Friday, August 31, 2007

"The Officially Sanctioned History is True"

Here’s the scenario: You are taking a carriage ride through historic Philadelphia when your tour-guide nonchalantly remarks that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln once had dinner together. What do you do?

How about when the tour-guide says Benjamin Franklin was a notorious womanizer who fathered 69 illegitimate children. What then?

You know both claims are wildly incorrect and downright laughable, but there are some people who aren’t as wise. They may nod their head in agreement and mumble to their partner, “That is so interesting, I never knew that.”

I assume the tour-guides at state-run or national historic sites are trained and periodically monitored. I have no-doubt that incompetent tour-guides who pass along such statements are reprimanded or fired. However, what can a city do to historical entrepreneurs who specialize in carriage rides or walking tours?

Ron Avery is a former high school history teacher and a retired reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Since retirement, he has been working as a part-time tour-guide. He is appalled by some of the inaccurate statements his fellow tour-guides have been passing along as “facts.”

Avery decided to go undercover. He has ridden along on countless carriage tours throughout Philadelphia and has compiled a list of 80 such inaccurate statements he has heard. He gave the list to the city council. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has recently introduced a bill to educate, test, and license guides who offer tours for money in Philadelphia.

According to the story I read, a “city commission would be established to ensure that the officially sanctioned history is true, referring to well-known books, expert historians, or even an original letter…”

Is creating a law really the answer here? I am skeptical of any “city commission” ensuring that “the officially sanctioned history is true.” Is government really capable of getting to historical truth? I think not.

I also worry about the term “officially sanctioned history.” Court historians produced that sort of history to please European Kings; wayward historians often lost their heads. Totalitarian regimes have done and still do the same; their prisons are inhabited by people who deviated from the script.

What would happen if a Philadelphia tour-guide strayed from the “officially sanctioned history?” Surely he wouldn’t lose his head, but would he be fined? What about repeat offenders, would they be sent to prison?

The irony here is that the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia; the Constitution, which protects the freedom of speech, was also written in the same city!

Instead of passing a new law to make these renegade tour-guides fall in line, Philadelphia should look to a much-earlier legal precedent. In 1817, Chief Justice John Marshall issued his decision in Laidlaw v. Organ. The ruling is famous because it marks the first time the United States Supreme Court adopted the rule of caveat emptor, more commonly known as “Let the buyer beware.” Tour-guides in horse-drawn carriages are not dispensing college credit. They offer an all-too rare combination of information and entertainment. Appreciate them for what they are.

The next time you hear one of them tell you Washington and Lincoln had dinner together, I suppose you’ll have a decision to make. Will you file a police report and hope the authorities revoke his touring license? Will you politely remind him that Washington was dead before Lincoln was born? Or will you simply smile to yourself and enjoy the ride?

1 comment:

Deb Goodrich said...

My husband and I were on a wagon ride through Indepedence, MO, a few years ago with Greg Higginbotham, a local who is also a well-versed historian. He was appalled by the misinformation spewing forth from the wagon driver, a colorful character who had apparently read a pamphlet and made up the rest. Greg went to the CVB and asked them to help the guide learn "true" history. Our friends, Andy and Carol Waskie, operate History and Mystery Tours of Philadelphia. Both are reliable historians but as you stated, not everyone is as diligent. Great blog.