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THE AMERICAS. HISTORY ;July 1, 4, etc.


The United States is unique among American Republics in that its independence, celebrated on July 4, was successfully conducted by a group of remarkable men. Yet July 4 should be put into historical perspective. July 1 is Canada Day, and the loyalist view of history is quite different.  The American Revolution succeeded because of the help of a foreign tyranny, France, rather like Castro's Cuba getting help from the Soviet Union. In the United States, the Loyalists were treated brutally, notably by Judge Charles Lynch, whose name is commemorated in the verb "to lynch."  Canada has evolved into a country generally regarded as "a more perfect democracy" than the US.  This year again, according to the United Nations, Canada tops the quality of life chart.

Yet in Canada there are two versions of history. When I taught French at the University of British Columbia, I elected to use as a text Jean Bruchési, Histoire du Canada pour tous, giving the French Canadian version of history. The innovation was not appreciated by the students, since it told history in a way alien to them.

There is likewise more than one version of US history. In fact, the American Revolution was the British Civil War writ large, the northern republicans being the heirs of Cromwell's Roundheads, the Virginians those of the landed royalists. The location of the new capital in Washington, DC is evidence that the latter were more important. Now the Blacks have raised the issue of the democratic convictions of the Virginian leaders, and the polemic goes on.

The cult of Abraham Lincoln as the immaculate hero puzzles foreigners. His main aim was to preserve the Union, which was after all the aim of George III. The popular film about the king's madness has reinforced the view of him as a despicable tyrant. In fact, he was a popular king. It seems as though the cult of Lincoln hides a deep uneasiness about the Civil War. Why could the United States not have freed the slaves peacefully as Brazil did, and avoided the terrible Civil War legacy of hatred?

Now the Blacks' criticism of the Revolutionary leaders has spread to Lincoln. Lerone Bennett, Jr., has written Forced into Glory. Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, which carefully documents the charge that Lincoln was a racist, and that the liberation of the slaves was secondary in his plans. There are also those historians who argue that the Civil War was really an economic one involving the question of tariffs.

In Latin America similar arguments are going on, too complex to be described here. One issue in the Mexican presidential elections is education, and implicitly the choice of history textbooks. Those which idealize Beniro Juárez, the counterpart of Lincoln, may be replaced with texts more sympathetic to the Catholic Church.  Since the Mexican argument involves religion, it is in a way more bitter than disagreements over the American Civil War.

We cannot go into the problem in every Latin American country, except perhaps to mention Cuba, where the current official textbooks would quickly be replaced if Castro were overthrown. American WAISer James Wheelan lives in Mexico, and is an authority on Chile. In both countries, history and the textbooks which are used to indoctrinate children are an issue. How have Chilean history textbooks changed since the fall of Pinochet and the advent of a new Socialist government? Will they go back to the Allende version of history? Perhaps Carlos López can enlighten us too.

Ronald Hilton - 7/02/00


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