Here in Tennessee, Tea Partiers are making demands on the new legislature. The one that caught my attention deals with U.S. history:
Regarding education, the material they distributed said, “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”
That would include, the documents say, that “the Constitution created a Republic, not a Democracy.”
The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.
“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.
A few things here. First, the statement that the Constitution created a republic instead of a democracy is true, but misses the point. A true democracy in which everyone votes on every piece of legislation would be impossible to implement in the United States. A more accurate term to describe our government would be democratic republic–a republic with democratic institutions, some of which existed from the beginning, and one that has become more democratic over time. Indeed, much of American political history has been the debate on just how democratic our country should be. Any good history of the U.S. should discuss this.
As for the complaint by Rounds that the founders are unfairly criticized for slavery and treatment of Native American, well, doesn’t the fact that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves beg at least some questions? Even Jefferson himself saw the contradiction. And it wasn’t just Jefferson; about half of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slaveholders. This does not discount what they accomplished, but it does seem that if we want to teach “the truth regarding the history of our nation,” as the Tea Party documents claim, we should address this.
As for bringing “liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly,” I generally agree with Rounds: the founders set up a system under which liberty could eventually be extended to everyone. But it took nearly two centuries for it to be extended to African-Americans, and many would say we’re still not completely there yet. We should also note the founders didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their ideas of liberty were very much influenced by the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and Enlightenment, and many philosophers like Locke, Smith, Montesquieu, and others. In short, we need to put them in the context of when they lived.
Now, I’m not arguing the founders should be presented as villains or their achievements downplayed. What they accomplished was nothing short of amazing, and all Americans are forever in their debt. But we should be careful not to present them as gods, but rather as men of their day: products of a flawed society who nevertheless created the greatest governing document in world history. This, I think, makes them their story all the more impressive and is, I suspect, what most of them would have wanted.