Robert F. Jakubowicz: Don't allow kooks to rewrite our history
Reading about the secession petitions, like the one in Texas to "re-secure" the rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas of the founding fathers, that were filed by groups in twenty states after the reelection of President Obama, I was reminded of the point Jill Lepore, a professor of American history, made in one of her books. She criticized her academic historians for avoiding the telling of American history because it left plenty of room for "amateurs, toadies and cranks" to tell their "kooky" "stuff" about it.
For example, a tea partier she interviewed for her book told her that they were "trying to get back what the Founders had." This is what they had: an electoral system in which only white males with property could vote, a society that demeaned women by discouraging their being educated, and they had slavery.
Republican Party official played to this tea party base this year. GOP-dominated state legislatures and secretaries of state tried to limit and discourage voting by certain groups. These legislatures also worked on regulating women's health and reproductive rights. A hatred of President Obama with overtones of racism was tolerated and in some cases encouraged by Republican Party officials.
I recently watched an author on a TV show tout her book about the history of compromise by our elected officials. To make the point in her book, she posed this rhetorical question:: that if the founding fathers, who were pro-slavery and anti-slavery, could reach a compromise on the Constitution, why can't our current elected officials in Congress do the same regarding today's issues?
The answer to her question is that in fact the founders reached little a compromise by going to the side of their pro slave colleagues. They institutionalized slavery in the Constitution and kicked the issue of the congressional regulation of it down the road. They provided that slaves in effect would only count for three-fifths of a person for purposes of counting the number of persons to create House of Representative districts.
Another of their provisions not only banned free states from declaring fugitive slaves to be free, but mandated that such slaves must be returned to their owners. They also banned Congress for a decade following the adoption of the Constitution from regulating the "importation of such persons" (e.g., slaves) as the then existing states deemed proper.
This all sounds like this year's Republican candidates for the presidency and Congress. To them compromise was for the Democrats to come to the Republican side.
Politicians peddle a lot of this stuff based on their view of American history. One good example is Michelle Bachmann, the Republican congresswomen from Minnesota. She is the self-appointed leader of tea partiers and right-wing conservatives inside and outside of Congress. While campaigning for her party's presidential nomination, she said that "we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents (e.g., the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) worked tirelessly until slavery was no more."
Later when she was asked on a TV talk show to explain this inaccurate view of history, she did not answer the question directly. Instead, she said the Constitution is a "marvelous" document enabling us (Americans) to recognize and change wrongs like slavery. She praised the Constitution for giving the nation unparalleled freedom which she said President Obama was taking away. She covered all the bases to appeal to her base of political supporters who perceive the founders and the Constitution as divinely inspired.
The historical fact is that slavery did not end until the end of a bloody Civil War resulting in some 600,000 deaths and the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution 78 years after the founders, who were then long dead, adopted that document. Most American historians agree that slavery was the major cause of this war. But confederate sympathizers rewrote the history of this war into an event which they celebrated as a lost noble cause last year on the 150th anniversary of this war.
This misconception of the war which whitewashes slavery as its prime cause has the effect of making this war a cause for small states against a big federal government with all it programs. A David and Goliath struggle today by tea partiers, their supporters and the Republican Party which they hijacked against big, wasteful government over a noble cause of individual and state rights.
Today many conservative politicians, especially Republicans, have also turned to using simple phrases supposedly uttered by founders to justify their political position. One of the more popular quotes is Thomas Jefferson alleged statement: "government is best which governs least." This quote has become the basis for the philosophy of Republican Party, the tea party, and right-wing conservatives for a smaller federal government. The problem with this is that the quote cannot be found in Jefferson's papers and there is no other evidence that he actually said it.
As Jill Lepore noted in her book this country needs to hear its story from American historians, but she says a majority of them so far seem dedicated to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present, "especially to solve present-day problems," is not part of their profession. And this she writes is why a lot of "kooks" and others are in the business of American history.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz, a Pittsfield lawyer, is a regular contributor to the Eagle.