Ignorance of history?

I have heard and read President Obama’s inaugural speech. And I am troubled.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was an inspiring and exciting speech.

What troubles me is that we now have a highly educated President of the United States who, seemingly, doesn’t know American history.

A minor quibble: Early in the speech, the President said, “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.” Well, yes, if you count Grover Cleveland twice. But Cleveland, though he held the presidency twice, was, as far as is known to history, one American, not two.

Barack Obama first made his mark as a writer. Writers, as a rule, like to get credit for the words they write, unless they are presidential speechwriters, whose job it is to write words that will be attributed to their boss.

Near the end of his speech Obama quoted the famous lines from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense beginning “Let it be told to the world…” Only the President did not attribute the text to Paine; he only said that “the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people.” It would seem to me that the words were inserted by a speechwriter to whom Paine’s authorship didn’t matter as much as Washington’s use of them. Did Obama assume that his listeners would know that the words are Paine’s? Hardly likely. In fact, Neal Conan began his Talk of the Nation broadcast on NPR by saying that Obama had “quoted Washington.”

It’s more likely that Obama doesn’t know that Paine wrote the words. And that’s troubling.

In the paragraph preceding the quotation, the speech sets the scene: “In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.” Obviously the reference is to the Battle of Trenton, beside the frozen Delaware. And then: “The capital was abandoned.”

What capital? Washington? It didn’t exist in 1776! Was the President confusing the Revolutionary War with the War of 1812?

Or did he mean Trenton? Well, Trenton was briefly the federal capital in 1784, but in 1776 it wasn’t even the capital of New Jersey yet. In any case, would someone making a speech heard around the world mean Trenton when they said “the capital”?

Maybe I’m wrong to be troubled. Maybe ignorance of history isn’t all that bad. Only history will tell.

5 Responses to “Ignorance of history?”

  1. Mary Hines Says:

    My daughter, a social studies and global education teacher, last night told me she felt as you do. She recognized the words and informed her students and and those of other teachers where they were written. At least kids in one school received the true information. She also was able to tell her mother. I am grateful

  2. Ben Zimmer Says:

    (Repeat of comment I left over on Language Log…)

    Coby, I was trying to figure out the “capital was abandoned” line too. To give Obama and his speechwriters the benefit of the doubt, I think the reference was to Philadelphia being abandoned. By the time of the Battle of Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776, the Continental Congress had left Philadelphia for Baltimore to avoid the British advance. Of course, that meant that Baltimore was technically the proto-nation’s capital until the Continental Congress returned to Philly on March 4, 1777, but I think we can overlook that technicality.

  3. Coby Lubliner Says:

    Ben: I suppose that one could consider Philadelphia, being the seat of the Continental Congress, as the quasi-capital of the United States in 1776, and the fact that half the population fled may be called abandonment. All right, benefit of the doubt granted.

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