The Silence of the Ellipses

Or Why History Can’t Be About Telling Our Children Lies

Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education & (by courtesy) History at Stanford University. His most recent book is Why Learn History (When It is Already on Your Phone), University of Chicago Press, 2018. He tweets at @samwineburg.

Aware his days were numbered, a tuberculosis-stricken George Orwell raced to finish the book that would make his name an adjective. Holed away in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura off the Scottish coast, he left the island for the last time in 1949, the same year his novel appeared. He died a year later.

I read 1984 in my 11th-grade English class in the weary rustbelt town of Utica, New York, at a time when Russia was still the USSR and the “focus of evil in the modern world.” With Cliff Notes at my side, I decodedthe book’s more obscure allusions (2 + 2 = 5, I learned, conjured up Stalin’s claim that his five-year plan had been completed in four). But you didn’t need a study aid to get the main point. We lived in a free society; they in a tyrannical one. We respected truth; they disfigured it. Russian-speaking Winston Smithscomposed their history books; ours were written by esteemed historians (mine, The American Pageant, was written by the past president of the Organization of American Historians, Thomas Bailey). 

Mind you, we knew our textbooks weren’t perfect (we weren’t naïve—or at least not as naïve as they were). Elaine Cantor, my history teacher, openly criticized our books (another testament to our superiority). We learned that Thomas Jefferson used his incandescent intellect to pen the Declaration of Independence, but our textbook conveniently omitted how he used hisintellect to devise tunnels at Monticello that hid the scourge of slavery from view. Yet, omission was one thing; outright fabrication of the Winston Smith-variety, another. We stooped, but not as low as they did. Or so it seemed, then.

Financed and approved by the state, history textbooks record our hopes and fears. They are less a reflection of the current state of historical knowledge than a collection of stories adults think will do children good, the educational equivalent of making the kids eat theirpeas. Veering too much from the common understanding of history—not among historians but among the chiropractors and other community memberswho sit on state boards of education—risks booting a title from an adoption list and costing publishers millions. The resulting documents are as scintillating as the terms of service you click on to download a new app. Before being presented to adoption boards,textbooks incorporate reams of feedback (sometimesword for word) of the most strident and well-connected special interests: deep-pocket groups with the resourcesto wade through mountains of books, formulate their recommendations in Roman numeral-ed memoranda, and, during periods of public comment, fly to state capitals to deliver statements at open hearings. This labyrinthine process puts publishers in a risk-averse corner in which they strive, oddly, to make their products as similar to each other’s as they can. What distinguishes one company’s books from another is not the stories they tell, but their “differentials”—the ancillary features that come bundled with a majoradoption: test banks, online primary sources, hefty teacher’s editions, downloadable flashcards, and just about every other shiny object that glistens. Accounting for some regional differences, the narration of major events—from the Constitutional Convention to the moon landing—is pretty much the same across publishers, so much so that, across books, the placement of a particular topic can be found within a few pages—quite a feat in tomes that exceed a thousand pages. (Full disclosure: As a former textbook author, Iknow this routine from the inside). 

The Boston Massacre is one of those events that appears in every US history textbook. The basic storyhas changed little across centuries. On a chilly March evening in 1770 a crowd assembled outside the Customs House on King Street and started taunting the British soldiers garrisoned there. With 4,000 troops quartered among the town’s 15,000 inhabitants, tensions had simmered for months, especially between Boston’s dockworkers and off-duty soldiers, who undercut them for odd jobs. As night fell on March 5, agaggle of dockworkers marched from the waterfront toward King Street to join the crowd and startedheaving “snow balls, oyster shells, clubs, white birch sticks three inches and an half diameter” at the sentryand his compatriots.

