French and Indian War Map

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Traditional vs. New Historiography

I personally find, and have always found, traditional historiography more appealing than new historiography, although I find more and more that social/cultural and ethnic history are being incorporated into political history. These preferences probably are probably just results of how I have been exposed to history (television, fairly basic classes in grade school, some books here and there). While there are many new fields of historiography (ethnic history, social/cultural history, gender and women’s history, etc.) that are being explored by popular and academic historians, the main ways that I have learned history are through discussions on wars, major trends (e.g., Westward Expansion), “great men,” or economic systems (e.g., Mercantilism). I think the strengths of these fields, at least as I have experienced them, is that they do offer concrete history, although that history may be tinged with bias toward the group with whom the historiographers associate (typically white, wealthy men). If one can push through the bias and also find ways in which to explore and address other aspects of a particular point in history, I think that basic political, economic, and military history are great starting points by which we can explore a topic. We first have to be aware of an event or a trend before we can really view it from multiple angles.

That said, I think newer historiographical fields are absolutely crucial to building a complete and accurate representation of history. By learning about the experiences of different groups throughout history we can better understand what actually happened and why. For the French and Indian War, while the sources we may have on them are scarce (also limiting us from delving into the differences and nuances within these groups), I think it’s important that with whatever topic we choose, we look closely at how women experienced the war, how Native Americans experienced the war, how African Americans experienced the war, how European immigrants experienced the war, etc. As long as we tell history from the perspective of those who hold positions of elite authority, it seems that we are trying to recreate a Rembrandt with only one color of paint and only one brush.

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Jennings and Parkman

Both Francis Parkman and Francis Jennings have their own unique takes and approaches to historical writing. Their respective accounts and analyses of the Seven Years War makes their approaches even more interesting, since both are essentially analyzing the origins of the United States. Where Parkman writes with almost poetic prose, Jennings uses searing indictments. Parkman idolizes the heroes of the French and Indian War and vilifies many Native Americans in putting together a consensus history of an exceptional America; Jennings never hesitates to point out both the evils of the colonists (French and British) as well as the historians who had to that point written about the war. Both historians, however, had been certainly shaped by the world around them.

Parkman, writing right before, during, and after the Civil War, contributed to the spirit of American dominance and Manifest Destiny present during the latter half of the 19th century. The Civil War itself solidified the United States as a “more perfect union” full of thinkers who, having seen the country tear itself apart, felt the need to retroactively justify such a bloody war by making sure the United States would become a prosperous empire that typified republican values, an empire without precedent. Where European countries had had their wars and unifications, the United States needed a narrative that would set it apart. Francis Parkman used the wild, “unsettled” forests of New England to start the American drama, where it was baptized in the fire of colonial war involving the very peoples whom the white settlers were simply destined (as Parkman and other consensus historians saw it) to surpass and succeed.

Jennings, who has his own style that can be appreciated as much as Parkman’s, writes from a perspective than can probably be called the polar opposite of Parkman’s. The purpose of Jennings’ work, as he saw it, was to rectify the historical wrongs and oversights perpetrated by consensus historians. As the New York Times article states, the backdrop of the Vietnam War during which Jennings wrote shaped the attitudes of America’s counter-culture. America’s story, to Jennings, was the same during the French and Indian War as it was during Vietnam, which is to say colonial conquest and economic exploitation. Although he does describe atrocities committed by some Native Americans, Jennings makes sure to point out that the colonial powers of England and France both manipulated various tribes and confederations into destroying each other, much like France, the United States, and the Soviet Union (arguably) did in Vietnam.

Whether or not either historian is correct is a matter that would best be discussed in a paper on the topic, but there is no question, in my opinion, that even Jennings was shaped by the events around him, and that both historians take a seemingly deterministic view of the United States as an empire, whether for better or for worse.

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Popular and Academic Histories

Popular history was created as a distinct category of historical writing when history became an academic profession. Prior to that point, all historical writing was popular, and the aim of the first colleges that offered programs and degrees in history was, according to Peter Charles Hoffer, to make history more like a science. Where popular history had been characterized not only by a lack of academic citations, but with plagiarism, fabrication, and editorialization (all in the name of showing the United States in a positive light), academic historians sought to create a respectable and elite form of historical analysis. As Hoffer sees it, these academic historians came from similar backgrounds to the old popular historians, and so only succeeded in creating “a scientific-sounding version of consensus history.”

Today, popular history has taken a different path. One only has to go to a book store or turn on the television to learn about history; I owe my interest in history to these modern avenues of consumption. Popular history tends to focus on exciting and controversial topics. The History Channel offers programs on World War Two, barbarian Europe, and nineteenth century gangs in New York City. I have even watched a program that compared the historical Battle of Thermopylae to the film 300. Bookstores have recently seen a cascade of Bill O’Reilly collaborations on “Killing _____” (Kennedy, Lincoln, Jesus, Patton, and now Reagan), which are novelizations supported by research. The pitfall of popular history, as expressed by critics of such shows and books, is that these are often designed to appeal to the widest audience possible, and so the creators often sacrifice academic rigor for intrigue. Making broad statements without references to primary or even secondary sources can easily mislead the “casual observer.”

On the other hand, academic history – while it certainly has had its share of internal struggles and revisions by both consensus and progressive historians – has, in my opinion, stayed relatively static when compared to the average person. Academic history is exactly that – academic. Pages upon pages of citations and references are an excellent way to support an assertion with factual evidence. Where the old popular historians championed “facts” that were really only opinions presented as such, academic history hopes to make sure anyone interested can look for themselves at the evidence and judge whether or not the writer has come to an accurate conclusion. In that way, academic history provides an important way for people to learn about very specific topics or even large historical trends. The issue, however, is that this is limited to who is interested, and while some historical writers have attempted to make their works less erudite, from my experience, unless someone has already been attracted to the field of history (usually through popular history), relatively few people will ever even look at those citation pages, let alone dig up the sources themselves. Far from being a check on the mistakes made by popular/amateur historians, it appears to me that academic history cannot address any biases or mistakes evident in popular history, because the historians have put themselves in such a high tower that they cannot reach the average person.

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