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America is about slavery. It was this grotesque, anti-human institution that shaped our Constitution, and it was slavery that formed some of our most basic attitudes about government, producing destructive political behavior to this very day.
You can believe that story if you choose this Fourth of July week, or you can believe something else: that the historians who give vent to it are bunkum artists whose sensational revisionism achieves the double objective of getting them noticed and of debasing this remarkable land in which we live.
For more on the subject, see Gordon Wood. One of the most distinguished American historians of our era, he writes about two new books on slavery in The New York Review of Books. His manner is gentlemanly, his judgments devastating.
Wood notes that the writing of history is at least partly about the sensitivities of the times in which the writers live. For the past 50 years, he observes, race has been the dominant domestic issue. A consequence, he says, is that historians have given us a more exhaustive knowledge of slavery in America than could once have been imagined, which is not to say that every instance of their probing holds up under scrutiny.
Take, for instance, “Dark Bargain” by Lawrence Goldstone, an author who contends that the Constitution was less about grand ideas than the galelike historical force of slavery. You get the idea from Wood that Goldstone gets a little bit of everything wrong. “Giving a sense of surrounding circumstances, which is the essence of historical explanation, is not Goldstone’s strong point,” he writes.
Not his strong point? Isn’t that a way of saying Goldstone flunks at the single most important thing in writing any history that actually elucidates the past? Seems likely. In describing the South as scared to death in the 1780s that slaves might rebel, Wood tells us, Goldstone fails to notice that Virginians “were actually relaxing their black codes that governed slaves’ lives, forming anti-slavery societies, and manumitting their slaves by the thousands …”
Robin Einhorn, in “American Taxation, American Slavery,” contends the American distrust of government and dislike of taxes comes our way from elitist slaveholders looking to protect their wealth and that their legacy shows up even now in the way we structure tax policy. What Einhorn lacks, Wood observes, is evidence. At one point, he wonders how she can argue that “antigovernment rhetoric” came only from “slaveholding elites” when those who did not trust government included Thomas Paine, a founding radical who would never for a moment consider owning a slave.
Einhorn is a professor of history at the University of California-Berkeley, and you find yourself thinking about findings that 72 percent of college teachers self-report they are liberals — a figure jumping to 87 percent at top-ranked universities. You think of the vast amounts of America-denigrating material that pour out of these universities, and you think of still other statistics, those showing that 81 percent of seniors at top colleges performed at a “D” and even “F” level in a survey of knowledge about American history.
But then the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wood is also a professor, one of numerous examples of brilliant, balanced scholars in our universities, and someone whose students would no doubt fare well on those surveys. While he, of course, agrees on the importance of slavery in our history and the fact that African slaves were often regarded “as little more than animals,” he provides context, noting, for instance, that slavery “had been taken for granted for thousands of years,” and adding: “It was the Revolution and its emphasis on liberty that made slavery a problem for Americans.”
Our country is hardly without sin, but something got unleashed in the years leading up to and following July 4, 1776, something that did combat with the worst that was in us as well as with the British, never entirely defeating all our faults, scarcely making us perfect, but causing greatness to swell within us and making America something exceptional in human history. It’s important to remember our past faults and to confront our current ones, but it is important as well to grasp what makes us special in a world plagued by problems everywhere you look, because, if we don’t, we will cease to be special.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)