Lies Across America: What American Historic Sites Get Wrong


From the author of the national bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me, the second myth-busting history book which focuses on the inaccuracies, myths, and lies that can be found at national landmarks and historical sites all across America.

In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. This is a one-of-a-kind examination of sites ...

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From the author of the national bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me, the second myth-busting history book which focuses on the inaccuracies, myths, and lies that can be found at national landmarks and historical sites all across America.

In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. This is a one-of-a-kind examination of sites all over the country where history is literally written on the landscape, including historical markers, monuments, historic houses, forts, and ships. With entries drawn from each of the fifty states, Loewen reveals that:

  • The USS Intrepid, the “feel-good” war museum, celebrates its glorious service in World War II but nowhere mentions the three tours it served in Vietnam.
  • The Jefferson Memorial misquotes from the Declaration of Independence and skews Jefferson’s writings to present this conflicted slave owner as a near abolitionist.
  • Abraham Lincoln had been dead for thirty years when his birthplace cabin was built.

Lies Across America is a reality check for anyone who has ever sought to learn about America through the nation’s public sites and markers. Entertaining and enlightening, it is destined to change the way American readers see their country.
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  • James W. Loewen
    James W. Loewen  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Whole Truth

Historian James W. Loewen took a trip across America, and what he found made him very angry.

In his previous book, the controversial and bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen attacked the myths prevalent in high school textbooks. In Lies Across America, he leaves the classroom and hits the road, and he's shocked (exclamation marks abound in this book) to find the same myths and lies at the very sites that are supposed to teach visitors about the country's history. Museums, plaques placed at childhood homes and massacre sites, roadside markers, and gilded statues all offer a "warped" view of American history and serve to create a "landscape of amnesia."

Despite the occasional emotional outburst, Loewen is a lively, engaging guide as he travels from California to Maine. He convincingly demonstrates that slavery, segregation, and the slaughter of American Indians are either completely ignored or utterly misinterpreted. For example, Sutter's Fort, a California attraction, celebrates a site where Indians were not only enslaved but where more than 8,000 were massacred. In Michigan, a bronze statue celebrates Orville Hubbard, a mayor who is valorized for "speedy snow removal" and other civic contributions. Yet there's no mention of the fact that Hubbard was a staunch segregationist who ran a "Keep Negroes out of Dearborn" campaign.

Loewen's book is an effective exposé of the persistence of racism, but it is not merely an attack. The truth, as Loewen reveals it, is often more interesting than the feel-good myths. The sites offer bland portraits of genuinely fascinating heroes and villains. One would never know that Helen Keller, the blind-and-deaf pioneer, was a radical socialist. Sites inform visitors that author Willa Cather "wrote from her heart wonderful tales," but, according to Loewen, she also arrived at the University of Nebraska dressed as William Cather, her opposite-sex twin. The town of Amherst and the University of Amherst celebrate a war hero who, in fact, helped spread smallpox among Indians, a people he referred to as "the vilest race of beings that ever infested the earth."

Loewen notes that Americans "rejoiced when East Germans toppled their statues of Lenin" yet are unlikely to topple their own monuments to evil men. Americans encouraged postimperialist African nations to change their names (e.g., Rhodesia) but a brouhaha would take place if such a tactic were attempted in, say, Amherst. If vandalism and renaming are too radical, Loewen insists that we still "must tell what happened, without the public relations puffery of local boosters." But it's hard to image that towns like Darien, an all-white Connecticut enclave, will take Loewen's suggestion and mount a sign saying, "Darien is still overwhelmingly white; some clubs within it still keep out African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Thus, Darien poses a problem for the New York metropolitan area and indeed for the nation."

Loewen's angry and witty exposé will surely spark debate. While civic leaders might take issue with his report, the irony is that Loewen actually makes the history of small towns and dead people interesting and lively. His book does what so many sites and museums don't. It presents history as tragic, violent, and dynamic, full of devious eccentrics, arrogant villains, and inspiring heroes.

