Christopher Columbus was widely celebrated as a hero and a savior during the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition. By 1992, however, some Americans had come to consider Columbus as a villain who had launched a genocidal conquest of the Indians. Michael Horton’s paper reviews the changes in historical scholarship on Columbus over the long twentieth century and simultaneously traces how Columbus is represented in officially approved Texas history high school and junior high textbooks through this period. He shows that these textbooks have been exceedingly slow to reflect shifts in the scholarship, choosing instead to promote popular characterizations of Columbus long after scholars have discredited them.
In his paper on representations of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Michael Kneisel argues that the event has always been oversimplified in American high school history textbooks. Despite the evidence offered by historians, a “born perfect” myth about the event persists: good, patriotic colonists coming together in spontaneous symbolic protest that sparked a virtuous revolution. Scholarly evidence that the incident constituted economic terrorism and vandalism (costing millions of dollars in today’s terms) is largely missing from textbooks, which prefer a narrative that affirms popular cultural beliefs about the nation’s beginning.
In her paper on the depiction of antebellum slavery in junior high and high school textbooks from the 1950s, Lindsey Bauman argues that U.B. Phillips’ American Negro Slavery (1918) served as the interpretive model. Phillips’ discussion of slavery as an economic institution persisted in textbooks’ focus on slavery as primarily a business, with slaves as the valuable commodity. Phillips’ discussion of slavery as a political issue persisted in textbooks’ focus on the problems slavery posed for white, powerful politicians. Phillips’ discussion of the character of slaves persisted in textbooks’ depictions of “savage” and “uncivilized” African slaves. Despite emerging scholarship on the lives of enslaved people, textbooks maintained a narrative that reaffirmed the cultural power and virtue of white slaveowners.