Baby boom-era Americans piled into their station wagons and visited historic sites in such record numbers in 1962 that the National Geographic Society sought to capture the trend in a huge, colorful volume it called America’s Historylands. The book’s cover featured the colonial capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia, and showed men and women dressed up in tricorn hats and white bonnets, making an organic connection to the founding of the nation. Americans loved the houses, public buildings and battlefields that told the story of the nation, and the book spent 500 pages explaining the extraordinary attraction of these settings for families on their weekend sojourns.
Now, while families gather to celebrate the nation’s founding and President Donald Trump seizes the moment to bask in the historic aura of the Lincoln Memorial, many of the landmarks where that history was really rooted seem to have lost their allure.
Colonial Williamsburg, for one, reportedly draws about half the number of visitors it attracted in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War. Other iconic destinations also face flat or dwindling attendance; Civil War sites, once guaranteed to entrance the young, are among them. As a historical moment, Gettysburg will always be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but the battle site happens to be at a 10-year low in numbers of visitors, and far below the levels it drew in the 1970s.
Even places that depict American ingenuity in a different way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination, with attendance at the National Air and Space Museum trending down over the last 10 years despite drawing far more foreign tourists than in previous decades.
Even places that depict American ingenuity in a different way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination.
What does this say about the American story? The sites themselves are, in general, better-preserved and more thoughtfully and inclusively interpreted than ever. Armchair patriots remain intrigued by presidential biographies and curious about lesser-known events unearthed on podcasts. But when it comes time to power up the SUV, Americans are heading elsewhere, passing up the chance to experience the dramatic turning points of the nation’s past. Where once families yearned to see that history firsthand, to forge a personal link with great events, they now blow past that turnoff on the way to the beach. The American story is losing its pull.
In the era of America’s Historylands, that story was a robust tale of men and women who committed themselves to a series of ideals and, when confronted with enormous challenges and painful disputes, forged onward, creating a form of government that is the envy of much of the world and blazing a path to great achievements in art, science and industry.
That narrative reached its apogee during the Cold War, when American ideals contrasted sharply with those of Soviet communism. Arguably, competition with the Soviet Union drove the United States to improve its own domestic life, spurring Americans to address historic inequities in an effort to live up to the very story it was telling itself. And for the many Americans, across the political spectrum, who saw communism as a daily, existential threat to their freedoms, the natural response was to hold those values more dear. To Cold War Americans, Williamsburg may well have been the scene of a slave market, but it was also the place where Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson debated ideals that promoted human freedom — in principle if not for all.
After the Cold War, the American story as laid out by National Geographic seemed too simplistic, too determined to airbrush away the many bloody injustices and even atrocities that accompanied the European conquest of North America. Though the story was always tacitly intended to convey the power of myth, not truth, it couldn’t survive the evolving understandings of the events it covered. It became obsolete. It died a natural death. And yet its absence in national life is as striking and consequential as its presence during the Cold War.
Older Americans who grew up on the American story, and felt its magic, now grieve for a lost sense of American exceptionalism.
Older Americans who grew up on the American story, and felt its magic, now grieve for a lost sense of American exceptionalism. That yearning may drive them and like-minded younger people to Trump’s July 4 celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. The MAGA narrative is the Trump replacement for the much more gently drawn national story of the Cold War years. It asserts the greatness of America not as an aspirational tale, but as a kind of factual claim about the nation — a status that was lost, stolen in fact, by a politically correct crowd of disbelievers. And if the superiority of the United States to the Soviet Union was a coded message of the Cold War years, the MAGA story regards all other countries as competitors to vanquish, as if the proof of American success lies in the struggles of others.
Of course, Trump’s tale is offensive to so many Americans that Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser sought ways for city residents to enjoy the fireworks without having to listen to Trump. MAGA is the angry child of the Cold War narrative, neither as elevating nor as encompassing as its progenitor. But it fills a need, a void, in a way that should inspire others to think rigorously about crafting their own replacements—the kinds of stories that could bring fresh respect, along with a different level of understanding, to the places of American history.
Barack Obama came closer to defining a new national creed, inspiring to all, in his 2008 victory speech: “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted the country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family, and rise or fall together as one nation and one people.”
The speech, coming in the context of the election of the first black president, suggested that all Americans could share in the accomplishment not because they supported Obama himself, but because the breakthrough itself validated American ideals — it reinforced the values that baby boomers found in America’s Historylands. This was a speech that played as well on Fox News as MSNBC.
Obama tried to reinforce that message at other points in his presidency, but over time it came to seem both narrower in scope — essentially, a celebration of the civil rights movement — and more exclusively aimed at those seeking to overcome discrimination. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were Obama’s heroes, but only rarely did he connect their achievements to the national ideals laid out in Philadelphia. Expansion of freedom and civil rights are an advancement that all Americans can celebrate, the rights of one protecting those of all, but it wasn’t always framed that way. When the Supreme Court endorsed marriage equality, the lighting of the White House in rainbow colors was a striking show of solidarity, but did not necessarily communicate an invitation to all.
Today, America finds itself in need of a national story that acknowledges the pain of the past — the struggle to overcome — but also emphasizes the ways in which all Americans pursue a common path to righteousness. It should be a story that doesn’t look away from suffering, but doesn’t demand victims and finger-pointing. Those who cultivate such a new national myth might draw inspiration from, yes, America’s Historylands — more specifically, the essay written by the then-octogenarian poet and historian Carl Sandburg, who saw the connection between the big events of American history and the folk byways of American life. He shrewdly argues that the story of the past should be understood also to be a story of the future. It’s not fundamentally about who did what to whom, but about where this nation as a people wants to be in a generation. It’s about interpreting the ideals of the past for a new dawn.
Today America finds itself in need of a national story that acknowledges the pain of the past – the struggle to overcome – but also emphasizes the ways in which all Americans pursue a common path to righteousness.
There’s reason to be optimistic it can be done. America’s disagreements about the present, and the shadows they cast over its understanding of the past, don’t necessarily extend to the future. Our shared values of opportunity and prosperity and shoulder-to-shoulder effort and conserving what we’ve been granted animate pretty much everyone in the political argument. The roots of those aspirations are in people’s ideas of themselves as Americans, as men and women of energy and conviction. Those ideas are drawn from the past, from the same places that inspired the families of mid-20th century America.
A more layered understanding of the events that haunt those places doesn’t diminish their power. Visitors to the Gettysburg hillside, which thousands of soldiers marched up, mostly to their death, in Pickett’s Charge provokes the same sharp intake of breath, and evokes the same sense of awe in the face of humble sacrifice, if one fully perceives the sins of the Confederacy. A nuanced sense of the war only adds to one’s excitement in walking a quarter-mile farther to the patch of land where Lincoln declared “a new birth of freedom.”
“Here are streets and roads, buildings and people,” Sandburg wrote, referring to the sites celebrated in America’s Historylands. “The new is here and the old, the past and the present laid before you for your contemplation. The past is prologue? Yes. Prologue to what? Prologue to the present. Yes! And we of the present, are we not prologue of the future? These may be intelligent questions, proper to ask, when starting on a journey to see our landmarks of liberty.”