—Margot Towne

From the Publisher
"Jim-dandy pop history...This is one work of history no one will call boring." - Jim O'Brien, USA Today

"Loewen is a one-man historical truth squad....He has written a devastating portrait of how American history is commemorated." - The Nation

"Brims with fascinating history." - Los Angeles Times

"A winner by any criteria: informative, stimulating, and challenging. Loewen's wry wit is a welcome bonus." - Edwin C. Bearss, former chief historian, National Park Service

Children's Literature - Children's Literature
Written as a complement to the American Book Award winning Lies My Teacher Told Me by the same author, this text addresses the misrepresentations that often attend national monuments, historical sites, and museums. In this work the author presents 95 specific historic sites. In each instance the current presentation of facts as memorialized at the site is reviewed. Then, a careful reconstruction of the true facts behind the scenes is presented. What unfolds as the reader progresses through this book is a jarring reminder of how skewed our memories of the past can be. For example, several sites related to the Civil War stand out in the overt manner in which issues such as slavery, the massacre of African-American soldiers, and the avoidance of any memory of the horrors of war are subverted. In the area of Native American peoples it is systematically pointed out that many monuments and place names currently still in use are overtly racist in their structure. Labor history sites are also described which re-write or white out the issues of labor oppression in a manner that smacks of censorship. Taken as a whole, or in discrete segments, this is a powerful indictment of how our society chooses to remember the nation's past. It is a wonderfully written and researched book that offers insights into the historiography of our national historic mementos. However, while this text has a great deal to offer it is written for an adult audience. While portions of the book could be used in a high school American History, Sociology, Cultural Studies, or AP History class it would be difficult to find a broader application for the book in a school setting. This is a grand historical effort but one that ismore geared for an adult or collegiate audience. It is also a story that should be read by any current or potential teacher of history. 1999, W.W. Norton, Ages 17 up. Reviewer: Greg M. Romaneck
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743296298
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 10/16/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 328,357
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James W. Loewen is the bestselling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America. He is a regular contributor to the History Channel's History magazine and is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. He resides in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: In What Ways Were We Warped?

When I was a boy on our annual summer vacation trips, the family car seemed to stop at every historic marker and monument. Maybe yours did, too. Dad thought it was "good for us," and I suppose in a way it was. Little did he suspect that it was also bad for us -- that the lies we encountered on our trips across the United States subtly distorted our knowledge of the past and warped our view of the world. My sister and I needed to unlearn the myths we were learning in school, but the historic sites we visited only amplified them and taught us new ones.

My most recent book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, told how American history as taught in most high schools distorts the past and turns many students off. One result is that only one American in six ever takes a course in American history after graduating from high school. Where then do Americans learn about the past? From many sources, of course -- historical novels, Oliver Stone movies -- but surely most of all from the landscape. History is told on the landscape all across America -- on monuments at the courthouse, by guides inside antebellum homes and aboard historic ships, by the names we give to places, and on roadside historical markers. This book examines the history that some of these places tell and the processes by which they come forward to tell it.

Markers, monuments, and preserved historic sites usually result from local initiative. Typically a private organization -- the Chamber of Commerce, a church congregation, the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy -- takes the lead, but public monies are usually involved before it's unveiled. It follows that the site will tell a story favorable to the local community, and particularly to that part of the community that erected or restored it. An account from another point of view might be quite different and also more accurate.

Americans like to remember only the positive things, and communities like to publicize the great things that happened in them. One result is silliness: the first airplane was invented not by the Wright Brothers but by Rev. Burrell Cannon, and the first flight was not in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but in Pittsburg, Texas. It must be true -- an impressive-looking Texas state historical marker says so! Meanwhile, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island all claim the first use of anesthesia. And markers in Brunswick, Georgia, and Brunswick County, Virginia, battle over where Brunswick stew was born.

A more important result is racism. People who put up markers and monuments and preserve historic houses are usually pillars of the white community. The recent spate of Martin Luther King avenues and monuments notwithstanding, Americans still live and work in a landscape of white supremacy. Especially in the South, but all across America, even on black college campuses, markers, monuments, and names on the landscape glorify those who fought to keep African Americans in chains as well as those who after Reconstruction worked to make them second-class citizens again. What person gets the most historical markers in any state? Not Lincoln in Illinois it turns out, or Washington in Virginia, but Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry general and first leader of the Ku Klux Klan, in Tennessee. And the white Southerners misguided enough not to be racist are ignored entirely or converted into "good white Southerners" when remembered. Thus Helen Keller's birthplace flies a Confederate flag, while she was an early supporter of the NAACP.