Commanded by Captain Thomas Preston, the soldiers fired their muskets. Three men died on the spot; two others succumbed later to their wounds. Paul Revere’s depiction of the event, “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street,” etched the night’s carnage in Americans’collective memory: An organized line of British soldiers, their faces angular and sinister (including one who seemed to be grinning), firing in unison onhelpless townspeople out for some fresh air. A travestyof historical accuracy, but highly effective as propaganda. A 1953 textbook does a better job, explaining that whenever the troops appeared on Boston’s narrow streets, “crowds jeered and threw snowballs” that “even the best-trained soldiers will in time lose their tempers”—precisely what happened on March 5, when an unnamed man “knocked a soldier down with a club and then dared the soldiers to shoot.”Which, of course, they did.

More recent textbooks have knitted a similar accountwith one exception: the anonymous, club-wielding man has been named and awarded a major role in the drama. Crispus Attucks was a seaman of mixed African and Native origin. Much of what we know about him remains speculative. However, most historians assume that he’s likely the same “Crispas” who appeared in an advertisement in the Boston Gazette some 20 years earlier: “Ran-way from his Master William Brown of Framingham…a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispas, 6 Feet twoInches high, short curl’d Hair.” 

Crispus Attucks opens the chapter called “The Coming of the Revolution” in The Americans (2014), published by Holt McDougal/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the three publishing behemoths that dominate the American market. Attired in formal jacket and ruffledwhite shirt, his portrait graces the side of the page (and appears as well on a 1998 United States Mint “Black Revolutionary War Patriots Commemorative Silver Dollar”—sheer fabrications, both. Few seaman had the leisure, not to mention the means, to sit for formalportraiture in 1770). Attucks, the text says, was “part of a large and angry crowd that had gathered at the Boston Custom House to harass the British soldiers stationed there. More soldiers soon arrived, and the mob began hurling stones and snowballs at them. Attucks then stepped forward.” A quotation from John Adams comes next, in which the Founding Father calls Attucks a “hero.”

“This Attucks . . . appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night; and to lead this army with banners . . . up to King street with their clubs . . . . This man with his party cried, ‘Do not be afraid of them,’ . . . He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down.” The text resumes: “Attucks’s action ignited the troops. Ignoring orders not to shoot civilians, one soldier and then others fired on the crowd. Five people were killed; several were wounded. Crispus Attucks was, according to a newspaper account, the first to die.”

Attucks’ appearance in textbooks is a relatively recentphenomenon. Eclipsed from memory from the 1770swell into the 19th century, he was resurrected by William Cooper Nell, an African American journalistand historian, author of the “Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812.” By mid-century Attucks emerged as a symbol for abolitionists, Black and White. In 1888, Boston’s Black community unveiled a monument in his honor (over the objectionsof the Massachusetts Historical Society, who believed that the “famous mulatto was a rowdyish person” and“not a fit candidate for monumental honors”). 

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960sthat Attucks became a regular feature in textbooks. Among the first was Henry Graff’s 1967 The Free and the Brave: “Attucks and his fellow victims had become the first martyrs in the American struggle against Britain.” A review of seven textbooks published between 2003-2009 found that all but one featured Attucks in their narration of the Boston Massacre.

The Americans not only features Attucks but goes theextra mile by including his portrait and the quotation from John Adams. Knowing little else, young readerswould assume that when John Adams called Attucksthe “hero of the night” the words were a panegyric to the fallen martyr. Nothing in the text hints otherwise.Nothing could be further from the truth.

Adams’ words were, in fact, part of his summation at the trial of the eight British soldiers accused of murder, a trial in which Adams served as counsel for the defense. In taking the case, he faced a formidable challenge: how to undermine the jury’s natural allegiance with the slain victims and make themidentify with the reviled British soldiers. 

He did so by driving a wedge between upstanding Bostonians and a “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs” (that is, ill-mannered non-Whites, lowly Catholics, and uncouth seamen) responsible for the bloodshed. These hooligans were a different stock from “the good people of the town.”: “Why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them.”

