News & Politics

Studies in Crap: The Story of the United States


Your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

The Story of the United States
Author: Elbridge S. Brooks
Publisher: Lothrop Publishing Company, Boston
Date: 1891
Discovered at: library book sale
The Cover Promises: George Washington lotto scratch-off!
Representative Quotes: Page 13: “There appeared, also, by lakeside, river and seashore a naked, low-browed, uncouth race of savages, chipping the flint-stones of the Trenton gravel banks into knives and spear-heads and disputing with the great birds and beasts whose trails and tracks they crossed for the very caves and holes in which they lived. These were the first Americans.” Page 54: “The French settlement of Canada does not properly fall within our plan of this story any more than does the Spanish settlement of Mexico, for neither Canada nor Mexico have yet become parts of the United States.”

As you might expect, the history of America, as written for school kids in 1891, is a parade of great deeds and grand figures, a feast of heroism (and maize) that opens and closes with toasts to Christopher Columbus and “the greatness of his achievement, the virtue of his marvelous perseverance, the strength and nobility of his character.”

In between comes ass-kicking colonists, presidents as nuanced as action figures, etc. You might also expect racism and xenophobia, which of course spills from The Story of the United States like corn-seed from Squanto’s hand:

In other words, the red-men of North America were but as little children who have not yet learned and cannot, therefore, understand the daily happenings that make up life.

Stranger still, there’s this, evidence that the “Red Scare” lasted a lot longer than we realize:

They were all what we know as communists — that is, they held their land, their homes and their property in common.

History here is a cartoon. But a good one: a pirate-fighting, British-bashing, New World-birthing blast from the patriotic gut.

Even Ohio seems glorious:

Still, The Story of the United States is full of surprises. For all his talk of “heathens” and “savages,” Brooks is surprisingly sympathetic to Native Americans, even at the expense of the founders he reveres:

Who were the pale-faced visitors who had come in such a startling way from across the sea? Not for years would the red Americans into whose lands they came understand who they were or why they had visited them, although they learned, all too soon, that there was little about the new comers that was godlike or heavenly.

Take away his condescension, and he could be writing for Democracy Now:

The pale-faced strangers deceived and ill-treated the simple natives from the first and for four hundred years the red-men of America have known little but bad faith and ill-treatment at the hands of the white.

Right up through the Revolution, Brooks bemoans the colonists’ tendency toward “Bigotry and persecution, jealousy and selfishness.” After a lively retelling of the witch hunts in Salem, he concludes:

From all this you can see that people in those old days were not as high-minded, as open-hearted, as liberal or as ‘kindly-affectioned one to another’ – as the Bible has it – as are people today. Education, freedom and union have made us brothers at last. And, when people are bigoted and narrow-minded, they are apt to be superstitious and cruel.

Shocking Detail: Brooks demonstrates great pride in his American past but also a willingness to acknowledge its blemishes. (At least, the ones he could see. He’s never particularly exercised about slavery.)

Even today, this kind of nuanced, grown-up stance is difficult for some historians, especially authors like Larry Shweikart, whose recent book 48 Liberal Lies About American History blows a whole chapter assailing the “lie” that “The early colonies were intolerant and racist.” Or Michael Medved, who counts “America Was Founded on Genocide Against Native Americans” as one of The 10 Big Lies About America. When Medved argues that the white man’s treatment of Native Americans does not fit the legal definition of “genocide” — a word that wasn’t even coined until after the second World War — he resembles those Clinton administration officials who argued that Rwanda suffered “acts of genocide” instead of genocide itself. These are patriots so weak-kneed they deny the horrors of history for political expedience.

Bonus Shocking Detail! History is awesome!

Highlight: As Brooks acknowledges (and himself demonstrates), the past is imperfect. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope for the future. In his concluding chapter, “Growing into Greatness,” Brooks looks ahead to the America to come. In this remarkable speculation about life in 2091, he offers words to hearten us even today:

Two hundred years from now, when all the conflicting elements of these days of emigration will have been lost in the mingling and mixing they must undergo, the United States will know neither German nor Irishman, Italian nor Chinaman, Swede nor Hungarian, ‘Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free,’ for there will be but one imperial citizen — the American.

“Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free” goes back to Colossians, but current events in 1891 would have given that ‘bond or free’ fresh relevance. Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation just twenty-eight years before Brooks looked to the future.
Then that future came.

One year after the publication of The Story of the United States, Ellis Island opened America to the world. 116 years later, a land once disfigured by ‘bigotry and persecution’ elected Barack Obama president.

A year ago, your Crap Archivist would have scoffed at Brooks’ prediction.

Now, with just 82 years to go til 2091, I’m penciling it in on my calendar.


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