Other monuments express white domination over Native Americans. A later introductory essay, "Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments," shows how sculptors typically place Native Americans lower than European Americans on historic monuments. Whites always wind up in positions of power and action while people of color are passive on the bottom. Lame Deer, a Dakota leader, sees the same message in the four European American faces carved on Mount Rushmore:
What does this Mount Rushmore mean to us Indians? It means that these big white faces are telling us, "First we gave you Indians a treaty that you could keep these Black Hills forever, as long as the sun would shine, in exchange for all the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. Then we found the gold and took this last piece of land, because we were stronger, and there were more of us than there were of you, and because we had cannons and Gatling guns....And after we did all this we carved up this mountain, the dwelling place of your spirits, and put our four gleaming white faces here. We are the conquerors.

The language at historic sites is also warped. All across the country Americans call Native Americans by tribal names that are wrong and even derogatory. According to these histories on the landscape Indians are "savage," whites "discover" everything, and some causes portrayed as stainless today were drenched in blood in their own time.

Then there is the matter of who gets memorialized and who gets left out. All too often, memorials heroify people who should not be forgotten, but who should never have been commemorated -- Jeffrey Amherst for example, who initiated germ warfare in the Americas and for whom Amherst College and Amherst, Massachusetts, are named. Across America the landscape commemorates those men and women who opposed each agonizing next step our nation took on the path toward freedom and justice, while the courageous souls who challenged the United States to live out the meaning of its principles lie forgotten or even reviled. Markers and monuments in many states leave out women, sometimes so totally as to be unwittingly hilarious. The only white woman to get a historical marker in Indiana, to take one offending state, gets remembered for coming into the state minus a body part she lost in Kentucky! Kentucky, meanwhile, erected (the right word) a female Civil War horse with an extra body part that turns her into a him! Historic sites also cover up or lie about the sexual orientations of people who made their history if those orientations were gay or lesbian.

Another form of omission takes place at historic homes, which often do not take their own history seriously enough to bother to tell it like it was. Instead of telling visitors what happened to the people who lived and worked there, guides prattle on about what the guests ate and the silverware they used. Even at important historic sites like Independence Hall, guides tell charming but inconsequential and ultimately boring anecdotes rather than talk about the historic events that happened there.

Guides almost always avoid negative or controversial facts, and most monuments, markers, and historic sites omit any blemishes that might taint the heroes they commemorate, making them larger and less interesting than life. (High school history textbooks do the same thing.) Presidents especially must be perfect. When historian Richard Shenkman asked a tour guide at FDR's family mansion in Hyde Park, New York, about Roosevelt's mistresses, she told him "the guides are specifically forbidden from talking about this." Woodrow Wilson's house in Washington, D.C., says nothing negative about the man who segregated the federal government; a temporary exhibit even credited him with supporting women's suffrage, which he opposed. Even Franklin Pierce, arguably our least popular president, is lauded by the historical marker in his hometown.

But inventing blemish-free heroes doesn't really work. High school students don't really buy that the founding fathers were flawless and don't think of them as heroes to emulate. Instead they conclude that history textbooks are dishonest. Similarly, adult Americans don't really believe that their exalted forebears were as perfect as their monuments claim. I have watched tourists grow passive while guides tell them quaint stories about dead presidents. They don't know enough to ask about what's being left out, and the social situation doesn't encourage visitors to ask substantive questions, so they just traipse from room to room on automatic pilot. A critical question to ask at any historic site is: What does it leave out about the people it treats as heroes?

A special form of these omissions occurs at war museums, which present war without anguish and instead focus genially on its technology. USS Intrepid in New York City leaves out the Vietnam War entirely -- too "political" for its board of directors. Omissions such as this can be hard to detect, especially for visitors who come to a site to learn a little history without bringing some knowledge of the site with them. People don't usually think about images that aren't there.

And some images don't exist anywhere. Scottsboro, Alabama, became world-famous for exactly one incident -- the Scottsboro Case -- but although downtown Scottsboro boasts four historical markers, none mention the Scottsboro Case. "Pay attention to what they tell you to forget," poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, and this book does -- it covers the Scottsboro Case and three events in Richmond, a city that truncates its public memory on the day the Confederacy ceased to rule it, because of their importance -- and because they are not recognized on the landscape. Nowhere have I seen portrayed the multicultural nature of pioneer settlements, where Native Americans, European Americans, and often African Americans lived and worked together, sometimes happily. Only an obscure marker in Utah offers any hint of the trade in Indian slaves that started in 1513 and continued at least until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. All across America, the landscape suffers from amnesia, not about everything, but about many crucial events and issues of our past.

