If there’s one thing the current national post-Charlottesville debate exposes, it’s the obvious fact that some Americans in very important national leadership positions don’t know much about our own history. We have a problem here, people, when the notoriously reading-averse president of the United States declares that there’s no real difference between George Washington (statue, right) and Robert E. Lee (statue, left). Or that symbols of the Confederacy are “beautiful” and deserve honor and admiration — the same Confederate treachery that defended slavery while causing the bloodiest war in American history. Or when a generation of young people grows up thinking the Nazis were some kind of brilliant social strategists worth emulating (after killing 6 million Jews in the Holocaust they lost WWII big time, in case you didn’t read to the end of that particular book). The potential consequences of the ahistorical presidency for our nation are treacherous when a careless self-interested politician heedlessly tears open old wounds of slavery, racial hatred and white supremacy, upending years of progress on civil rights and equal opportunity for all.
Forget about standardized testing — the abysmal failure of American education in some places to teach history accurately appears in daily tweets. Or maybe, just maybe, Somebody Skipped History Class. Whatever, we educators have our work cut out for us as the new academic year begins!
I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs where a person can hardly walk a mile without tripping over a monument or relic of the Revolution — that would be the American Revolution of the late 1700’s, a long period of resistance to England punctuated by such events as the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congresses and later the Constitutional Convention that created the Constitution of the United States, the election of George Washington as the first U.S. president. George W. was prominent throughout that era, as were such legendary personalities as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and scores of other courageous-but-flawed civic and business leaders who came together through a shared disdain for King George III and his heavy-handed taxation of the colonies, along with a considerable desire for political and social freedom from monarchial tyranny.
Growing up in 1950’s and ’60’s Philadelphia, we learned a lot of history, some of it dubious, like thinking that Valley Forge was the site of a great victory. My brothers and I spent many Sunday afternoons at Valley Forge rolling down the hill in front of the statue of General Anthony Wayne and wondering what flavor ice cream General Washington and his troops preferred at the snackbar. We had little awareness that Valley Forge was a bitter setback for the revolutionary heroes, not a battle but a terrible winter encampment; that Brandywine was not a victory, that Washington lost many battles, that were it not for some very poor British strategies we might all be singing “God Save the Queen” instead of the Star Spangled Banner. In school, we studied out-sized “great men” icons and their “heroic” deeds of valor in creating and leading our nation. (I do recall that the only time I got into anything remotely approaching serious trouble in my otherwise fine Catholic girls’ high school was when Sr. History tried to teach us about slavery via a “talking” filmstrip (yes, I’m that old) on Negro spirituals in the pre-Civil War days. The teacher meant well, but this was at the height of the Civil Rights movement and some of us objected to what we felt was trivialization of the very serious issues of slavery and discrimination. For being difficult loudmouths, Sr. History sent us to meditate in the library for the rest of the day.)
We certainly did not learn that some of our most cherished Revolutionary heroes were slave masters, people like Thomas Jefferson who wrote lofty words (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”) while sustaining an economic system that depended on slavery for their wealth and status. The history we learned in school was largely sanitized and heroic — only later in life, through extensive reading, did I and many others learn the real truth of these tragically flawed historic figures. (The simple fact that I kept reading history long after earning degrees is a tribute to my education — especially at Trinity — that always established as a primary goal to make sure that students would keep on reading and learning well beyond graduation day. Sad that not all schools seem to get it about this fundamental learning objective.)
The tragic truth of American history is that freedom and liberty for some came with the heavy price of oppression, slavery, torture and death for others —- whether the original Native Americans who were decimated by succeeding waves of European immigrants, or African Americans enslaved and still shamefully oppressed even after Emancipation, or, in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries, extensive discrimination and violence against Catholics, Jews and others considered unworthy of America — and even today, blatant hostility in some quarters toward immigrants from the southern border, Muslims and persons of Middle Eastern descent. For some people — I firmly believe a minority, but influential nonetheless — freedom is a zero sum game in which somebody has to lose rights in order for others to gain rights. This is completely wrong, but it is a world view that drives so much of the impulse to repress others — fueled by politicians who grab power by convincing people that if XXX gets something YOU will lose (if immigrants get jobs then Americans will be jobless; if blacks get admission to elite colleges then white applications will lose; etc.).
