When history becomes legend, and legend becomes popular culture that is pressed into the service of its country, curious things happen.
In Philadelphia, with its automatic default to 1776, no matter what other voices may be swirling back from the past, no matter what new stories of the past send shivers down our spines, it's Founding Fathers or bust. For more than a century, patriotic popular culture has been taking the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell, and interpreting, refining and distilling them into narrative packages with little room for complexity or contradiction.
Tastes change, however. A myth that stirs the imagination of one generation (or one demographic) can fall flat for the next. But don't look to lumbering bureaucracies such as Independence National Historical Park to nimbly shift gears. Asking this division of the National Park Service, this subsidiary of the Department of the Interior, to exercise agility in presenting the historic narrative would be like asking the IRS to rethink April 15.
An individual, though, one with a vision and a lifetime to stick with it, can take on the American history establishment and, in concert with a slowly growing cohort of like-minded thinkers, win.
Gary B. Nash, native of Narberth and now professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, challenged the mono-thematic, monochromatic message of the nation's historical establishment a generation ago, to the hoots and sniffs of many of his professors and colleagues. But the persistent outsider, after decades of hard, unsung work, was ultimately proved right.
Nash believes that real history has typically fallen by the wayside, and his method for uncovering it is to mine the nation's oldest libraries and archives for authentic narrative treasure.
In last year's First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory, Nash returned once again from the bowels of the archives with long-lost stories about everyday heroes so compelling and resonant that we can now retire Philadelphia's threadbare, simplistic tales of times past.
Franklin impersonator Ralph Archbold: Keep your day job. Independence Park: Go back to the drawing board. Nash presents an American history full of irony, injustice, and contradiction. But unlike the Americans of 1876, 1926 and 1976, when major anniversaries prompted a rah-rah style of history, people today have a healthy appetite for complexity. In fact, they crave it. Most important of all, audiences today expect to be treated with respect by their official storytellers. And now, the official storytellers are beginning to get the point.
Nash was born in 1933, during the Great Depression, but "never had a hungry day or a heatless winter night," thanks to his father's employment at General Electric.
Later, he remembers, he "prowled" Center City on Saturdays with friends. To a boy in the 1940s, Philadelphia was not terribly inviting. The grim, dull, down-at-the-heels view from the windows of the train heading in from Merion, with the sides of the railroad tracks coated with garbage and worn-out tires, made him "eager to get out."
When Nash graduated from Lower Merion High School and left for Princeton University 51 years ago, he did not plan on returning. But Nash's grip on Philadelphia or Philadelphia's grip on Nash has been long-standing, academic, and very personal.
At Princeton, Nash awakened to a world of "spellbinding, urbane" lectures. Eric Goldman, an H.L. Mencken-inspired journalist-turned-historian and the author of the brilliant Rendezvous With Destiny, introduced Nash to the idea of "social history," something much more layered than traditional political or diplomatic history. "We had never seen history from the bottom up," Nash recalls.
In one of Goldman's lectures, Nash learned firsthand how public memory could be managed. He was stunned to hear of the lynching of an African American man in Coatesville. This event, only 20 miles from Nash's family home and only 40 years past at the time, had gone unmentioned in Nash's circles. From all he could tell, the story had been purposely expunged from the official public memory.
When the suave professor Wesley Frank Craven assigned Nash a paper on Cotton Mather, the Puritan's racism "leaped off the page." The built-in biases of history were becoming more and more visible to Nash, if not to most of his professors.
Nash found himself at odds with an ivory tower that offered the history of wealthy, powerful white Protestant males written by wealthy, powerful white Protestant males. The narrative he encountered consisted of variations on a theme: American Indians were insignificant; Quakers were unrealistic; slavery barely existed; and European-based culture was always destined to prevail.
At Princeton, Nash became an academic irritant, a social activist, and a proud outsider. Decoding history was more than an academic exercise. It was a life lesson. Nash's weekday reality was campus-bound, more or less between library and lecture hall. But this all changed on Saturdays, when he left the Gothic Revival campus for New Jersey's chicken coops. He worked as a carpenter for a Unitarian civil-rights group building living quarters for migrant farm workers.
The Navy provided more eye-opening experiences. Serving on the destroyer John W. Weeks, Nash found himself dockside in places such as Glasgow, Scotland; Kiel, Germany; and Port Sudan, Sudan. There, in talking with young people, those countries' keenest observers, Nash found he was able to see the world through their eyes. His foreign hosts brought him face-to-face with a less forgiving view of America's racism, its segregation, and its history of slavery.
Nash returned to Princeton for graduate school in 1961, just in time to pick sides in a battle that was beginning to rage out of control. A year later, Brown University historian Carl Bridenbaugh, a Philadelphia native and the leader of the old guard, insulted the perspective and parentage of younger colleagues in "The Great Mutation," a major address about the direction of the field. Describing his version of history as fit for gentlemen and no one else, Bridenbaugh noted that many younger historians were "products of lower middle-class or foreign origins," and added: "They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past."
The line in the sand was drawn.
Nash and isolated colleagues found ammunition in the written word of church records and wills. Alfred Young, a labor historian in Illinois, wrote a book about the American Revolution from the perspective of a poor shoemaker in Boston, and Phillip J. Greven Jr. reconstituted the lives of four generations in colonial Andover, Mass.
For Nash, it was in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, and the Library Company of Philadelphia that he found the neglected words of not about history. Probably undisturbed since first being filed away, original documents were filled with vital details about little-known people: the Quakers, the American Indians, the African Americans. Studied with Nash's deliberate, painstaking methods, they became the documents with which he could outmaneuver the other camp.
While free spirits of the '60s were doing their own thing outside the library, Nash was a different sort of radical inside: "Archival dust became my hallucinogen," he says.
Nash tackled research for his dissertation on Quaker politics in early Philadelphia "like a detective on his first big case." Getting to the original treasure meant regularly boarding the train in Princeton and making his way to 13th and Locust Streets, to the vault at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Dressed in the part of academic sleuth, in sport jacket and tie, the tall, lanky Nash would stride past a gaggle of genealogists (going nowhere slowly) in a cavernous reading room and through a set of doors into the manuscript department.
There, on a platform four steps above the long room of bronze-edged tables, was the keeper of the vault. In Nash's student days, it was a woman with thick white hair and, around her neck, a long, red ribbon with the key.
The room has recently been renovated, but everything else is still about the same. To examine a document, researchers this sanctum is largely off-limits to anyone without good research credentials must find the call number from a handwritten card in one of a thousand catalog drawers. After they fill out the slip and hand it to the keeper, researchers are directed to a table to wait.
Nash knew this drill well, and would arrange his sharpened yellow pencils (pens are verboten in research libraries) while the keeper of the vault was turning the dial, pulling the lever and swinging one door open. The key is for a second set of doors.
Inside the room-size vault, with its hundreds of thousands of pieces of historical evidence, is a powerful serenity. Just as they were 40 years ago, the walls are lined with shelves and packed with all manner of massive bound volumes and leather and cloth-covered boxes. Everything is identified on its end or spine, sometimes in embossed gold lettering, at other times in ancient handwriting on slips of yellowing paper.
One of Nash's forays to 13th and Locust stands out in his memory, and though it did involve one of those wealthy, powerful white Protestant males, Nash was looking in an uncommon way.
The papers pulled from the shelf, placed on a cart, and rolled out to the table where Nash quietly waited were in the hand of William Penn: drafts of his blueprint for Philadelphia's City Charter. There was not one draft, but an entire sheaf of them, 17 in all. Penn put down his thoughts, and then he changed them. With each stroke, citizens' rights were given, altered, or taken away. Passages were excised, notes were added in the margins, some phrases were crossed out and others inserted. With one change, Penn's experiment would become a bit more holy; with another, a bit less so.
Nash says he "could actually see this great man trying to write," struggling to balance the real and the ideal. "I could very much see the man of ideas being influenced by the man of affairs, the real estate promoter. I could see Penn's ideas in contact with reality." No one had ever bothered to go so deeply into the evolution of Penn's ideas about the rights, freedoms and obligations of his citizens.
From his analysis of Penn's papers, Nash added to what was already known about the founding of Philadelphia. His dissertation became his first book, Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania, 1681-1726. He found "something new to say" where others had thought there was nothing new at all.