When the landscape does not omit unpleasant stories entirely, it often tells them badly, even by the mediocre standards set by u.s. history textbooks. Except for the Chief Vann House, a state historic site in Georgia, historic sites and museums in the United States rarely depict Native American farms, frame houses, or schools compared to the enormous number of tipis they display. Thus they portray American Indians as mobile and romantic -- even when they weren't! What tourists learn about slavery by visiting most historic sites is trifling compared to the more accurate information that current textbooks provide to high school students. On Reconstruction, that period after the Civil War when the federal government tried to guarantee equal rights for African Americans, the landscape is almost silent; most sites that do mention it present a distorted "Gone With the Wind" version that never happened. Little trace remains today of the lynchings and race riots that swept the United States between 1890 and 1925, the "nadir of race relations." All across America, monuments to the Spanish-American War, which was over in three months, are inscribed "1898-1902"; few visitors realize that those dates refer to the larger and longer Philippine-American War, which otherwise has mostly vanished from the landscape and from our historical memory.

The antithesis of omission is overemphasis, and the history written on the American landscape is largely the history of the federal governments -- United States of America and Confederate States of America -- and particularly of their wars. We infer much of what we know about the ancient Mayans and Egyptians from their public sculptures and monuments. What will archaeologists ages hence infer about us? That we venerated war above all other human activities?

America has ended up with a landscape of denial. James Buchanan's house denies that our fifteenth president was gay. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial denies that Nebraska's most enduring writer was lesbian. Fort Pillow denies that Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederates massacred surrendered u.s. troops there. The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum denies that mining today causes any environmental damage. And so it goes, from sea to shining sea. These misrepresentations on the American landscape help keep us ignorant as a people, less able to understand what really happened in the past, and less able to apply our understanding to issues facing the United States today.

The thoughtful visitor can learn to read between the lines of historical markers however, and deconstruct the imagery on historic monuments. Then these sites divulge important insights not only about the eras they describe but also about the eras in which they were built. In short, the lies and omissions memorialized across the American countryside suggest times and ways that the United States went astray as a nation. They also point to unresolved issues in a third era -- our own. That's why it may be more important to understand what the historical landscape gets wrong than what it gets right.

So come along as we visit more than a hundred markers, monuments, houses, and other historic sites in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Our journey will start in the West, mirroring the journey the first people made as they discovered the Americas and settled it from west to east. People got to the Americas by boat from northeast Asia or by walking across the Bering Strait during an ice age. Most Indians in the Americas can be traced by blood type, language similarity, and other evidence to a very small group of first arrivals. Thus they may have come by boat. Either way, afoot or by boat, evidence suggests that people entered Alaska first: Native Americans share some cultural and physical similarities with northern Asians to the west of Alaska.

Beginning in the west has the additional benefit of being unconventional. "How refreshing it would be," ethnohistorian James Axtell wrote, "to find a textbook that began on the West Coast before treating the traditional eastern colonies." The usual approach to the American past is from the vantage point of Boston, looking southwestward. Travel books too start in New England, even though Japan sends more tourists to the United States than any other nation. Europeans -- Spaniards -- were also living in New Mexico years before Anglos had moved to New England or Virginia, so it is doubly appropriate for us to make our trip from west to east. Therefore we will begin in the state that extends farthest west, Alaska, and end in Maine, farthest east. You don't have to go that direction, however. The Index of States invites you to proceed alphabetically by state or to begin with whatever state interests you, and cross-references within and at the end of entries encourage you to explore topically related entries.

On our journey, not only will we uncover new facts about the American past, we will also catch indications of hidden fault lines in the social structure of the United States today. Some of these places are familiar to millions of Americans: Boston Common, Valley Forge, the Jefferson Memorial, Abraham Lincoln's log cabin, Sutter's Fort. Other entries in this book will visit places and tell stories that have not been memorialized grandly on the landscape. You will meet people whose existence you may never have imagined -- Elizabeth Van Lew, for instance, Robert and Mary Ann Lumpkin, Print Matthews -- and perhaps learn some facts you never imagined about famous Americans you thought you knew well.

Some of these sites lie far off well-traveled tourist paths and never get into most travel guidebooks. Other markers or statues stand in oft-visited places, but unobtrusively, such as the plaques in the entry halls of state capitols. Although few writers have commented on most of these monuments and markers, they too make a difference because they represent the thousands of other historic sites all across America that help frame the way we talk about the past, yet have never drawn the attention of the historical profession.

