When outlining this article, I had some trouble deciding which direction it was going to go; so much needs to be nuanced, so many arguments could be made. In the end, however, just one primary point needs to be clear:
Dear politicians, please keep your hands off American history.
Letting politics guide our interpretation of the past is, effectively, destroying it. The situation is dire; we have been pushed to the precipice. Don’t take my word for it; I have supported every claim here with links to relevant articles and studies–please click through them and read them carefully. Here we go, into the breach…
For at least the past two decades, historians have been battling the wave of politically-motivated agendas; from the often-misconstrued interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the falsities uttered about American History by certain candidates, historians have done as much as they can to stem the tide of ignorance. But is it enough?
Part of the trouble is that politicians think history is inflexible; that there is only one single interpretation of the past: theirs. But history is not a stagnant entity. Conclusions are drawn from evidence that historians–regardless of their political affiliation–are tasked with interpreting. Sometimes conservative or liberal slants will cause a bias in these interpretations, but that is why historians peer review. Peer review is meant to dislodge bias and keep things honest. In the event we don’t know something, historians are taught to be responsible enough to say, simply, “I don’t know.” They may proceed with their conclusions, but do so more cautiously. This is because the historian recognizes (or perhaps, ‘should’ recognize) that a consensus over certain events can change if better evidence or new arguments present themselves and usually this occurs through the academy where scholars can easily access and evaluate the new claims critically. What a historian should not do, nor what they should allow to happen, is to simply make baseless assertions about the past without supporting evidence.
Politicians don’t know any of this; if they do, they ignore it. While some officials take the ‘white-out’ approach (that is, removing all negative aspects of American history from textbooks), others simply make baseless and fictional claims. Frankly, some parties are worse than others. Presently, members of the tea party movement and a slew of GOP-affiliated candidates and elected officials have committed the most offenses against the history (not all offenses, mind you; but certainly a large majority).
The Short List
To start, let’s examine one of the more controversial debates today: church and state. In 2010, Glen Urquhart (a tea party candidate) stated that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ “was not in Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists.” But in fact it was in the letter to the Danbury Baptists. Jefferson’s exact statement is:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” (Jan 1, 1802; Emphasis added)
The reader can check out the full transcript of the letter here. Jefferson was not just citing his own opinion willy-nilly, either. His views were based upon precedent. For example, Madison’s original draft of the Bill of Rights, heavily indebted to the views of his friend Jefferson, expressly ordained a separation between church and state in very specific terms:
“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed.”
The first part is especially important. Jefferson clearly agreed with this. In his 1799 letter to Elbridge Gerry, he would make it clear:
“I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
This was the common feeling at the time in government and across the country. It was believed that in his own home, a man and his family could practice whatever religion they wanted without fear of persecution or mockery. But no national adherence to any faith would be established. Why?
Because the Anglican Church had been established under the crown as the official religion and it brought about fears of power within the church; that a church could bring about a form of national tyranny. A national religion stripped a man’s right (notice here I say ‘man’, because at this point ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ only applied to freemen) to make his own choices about whether or not to practice religion or which one to practice.
Most famously, the wall of separation between church and state was laid out in an official and binding government treaty. In 1796, a document was drafted and sent to the Senate floor where it was read aloud and unanimously agreed upon, signed by John (not Quincy) Adams, and published in newspapers across the country, which contained the words, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen (Muslims-ed.).” [Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11]
The problems we face with historical ineptitude doesn’t stop there. Back in 2011, Sarah Palin made the remark that Paul Revere was actually warning “the British” on his famous ride. Of course this is nonsense. That same year, Michele Bachman–yet another tea party-backed candidate–made the mistake of suggesting that John Quincy Adams was a founding father. She surely meant John Adams, seemingly without realizing that there existed a difference between the two of them. While we can try to forgive these candidates their slip-ups, what we cannot forgive is the deliberate attempt to then change history by their supporters.
Immediately after Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin made these incredibly erroneous statements, tea party members went to Wikipedia in an attempt to edit the entries for John Quincy Adams and Paul Revere. The saddest part is that it is unclear whether these supporters were changing it in an attempt to help Palin and Bachman save face (e.g., in an attempt to say, “Look, see? Our candidates were just merely reading information from Wikipedia; it’s all Wiki’s fault!”) or if they legitimately believed their candidates had somehow had access to secret government documents that were ignored by every other historian on the planet. Either way, this attempt to alter the facts of the past is not just a terrible breach of trust, it is dangerous.
It is dangerous because these individuals really believe they are just like the founders of this country. One candidate even went so far as to say, ”Our nation was founded on violence. The option is on the table. I don’t think that we should ever remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms.” (Stephen Broden, 2010) That is downright scary.
