History Served Without Partisan Philosophical Seasoning

By David A. Atkinson

The name Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy represents truth in advertising.  Our mission is to inform citizens and decisionmakers of thoughtful conservative perspectives on the choices facing Pennsylvania in every field of endeavor, from economy and energy to education and environment.  We seek to dig deeper than headlines and slogans to illuminate the potential advantages of pursuing reform and the consequences of hanging with the status quo.

A more recent mission – exemplified by our documentary series Rediscovering Pennsylvania’s Historymakers – is to explore the personalities and events that helped shape our commonwealth.  To date, four programs have been shown statewide on PCN and made available to libraries and schools.  Thaddeus Stevens, PA Generals at the Battle of Gettysburg, Asa Packer, and Lucretia Mott have been well-received.

Now, we are releasing a fifth show, The Battle of Wyoming.  Other than enthusiasts in Luzerne County, few people have heard about this costly and horrific encounter during the American Revolution.  There is nothing uplifting about the battle, nor its immediate aftermath.  Nevertheless, it proved a catalyst for action on the part of military and community leaders yielding lasting results.

For those who are interested in the complexity of foundational events, this is a remarkable story.  For those who want their history neatly wrapped and tied with a bow of patriotic sunshine and glory, the massacre that took place in the Wyoming Valley will never be part of the curriculum.

This is Pennsylvania history at its messiest.  There were strange alliances and murky motives among participants.  Pennsylvanians fought alongside British rangers and Indians in an attempt to reclaim land they had lost to settlers from Connecticut.  On the American side, hotheads who had foolish contempt for the fighting capability of Native Americans overrode the advice of military leaders to stay in forts and await reinforcements on the way.  These included the Paxton Boys, whose Indian experience consisted mostly of annihilating captive Conestoga Indians.  Once committed to battle, the patriots violated the principles of prudent deployment and were mauled for their lack of caution.  When brothers fighting on opposite sides encountered one another after the main action was over, one shot and killed the other despite pleas for mercy.  Patriots fought and died, but it is doubtful we will see a Hollywood production titled The Patriot, Part II.

It is purely an accident of timing that this documentary is being released in the middle of an escalating culture war over what history should be taught and what context should be given the material.  Nonetheless, this provides an instructive soapbox for a lesson on relating history in its fullest dimensions, the proud and pitiful moments alike.  It seems that those with the least understanding or appreciation of history are most worried about what students might be exposed to and most determined to dictate what can and cannot be taught or, in the extreme, even mentioned.  Education – exposure to history bright and dark – helps prepare our emerging voters with the skills of analysis and reasoned judgment.

The complicated nature of our past does not lend itself to easy or clear conclusions.  The march of democracy is far from a straight line progression.  The argument that a signature event such as the Alamo should be frozen in memory forever is antithetical to the principles of historical inquiry.  Archaeology provides new clues and debunks old certainties.  Researchers find new documents, and so do individuals clearing out family collections.  Analysts take a fresh look at previously discarded information or interpretations.  In a larger cautionary sense, to say one action or event proves broad conclusions is almost certainly to err.

The other common error is to grant historical actors knowledge or insight they could not have at the moment.  Several years ago, the Dauphin County Library hosted a Grant reenactor from the Lehigh Valley.  It was a superb presentation by an individual who took questions on all sorts of matters, but never slipped into responses reflective of Monday morning quarterbacking.

All this helps explain why highly learned people can look at the same situation and the same set of facts and reach amazingly dissimilar conclusions about causation and implication.

No treatment can provide a comprehensive look at people or events.  The real intent of our documentaries is to inspire folks to seek out more answers and sources.  Look at the leaders and individuals involved, to see what was at stake and why they chose to fight.  History does not happen in a vacuum.  What precedes and what follows is as noteworthy as the details of the event.

Commendably, Wyoming Valley communities do not shy from their historical legacy.  They hold a heartfelt commemoration of the battle each year in conjunction with the Fourth of July.  The association includes members who are descendants of battle survivors and refugees.  Reenactors add realism to the commemoration.  The landmark memorial is testament that the massacre was not the death knell for settlement and permanence for the area.  A local historian leads popular walking tours through the neighborhoods that cover the battlefield sites.  The experience in the Wyoming Valley is well worth learning and remembering.  Every Pennsylvanian can be grateful to people here and elsewhere who preserve and strive to accurately reflect history.

This documentary can be found here.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.