These barely known but important sites bring up the critical distinction between what happened in the past versus what we say about it. The former is "the past," the latter "history." Ideally I believe the two should match. Some people do not agree. In 1925 the American Legion declared that American history, at least when taught to children, "must inspire the children with patriotism," "must be careful to tell the truth optimistically," and "must speak chiefly of success." Since the American past is littered with failures as well as successes and since the past cannot be changed, the Legion would have history lie or say little about the failures. So would a lot of other people. It follows that sites that are important but little known may have been left out of history because their stories would be unsettling to some Americans. Conversely, nothing much happened in actuality at some allegedly important sites -- Valley Forge for one -- but history has made a great to-do about them.

Some monuments and markers tell their stories complexly and accurately, so not every entry will be critical of its site. Sites are also depicted favorably, I'm sure, when their bias matches my own -- and my biases can be inferred from the list of heroes to whose memory this book is dedicated. I have chosen these sites to correct historical interpretations that seem profoundly wrong to me and to tell neglected but important stories about the American past. To be honest, I also included a few because they are funny.

Americans share a common history that unites us. But we also share some more difficult events -- a common history that divides us. These things too we must remember, for only then can we understand our divisions and work to reduce them. Markers and monuments could help, except too often they suffer from the same forces that created the divisions in the first place. Moreover, most historic sites don't just tell stories about the past; they also tell visitors what to think about the stories they tell. Many sites seek to transform our secular history -- events that actually happened on earth done by real people with the usual mix of admirable and despicable characteristics -- into hallowed milestones along the path of our sacred journey as a nation. But if a monument or marker misrepresents the past or tells it from only one viewpoint, then whatever moral imperative it suggests must be suspect. If we cannot face our history honestly, we cannot learn from the past.

Americans agree with this proposition when applied to other countries. We commend Germany for preserving concentration camps as monuments of remembrance. We commend the Russians for changing Leningrad back to St. Petersburg rather than continuing to honor a man whose political philosophy wreaked havoc on so many lives. We understand when South Africans, after dethroning white supremacy, set about reevaluating their statues and museum exhibits honoring white supremacists. Surely the United States -- like Germany, Russia, or South Africa -- needs to rethink its past and reassess how it commemorates that past in stone. Surely we don't want to be people of the lie, complicit with the worst in American history because we cannot stand to acknowledge it. The way we heal is to come face-to-face with the truth, and then we can better deal with it and each other.

Indeed this process is already underway. Throughout the book, entries will show how history as remembered in town squares and on highway waysides has changed over time. Even though monuments are written in stone, they are not permanent. Americans have forever been talking back to the landscape, whether by persuading a state to revise the wording on a historical marker or by vandalizing a statue. On the whole it is a healthy process. The history written on the American landscape was written by people after all, and we the people have the power to take back the landscape and make it ours.

When a site tells an inaccurate or incomplete story, challenging what our public history commemorates can make a difference in our public discourse. Indeed, questioning the myths as told on the American landscape is intrinsically subversive, since the interrogation itself diminishes their power to motivate human behavior, a power that depends on shared belief. Questioning the myths requires serious historical research. Often the viewpoint of the dominant faction not only rules the landscape but also permeates the history books. In the last thirty years, however, researchers have unearthed new voices from the past and allowed them to speak in their books and articles. Altering the landscape then involves expanding our public history by telling about the past from these "new" perspectives. In the process, new markers and monuments will establish new stories and extol new heroes -- factually based, with feet of clay when appropriate, but role models nonetheless. "American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it," wrote James Baldwin. The truth is also more wonderful and more terrible than the lies Americans have been telling themselves.

The next four essays provide some tools and provisions for our journey. "Some Functions of Public History" examines the roles that monuments, markers, and other historic sites play for individuals and our society. "The Sociology of Historic Sites" tells how historical markers get created in the first place and suggests that their local nature has both positive and negative implications for the history they relate. "Historic Sites Are Always a Tale of Two Eras" notes that every site can teach visitors not only about the event or person it commemorates but also something about the time of its erection or preservation. Therefore visitors must consider both eras when thinking about what the site says. "Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments" discusses how the nonverbal symbolism on monuments and memorials influences how visitors think and feel about the topics they commemorate. Aided by these discussions and Appendix B, "Ten Questions to Ask at a Historic Site," readers will be better able to critique the next place they visit, even if it is not among the more than a hundred sites described here.

