Anna Whitelock’s talking points: Foundational stories

One historian’s trip from the UK to the US sparked much Twitter debate about why the two nations’ histories are each dominated by a single story. Anna Whitelock reviewed the exchanges

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Having made it to the US earlier this summer, American-born historian and author Hallie Rubenhold (@HallieRubenhold) observed on a visit to a bookshop that she “never ceases to be amazed by the American obsession with the ‘founding fathers’. Same stories, told over and over. Much like the UK’s obsession with the Second World War, it really is time to get people interested in other aspects of our rich historical human experience.” An innocuous observation, one might think – but that’s not how it went down on Twitter. Amid genuinely shocking abuse of Hallie, some interesting intercontinental conversation ensued.

One strand of the debate considered how helpful it was that the two nations’ histories are dominated by those two stories. Lauren  (@starlingspecks) commented: “there are so many myths attached to our involvement that have had and continue to have unhelpful political ramifications and do a disservice to the actual events of the Second World War. It needs to be left alone for a while.” And Kevin Cannell (@Bevni81), wrote: “I’m as interested in the Second World War… as anyone, but what’s really exciting is finding out about new people, places and stories. I don’t need to feel like an expert on a subject before I read about it, I just want to learn about new things.”

Looking across the Atlantic, David McNab (@david_mcnab) suggested that, in the US, the founding fathers are akin to “a secular religion. The president is also treated like a demigod who walks through mortals. Similarly, the constitution is treated much like the Bible: a sacred text to be interpreted to support whatever prejudice you enjoy.” Eoin Forde (@EoinFordeeoin) thought it “amazing how so little [attention] in comparison is given over to the history of America before it was the New World, or the subsequent extermination of its peoples”.

Other users considered why the stories had come to command such attention. Charles Hoskinson(@cehoskinson) made the point that “those wars and leaders shaped the landscape in which the other stories existed, and thus are a prerequisite to understanding anything else. And they are the ‘gateway drug’ to a lifelong love of history for many people, including me.” Ruth Ware (@RuthWareWriter) questioned the extent to which it’s helpful to compare the attention given to the Second World War with that granted the founding fathers: “When you grow up, as I did, with grandparents still bearing physical marks of wounds [and] amputations, it’s very hard not to think about that. Nobody alive remembers the founding fathers.”

And so it went on. Last word should probably go to Hiking Historian (@HikingHistorian), who stirred the pot by writing: “The UK absolutely does not have an obsession with the Second World War. We have an innate Dunkirk spirit; Churchillian bulldog tenacity; we’re little spitfires in the face of adversity. Oh wait. I see what you mean…”

Join the debate at twitter.com/historyextra

This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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