The 2nd Amendment is another big example where politicians spout off fictions without knowing the history. Historian Saul Cornell wrote that:
“When the Second Amendment is discussed today, we tend to think of those “militias” as just a bunch of ordinary guys with guns, empowering themselves to resist authority when and if necessary. Nothing could be further from the founders’ vision.
Militias were tightly controlled organizations legally defined and regulated by the individual colonies before the Revolution and, after independence, by the individual states. Militia laws ran on for pages and were some of the lengthiest pieces of legislation in the statute books. States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster.
The founders had a word for a bunch of farmers marching with guns without government sanction: a mob. One of the reasons we have a Constitution is the founders were worried about the danger posed by individuals acting like a militia without legal authority. This was precisely what happened during Shays’ Rebellion, an insurrection in western Massachusetts that persuaded many Americans that we needed a stronger central government to avert anarchy.”
Quite so. The new United States government would secure itself by means of force if necessary–against all who would stand up against it. The 2nd Amendment did not recognize unsanctioned groups of common folk with rifles as ‘militia’; and when groups of farmers gathered together in armed resistance, the government would then sanction militia to fight them. When the Western half of Pennsylvania rose up in arms against President George Washington in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion, he sent a force of 13,000 militia to suppress the insurrectionists. In our modern day, the National Guard is the only state-sanctioned militia.
The saddest thing is that they’ve effectively brainwashed their constituency by calling all information contrary to their agenda “liberal bias”. It is an old rhetorical ploy, actually often used by people who have zero defense against an argument, to attempt to emotionally appeal to the audience. You don’t need “facts” when you can just call whatever your opponent says a “bias”. But that isn’t how the world actually works. Despite the rhetoric, the world runs on a balance of cause and effect. Historians are responsible for carefully observing this balance and reporting on it based upon years of research and study. Knowing what effects occurred from what cause helps us better equip ourselves so it never happens again (if it is bad for society) or so that it continues to happen (if it is good for society).
When you attempt to remove all of that research and replace it with careless claims without any supporting evidence, what you get are people who show up to political rallies with semi-automatic rifles, tricorn hats with dangling tea bags, and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags without any grasp as to what those symbols really mean. They shout slogans like, “Taxation without representation!” without understanding the importance of the Stamp Act and the Tea Act. This results in some candidates making claims like, “(I)f our founders thought taxation without representation was bad, what would they think of representation with taxation?” (Once again, Michele Bachman in 2011). They make an inconvenience a grievance, turn our modern day issues into those of the founding fathers–something that historians would call ‘anachronistic’. The American revolution was not started over modern issues.
When there is no limit to the amount of ‘wrong’ that is be believed as ‘right’, people start putting their trust in those who completely lack credibility–people like Glenn Beck and David Barton. They will start to trust any piece of literature that falls into line with exactly what they believe, even satirical pieces of fiction. Mythical constructs like ‘The founders started a revolution over gun control’ run rampant–not because such an utterance is based upon any solid facts, but because the mythology of the statement conforms to their belief system. The founders not only instituted gun control, but enforced gun control. Follow the link to see just how frequent it was for the patriots to take arms away from private citizens. Minutes books from the various Councils of Safety and Security count occasions where armed militia (sanctioned by the state and recognized by the state) or associator companies nudged their way into the homes of fellow Americans to literally take, by force, arms and munitions for use of the government. Example 1:
And Example 2:
A few days later, it was resolved that:
The Committees of Safety and Security were the de facto elected officials that overthrew the local parliamentary British governments and they elected the very members of the Continental Congress (my ancestor, Josy Dreisbach, was among the members of the local county Committee of Safety). Not only did they have records of gun owners in the counties that they presided over, but they required that all nonassociators and nonmilitia to give up all their firearms.
But it would not always be enough. In fact, though Pennsylvania raised thousands of troops, only a quarter of them could be armed. There just weren’t enough guns. The other myth that ‘every man owned a musket’ in American history is fraught with error and fallacy. When militia were sent to aid Washington in his Philadelphia Campaign in 1777, even with the drafted militia courtesy of Pennsylvania’s Militia Act, he had to send half of them back home–there were no weapons to equip them with and they did not bring any themselves.
And that was the state of things. A lack of arms in Pennsylvania was a continuing problem for the government. But if you were to ask any candidate from the tea party about this, I doubt they would be aware of the crises of the time and how limited the availability of firearms was really.
As hard as this might be for some readers to swallow, especially those who have bought into the myths laid out by pundits and talking heads, every time we throw away a fact for a falsity, we step on the graves of our founding fathers. We diminish their sacrifices, their trials, and their lives. We are playing a dangerous game of tug of war–and though I come down hard on conservatives, democrats occasionally do it as well (though, honestly, not nearly as much as conservatives).