After our tour of lies across America, two final essays will provide some ideas on what to do about the biased texts, inappropriate names, and unfit statues we will have encountered. "Snowplow Revisionism" points out that even though history on the landscape looks permanent, revision constantly takes place. "Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape" tells how Americans have been changing many sites already. Finally, Appendix C lists twenty candidates that deserve immediate removal or revision and suggests ways that Americans can make our markers, monuments, and historical sites tell a fuller more accurate history.

Copyright © 1999 by James W. Loewen

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Table of Contents


In What Ways Were We Warped?

Some Functions of Public History

The Sociology of Historic Sites

Historic Sites Are Always a Tale of Two Eras

Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments

The Far West

1 Alaska Denali (Mt. McKinley): The Tallest Mountain -- The Silliest Naming

2 Hawaii Honolulu: King Kamehameha I, The Roman!

3 California Sacramento: The Flat Earth Myth on the West Coast

4 California Sacramento: Exploiting vs. Exterminating the Natives

5 California San Francisco: China Beach Leaves Out the Bad Parts

6 California Downieville: Killing a Man Is Not News

7 Oregon La Grande: Don't "Discover" 'Til You See the Eyes of the Whites!

8 Washington Cowlitz County: No Communists Here!

9 Washington Centralia: Using Nationalism to Redefine a Troublesome Statue

10 Nevada Hickison Summit: What We Know and What We Don't Know About Rock Art

11 Nevada Nye County: Don't Criticize Big Brother

The Mountains

12 Idaho Almo: Circle the Wagons, Boys -- It's Tourist Season

13 Utah North of St. George: Bad Things Happen in the Passive Voice

14 Arizona Navajo Reservation: Calling Native Americans Bad Names

15 Montana Helena: No Confederate Dead? No Problem! Invent Them!

16 Wyoming South Pass City: A Woman Shoulda Done It!

17 Colorado Pagosa Springs: Tall Tales in the West

18 Colorado Leadville: Licking the Corporate Hand That Feeds You

19 New Mexico Alcalde: The Footloose Statue

The Great Plains

20 Oklahoma Oklahoma City: The Oklahoma State History Museum Confederate Room Tells No History

21 Kansas Gardner: Which Came First, Wilderness or Civilization?

22 Nebraska Red Cloud: No Lesbians on the Landscape

23 South Dakota Brookings: American Indians Only Roved for About a Hundred Years

24 North Dakota Devils Lake: The Devil Is Winning, Six to One

The Midwest

25 Minnesota St. Paul: "Serving the Cause of Humanity"

26 Iowa Muscatine: Red Men Only -- No Indians Allowed

27 Missouri Hannibal: Domesticating Mark Twain

28 Wisconsin Racine: Not the First Auto

29 Illinois Chicago: America's Most Toppled Monument

30 Indiana Graysville: Coming into Indiana Minus a Body Part

31 Indiana Indianapolis: The Invisible Empire Remains Invisible

32 Kentucky Lexington: Putting the He in Hero

33 Kentucky Hodgenville: Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace Cabin -- Built Thirty Years after His Death!

