Sarah Palin and Historical Hypocrisy

Sarah Palin is the gift that keeps on giving to the twenty-four hour news media. Her recent misstatements about the midnight ride of Paul Revere sent the blogosphere into another bout of "Palin derangement syndrome," especially when she doggedly refused to acknowledge, in an appearance on Fox News, that she had made any mistakes. "I know my American history!" she insisted.

As my Patheos colleague John Fea has shown, Palin certainly erred in her retelling of Revolutionary history—and in doing so, she is hardly alone. In and of themselves, her mistakes (saying that Revere rang bells during his ride, and warned the redcoats, instead of Massachusetts colonists) were not all that serious. Historians routinely make misstatements, too, even when they have plenty of time to check their facts. In 2000, David Barton, the popular proponent of America's Christian roots, famously had to retract his use of a number of apocryphal Founders' quotes, which he euphemistically calls "unconfirmed." Within academic circles, some historians have committed worse sins, including the fabrication of evidence, which led to the forced resignation of historian Michael Bellesiles from Emory University in 2002.

The larger issues raised by the Palin/Paul Revere episode are twofold. One is that Americans are abysmally ignorant of history. A recent test by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is only one of many gauges that have demonstrated how poor Americans' "civic literacy" is. Among the disturbing facts revealed by the survey was that more than twice as many respondents could identify Paula Abdul as a judge on "American Idol"than could identify Lincoln's phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people," as coming from the Gettysburg Address.

Although many trumpet the value of "math and science" education, humanities education is a harder sell in an America that is trying to stave off long-term economic decline. Public schools, pressured to deliver testable outcomes, struggle to explain the qualitative value of history, music, art, and literature. These disciplines' defenders are often reluctant to discuss old-fashioned concepts like virtue, wisdom, and morality, which once were the desired results of a liberal arts education. Increasingly, home schools and classical academies are among the last bastions of the humanities.

The second concern raised by Palin's misstatements is more specific to politicians: the use of history, or one's ostensible devotion to history, to secure political support. The most egregious recent example of a candidate heralding the value of history, while simultaneously demonstrating his ignorance of it, came from radio host and pizza magnate Herman Cain, in a speech announcing his pursuit of the Presidency. While calling on Americans to "re-read" the Constitution, Cain said that for "the benefit of those that are not going to read it because they don't want us to go by the Constitution, there's a little section in there that talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Hopefully my readers know that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, but for Cain to lecture people about neglecting the Constitution, when he himself seems not to have read it closely, is hypocritical at best.

Politicians courting Tea Party support may feel a particular temptation to use (or misuse) the history of the Founding. But this is not just a Republican issue. For instance, last fall, President Obama repeatedly misquoted the Declaration of Independence, leaving out "by their Creator" from the phrase "endowed with certain unalienable rights." As I wrote for USA Today, this was not a minor oversight, given Obama's other stumbles over religious language, and the appearance that he was (in the name of political correctness?) removing the rhetoric of faith from his version of the Declaration.

Governor Palin, you were wrong about Paul Revere, and that's okay, if you would only admit to it. But the episode also reveals a dangerous irony: many politicians, like many Americans generally, suffer from historical ignorance, yet some of those same leaders confidently assure us that they, unlike their rivals, really believe in America's Founding principles. I am all for adherence to the Founders' ideals, but not everyone who cites the Founders actually knows much about them. Only an educated citizenry will be able to sniff out this kind of historical hypocrisy, and it is one more example of why understanding America's past is essential to the health of the republic.