Wikipedia on the Thirteen Colonies

Sure, Alexandria had a nice library, but that was peanuts next to Wikipedia…

A lot of people criticize Wikipedia. Ironically, if you’d like to know what they say about it, the most convenient thing to do is to read the “Criticism of Wikipedia” article on, of course, Wikipedia. It begins:

Most criticism of Wikipedia has been directed toward its content, community of established users, and processes. Critics have questioned its factual reliability, the readability and organization of the articles, the lack of methodical fact-checking, and its political bias….

And so forth. The article goes on and on.

But I appreciate it, greatly. That’s why I responded positively to one of the service’s periodic fund-raising appeals several years back, and that’s why $3.10 flows out of my credit union account monthly. It is, quite plainly, the least I can do.

First, this is the greatest reference work in the history of humanity. I remember that on “Cosmos,” Carl Sagan used to go on and on about the burning of the library in Alexandria in antiquity, which was surprising for a show that was about science, not history. He seemed to regard it as the worst thing that had happened, ever. And no doubt it would have been better if someone had had a fire extinguisher handy. But while I have no way of quantifying this for you number people, I suspect that the library’s store of knowledge was peanuts compared to what you find on Wikipedia.

I LOVED these…

Do you always find everything you wanted? No. That’s impossible. But it gives me what I’m looking for far more reliably than any other reference work I’ve ever encountered. And I’m a long-time connoisseur. I used to pore through encyclopedias before I could read — and when my parents purchased the Golden Book Encyclopedia for me when I was 6 (as I recall, a grocery store had a promotion going that sold them on a sort of subscription basis, and you got another volume each week), I was engrossed, reading and rereading what I imagined to be the compendium of all knowledge. To me, this was fun.

Later, after I started working at The State, I wrote the “South Carolina” articles each year for the yearbooks of a grown-up encyclopedia. I’d tell you the name of the encyclopedia, but I don’t recall, and don’t see them around me on my bookshelves, because why would I need them now?

Let’s face it: Encyclos were pathetic compared to Wiki — as flat and dead and limited as a folded-up, tattered map from the gas station in 1957, compared to Google Maps.

Generally, I rely on it mainly for the most basic bits of routine, objective information — say, if I’m trying to remember who Adlai Stevenson’s running mate was in 1956 (just now, I was thinking “Estes Kefauver,” and I’m glad to see I was right), or the details regarding that miraculous Wednesday night in 1965 when “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I Spy” all premiered (a big deal to an 11-year-old). For the most part, I guess, I use it to look up things I think I know to make sure I know them, before I make a fool of myself by writing the wrong thing.

And while there are many sites that provide medical info, if a doctor prescribes me a new medication, I find Wiki far more helpful in giving me an overview of key information such as chemical makeup, what it’s for, contraindications and side effects. Needless to say, I haven’t consulted a PDR in many years. It tells me everything I’m looking for in a structure that makes it all eminently accessible.

Anyway, what got me onto this subject? Just a routine lookup this morning. I don’t remember now what got me thinking about it, but I wanted to check and make sure my memory of which states were among the original 13 colonies was correct (I was thinking, everything on the Eastern Seaboard except Maine and Florida, plus some of those sad little landlocked New England states). I was for some reason doubting myself on Maine, but was quickly reassured.

But I found something a little unusual. I only needed a list of the 13, but what I found was an article, “Thirteen Colonies,” that had something else I love, but seldom seek from Wikipedia: wholeness. This might not strike you when you read it, but it hit me rather forcefully.

I’m not saying this was elegant, novel-style story-telling, but it tied things together in ways that would lend understanding to the reader, not just a hodgepodge of facts. There were some facts I didn’t know, but not that many. What impressed me was that whoever was involved in putting it together, he or she (sure, it could have been any number of people, but there was a unity to it that suggested a single mind) helped the reader grok the big picture, in the way it briefly told the stories of the 13 colonies and how they became the 13 states.

Since what I’m trying to describe here is something holistic, it’s hard for me to give you quotes demonstrating what I mean. But take a look at this graf about how the French and Indian War was simultaneously a unifying experience, but at the same time led to loyal British colonists deciding to declare independence in a remarkably short time:

The British and colonists triumphed jointly over a common foe. The colonists’ loyalty to the mother country was stronger than ever before. However, disunity was beginning to form. British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder had decided to wage the war in the colonies with the use of troops from the colonies and tax funds from Britain itself. This was a successful wartime strategy but, after the war was over, each side believed that it had borne a greater burden than the other. The British elite, the most heavily taxed of any in Europe, pointed out angrily that the colonists paid little to the royal coffers. The colonists replied that their sons had fought and died in a war that served European interests more than their own. This dispute was a link in the chain of events that soon brought about the American Revolution.

Among other things, you’ll notice how well and simply the piece sets out the paradoxes. How could it be both a unifying and supremely divisive experience? Well, here’s how, in few words. And it’s very understandable. Or I think so, anyway.

By now, if you got this far, you’re going, what the hell am I reading? This topic isn’t just out of left field, it’s beyond the bleachers, and apparently originated in a cow pasture a couple of miles from the ballpark.

But I just was impressed by this small, obscure thing, and thought I’d say, “Way to go, Wikipedia!”

Also, as I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I believe that gross ignorance of history is possibly the greatest problem facing this country and endangering its future. I’m not talking dates and names and facts — I’m talking about real understanding of history, how it all fits together and what it means.

And I thought if I can get one person out there to stumble across this and read that Wikipedia article, that would be one person who would better understand this nation’s origin story…

4 thoughts on “Wikipedia on the Thirteen Colonies

  1. Ken

    A study about 10 years ago (so, admittedly not exactly current in our ever-changing digital world) concluded that Wikipedia entries are only marginally less accurate than standard encyclopedias. Inaccuracies increase somewhat for entries dealing with more recent and, especially, more controversial topics. But those are topics generally not covered at all by encyclopedias.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely. Most times when I link to something in Wikipedia, it’s on a topic that you would never DREAM of looking for in an encyclopedia. I mean just look at the things I refer to in this post. OK, MAYBE I could find the fact that Estes Kefauver was Stevenson’s running mate in a deadtreepedia. But probably only under the entry about Kefauver himself, and his name was what I was looking for.

      No way would you find entries — I mean, in terms of those things having their own headings — for “Physician’s Desk Reference” or “1965–66 United States network television schedule.” Or the separate topic on the Thirteen Colonies. And certainly not “Criticism of Wikipedia.” There has never been anything in history that not only provided this much information, but presented in such an amazingly accessible manner. And for free.

      As for accuracy — I find it astoundingly accurate. And I don’t know what to say about people who sneer because it’s possible to find an occasional error. I guess such people haven’t worked in a trade in which you have to process and publish huge amounts of information in real time. I have. And keeping Wikipedia up to date and accurate is about a million times as hard as putting out a newspaper — and it’s done mostly, I believe, with volunteer labor. Normally, if you relied on volunteers to this extent, you’d have an infinite mess on your hands. But Wikipedia makes it work.

      Saying it’s extraordinary is an understatement…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes! I think YOU were the contributor before me, weren’t you? I enjoyed having that gig, but the sad thing is, who goes back now and reads what I wrote? Not me…

      Wish I could read all of that Economist story (I can’t subscribe to everything now that the paper isn’t paying for it, and I miss The Economist), but I like the way it starts. Because I’m a Douglas Adams fan.

      Clark, we need to get with John and have breakfast again soon!

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