34 Michigan Dearborn: Honoring a Segregationist

35 Ohio Delaware: Who Menaced Whom?

The South

36 Texas Gainesville: "No Nation Rose So White and Fair; None Fell So Free of Crime"

37 Texas Alba: The Only Honest Sundown Town in the United States

38 Texas Pittsburg: It Never Got Off the Ground

39 Texas Fredericksburg: The Real War Will Never Get into the War Museums

40 Texas Galveston: This Building Used to Be a Hardware Store

41 Arkansas Grant County: Which Came First, the Statue or the Oppression?

42 Arkansas Little Rock: Men Make History; Women Make Wives

43 Louisiana Laplace: Suppressing a Slave Revolt for the Second Time

44 Louisiana Colfax: Mystifying the Colfax Riot and Lying About Reconstruction

45 Louisiana New Orleans: The White League Begins to Take a Beating

46 Louisiana Baton Rouge: The Toppled "Darky"

47 Louisiana Fort Jackson: Let Us Now Praise Famous Thieves

48 Mississippi Hazlehurst: The End of Reconstruction

49 Mississippi Itta Bena: A Black College Celebrates White Racists

50 Alabama Calhoun County: If Russia Can Do It, Why Can't We?

51 Alabama Tuscumbia: Confining Helen Keller Under House Arrest

52 Alabama Scottsboro: Famous Everywhere but at Home

53 Tennessee Fort Pillow: Remember Fort Pillow!

54 Tennessee Woodbury: Forrest Rested Here

55 Georgia Stone Mountain: A Confederate-KKK Shrine Encounters Turbulence

56 Florida Near Cedar Key: The Missing Town of Rosewood

57 South Carolina Beech Island: The Beech Island Agricultural Club Was Hardly What the Marker Implies

58 South Carolina Fort Mill: To the Loyal Slaves

59 South Carolina Columbia: Who Burned Columbia?

60 North Carolina Bentonville Battlefield: The Last Major Confederate Offensive of the Civil War

61 Virginia Alexandria: The Invisible Slave Trade

62 Virginia Alexandria: The Clash of the Martyrs

63 Virginia Richmond: "One of the Great Female Spies of All Times"

64 Virginia Richmond: Slavery and Redemption

65 Virginia Richmond: The Liberation of Richmond

66 Virginia Richmond: Abraham Lincoln Walks Through Richmond

67 Virginia Appomattox: Getting Even the Numbers Wrong

68 Virginia Stickleyville: A Sign of Good Breeding

The Atlantic States

69 West Virginia Union: Is California West of the Alleghenies?

70 District of Columbia Jefferson Memorial: Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father

71 District of Columbia Lincoln Memorial: A Product of Its Time and All Time

72 Maryland Hampton: "No History to Tell"

73 Delaware Reliance: The Reverse Underground Railroad

74 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Telling Amusing Incidents for the Tourists

75 Pennsylvania Valley Forge: George Washington's Desperate Prayer

76 Pennsylvania Lancaster: "You're Here to See the House"

77 Pennsylvania Gettysburg: South Carolina Defines the Civil War in 1965

78 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Remember the "Splendid Little War" -- Forget the Tawdry Larger Wars

79 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Celebrating Illegal Submarine Warfare

80 New Jersey Trenton: The Pilgrims and Religious Freedom

81 New York Manhattan: Making Native Americans Look Stupid

82 New York Alabama: Which George Washington?

83 New York North Elba: John Brown's Plaque Puts Blacks at the Bottom!

84 New York Manhattan: The Union League Club: Traitors to Their Own Cause

85 New York Manhattan: Selective Memory at USS Intrepid

New England

86 Connecticut Darien: Omitting the Town's Continuing Claim to Fame

87 Massachusetts Boston: The Problem of the Common

88 Massachusetts Amherst: Celebrating Genocide

89 Massachusetts Boston: What a Monument Ought to Be

90 Vermont Burlington: Shards of Minstrelsy on a Far-North Campus

91 New Hampshire Peterborough and Dublin: Local History Wars

92 New Hampshire Concord: "Effective Political Leader"

93 Rhode Island Block Island: "Settlement" Means Fewer People!

94 Rhode Island Warren and Barrington: Fighting Over the "Good Indian"

95 Maine Bar Harbor: At Last -- An Accurate Marker

Snowplow Revisionism

Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape


A Selecting the Sites

B Ten Questions to Ask at a Historic Site

C Twenty Candidates for "Toppling"


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First Chapter

Chapter 70: Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father

District of Columbia: Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial, dedicated in 1943, resembles the earlier Lincoln Memorial in its classical Greek architecture and the practice of putting words by its president on its stone walls. Saul Padover, assistant to the secretary of the interior under FDR, chose the monument's quotations while writing an adulatory biography of Jefferson published in 1942. But while the Lincoln Memorial presents the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural in their entireties, the Jefferson Memorial juxtaposes fragments from widely scattered writings of Thomas Jefferson to distort his ideas and policies.

The first panel misquotes the preamble and conclusion of the Declaration of Independence, leaving out five words from within its selected excerpts. The architect requested the omissions so the text would fit better! Surely this memorable text should not be altered for so petty a reason. We know Jefferson would not approve, for whenever he sent correspondents a copy of the Declaration he took pains to show what the Continental Congress had added to his draft and what it had cut. The altered text reads,

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,
among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure
these rights governments are instituted among men. We...solemnly
publish and declare, that these Colonies are and of right ought to be free
and independent states....And for the support of this declaration,
with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually
pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.

Omitting "that" before "among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" may be minor though it does makes Jefferson's parallel constructions seem less parallel and more awkward. Omitting "United" before "Colonies," however, alters the sense of the document to insinuate that thirteen separate states declared independence. One could argue that omitting "to each other" from the sentence, "We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour," removes a redundancy. Emphasizing that the 56 signers were talking to each other however, as well as mutually to the embryonic nation and the world, suggests their lonely courage. They knew if they didn't hang together they might hang separately and worried lest some might break faith and betray the rest.