Crispus Attucks was a hero all right: the kind of hero who presided “at the head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together,” a hero commandinghis “myrmidons” who were “shouting and huzzaing, and threatening life . . . throwing every species of rubbish they could pick in the street.” Adams repeatedly plied the trope of the fearsome non-White body, how the looming figure of the “stout Attucks was enough to terrify any person,” including the besieged British soldiers. The Americans quotes Adams who quotes Attucks (“Do not be afraid of them”) but ripsthe phrase from its chilling continuation: “Do not be afraid of them, they dare not fire, kill them! kill them! knock them over! And he tried to knock their brains out.”

In Adams’ account, the soldiers tried in vain to restore order, imploring the crowd to “stand off.” However,under “the command of a stout Molatto,” the mob would have none of it, hurling chunks of ice so big that they “may kill a man, if they happen to hit some part of the head.” Were Attucks’ skin color not enough to distance him from the jury, Adams accented his foreignness. This “Attucks from Framingham” was an outside agitator “to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.”

Race-baiting proved a winning strategy. The jury found Captain Preston not guilty, along with six of his soldiers. As for two others, Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy, the jury reduced charges of murder to manslaughter, branding the two with the letter M (for “manslayer”) on the “brawn of the thumb” along with their oath to never again break the law. As the legal scholar Farah Peterson explained, Adams’ strategyworked in absolving the people of Boston of the night’s carnage by convincing the jury that the soldiers had “only killed a black man and his cronies and that they didn’t deserve to hang for it.”

Tracing where footnote-less textbooks get their information can be an exercise in futility. Not so with The Americans. Accompanying Adams’ quotation, the textbook’s authors cited its source: The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (New York Graphic Society, 1973) by the late University of Massachusetts historian Sidney Kaplan and his wife Emma. Fairness demands that we consider the possibility that it was the Kaplans who butcheredAdams’ quote, and that the textbook authors, failing to check the original, merely reproduced it.

The Kaplans narrate the events of March 5, noting that the local press singled out Attucks for both praise andblame. However, they left no doubt about the counsel for the defense: “For John Adams,” they wrote, “it was all blame.” They quote the same excerpt from Adamsas The Americans but leave intact the charged racial language: Attucks’ menacing figure (“a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person”) and his role as instigator (the “head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together”).

With the Kaplans’ text in hand, the authors of The Americans made a choice. Instead of helping young Americans see how a Black (or mixed race) body wasstamped from the beginning, to invoke Ibram X.Kendi’s phrase, and thereby prompt an examination ofthe hoary legacy of race-baiting, stretching fromCrispus Attucks to the Scottsboro boys to Michael Brown, they performed laser surgery on Adams’ words in an act that would do Winston Smith proud. As Farah Peterson notes, Black people are allowed onto the stage of American history only if they satisfy certain conditions: “when they intersect with the triumphal tale of the creation of a white American republic.”

I have to imagine that in editing Adams words, The Americans’ authors thought they were doing something noble: giving American children of all hues a hero who is a person of color. But the sly three dots of an ellipsis cannot perform magic. They erase the stain of racism no better than a bathroom spray masks the stench of askunk. Editorial subterfuge only forestalls a reckoning. 

Last month, the president of the United States stood in the great hall of the National Archives to denounce what he called a leftist assault on American history. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms” and teach our children a kind of history that will make them “love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” 

But love built on a lie is a false love. It achieves itsmirage by making truth its victim. In any event, the goal of historical study is neither to cultivate love nor hate, anyway. Its goal must be to acquaint us with the dizzying spectrum of our humanity: lofty moments of nobility mixed in with ignominious descents into knavery. When history’s mirror intones a single phrase—that we’re the fairest of them all—it freezes us inchildhood and stunts our growth. History that impels us to look at the past, unflinchingly and cleareyed, doesnot diminish us or make us less patriotic. The oppositeis true: It makes us grow up. Understanding who we were allows us to understand who we are now. Only then can we commit to doing something about it. That should be the goal of history education. 

Our children deserve nothing less.