One of the most frequent refrains I receive from my critics is that it is inappropriate to discuss the connections between fringe history and broader social and political trends, particularly where they overlap with alt-right and white nationalist politics. Patrick Iber, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently dealt with this problem by explaining that history and politics cannot be separated.
That is because, however committed to a neutral empiricism in method, the work of history is inevitably political. It is political precisely because politics requires myth-building: Politics makes use of powerful stories that guide our understanding of the world. These might come in the form of myths of the legitimacy of power, or myths of a national, regional, or racial past. As these myths are made out of the raw material of historical events, they depend on remembering, but also on forgetting. […] We know the kinds of stories that people tell to make themselves powerful, and we see through them. […] The job cannot help being political, as long as storytelling and mythmaking are part of politics.
So today I’d like to show you that this is nothing new, and it really isn’t possible to separate bad ideas about history from their employment as social and political reflections of contemporary culture. To do so, I’d like to take a look at a book often considered the platonic ideal of fringe history, Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.
Donnelly is best known today for his pseudo-historical works, both Atlantis (1882) and its quasi-sequel, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), but in his own day Donnelly was better known as an aggressive advocate of liberal and progressive politics. As a congressman from Minnesota, he fought for the abolition of slavery, for example, but like many of his era, he proved a somewhat corrupt politician. He served the interests of the railroads, and happily took $10,000 in “free” stock from one railroad, which he alleged was a gift for “valuable services rendered” while in office. He lost his reelection bid in 1870 after delivering an angry diatribe against a fellow congressman, who used his influence to deny Donnelly the Republican party nomination. In those days the Republicans were the liberal party.
In 1878, Donnelly tried to make a comeback to the House on the platform of standing “between the few who seek to grasp all power and wealth, and the many who seek to preserve their rights as American citizens and freemen.” He wanted to break the power of the wealthy, and he promptly lost his election to the brother of the congressman he had denounced in 1870. Donnelly contested the 1878 election and charged his opponent with bribing his way into office. The case went all the way to the floor of the House. In 1880—in the last months of the 1879-1881 Congress, the House Committee on Elections found Donnelly was correct and should have had his seat restored to him, but the full House declined to take up the case when one of Donnelly’s friends tried to frame the chairman of the Committee on Elections for bribery in an attempt to blackmail him into supporting Donnelly.
Donnelly issued a plaintive cry that he was innocent of involvement. He was, he said, too poor to bribe anyone. He had once been rich, but he lost much of his money in the panic of 1857. By 1880, his farm was failing, and the local sheriff served him summons for the debts he had accumulated during his years out of office.
It was this embittering loss that left Donnelly isolated in his rural manse in Nininger, Minn., where he consoled himself by reading in his library, said to have been one of the largest private collections of books in the eastern United States, rivaled only by H. H. Bancroft’s massive library in California. There, he read Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, and he became interested in their tale of Atlantis not because he had a dispassionate scientific interest in prehistory, but because Plato’s dialogues reminded him of contemporary America and the problems he foresaw if the Democrats and conservative Republicans succeeded in undoing the progressive gains made in the first years of Reconstruction. The Atlanteans as descrbied in Critias 121b must have resonated particularly with Donnelly: “to those who had no eye to see the true happiness,” Plato had written, “they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). After reading Plato’s account of cultural decay and corruption, Donnelly commented that there was “nothing improbable” about it.
The basic idea to write a book about Atlantis had started forming in Donnelly’s head when he obtained a new text, just released, John Thomas Short’s 1880 book The North Americans of Antiquity. Short had a long chapter about Atlantis that Donnelly, basically, plagiarized, sometimes word for word, as he expanded that chapter into his own Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which cites Short copiously. While Short’s book is remembered as a work of popular science, that’s not how Short intended it, or how his readers understood it. Even though Short announced that his book was based in “inquiry” rather than “advocacy,” he explicitly identified is as a political work, meant to foster American nationalism to combat the prestige created in England by George Smith’s Mesopotamian discoveries and in Germany by Heinrich Schliemann’s Trojan research. “The recent discoveries by Geo. Smith, Cesnola, and Schliemann naturally cause us to turn with national pride to the rich antiquarian fields in our own land,” Short said. He did not need to carry the thought explicitly through the book since in those days archaeology and national pride were inexorably interconnected.
As Donnelly wrote his Atlantis, his progressive politics colored his conclusions. As an American of the late 1800s, he had no doubt that white race was superior to all others, and he emphasized that Atlantis, his stand-in for the American and British Anglophone sphere, was always dominated by the white race, but as a progressive, he also understood that America was a melting pot of peoples and races. In an era of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, Donnelly stood for a progressive vision of a more inclusive America. To that end, his Atlantis reflected his ideal American society. Whites ruled, of course, but everyone had a share. “When science is able to disabuse itself of the Mortonian theory that the aborigines of America are all red men and all belong to one race,” he, referring to Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana, “we may hope that the confluence upon the continent of widely different races from different countries may come to be recognized and intelligently studied. There can be no doubt that red, white, black, and yellow men have united to form the original population of America.”
Although Donnelly never mentioned contemporary politics by name, he titled his final chapter “Atlantis Reconstructed,” echoing the failed Reconstruction that he had originally supported before. He described the fall of Atlantis as a long decline from perfection to corruption, and he referred to ways that “the Western nations” turned from Atlantean wisdom, and he explicitly compared Atlantis to the British Empire and its American spin-off. The message was unmissable: Just as Atlantis grew corrupt and fell, so, too, would America decline and fall unless it adopted progressive reforms meant to return it to a primitive Golden Age, before modern corruption and sin.
As soon as the book was published, Donnelly rushed a copy to William Gladstone, the prime minister of Great Britain and the world’s most famous liberal. Gladstone wrote Donnelly a mostly positive review—“I may not be able to accept all your propositions, but I am much disposed to believe in an Atlantis.” Donnelly was so thrilled when he received it that “I could have uttered a war-whoop of exultation,” and Gladstone’s endorsement took pride of place in Harper & Bros. marketing materials.
Most later readers of Atlantis have approached it as a book of (fake) science rather than a political statement about the failures of the Reconstruction Era. This is a mistake because the politics of the time are inseparable from Donnelly’s conception of Atlantis, its empire, and the peoples that comprised it. He saw the Atlantis he imagined as an analogue for the British Empire and the closing American frontier, and he saw in it, too, a warning about following an imperial path with haughty arrogance and a lack of concern for the common man. History, ultimately, became politics by other means.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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