In the 43 years I have taught U.S. history in universities and public schools, I have done my best to resist the temptation to turn my lectern into a “bully pulpit” for proselytizing my personal political gospel. Not surprisingly, I also get my back up when others, with no particular preparation in the field but a truckload of ideological axes to grind, attempt to prescribe both the content of historical curricula and the lessons that are to be drawn from them.
A textbook example of such an effort to control the textbooks is Senate Bill 426, introduced by Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, and others and now under subcommittee review. “The Teach Freedom Act” seeks to “modify requirements for instruction” in U.S. history and other related social studies disciplines. In keeping with the spirit of a similar initiative launched with tea party backing in Tennessee, this legislation is premised on the belief that “a positive understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship.”
The problem from the get-go is that the bill seeks a positive understanding rather than an informed one. Hence, it would require teachers to impart “an understanding of the mandate of the British government that required slavery in the Colonies and the actions of various Founders who always opposed slavery, as well as early civic and religious movements to end slavery, and the self-correcting constitutional language the Founders included to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery.”
This item is particularly distressing because it suggests first that the sponsors of this bill are themselves poorly informed of the history of their own state. If there was a British “mandate” requiring slavery in the Colonies, how was it that in 1735 the House of Commons passed a resolution affirming the initial decision of Georgia’s Trustees to ban slavery in the Colony? Likewise, the “self-correcting constitutional language” supposedly drafted by the Founders “to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery” actually applied not to slavery itself, but to “the migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit,” i.e., the international slave trade. Even then it prevented Congress from taking action against that trade for the next 20 years.
President Thomas Jefferson supported the act of Congress that forbade further international commerce in human property after 1808, but for all his public display of angst, like several of the other Founding Fathers described in SB 426 as “always opposed to slavery,” he proved reluctant to free more than a few of his own bondsmen. Ironically, in combination with the rising demand for labor sparked by the advent of the cotton gin in 1793, the ban on further importation of Africans helped to boost slave prices, thereby proving the financial boon for Jefferson and other slave-holding statesmen.
There is also reason for concern in its rigidly prescribed, severely front-loaded version of American history, which leans so heavily on the first six presidential administrations that only two of the documents it stipulates for inclusion in the accepted curriculum appear to bear directly on events that transpired after 1832. The framers came up with a pretty remarkable document in 1787, but surely not even their most ardent admirers could credibly contend that either they or the words they put to page actually anticipated the many roadblocks and circuitous detours that our nation would encounter on its way to where we are now, any more than the most prescient currently among us, Newt Gingrich included, have the faintest clue about what things will be like in the year 2237.
Regardless of whether it best serves the agenda of Glenn Beck or Jesse Jackson, to institutionalize such a narrowly constructed narrative of the past based on such a heavily ideologized assessment of the needs of the present is to encumber future generations with a version of history that they may hardly recognize, much less find instructive.
James C. Cobb, the Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia, is the author of “The South and America Since World War II” and blogs at www.cobbloviate.com.
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