America’s historical mythology is much in the news these days, causing even President Obama to call for “an honest accounting of America’s history” as a means of healing painful and persistent wounds. But our flawed national narrative did not begin in 1861, however, or even in 1787. It goes back even farther than that, to the very beginning, to 1775 and 1776. I was reminded of that, the intellectual basis of much of my own work on the American Revolution, when I recently visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. The beginning of the introductory film to the museum set a noble and important challenge for historians and citizens alike. With audio drawn from a speech delivered by President Kennedy at Yale University’s commencement ceremony on June 11, 1962, which was drafted by distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a member of the White House staff, it humorously played with the rivalry between Yale and Harvard before launching into the much more serious business of charging Yale graduates that day to disenthrall themselves from the powerful myths of our past, so they can confront the present with a new sense of reality and, therefore, a stronger idea of our shared strength, because we have honestly acknowledged our common weaknesses.
For many reasons, such as the terrible recent events that have dominated our collective consciousness, and because in my academic work I strive, foremost, to disentangle myth from reality in the moment of America’s founding — and, perhaps, also because, 50 years later, I have followed Schlesinger as a Fellow in the History Department at Harvard, and therefore feel something of an obligation to his own memory as a historian who keenly understood our professional commitment to public service — these words struck me and remain both a powerful reminder and a stern warning.
Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere. For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived, and dishonest. But the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.
Many thanks to the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum for access to the original draft and notes to this speech.