When history is dangerous
Published July 8, 2021
By Thomas Mills
Former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out conservatives’ opposition to teaching the truth about our nation. He tweeted, “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That’s really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” It’s a belief that views our country as fragile instead of resilient. It assumes that the scrutiny of history can undermine the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and that the power of our nation lies in the actions of people, not the greater ideals expressed in our founding documents.
The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The man who wrote these words owned slaves and was supported by many others who defended this evil institution. Yet, he gave us aspirational tenets on which to build a new nation based on ideals instead of enshrining the reality of the times.
The first significant document of the new country, the Constitution, preserved slavery instead of abolishing it. The men who wrote it and those who voted on it, fell short of the words of laid out in the Declaration. The struggle of the next 250 years has been to make the aspirations of the Declaration a reality. Conservatives, as Pompeo states, want us to believe that the country was perfect from its inception, that any change is a threat, and that understanding the truth of our founding is “dangerous.”
In reality, the experience of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and various groups of immigrants has been a 250 year struggle to demand the unalienable rights that the Founding Fathers initially reserved for White men of the gentry, not the broader population. That’s their experience and it’s every bit as American as that of White Americans who have been largely ignorant of or opposed to their fight for equality. Acknowledging this history somehow threatens conservatives who see our country as easily undermined by accepting their truth. In rejecting knowledge, they are the ones who have become the greatest threat to the country, standing with White supremacists who reject the ideals of the Declaration and turning a blind eye to those who assaulted our government.
Conservatives seek a neat little story with a happy ending that allows us to ignore the shortcomings of both our forebearers and our government. In doing so, they ignore the reality of too much of our nation, particularly African Americans and Native Americans. The founding of the United States, like the beginning of almost every major historical endeavor, was messy, complicated, and, yes, flawed. Understanding the reasons and circumstance of those injustices and imperfections is key to creating the “more perfect union” outlined in the Preamble to the Constitution and to embrace the “We” in “We the people.”