More often and perhaps to greater effect on our understanding of history Nash has spent his years at the Historical Society and other archives ferreting out the substance held by seemingly negligible pieces of paper. Take, for instance, the Philadelphia tax records of 1772, in which one learns that merchant Daniel Williams owned 8 acres, 2 horses, 1 cow and "3 Negroes." Innkeeper John Little, "2 Negroes." Benjamin Franklin, "1 Negro."
As Nash modestly states in a caption in First City, "Until social historians in the 1970s began to use tax lists . . . the extent of slavery in colonial Philadelphia was discussed only impressionistically, if at all." Probate records of the period then deep in the basement of the old City Hall Annex helped fill out the picture. From the Library Company's collection of "mortality bills," published annually by 18th-century churches, he could track different ethnic groups' population swings.
"Equipped with a magical new set of glasses," he says, "everything began to appear differently. . . . This is what we are supposed to be doing, pushing the boundaries of historical knowledge outward." Going back to the original sources and discovering what people were really doing, saying and thinking was, and is, "absolutely intoxicating."
In Cold War America, Nash's interpretation of American history was complex, contradictory and largely unwelcome. Politicians, patriots, tourism officials, and the managers of historic sites strongly believed, as many still do, that history should confirm our accepted national story. And for the most part, popular audiences agreed.
But times change, and the onetime outsider, who received his doctorate from Princeton in 1964 and taught there until going to UCLA in 1966, became an insider. In the 1970s and '80s, universities developed programs in American studies in which powerful white male Protestants were just one of the many segments of the national story. Museums began to recognize the value of collecting and interpreting many cultures, many ideas. By the 1990s, even the Park Service began seeking out sites that would represent the American mosaic and begin to balance the books of history.
In order to integrate these stories in the American classroom, Nash and Charlotte Crabtree, an educator at UCLA, created a National Center for History in the Schools. After 2 1/2 years of work, they produced the 314-page National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present. It was developed with the interest and participation of 35 national educational organizations, among them the American Historical Association and the National Council for History Education.
Nash and Crabtree's work quickly became a chapter in the era's culture wars. Lynne V. Cheney, who chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities during the first Bush administration and had approved initial funding for the project, criticized the report as "a welter of detail" without any "organizing principle." "There's no sense of priorities," she complained, "no sense of what's important to know." Nash criticized Cheney's objections as the opinions of someone who "has a very frail background in history." Before long, Nash was vilified on the floor of Congress, and his standards for history were being called repugnant and anti-American Newt Gingrich called the report "a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit the ((American)) civilization."
If Congress was against him, Nash's professional colleagues were with him. And here, finally, after decades of work, a remarkable shift had taken place. Nash emerged as a key figure in shaping and defending the emerging standards for teaching and studying history. The former outsider was now virtually a patriarch in his profession.
First City is so full of obscure but telling Philadelphia stories that it seems to groan under their weight. But for all that Nash researched and wrote, he did not find the fact that Independence Park would soon erect a new home for the Liberty Bell virtually atop the site of the slave quarters built by George Washington. That irony was revealed in an article by Edward Lawler Jr., in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Its publication during Nash's book tour early last year inspired Nash to sacrifice his tour and use his public platform to challenge the park to rewrite the interpretation and include a discussion of Washington's slaves at the new Liberty Bell Center.
"There's such a thing as managing memory, manipulating memory, and there's also such a thing as murdering memory. And I wouldn't want memory murdered" at the Liberty Bell, Nash declared to Marty Moss-Coane during a Radio Times interview on WHYY-FM in March.
Thanks to efforts by Nash, other historians, and community figures who formed the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, Independence Park underwent a revolution all its own. Last spring, the senior staff welcomed historians, listened to them, and then reviewed and reworked the planned Liberty Bell narrative. Washington's slaves will be recognized and remembered on the site. The park says so; the historians say so; the public says so; even Congress has weighed in and said so.
It took 40 years for the message to sink in.
Two and a half years ago, a giant mural of Harriet Tubman and an "honor roll" of the Underground Railroad was painted on the side of a building at Ninth and Chestnut Streets. The final photograph in Nash's First City features it. Last June, the building and the mural were demolished. When he heard of the demise, this grizzled professor groaned, paused, and said, with a hint of optimism: "I'll have to call my editor about making this change for the next edition."
The lesson Nash takes away is simple. History is always preparing its next draft, and so should we.