The un-writing of history took an interesting turn last week when, on Monday, the National Park Service announced that it would close the Claude Moore Colonial Farm. The farm, which recreates the life of an ordinary tenant-farm family in the 1770s, is an award-winning, 35-year-old public educational facility in McLean, which has quietly welcomed millions of visitors, exposing them to the realities of life in colonial America.
The farm is supported by donations from the community and is managed by a nonprofit organization; it operates, however, on National Park land.
History is more than just statues. If, to understand what as a society we can become, we truly want to understand where we have come from and what we have been, we need more than just pieces of bronze or stone-mounted on pedestals.
Understanding the history of a democratic society like ours requires understanding the lives, the thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, and the fears of ordinary people. We need to see the “us” of our past and understand how “we” understood ourselves and what “we” did. Some of what we see in that history will be painful. Some of it will be inspiring. All of it will help us to understand ourselves and our society better.
For the last 35 years the Claude Moore Colonial Farm has been doing just this. Without an ideological agenda, without protest marches and countermarches, without endless pages of editorials, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm has allowed visitors to see and to experience an unvarnished glimpse of how, on a daily basis, the families who fled Europe for America actually lived and to begin to understand what they as individuals and as a society thought they were doing.
The decision last week to close the farm on Dec. 21 and to make its grounds unavailable to the public, is a painful blow against historical memory, more significant than any decision about any row of sculptures.
As a working, colonial era farm, it is completely unlike the Colonial era experiences with which most Americans are familiar. It is not a testament to the lifestyle of the rich and famous like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or George Mason’s Gunston Hall. The Claude Moore farm is a typical tenant farm from the 1700s, an agricultural, working-class existence of the sort typical at that time.
As Americans, we tend not to be deeply educated in our own past. But the part of our history we are perhaps most likely to forget is what the struggle was actually like to create a novus ordo seclorum— to create a new political system, unlike those in Europe, and one that would last for the ages.
It was a struggle, body and mind, to create something profoundly different. It was a struggle full of missteps and dead ends, as well as extraordinary successes that have changed the world. If we accept a sanitized view of our history, one that consists solely of statues and magnificent mansions, we lose our roots as a truly democratic society, one composed of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, but devoted to freeing the human spirit and creating a virtuous society.
History—real history—matters. It would be a tragedy if the National Park Service carried through with its plans to close this piece of living history, leaving our children with no understanding of their own past.
About the Author
Edward Rhodes is a professor of Government and International Affairs at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Rhodes’s research explores ideas about democracy, liberalism and republicanism—and the historical context within which those ideas developed—shape today’s policy choices. He is the author or editor of numerous books and articles, including Engineering America: The Rise of the American Professional Class, 1838-1920.