The second panel, on religious freedom, takes three quotations from Jefferson's Act for Religious Freedom, passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1779, and adds a sentence from a letter he wrote to James Madison a decade later. That final sentence is ripped out of context: "I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively." In the context of religious freedom, preceded by phrases like "Almighty God" and "the Holy Author of our freedom," the sentence seems to imply that Jefferson held to an absolute moral code. Actually, a self-described Unitarian, Jefferson believed in the power of reason as a foundation of morality. Here he was writing in the context of political economy; he and Madison were corresponding about such issues as whether institutions determine individual behavior and how then to shape those institutions.

I know no problem with the words on the fourth panel, a single extended quotation from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1816 on the need to change institutions "to keep pace with the times." The third panel however, which the National Park Service brochure describes as "devoted to his ideas on freedom of the body and to his beliefs in the necessity of educating the masses of the people," is a hodgepodge of quotations from diverse writings by Jefferson from widely different periods in his life. The effect of this medley is to create the impression that Thomas Jefferson was very nearly an abolitionist. In their original contexts, the same quotations reveal quite a different Jefferson conflicted about slavery — at times its harsh critic, often its apologist.

The words on the wall read:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation
be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties
are the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect
that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce
between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly
written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the
business of the state to effect and on a general plan.

By putting these fragments back into their wording and supplying their contexts, we can see what the monument leaves out.

The first fragment is based on the sentence, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time," part of the conclusion of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, a pamphlet written in 1774, where it follows a sentence objecting to taxes imposed on the colonies by the mother country. By grafting it onto sentences about masters and slaves, the Memorial implies that the passage was about slavery, when it wasn't.

Padover took the second, third, and fourth sentences from a long paragraph, "Manners," in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson's only book, published in 1785. The paragraph contains Jefferson's most important treatment of slavery, but Padover has rearranged its phrases to make a much tamer impression than Jefferson's original. Jefferson began by lamenting the harmful impact slavery had on whites:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it...and thus nursed, educated and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The panel's second sentence as arranged by Padover seems a pious plea to pay tribute to God as the giver of liberty; many visitors never realize that slavery is its topic. In context, Jefferson is prophesying that one of slavery's harmful effects on whites is to undermine political liberty. He has just lamented how slavery transforms slaveowners "into despots" and slaves "into enemies." "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" refers to the former transformation, which prompts slaveowners to believe that liberty is theirs to give or take away. For a nation to remain free it is essential, Jefferson here implies, that its people and leaders respect freedom as one of man's God-given natural rights; here he recognizes, albeit obliquely, the inherent conþict between this theory and the practice of slavery.

The third sentence refers to the other transformation Jefferson has lamented, of slaves into enemies. As truncated by Padover — "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever" — it becomes a vague warning to the United States to shape up. Few readers would infer that slave revolt is its real topic, but Jefferson goes on to finish the sentence: "that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events." This is the slaveowners' familiar fear of rebellion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2008

    Fantastic book!

    i love this book! i read it twice in 13 months and have read several articles a third time since then. i even typed one of the chapters so i could email it to my half dozen chat buddies as a sample! i think i sold 3 more copies! the history of the abraham lincoln cabin, built 30 years after his death, was fascinating. that some of the south that didn't support seccession now boast monuments to the southern cause is illuminating. montana, he points out, has a memorial to confederate dead...even tho they weren't a state until well after the civil war was over. i really enjoyed his chapter on monuments that should be there: lincoln's walking tour of the fallen capital of the confederacy, richmond, not commemorated by a single historical marker. the chapter i typed in was about the arkansas hall of fame: he not only tells us that none of the women in the gallery accomplished anything other than being the wife or daughter of a famous man, he then mentions a number of arkansan women who should be in there on their own merit. this very enjoyable book doesn't have to be read all at once, as each well-footnoted story is only a couple pages long, but both times i read it straight through. i did kind of skim the essays at the front and back of the book about teaching and commemorating history cuz i was excited to get to the 'lies.'

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2008

    We should never take as gospel what is on a historic sign

    Anyone who has a copy of "Historic Sites and Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails" by Stanley B. Kimball should have a copy of this book as well.<BR/><BR/>The truth often takes work to get, and believing a sign without question can and does perpetuate the problems James Loewen mentions, in particular with the American Indian.<BR/><BR/>A previous reviewer criticized this book for it's own inaccuracies, but the point is, the truth requires work. Nothing written is perfect.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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