At the start of James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me a story is told about an American History textbook that spent many pages telling you everything about Thomas Jefferson — except for the fact that he owned slaves. The students, after being challenged by their teacher, were shocked when they learned the man who wrote the document that made this country independent, and the man who said that “All men are created equal,” could dare own another human being.
Lies My Teacher Told Me, a criticism of popular history textbooks in the United States, is often lumped in with Howard Zinn’s famous book A People’s History Of The United States. This book, published in 1980, became popular because it dared show United States history from a different perspective.
Of course, Zinn’s book was also filled with bias — but that was kind of the point. Zinn never intended for it to be the only American History book you ever read (as some schools have since made it), but to supplement the traditional pro-America bias in textbooks of the time. As Zinn himself wrote in the 1995 forward to the claim his book was bias:
I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction — so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements — that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.
Remember, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
One textbook used in Alabama public schools up until the 1970’s, when Zinn started writing his now famous book, made claims like that slavery was a form of social security, that slaves had better working conditions than free laborers, and that white children envied slave children who were allowed to run naked.
Even to this day, I have only been able to find a small number of general American history books (one of which being the amazing Don’t Know Much About History) that mentioned the racism of President Lincoln. For instance, in his 9/18/1858 debate with Senator Douglas, Lincoln said:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
When I first read that quote, my jaw was on the floor! Lincoln, a man who I had been taught was for racial equality, said that!
Of course, now I’m able to put the quote into context and acknowledge that, in a time where being against slavery was considered radical, Lincoln was still amazing. Plus, by the end of his life it did seem like he wanted to give full civil rights to African-Americans during his second term.
Some abolitionists were, by modern standards, racists. As Tom Woods points out in The Politically Incorrect Guide To American History, many of them wanted slavery out of their states so the land could only be given to white people.
“Alternative history,” or history that advertises itself as what your school never taught you (represented on the left by those like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and on the right by those like Dinesh D’Souza and Tom Woods), has become a massive genre over the past couple decades. However, this genre only spawn because the overall sloppiness of some of these history textbooks can be amazing. I’ve heard horror stories about books that tell students King was shot when Nixon was President, that Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle was a non-fiction report on the meat industry (Sinclair himself hated that being the part people focused on), and that President Andrew Jackson was a socialist. With claims like this, how is someone suppose to believe anything you tell them?
Historical arguments are often nothing more than two people taking the extreme position: Is America the greatest country to ever exist or an evil empire? Were the founding fathers great men with no flaws what-so-ever or greedy slave owners who only declared independence to protect their wealth? Was the Civil War only about slavery and nothing else or was it about basically anything under the sun except slavery? Did the United States defeat Hitler because we’re the most moral nation ever or because Roosevelt committed a false flag attack against the United States so he could get the public to support American imperialism?
The perfect example of what I’m talking about comes from the reaction to The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Back when Beto O’Rourke was running for President, he repeated a claim commonly made by supporters of this project, that American history started when the first group of slaves were brought to Virginia. (You know, for all the talk among Democrats regarding protecting marginalized groups, I can’t help but wonder how a Native American would feel regarding that comment.) Senator Tim Kaine, who also served as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, took it a step further and made the nonsensical claim that the United States invented slavery.
The response from some right-wing commentators to what O’Rourke said was not that the ideas of modern America had begun formation ever since humanity first formed political theory, but that American history actually started even more recently, back in 1776. In fact, when rioters who took down a statue of George Washington painted “1619” on the monument, Senator Tom Cotton simply called it a reference to the 1619 Project — one wonders why he thinks The New York Times picked that number in the first place.
Do you know how people react to being lied to? They don’t take it kindly. For example, if you tell them that Theodore Roosevelt met with Booker T. Washington to make him look like a progressive hero, but ignore that he praised the works of eugenicist Charles Davenport, you’re lying to someone by omission. If someone finds out you lied to them, they might get angry and want to tear down the statue of that man upon learning he praised such an evil ideology.
When it comes to these statues being torn down, it all comes down to education. We do not teach children how to properly put older comments into correct contexts. We do not explain to them that, for example, Lincoln, by modern standards, was a racist. Many who fought for the Union supported slavery, and at least four Union states were slave states until the passage of the 13th Amendment.
We do teach children the evils of slavery, which is good. However, we should also be teaching them the negative effect that an entire race of people were enslaved for their skin color had on even those who were against it. We should be teaching them that sometimes people have views that are considered mainstream for a time period but are considered evil later on. And I could go on and on.
Teach children context, the most important part of history.