are dramatized by tableaux? The Oneida debate, the African-American conversation about loyalty, a fight among Washington’s soldiers, Loyalist cavalry battling for the British—images having less to do with the war’s significance than with today’s preoccupations with identity-based tensions.
Inclusiveness can also create strange proportions. Why do we learn far more about Baroness von Riedesel—“one of perhaps a thousand women” who followed the British army—however impressive she was during the Saratoga Campaign, than we do about Gen. John Burgoyne, whose defeat in that campaign upset British hopes? Why is Mercy Otis Warren, “perhaps the leading female political writer of the colonial resistance,” whose writings are said to have “galvanized American colonial protests,” given more attention than the Federalist Papers, with their fundamental arguments about the future design of the republic by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay?
The Revolutionary Era encompassed some amazing innovations: “the first written constitution in the history of the world” in 1776 and, in 1775, the first anti-slavery society in history, founded in Philadelphia. But such details remain isolated. The exhibition tells us more about how the Revolution fell short than how it transformed possibilities. In one instance, curatorial taste turns truly bizarre: A display about “laboring men” seeking equality shows us a farmer’s sickle and shoemaker’s hammer forming the icon of the old Soviet Communist Party.
There is, in fact, a recurring tilt leftward here. Thus, while the closing film properly treats the Revolution as a continuing project, finding extensions in civil rights movements for African-Americans, gay people and women (and less properly in associating “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations with “the fire of the Revolution’s promise”), it doesn’t recognize other aspects of that tradition: the importance of individual liberties, the inevitable messiness of the democratic process, and the exceptionalism that yet remains.
The new Museum of the American Revolution presents the same kind of postmodern multicultural narrative about American history and our Founding that characterizes our Washington, DC government museums. From multiculturalism, that narrative prioritizes the grievances of oppressed groups by race, class, and gender and the artifacts of everyday life and common people. From postmodernism, that narrative prioritizes subjective individual opinion over fact and reason, the particular over the general, and the marginal over the essential.
That narrative does not just supplement the Founding ideas and ideals in telling a more complete story of our American history. It largely supplants those ideas and ideals, which are now, if presented, assigned a subsidiary role. Visitors may still view the physical artifacts and images of our history as exhibits, but the narrative and idea-line is now primarily the postmodern multicultural one rather than that of our founding history and ideas.
This reflects the control—with nary a metaphorical shot being fired—that the academic left and its progeny has achieved over so many aspects of American consciousness, from our schooling to historical institutions. As Will Durant once commented about the demise of the Roman Empire:
A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.
The Museum of the American Revolution is one more illustration of why our cultural and governing elite need to find a way to turn the academy’s influence around before our Founding ideals have been completely forgotten and it is too late to continue to fulfill their promise.
Image: Pixabay, Public Domain
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
1. Marylynne Pitz, “A Revolutionary museum opens in Philadelphia,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 April 2017.
2. Jennifer Schuessler, “A New Museum of the American Revolution, Warts and All,” The New York Times, 13 April 2017.
3. Richard Rothstein, “A Politically Correct Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2017.
4. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, The Story of Civilization: Part III (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 665.