A Historian’s View

Posted on July 8, 2020

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Everyone these days seems to have an opinion or action on how to interpret the past. Some claim systemic racism characterizes U. S. history and the residual evidence, like statues, monuments, names of buildings, bridges and other artifacts of life, need to be removed to achieve some semblance of “social justice,” a tricky phrase to begin with.

Blacks chant “Black Lives Matters” and white liberals feel guilty for subordinating and exploiting blacks over the centuries. In recognition of this new knowledge, A.P. recently promoted black to Black. That’s ok. In my day, the Conquest of America by the Spanish was capitalized, but it’s not fashionable today, and the conquest isn’t even called the conquest anymore, but the Encounter. Fashions change. And Christopher Columbus’s historic First Voyage (of 1492 for today’s generation of students) is now the first voyage.

But, let me suggest as gently as possible, history does not. Capitalization moves up and down, Confederate generals are toppled, and even Thomas Jefferson, that old rascal who held a few slaves and managed to author the Declaration of Independence while running his plantation, is going down. That he fathered children with his black slave mistress, Sally Heming, and freed all his children by her, gives some reason to pause as we drag him down, or mor exactly, his statues, into the gutter of history. That Jefferson, like so many Americans, held slaves or was involved in the slave trade is indeed true.

That he also wrote the most ringing phrase in the making our country— “all men are created equal—” is also true and it is worth more than a passing thought in a history class. It needs to be examined, like Jefferson, for what it truly means not only in the context of its time but also as it stood up as an ideal for our country to strive for over the centuries.

As we drive old Dixie down, a song made famous by Joan Baez in 1961, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” we are attempting to destroy our true history and replace it with some grotesque version that lifts systemic racism and victimization as the ruling principles in American life, from the Puritans to today.

And you might as well add other slaveholders, from George Washington to the founders of that great northern liberal bastion of scholarship and learning in Rhode Island, Brown University, whose founders were slave traders. Indeed, from 1700 to the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century, more than 60 percent of the North American ships involved in the African slave trade were based in Rhode Island. Liberal activists waging war against history might head north to Rhode Island and Connecticut and smoke out many a Yankee fortune begun on the gruesome slave trade atter they finish pulling down the last Confederate statue in the South.

They are on a roll, one group threatening to pull down a statue of Abraham Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves during the Civil War.

This is an example of two very disturbing forces or trends at work in America today. One, it is ignorance and stupidity gone to seed, and, two, rewriting any history to suit your politics is one of the steps leading to the creation of totalitarian states, usually but not always socialist or communist, in today’s world.

One has to purge the past, indict the defenders of the old orders, and create a “new” reality. That is happening right now in the streets and fires and actions of those determined to create a new state based largely on the destruction of the old state: that America emerged largely as an evil enterprise built not only on slavery, but driven by pure greed and selfishness. Concepts such as liberty and freedom only served to cover the interests of the rich and mighty whites who straddled over the minorities—blacks and immigrants especially—to craft their engines of power and wealth. Only by destroying these can a truly egalitarian world emerge, guided, and led of course by an enlightened minority who will run it all from the expansion of government into all life. See the Soviet Union for one example of this vision; try Cuba for another. The list goes on and on of failed authoritarian autocracies devoted to making the world over courtesy of the new leaders in power.

In the crude language of revolutionaries, one has to wash the brain in the ideology, or even better, the theology of power.

To any student of history, the above analysis is so crystal clear that one wonders how it can be so easily ignored among the brokers of power and politics across the nation. History let me remind all, as carefully and gently as possible, is like your memory. It is part of your being. It defines and explains how you grew up, what you learned, how the circumstances of your life have made you who you are, from your family to your church to your education. You may try to erase or rewrite your history to suit your purposes, but you cannot change it. What you CAN change is the present and the future. If it is pointing to a social and cultural debacle then step in and work to change from the vision of revolutionaries, anarchists, fire bombers, and statue topplers to those of us who think liberty and equality will always trump tyranny.

So many are afraid to speak the truth for fear of being criticized as being racially insensitive, not caring, insulting or offensive. Lose the battle of speaking the truth and you move one step further away from it Rather, embrace the truth of the past and it will be your guide for the future. My bias is that the truth is always to be found in Scripture that blesses us and lifts us out of ourselves. That lesson for another day.

Published as “A Historian’s View” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Posted in: History