Every chance we allow politicians to sway public opinion about our American history we risk destroying the fabric of our own cultural past. And while some candidates are just waiting around with a bucket of White Out and a chance to make their move, we must be vigilant. We can’t let this continue to happen:
A little more than a year after the conservative-led state board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks to put slavery in a more positive light, a group of tea party activists in Tennessee has renewed its push to whitewash school textbooks. The group is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country’s founders being slave owners.
According to reports, Hal Rounds, the Fayette County attorney and spokesman for the group, said during a recent news conference that there has been “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.”
“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” Rounds said, according to The Commercial Appeal.
Nothing that this tea party spokesperson said above is remotely true. ‘Liberty’ absolutely existed in the world before the American Revolution. In fact, ‘liberty’ was more abundant in the Netherlands and in Canada, for more people, than in America following the ratification of the Constitution (American Indians and women had more rights, as did people of African descent–all marginalized in America after the founders had won the war and for decades after).
Rand Paul, while announcing his bid for presidency, boldly announced: “I am running for president to return our country to the principles of liberty and limited government.” What he is actually saying is “I’m running for president to return our country to a state where slavery existed, where the Constitution didn’t exist, and when we were under the Articles of Confederation.”
Historically, there is no other way to understand his proclamation since the Constitution effectively did away with limited government. Amendments to the constitution that make discrimination and segregation illegal are items that Rand Paul would love to remove. Why? Because Paul thinks it incredibly inconvenient that people aren’t permitted to discriminate against other people. Seriously, he wrote that in a college editorial; I’m not pontificating. These are things he actually believes.
Paul, like the confederates of old, see discrimination as a natural right. In other words, Paul, whether he and his constituents realize it or not, is redefining ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ to mean something quite the opposite of what they actually mean. If you’re not clued in, that’s a problem.
Paul sees a world where government oversight doesn’t exist, specifically–in this instance–where your freedom is concerned. You see, Paul doesn’t care about your rights or your freedoms. How can he? He hasn’t thought through his own arguments (best case) or he just would rather see you suffer (worst case). After all, what is to stop a police officer from pulling you over because you’re black, or a woman, or overweight? Without anti-discrimination laws, juries could pass rulings based solely on the color of ones skin or their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs. Oh, you’re a progressive Christian who believes in evolution? Well, too bad for you, because this jury from rural Alabama is made up of creationists. Guess whose going to jail? And when you are paid less money because you happen to be a woman, or because you’re physically handicapped, or because you lost a leg in that war that the Republicans want so badly, or because you happen to be a dark-skinned Italian man, or because you’re black, you have zero recourse. You can’t sue that employer.
So what happens to freedom then? Socially, certain groups will be marginalized. The Constitution is basically lit aflame. Why? Because in this country we have majority rule with minority rights. We can’t ever forget about that last part–minority rights. And yet Paul wants you to. Because he doesn’t know his history. At least, we hope he is just ignorant and not being a jackass on purpose.
That should frighten you. Yes, we expect a few crazy people out there to run for elected positions; in a country with nearly 319 million people, you can’t really expect everyone to be sane and grounded. But when people running for president, who are as notable as Rand Paul, can’t even get the basic premise of our Constitution correct–in fact, they interpret it to mean the exact opposite of what is written–then one should worry.
The hard reality is that pundits and politicians don’t like what the founders actually said and did. No tea party candidate or conservative Republican is going to quote Jefferson on his views concerning religion; nor will they quote Franklin on his views about church. They won’t quote Hamilton on big government. They won’t quote Washington, Jefferson, or the Congressional resolves about taking away privately-owned firearms from civilians. These items run contrary to their agendas, to their motivations. So, if they don’t outright know of these facts, they simply try to change them through misinformation and lies.
What is perhaps most troubling isn’t that they get away with it (though, that is also troubling), but that they have duped a portion of the population into letting them get away with it and that they got them to help perpetuate these falsehoods.
Whitewashing history is not a solution; it is the problem. Those who abuse and misuse history in this manner must be held accountable. This is why we need to put our trust in historians. They are paid to go over the records, to examine the data, to determine the reasons why things happened, how they happened, what influenced the events and motivated the people. We cannot leave it up to politicians and their supporters to alter the past to fit their preconceived notions.
Each American has a right to their own respective beliefs. But when one attempts to recast the past into a mold they shaped with misinformation, that crosses a line. We, as a people who love and cherish our American heritage and our history, cannot allow this to happen. We need to speak out against it, to reprimand those who are guilty of it, and for goodness sake, we have to stop voting them into office.