At his now-infamous press conference in Trump Tower on Tuesday, August 15, President Trump said about the controversy in Charlottesville over removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee:
“Well, George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down…statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? …are we going to take down the [Jefferson] statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So, you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture…” (President Donald J. Trump, press conference, August 15, 2017)
President Trump reiterated this position on Thursday in three successive tweets in which he said,
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” (President Donald J. Trump, Twitter, August 17, 2017)
These statements are intellectually dishonest, a false equivalence that shows no real understanding of the issues at stake in the Confederate monuments controversy, a “both sides” posture intended to cancel out any legitimate objection to the Alt-Right exaltation of Confederate symbols and sympathies — and Nazi symbols and sympathies. Washington, Jefferson, Lee and Jackson are not co-equal figures in our history; Washington and Jefferson, flawed men though they were, devoted their lives to establishing the United States; Lee and Jackson were protagonists in the Civil War that nearly destroyed the nation. (Good article by conservative foreign policy analyst Max Boot in Foreign Policy magazine: The Difference Between George Washington and Robert E. Lee)
Confederate statues and flags, just like Nazi swastikas and other symbols, give honor to movements that were and are profoundly racist and deeply immoral, movements that sought to fracture and fragment and then conquer existing nation states to remake them in their own twisted goal of a white supremacist state — for the Confederacy, a state that sought to break up the United States while enthusiastically embraced ongoing slavery; for Nazis, a state that boasted a “pure” race by annihilating everyone else and particularly Jews. Displaying signs and symbols of those regimes is not necessary to retain historical memory whatsoever. Removing signs and symbols of those oppressive, murderous regimes does not “erase” history but rather, puts history in its rightful place. We are not, and cannot be, a nation that honors, extols, salutes the horrors, oppression, tyranny, racism and murder that the Confederate and Nazi symbols communicate. (Read article by UNC Historian Karen Cox on the white supremacist origins of Confederate statues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well after the Civil War.)
And what of the slave owners we revere as the Founders? A reasonable reading of American history tells us that Washington, Jefferson and other slave owners among the Founders had bitter debates about slavery; some did call for abolition from the start, and Washington freed his slaves in his will. But as they struggled to create the new nation out of the 13 disparate colonies after the American Revolution, with many factions and fractious issues and economic imbalances, the prime movers of the new nation soon determined that the United States would never come into being without compromises on slavery. Yes, it is true that, to our everlasting sorrow, the Founders made morally reprehensible compromises on slavery in order to achieve the United States that they firmly saw as the successful conclusion of their triumph over British tyranny.
We should certainly teach this truth more forthrightly in all schools, along with a more serious and deeper analysis of the economic, social and political conditions in the 18th Century that made the Founders believe that they ultimately had no choice if they wanted a unified nation — they could have left 13 colonies acting independently, a fractious and economically unstable model that would have eventually failed — and yet even the stronger idea of the Union fell apart anyway half a century later because the compromise on slavery could not be sustained.
Being honest about the true forces that shaped American history is the only way we can avoid making the same mistakes now and in the future. Compromising on evil ultimately brings sorrow. The Founders made a terrible choice at the start of this nation; let’s not repeat that immoral error by according some kind of equivalent status to “many sides” when some are clearly wrong. We can never relent in our fervent and unyielding opposition to racial hatred, white supremacy and the evil forces that proclaim unjust power over other human beings.
Want to learn more about what was really going on in 1776 and thereafter? Some good reads:
Stephen Ambrose is a prolific historian I especially like Undaunted Courage
Also good in these days of major factionalism to read Federalist #10 on factions.
Also read Washington’s Farewell Address in which he warns against the dangers of political parties… this seems worth quoting here and compare his words to those of the current occupant of the office Washington first held:
“Let me now take a more comprehensive view, & warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally…
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.
“It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot & insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.
“There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true–and in Governments of a Monarchical cast Patriotism may look with endulgence, if not with favour, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate & assuage it. A fire not to be quenched; it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.” (George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796)
Just scratching the surface here. What are you reading about early American history? Send along your recommendations in the comments box below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll augment the reading list!