12 April 2008

Founders, Slavery, Public Schools

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.”

According to Lincoln, the Founders never saw slavery as consistent with the principles they enshrined in our heritage.

Rather, the Founding Fathers overwhelmingly deplored slavery and considered black Americans to be included in the Declaration's creed. Said Lincoln: “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.”

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 Lincoln's argument was compelling, was it accurate?
Tubbs, “Should We Revere ‘Racists’?

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 Jackson, in which my son’s current high school history teacher was a classmate. The professor explained that Washington intended that his slaves be freed upon his death, and he would have freed them sooner if it had been economically possible (or something to that effect—it was a few years ago).

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 Carolina and Georgia, 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.
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 Madison.

“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 Union—temporarily.
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 Philadelphia, recalling Shay’s Rebellion, “deliberately erected safeguards against the excesses of the ‘mob’” (181).

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 United States. The years of the Confederation and Constitution resulted in “accelerated evolution rather than outright revolution” (166). The text highlights such anti-slavery achievements as Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman’s successful lawsuit to win freedom from slavery in Massachusetts in 1781, and the founding of “the world’s first antislavery society” in 1775 (167). It demonstrates that slavery was a controversial aspect of eighteenth century American society, continued to be a source of much conflict well into the nineteenth century, and emancipation did not eliminate all racism and sectional conflict.

From Jefferson to Lincoln

Tubbs makes much of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, validating Lincoln’s view of the Founders. The American Pageant presents a sidebar quoting Lincoln in his first debate with Douglas.

… there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, 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.
Kennedy, et al, American Pageant, 421.

However, the text also prompts allegations that Lincoln, too, might have been a racist in the first words of the extract: “I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position” (421). Much earlier in the text, on the other hand, an 1865 quote of Lincoln’s is presented in the caption to a picture illustrating a slave auction: “Whenever I see anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally” (358). The text undermines simplistic caricatures of Lincoln.

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.


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Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post; I do teach that some historical members were racist; I am not here to revise the obvious; however, unlike the fact that Wilson would not pass anti-lynching legislation during his administration, but he and others simply reflect a very dark period in our history.

As a teacher who has only worked in private schools, I think this is silly; politicians and some in the public must find people to blame for the problem of mass democracy in education. Some kids prefer to be left behind -- sad but true; as a teacher in the private school sector, most of us do not have to take a state cert test, though many do; as a history major, I opted to do so to increase my options.

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