George Thomas is the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions and Director of the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College. Professor Thomas is a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist.
A number of states have rushed to limit how race can be taught in America’s public schools. Worried that educational institutions are perpetuating “un American” ideas by teaching that America is an irredeemably racist country, many of these laws seek to limit just how the history of slavery and race can be taught. Such laws would seemingly duck the fraught and ugly history of slavery and racial subordination by law—prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts”—for the uplifting story of 1776 that begins with the Declaration of Independence and culminates in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. There is truth to this story. And there is enormous appeal in the Declaration’s creed that all humans are created equal. But this is only part of the American story, a story that is much more accurately captured by the disharmony between the triumphant idea that all humans are born free and equal and the tragic fact of slavery and racism that stubbornly belie the American creed.
Teaching America’s real history—including the terrible injustices of the past and present—and placing contested ideas and concepts at the center of that history, is a much more powerful way to forge a sense of civic identity and prepare students for self-government than ducking “divisive concepts” and offering a sanitized version of history that takes refuge in a mythological version of the past.
Limiting just how slavery and race can be discussed is hardly new. Beginning in the mid 1830s, Congress refused to consider anti-slavery petitions or resolutions in what was known as the “gag-rule.” Former President John Quincy Adams repeatedly pushed the issue on the House floor, complaining the gag-rule was a clear violation of freedom of speech and indicative of how slavery distorted the Constitution. While the “gag-rule” was ultimately lifted in 1844, southern states began prohibiting anti-slavery speech and writing in the two-decades before the war. Fredrick Douglass argued that this was an instance of slavery “mastering” the Constitution, as free speech was subverted to protect slavery.
Like the gag-rule and prohibitions on anti-slavery speech, efforts to limit just how slavery and its legacy of racism can be taught look like efforts to white-wash America’s history.
One of the first great civic education projects in America—Noah Webster’s Little Reader’s Assistant—offers an interesting contrast to current efforts to limit teaching about race. Webster’s Little Reader was aimed, as the title indicates, at young readers; it included stories that aimed to cultivate knowledge of and attachment to American history and principles, even concluding with a “short and easy” explanation of the Constitution. One of the stories Webster included spoke to the treatment of enslaved Africans.
Recording the brutality of the capture, shipping, and selling of enslaved persons, Webster pushed his youthful reader to reflect on and consider the justice of the practice. “Shall this barbarous and unlawful practice always prevail? Are the negroes brutes? Or are they men like ourselves? What right hath one man to enslave another? Have not the negroes the same right to steal us, our wives and children, transport us to Africa, and reduce us to bondage, as we have to enslave them?” Webster wrote this in the second edition of the reader, after the Constitution’s compromises with slavery, and even as he was writing in support of the new Constitution. In his pointed inquiries about slavery, Webster was encouraging young Americans to reflect on the justice of the practice according to the nation’s own putative political principles. Webster’s aim, to be sure, was to foster citizenship and attachment to the American project: he would often note that the revolution did not end with the war, but was an ongoing part of maintaining the American experiment. Yet Webster embraced a critical and reflective form of citizenship. His other work on civic education included criticism of state establishments and religious tests for office, which he called “badges of bigotry.” Webster’s idea of education did not shy away from controversy, as he insisted that “a perfect freedom of debate is essential to a free government.”
Webster’s prolific output, including his famous dictionary, show the promise of 1776 even while acknowledging the persistence of practices and attitudes that belied that promise. Indeed, Webster’s own works, including a story about Christopher Columbus and the European settlement of America, have elements that are sure to sit uneasily with Americans today. We should not shy away from this. Blemishes, in human beings and in nations, are powerful teaching points: the good sits alongside the bad in history, pushing the young to recognize nuance and subtlety that ought to be a hallmark of education for democratic citizenship. And if Webster did not include stories of Black Americans claiming the rights of citizenship, we should include them now as a central feature of the American story.
Even before Webster wrote the first edition of his Little Reader’s Assistant, Elizabeth Freeman challenged her status as an enslaved human being under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. She appealed to the Declaration of Independence and the newly formed Massachusetts Constitution, authored by none other than John Adams. She argued that the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780’s pronouncement that “all men are born free and equal” was at odds with slavery even if the Massachusetts Constitution did not say anything in particular about slavery. She won in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, beginning a chain of cases that would ultimately abolish slavery in that state.
So began, even prior to the framing and ratification of the Constitution, a struggle by Black Americans to make real the promise of the Declaration. Consider other unknown figures like David Walker, who in his abolitionist newsletter, wrote to his fellow Americans, “See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language? Hear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4, 1776—“We hold these truths to be self evident—that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL! . . .Compare your own language with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us.” Black Americans like Walker appealed to the Declaration and its self-evident truth that all men are created equal to claim the rights of citizenship, which they were all too often denied by law. Fredrick Douglass insisted that blacks were part of “We the People” who ratified the Constitution: “We, the people—not we, the white people.”
This is the story of 1776. But it is radically incomplete if we do not pay attention to the laws and attitudes that have long denied the logic of 1776. The story of redeeming the promise of America is a more complete, honest, and accurate story only when it includes the ugly and brutal denial of rights and equal citizenship because of race. Disharmony is an essential part of the American story.
Yet America has too often denied this struggle—particularly in how it taught history. As if the Declaration’s insistence that all men are created equal was enough—as if the idea was there from the beginning, so we could avert our eyes from the ensuing two-hundred-year struggle to redeem the aspirational promise of the Declaration.
Consider that the 1776 project, which for many of these states would seemingly represent the proper form of civic education, only mentions the Civil War Amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments in passing, despite the fact that those amendments amounted to a second founding, to make the Union “worthy of the saving.” It also offers only a few brief paragraphs on the failure of Reconstruction and the subsequent rise of racial subordination by law. It is crucial that Americans understand that these constitutional amendments were necessary to end slavery and make blacks equal citizens: they arose to the “dignity of a new Magna Carta.” It is equally important that Americans understand that the initial triumph in the years immediately after the Civil War, when Black Americans enjoyed the initial benefits of citizenship and elected members to both houses of Congress, was followed by tragic retreat.
Southern states evaded the terms of the Civil War amendments, weaving into state law a system of racial apartheid that denied blacks the right to vote and instituted segregation between the races. The details are too numerous to list, but ponder a few highlights. Public schools and facilities were segregated on the basis of race, and private schools were prohibited from integrating. Blacks were denied the right to vote, and state sponsored violence was routinely used against blacks. Pause to think that the Senate filibuster, too often cavalierly defended as a procedure that forces democratic reflection, was used in the first half of the twentieth century to prevent an anti-lynching law.
In the sanitized version of history on offer in the shallow 1776 Report, more time is spent on the challenges of Progressivism and Identity Politics than the 100 year struggle from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to overturn racial subordination by law. This isn’t history, but an erasure of history. It also offers a perverse view of human agency, as if ideas set in motion do all of the actual work, neglecting the hard labor and struggle by Americans that has been necessary to redeem America’s promise.
Such thinking prefers the abstraction of a country committed to equality, rather than the reality of a country that has struggled to make that promise real. It’s too bad, because the struggle is a compelling story that has shaped how we understand equality and liberty. These ideals have become more meaningful, and more fully understood, because of the struggle to realize them. Being honest about America’s history should not undermine the appeal of the American creed to students, but should bring the struggle over American ideals vividly to life. A self-governing people must be able to understand its history—the sublime alongside the tragic—as it carries forward the American experiment.
This essay was updated on June 9. An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that the 1776 Report did not mention Reconstruction.