Whose history are we really talking about?

 

 

That question requires us to focus on where we came from, our history, and everyone else's. We have all learned some form of history from different teachers in school, from books, and from the media. The history many of us grew up with involved powerful kings, queens, wars, governments, and the development of parliamentary democracy with some historical and romantic novels. But for the British, for example, when England leaves the Catholic Church in 1534 major changes occurred after Henry the VIII that changed how we approach the subject.

 
 

By the time some of us entered a university our perspective began really changing. Marxism had arrived bringing a heightened attention to the arc of class and economics. The Russians with the horrendous record of brutal killing under Stalin suddenly became our ally against the vicious Nazi regime Hitler led in a world that featured three fascist countries against what we called loosely “the free world”. Many treatises on history have helped to revolutionize our view of the past, but surely began filling up with depth from new historical knowledge that modified what simplistic patriotism taught our children about such issues as slavery, racism, and war and how we were exceptional.

 
 

After WWII things drastically changed and our military industrial complex with the aid of the CIA launched a series of military actions that were far from helping build up weaker countries. Supporting unpopular dictators because third world countries might lean towards communism, like in Vietnam brought us into a war of choice built on a lie that two of our Navy Destroyers were attacked on the high seas by North Vietnamese torpedo boats when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unraveled the truth. We had provoked the attack the night before by sending Norwegian fast boats with Vietnamese crews attacking North Vietnamese torpedo boats while U.S. Navy ships bombarded them from the ocean!

 
 

(Fulbright Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings on Vietnam )

 

Soon we were involved in a widespread peace movement, nearly one half million deserters, draft dodgers, and our President Nixon carried on a secret B-52 bombing campaign into neutral Cambodia followed by an invasion he called a “protective reaction!” A few days later the nation responded with a series of loud protests around the country from thousands of colleges and with anti-war veterans’ groups expressing their outrage at Nixon’s expanding an unpopular war. When five students were killed and nine injured by national guards at Kent State, the numbers of protestors dramatically increased as did the rhetoric of the Nixon Administration attacking the protestors as slime. Christian Appy’s American Reckoning is one of only a few histories of the Vietnam War that describes how it ended America’s exceptionalism-the broad faith that the U.S. is a unique force for good in the world-for most people and had a profound effect on our national identity.

 
 

Another force connected with women involved half the population followed by equally powerful questions about race and racism. The idea of history as a procession of dead white males written by live ones may sound ridiculous now, but the war to open up a wider perspective was a real one. So writers of history began demonstrating different point of emphasis and views. Soon the teaching of science and engineering became increasingly important.

 
 

All exposes the current assault on the humanities within higher education as even more uncultured. The thinking goes like this: the study of history, English, philosophy or art doesn't help anyone get a job and does not contribute to the economy to the same degree that science or engineering or business studies do. I believe most of us say that is nonsense and obfuscation.

 

(My Lai Massacre killed 500 Vietnamese lives of unarmed men, women, children and babies)

 

The humanities, including history, teach people how to think analytically while at the same time appreciating innovation and creativity. Isn't that a good set of skills for most jobs? Yet we have a Black population clearly left behind even after a vigorous civil rights movement under Martin Luther King Jr, and those who followed his lead with a variety of militant and peaceful organizations that led to civil rights amendments to the Constitution and civil rights laws involving anti-discrimination in schools, employment and police interactions.

 
 

One could wish that the historians were all more accurate. Why would some dare doubt climate change when the science has established it’s truth as one of our most serious problems? Toni Morrison brought to life the inner life of slavery, and pushed the modern reader to confront this reality. Another confronted the same difficult history from a white woman's perspective. One memoir produces anti-war feelings from the righteous revulsion against gross misuse of power. Another accuses those who cringe at the horrors of Hiroshima as "hand wringers". Any society that fails to pay proper attention to whose history we are exploring, and from what perspective, maybe starving his/her own imagination and missing an opportunity to participate spreading useful historical knowledge so mistakes of the past may be understood and avoided in the future. 

 
 

(Hiroshima the day after we dropped an atomic weapon on that city followed by another later on Nagasaki despite many generals who conceded they were completely unnecessary since we had decimated their cities with Napalm, owned the skies for bombing anywhere, and Hirohito was ready and willing to surrender.)

The Monster of Monticello

This Fourth of July we should read Professor Paul Finkelman's excellent article after many incidents of recent racial hatred, gun violence, and President Obama's eulogy at Charleston, S.C. for the victims of another senseless racially motivated killing at a Bible study inside a sanctuary. It had been the target of racists before.  We might look at the third president of our country and see where some of these roots derive from despite the traditional reverence accorded to Jefferson because of his role in writing the Declaration of Independence. Even the flag of the confederacy has provoked many to act to bring it down or request that governors consider that. Obama mentioned in his eulogy bringing it down would not be an act of political  correctness, nor would it detract from those who fought in the civil war, but rather that the purpose the South fought to preserve slavery was wrong. Perhaps now we can face the need to make it harder to put guns into the hands of people not fit to handle a gun. Here are some sobering thoughts on one of our national heroes who was a slaveholder when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. You may be surprised to find his behavior fell far short of what we now expect of our leaders, yet in his time, and even now, he was, and is, revered for his passionate embrace of independence and the American Revolution.

By PAUL FINKELMAN NOV. 30, 2012

Jefferson        

Durham, N.C.

THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.

We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.

Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.

Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.

As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”

Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”

A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”

Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that “something” should be.

In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.

Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor in legal history at Duke Law School, is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.”