July 4 and the Founding Fathers

Posted on August 17, 2019

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Since this is July 4th weekend, I wanted to remark a bit of what we owe those “old white men” who delivered us from English oppression in the late eighteenth century.

You may be unaware, but many of today’s textbooks portray the Founding Fathers as nothing but a cadre of dead, white, sexist, slave-holding males whose true identify is revealed by the new histories. A quick review of the prominent issues in the teaching of American history reveals a deep fissure in what we teach our kids.

Just one book, by a sociologist no less, named James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, impales U. S. historians for having lied to readers of American history for the past century by promoting a myth of American exceptionalism, triumph, and goodness. In other words, standard American history has extoled the myth that we are a noble and exceedingly good people amidst the general run of the mill people on the rest of the globe.

Loewen, and some others of his persuasion, are “setting the record straight” by looking, with a self-declared clear and dispassionate eye, at everything bad and evil in American history, which brings us down from the lofty view that we are special, chosen people.

Think of tearing down a statue of someone like Robert E. Lee as the physical counterpart of the attacks by the new histories on American history.

You not like Lee; you may think he was a symbol of racism and defender of slavery; you can believe anything you want. But you are not going to change the historical circumstances nor the truthful record of the American Civil War for example, no matter how many statues you tear down and how many American “heroes” like George Washington you nail as simply racist partisans defending the privileges and rights of a very limited number of white males.

Let me suggest that if one of those Founding Fathers, like John Adams, had treated his wife Abigail like some of the new histories claim all males treated women, old John would not have lasted long enough to become president.

I thought this would be a hard column to write as I reviewed much of the historical literature. One, I am not an American historian, although I might gently remind all “American” historians that those of us who study the Spanish empire in America, or Peru, or Mexico or Cuba are indeed “American” historians since we are studying the Americas. But let’s not split hairs. “United Statesian” historians is almost unprounounable, awkward and “American” long ago co-opted the description. That’s fine with me. My ancestors go back to the American Revolution and so I’m comfortable with the phrase.

Anyhow, one of the lessons of teaching that I have learned is that sometimes it is better to be a generalist than a specialist. Generalists can see the bigger picture better. You don’t want a kidney specialist examining your brain for headaches. She’s going to suggest perhaps a renal examination to find out what’s causing the headache. You want your family doctor to see you first. He looks at the whole being.

And as historians have looked at the whole history of America, they have taken note that in fact there IS something exceptional about this place. The statistics are overwhelming and I’m not necessarily a statistics guy. Just about every indicator of scientific, medical, economic, political, and any other indicator you wish to add puts us at the top, or near the top. I know some of you will find us in an abysmal place in some areas today—like low on the totem pole of American children who can do calculus—but we are not supreme beings. There is only one of those, and we most certainly are not him, although as Christians we TRY to be more like him.

We have our warts and the new historians revel in portraying them. We have been, or are, sexist. So is the rest of the globe. We endured and prospered from slavery. We got rid of it, and fought the most awful, killing war—the Civil War—to do it. We have been, and some say, continue to be racist, but expunged racial laws and institutions over the years, culminating in the 1950s and 1960s, and have emerged on the other side, maybe not perfectly, but in tact and with some old ideals “all men are created equal” now incorporated into law.

One wag over time was heard to observe that you “can’t legislate morality,” to what one of the greatest thinkers and Christians in the past 2000 years, St. Thomas Aquinas, retorted “what better than morality?”

Published as “Revising our history does a disservice to the truth,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, July 7, 2019