Related: Education, In the Media, Living, Politics, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues

Don’t Know Much ’bout History


(Know your Founding Fathers:  Which one of these guys is the real FF, which one is his son?)

“Founding Father” John Quincy Adams?  Rabid anti-slavery Framers of the Constitution?

I don’t watch much television, but while spending a few vacation days with mom, my eyes — and ears! — are getting a daily dose of “Good Morning America” and it’s not edifying.  The amount of mis-information, half-truths and outright falsehoods that fill the airwaves — often from the mouths of important public figures — is astonishing, but not surprising.

No wonder surveys keep showing that American schoolchildren don’t know much about history.  The adults are equally agnostic.

This is not a political statement.  But Michele Bachmann, newly-proclaimed candidate for the presidency, seems to have skipped class on the day they taught about slavery and the Founding Fathers.  In an interview this morning on GMA, Bachmann insisted that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founding Fathers, and that the framers of the Constitution worked tirelessly to eradicate slavery.  Turns out that, like many recalcitrant students, Bachmann was repeating something she said before, insisting she is right when she is terribly wrong.  Give it up, Michele, go back to class!

John Quincy Adams was just 9 years old when his father, John Adams, worked alongside notorious slaveholders Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in that hot 1776 summer in Philadelphia while they hammered-out the Declaration of Independence.  The “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” applied to white male property holders, not women or slaves.  In fact, the original U.S. Constitution allowed the slave trade to continue until 1808, a compromise specifically intended to placate southern slave owners to secure their votes in the ratification process.  The original Constitution also treated slaves as three-fifths of a whole person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives a state had in Congress — again, the southern slave owners leveraging their interests by using their slaves as part of the apportionment count, but otherwise treating them as non-persons.  The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was not ratified until 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War.

It’s true that both Adamses, father and son (photo at top, John Adams on the left, son John Quincy on the right), were opposed to slavery, but the majority political view at the time of the ratification of the Constitution was pro-slavery.  Abolition did not become a force until decades later.

Scholarly materials on this topic are abundant, but for a quick read that even politicians can understand, I recommend Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis which includes a highly compelling narrative of the intense and bitter battles over slavery that nearly doomed the creation of this country from the start.

Politicians and their handlers need to get smart about trying to appear to be smart.  If they want to be role models for the future as well as credible leaders, they have to get their facts straight — and perhaps no facts are more important for any politician to get straight than the basics on American history.   And, if they get the facts wrong, ‘fess up and correct the record.

Maybe Sarah Palin’s obstinance on the topic of Paul Revere’s ride is not terribly important, certainly compared to getting slavery right.  But leaders must be smart enough to learn the facts, humble enough to admit mistakes, and astute enough to understand that misrepresenting the small stuff makes people wonder about truth on the big issues.

And, anyone who wants to be president of the United States must understand that the national crisis in basic education requires the leader to be a role model for learning, not an obtuse know-nothing rewriting history to suit short-term political ends.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: