In a coffee shop this week, I overheard criticism of public school teachers that nearly pulled me into a conversation that was mostly none of my business. Having once before jumped into other peoples’ conversations in that bistro, and remembering the mixed results, I desisted. The comments, however, came back to my consciousness this morning while browsing the archive of American Revolution & Founding Era.
Allegations of Racism in the Republic
Almost two years ago, Brian Tubbs characterized the lessons our public schools teach regarding George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and company as depicting them as racists whom we “should be ashamed to pay … any respect or honor.”
, the Founders never saw slavery as consistent with the principles they enshrined in our heritage. Lincoln
Rather, the Founding Fathers overwhelmingly deplored slavery and considered black Americans to be included in the Declaration's creed. Said
: “The fathers of this government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it would be in the course of ultimate extinction.” Lincoln
His view is ignored or rejected in today's classrooms and in the media, but it was this very viewpoint that sustained his ultimately successful campaign to rid the nation of the evil institution he so ardently despised. But while
's argument was compelling, was it accurate? Lincoln
Tubbs, “Should We
Tubbs offers several points of evidence that the Founders sought the eventual abolition of slavery and considered African Americans “men”. Indeed, his arguments remind me of those offered by my professor for a graduate course in US history from Jefferson to
I could draw on many sources from which to confirm, modify, and refute the points in Tubbs’ argument, but will confine myself to explicit evidence concerning classroom practice. My son’s teacher demands that the students read carefully and take notes upon their textbook, David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant, twelfth edition (2002).
Does this textbook support or refute Tubbs’ allegation regarding the Founders, slavery, and historical memory?
Tubbs tells us that Congress outlawed slavery in 1808. The American Pageant, describing the debates at the Constitutional Convention, offers more detail.
Most of the states wanted to shut off the African slave trade. But
South Carolinaand , requiring slave labor in their rice paddies and malarial swamps, raised vehement protests. By way of compromise the convention stipulated that the slave trade might continue until the end of 1807, at which time Congress could turn off the spigot (see Art. I, Sec. IX, para. 1). It did so as soon as the prescribed interval had elapsed. Meanwhile all the new state constitutions except Georgia ’s forbade overseas slave trade. Georgia
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 181.
More than a dozen pages earlier, in a section that begins with the Declaration’s “All men are created equal,” the textbook addresses why the Founders did not eliminate slavery in the new nation: “the fledgling idealism of the Founding Fathers was sacrificed to political expediency” (167). They quote
“Great as the evil [of slavery] is,” the young Virginian James Madison wrote in 1787, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Nearly a century later, the slavery issue did wreck the
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 167.
(I will refrain from commenting here on the power and meaning of the phrase, “one nation indivisible,” that was routinely spoken as part of the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954 when the phrase was broken up in the war of rhetoric against godless communism.)
The American Pageant neither presents the Founders as demigods, nor as demons. It does, however, employ the term “demigods”—always in quote marks—which the authors attribute to Thomas Jefferson’s observation regarding the “extraordinarily high” (178) quality of the fifty-five participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The text notes that they were “a conservative, well-to-do body” and nineteen owned slaves (178). The revolution “did not suddenly and violently overturn the entire political and social framework” (166). The “conservative-minded delegates” in
The general theme of the text—hence of the curriculum now employed in my alma mater—highlights the possibilities and limits of the revolutionary era that created and established the
From Jefferson to
Tubbs makes much of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, validating
… there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of
, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to those rights as the white man. Independence
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 421.
However, the text also prompts allegations that
It appears to me that The American Pageant does not tell students that they should be ashamed of the Founders and of Lincoln, nor does it urge that they venerate these men without a sense of their human flaws.
Brian Tubbs offers several examples—some quite specific, some vague—documenting his assertion that there is a “chorus of contempt and condemnation sung by scholars, students, politicians, judges, talk show hosts, authors, and everyday Americans concerning the sins of our nation's past” (“Should We Revere ‘Racists’?”). Such a generalization goes further than the evidence he presents: a caller’s statement to C-SPAN and a History Channel poll, both recalled years after the fact; a quote from a “biography” of Jefferson by Conor Cruise O'Brien (perhaps The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800); and a quote from “civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy” (source not cited). I prefer to see better support for such assertions.
Tubbs’ discussion leaves many gaps, but is far more nuanced than the assertion I heard in a coffeehouse. There, parents disgruntled with their children’s school alleged that many teachers could not pass the much scorned WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) for which they must prepare students. Relating the comment to some teachers, I suggested that they ought to take up the challenge because there is a huge difference between high school and college education—they would easily pass. The WASL tests what the state would like high school students to know before they graduate; teachers must know quite a bit more.
I too have observed problems with schools over the years, and have been vocal about these. Nevertheless, I get a little incensed when I hear assertions that teachers cannot pass the tests given to students or that schools teach that the Founders were little more than a bunch of racists. Those criticisms are inaccurate.