4 Historical Documents That Challenge Our Vision of the Past
It should be obvious that history is a field of knowledge where context is pretty important. If you knew what happened in the 1960s, but knew zip-nada-zilch about the 1950s or 1970s, people would call you a pretty shitty historian. So it shouldn’t be surprising that sometimes, plucking a piece of paper straight out of the timestream and evaluating it doesn’t give you the full picture. This leads to well-known historical documents with some unexpected wrinkles.
Here are four less-known details that change the color of some historical documents…
The 19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment is a pretty solid one, as amendments go. It’s one that’s not even up for discussion these days, which is a pretty impressive achievement. At least, not to anyone that isn’t trying to Andrew Tate their way into the bedroom or jail, whichever comes first. The 19th Amendment, of course, because you have them memorized like we all do, is the amendment that gave women the right to vote. It’s not particularly amorphous, and I think everybody is pretty aware of the general gist.
The one detail, however, that falls by the wayside is the date on the amendment in question. America has an egotistical little habit of pushing anything bad it’s ever done back in mental history as if we had slaves at the same time the Egyptians did. So it can be a bit of a shock to remember that women were only given the right to vote in the year 1920. As in, there might be one or two particularly hardy old ladies that predate it. Realizing that the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote happened during the COVID pandemic is a good reminder that the United States and its constitution is still very much a work-in-progress.
The Art of War
One thing the manosphere members mentioned above are probably obnoxiously familiar with is Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It’s a masterpiece that was way ahead of its time in terms of military strategy. Now, it’s mostly the bible of Instagram entrepreneurs and hustle-culture posters. Despite their best efforts, though, it’s still hard to argue its continued significance and place in culture.
With all that, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Sun Tzu was definitely a real person. Further, that records of his time would be chock-full of decisive, unstoppable military prowess by Tzu himself. Finding the Art of War is easy. Finding the actual wars Sun Tzu fought… is harder. As to whether there was ever a guy actually named Sun Tzu, historians answer that with a resounding: “maybe?” There’s a popular belief that there is no Sun Tzu, and it’s instead just a name attached to a collection of lessons in military strategy learned over the years.
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, a war designated by a number that every participant except Germany hoped wouldn’t be necessary. You might wonder how, only a couple of decades after signing the treaty, Germany would so drastically renege as to take on the world for part deux. There’s a great Norm Macdonald bit about this very stubbornness. The culmination of the bit comes from Macdonald’s suggestion that Germany was let off a little easy for you know, trying to take over the world. Well, to be the world’s biggest killjoy, how severe the punishment handed out to Germany was in the Treaty of Versailles and was a direct contributor to World War II. In fact, the whole bit is an accidental explanation of why Germany decided they needed another crack at it.
As you can imagine, there’s no world in which Germany would be smiling for a photo-op when they signed a treaty saying they lost, but they barely had any input (somewhat understandably). The other countries pretty much frogwalked Germany over to the table for a collective shaming and made them sign the treaty they’d prepared. Part of which included Germany taking complete and sole responsibility for the war, something they disagreed with. It wasn’t a step toward global mediation as much as it was an officially issued time-out for Germany to go think about what they’d done. Which they did. And they came out of that time-out even madder than when they went in.
Is the twenty-dollar bill a historical document? I think you could argue it’s a pretty pervasive bit of paper (yes, made out of linen and cotton, you pedants) that is intrinsically linked to U.S. history. It’s probably the reason most people can draw Benjamin Franklin from memory. And Andrew Jackson is probably better known for his central presence on the twenty-dollar bill than any detail of his actual existence.
And there, partly, lies the problem. If you start to look into Jackson’s beliefs and actions, the first thing you’ll find is an incredible amount of dead Native Americans. Deeper, though, is a particularly ironic bit of information, which is that Jackson absolutely despised the idea of paper money. He was a stalwart defender of the gold standard, and considered the idea of symbolic currency, to borrow a modern phrase, absolute bullshit. So now, every time you break a twenty, know that the man on the front hates being there and would likely take the basis of our entire economy around back and shoot it if given the chance.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.