History: Unfollowed

Ah, Monday morning:

And less than two weeks before the inauguration of a new U.S. president who has not exactly charmed half the people in the country, we need this?

Yesterday, History on Instagram shared some “history” with us.

Good grief.

First, nothing in that History Insta-caption above is outright false. However, it is an inch deep and far from the whole truth. For that shallowness in the current climate, and what it unleashed in the post’s comments, I unfollowed.

Let me explain. I have spent the better part of a year writing a novel set in that era. I had also spent years as an historian and a college teacher.

Washington’s presidential election’s historical significance cannot be summed up by an Instagram pic of that too familiar, austere (and awful), Gilbert Stuart 1797 painting of him that fails to convey his dynamic personality, and – even worse – using it for a poorly worded caption that is sure to rile up quite a few people who are naturally likely to read that caption through the lens of 2016/17.

You’d think the History Channel would understand. Learning about history is not about memorizing dates and publishing combustible captions. It is first and foremost about coming to understand and appreciate happenings and their CONTEXTS.

In January of 1789, Washington was elected by all 10 states in the Electoral College (New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island did not participate for various reasons), and 43,782 votes out of total human U.S. population then of about 4 million.

To be clear: Washington didn’t WIN by 43,782 votes. Oh, no. He RECEIVED 43,782 votes.

That’s right: 43,782.

However, even with that small electorate Washington had by far the largest voter mandate of any national leader on a planet then dominated elsewhere by absolute, inherited monarchies. Even members of the British House of Commons at that time were sometimes elected by merely – literally – dozens of voters. Universal national suffrage, including women, would not make an appearance anywhere until over one hundred years later, in 1893, in New Zealand.

History’s emphasizing only 1789’s racial lines, sexism, and voting property qualifications – and especially in fostering (deliberately or not) a misimpression that if white men of property voted that somehow meant most white men voted – has led to a firestorm in the comments, with trolling and ugliness and racist insults flying around.

The post offered nothing of the wider world context of 1789 and how that U.S. vote was then itself unmatched globally and seen by many both inside and outside of the new U.S. as a beacon of hope. In 1789, while the world was awash still with narrowness, hate and bigotry, many in the Americas and Europe believed that the world was also destined to become more equal over time. And within the next few years there was also a revolution in France ostensibly undertaken in the quest for such equality that eventually descended into seeing many thousands guillotined and otherwise “equally” butchered – including non-voting women.

A good caption could and should have led to some thoughtful reflection on how the world has evolved since then and how that first U.S. presidential election helped spur such change. True, maybe that is a bit much to ask for from a social media post. Still the bottom line is this: we would not have had a President Obama elected with nearly 70 million votes in 2008 had there been no President Washington elected with 43,782 votes in 1789.

We live in a world now where hurling insults at those with whom one disagrees has become all too common and even deemed acceptable – and such comes all too often even from certain elected officials. Social media is in many ways encouraging less and less civility. A superficial post like that from a major media outlet in these ugly times doesn’t help us deal with that.

In any event, try to have a good day, wherever you are in the world.