October 25, 2020

Warts And All

By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 26, 2020

Project 1619, a product of New York Times Magazine writers, is a potential public school curriculum that attempts to redefine early U.S. history by making the assertion that slavery and Black Americans were the keystone to our creation and development. 

It posits our country's birth was not 1776, but 1619, the year Virginia colony imported the first African slaves. It suggests our Founders’ lofty ideals weren't quite so lofty and that “all men are created equal” business was far afield from what was believed and practiced.

They have a point.

The authors of Project 1619, which is still a work in progress, could have gone back even farther. The Spanish brought African slaves to what is now Florida as early as 1526, but it wasn't yet a colony. That offense laid the groundwork for the influx of slaves yet to come. The commerce in human beings in North America was nearly a century old by the time Virginia got around to importing their own.

By 1776, slavery was perfectly legal and existed in all 13 colonies (Vermont was the first to abolish it a year later). The Declaration of Independence makes no specific mention of slavery, though it does manage to get in a line about “... merciless Indian Savages...” At least 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration were slaveholders.

Our Constitution fails to abolish slavery and makes reference to it tangentially in a particularly dehumanizing way: Every slave counts as 60 percent of a person for taxation purposes. Eleven of the 39 who signed the Constitution were slaveholders. To their credit, some refused to sign because the document permitted slavery. 

In fact, the Constitution and early laws surgically removed plenty of people from plenty of rights. Voting, for example, was restricted to white, male property owners. So was gun ownership. Thomas Jefferson's soaring, inclusive rhetoric at the beginning of our Declaration didn't actually include more than half the country. Jefferson and 11 other early presidents were also slaveholders. 

We didn't get around to abolishing slavery until 1865, allowing women to vote in federal elections until 1920 or creating the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts until 1965. 

President Donald Trump, aware Project 1619 is now being taught in some schools, is shocked by this “radical, left-wing propaganda” and has proposed his own alternative. The “1776 Commission” will be created, he says, to develop a “patriotic education.” 

Well, okay, but the so-called patriotic version of American history is what most of us already received. It involves hero worship of the Founders, no hint they ever did anything wrong, and a literal whitewashing of much of our early reality.

While lauding the Great American Experiment, we've cleverly skipped over too much of the unpleasantness. Yet the darkness that lurks in the shadows is integral to understanding our development as a country.

Slavery isn't the only stain. Our horrific treatment of indigenous people is as old as our enslavement of Africans. The first recorded massacre occurred in today's Florida in 1536. Hernando de Soto, unable to enslave local inhabitants, killed them all instead. The notion of “manifest destiny,” that we were ordained by the Almighty to conquer the West, wasn't sent down from on high but was created by a newspaper columnist. Women had rights roughly akin to what we see in restrictive Muslim countries today, which is to say not many. 

Our history books didn't really cover much of that. And we completely ignored what the Western Hemisphere might have been like before Europeans showed up. Charles C. Mann's “1491” is a remarkable look at thriving civilizations, including as many as 25 million tribal people already in North America when Europeans showed up.  

There are legitimate researchers and historians who question Project 1619's claim that the U.S. was built primarily on the backs of slaves. And it omits too much to be a reliable substitute for traditional history courses. But it could be a useful addition.

There is nothing wrong with telling our school children the whole story of American history, warts and all. The truth of our history including slavery, our abysmal treatment of indigenous peoples, and our dismissal of women are not pieces of propaganda but an honest part of our history.

So, too, are the lofty goals of equality and fairness for all, and the slow but real progress we've made. We are currently reckoning with racial justice issues that have been percolating for more than two centuries, but we are still trying.

It should be okay to tell our children the American experiment is a noble one born of high ideals not yet reached but to which we still aspire. And that we acknowledge the worst of our past so we are not doomed to repeat it. That would be a patriotic education.

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