In the wake of the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, much digital ink has been spilled over the meaning of this move, including attempts to put it into context. One attempt, by the Harvard historian of science Joyce Chaplin, led to quite a dust-up with Ted “Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone” Cruz. This altercation touches on the way Americans think about the founding of the nation and the role of the international community more broadly, as well as the limitations of Twitter and the way that women who do history are viewed and treated when they exert expertise.
First, the tweets:
Historians of all stripes chimed in to respond and engage, and there are great pieces to read that will take you through the nuances of the historical debate, but I think there are a few important takeaways external to the issue of historical interpretation.
First, as historian of early America John Fea notes, the connection between the Treaty of Paris and the Paris Climate Accord is much more complex than Chaplin’s original tweet suggests. Moreover, Cruz’s response was itself rather simplistic, as I’m sure a senator with such a pedigree – a pedigree which TV pundits never fail to remind us of when he engages in one of these debates – is aware not only of the importance of the Treaty of Paris but also of the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution, though he doesn’t mention it.
Yet we cannot and should not simply write this off as the limitations of Twitter. It is, instead, a good example of how differently people view the “point” of history.
As the conversation progressed, Chaplin and the many historians who engaged on Twitter and through other written forms were more than happy to go into the specific historic complexities surrounding the 1783 treaty, including the exclusion of native American nations from its negotiation, comparable “declarations” that did not lead to successful independent nations, and the importance of international support in the American victory.
Cruz, however, chose to double down on a vision of the American founding moments that is incomplete, simplistic, and unsupported by historical evidence. Come on, Ted, if nothing else, you think everyone’s going to buy this narrative in a post-Hamilton world?
Cruz knows these complexities, and he’s happy to engage in complex discussions when it suits him, as we’ve seen throughout his tenure on the public stage. In this case, however, he chose to thump his chest and bellow “America First!” while tossing out red meat phrases like “Tenured chair at Harvard” and “Lefty academics.” He used “history” as a blunt instrument, as a club.
The gendered dimensions of this clash should not go unnoticed. That participating in international accords and obeying federal law is so often framed as “submission” isn’t just a coincidence. As Joanna Walters noted in her piece in the Guardian, “A man told Chaplin that Cruz ‘knows a hell of lot more than you, sweet cheeks’.”
I am very sure that man still thinks that, not simply because we are in an age when expertise is not only devalued but ridiculed, or because Chaplin is a professor at a “lefty” East Coast institution (as though Harvard is some bastion of progressive ferment!), but because of Chaplin is a woman who makes an argument about the nation’s founding that her detractors find inherently “feminine.”
When she and others (including male historians!) argue that that founding was messy, precarious, imperfect, and dependent on the international recognition and material aid of others, it seems to some an attempt to “feminize” the founding, to cut away at the idea that America is not only a place where you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but also a place that literally pulled itself into existence by its own bootstraps.
Right now, as never before and as ever before, to admit that the US has ever needed or wanted international recognition and cooperation is a sign of weakness to so many, even as they desperately crave recognition and admiration for their manly independence. No wonder Ted Cruz didn’t include the Articles of Confederation in his tweets; to do so would have been to acknowledge that the Constitution did not spring, fully-formed and practically perfect in every way, from the collective forehead of The Founders. THE US NEVER TAKES A MULLIGAN!!11!!!ZOMGTOTALVICTORY!!
Would this have gone differently had Chaplin not been a woman? Only a fool would say otherwise. Of late, women’s scholarship on the American Revolution has been a point of discussion for historians, mostly because it’s so often ignored and erased. As historian of colonial North America Ann Little notes, a recent roundup of the 100 (really 114) best books on the American Revolution only included 11 single-authored books by women, and three of those were by the same historian.
Women are broadly under-represented as historians on college syllabi, in documentaries, and in Google image searches for historians, even as they make up 42% of new history PhDs. Chaplin’s expertise was so easily questioned in part because she doesn’t “look” like what most Americans think of when they think of historians, especially historians of “manly” topics like the founding of the nation and of science.
It’s not surprising that our image of a historian is still an old white man in a tweed coat with elbow patches, but it doesn’t have to be. Use the photos posted under the #ILookLikeAHistorian hashtag to get that old image out of your head. Make note of what kinds of history gets promoted at your local bookstore, and who writes it. Seek out and read books by women historians, especially those who write on topics that men like “Sweet Cheeks” think are the province of men – politics, war, labor, and economics. Follow Women Also Know History. And maybe just…don’t get your historical analysis from Ted Cruz.