Revisionism is a dangerous thing. It distorts our legacy and heritage, allows lies and deception to take root in our consciousness, and reduces the American experience into nothing more than a collection of multiple repressions and their victims. Therefore I am shocked by those who try to undermine and deconstruct the greatness of this country by using 21st century standards of morality and ethics to judge our 18th century ancestors. Like ourselves, our founding fathers were imperfect, however, it is important that we know both the ugliness and the goodness of our history. Understanding the ugly will assist us in avoiding their mistakes, and celebrating the goodness will help us maintain the hope that our nation can continue to accomplish great things. For an example of revisionism, we need look no further than early black history in America. While most of us know the ugliness, do any of you know the goodness?
For instance, did you know that not all black people in early America were slaves? In fact, many blacks were among our founding fathers, and were heroes and great military leaders in the American Revolution. They were also prominent leaders in their local communities, churches, and even held political office. During the American Revolution, at Bunker Hill, black American Peter Salem was considered a great hero of this battle, saving scores of colonial lives. At the Battle of Lexington, members of Rev. Jonas Clark’s bi-racial church went out to fight against the British invading their town. Both whites and blacks died on the battlefield that day. And, when Washington crossed the Delaware, he did not have only white men in his boat, but had with him a man who regularly fought alongside him during the Revolution, a black patriot by the name of Prince Whipple. Even our French ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, had a black man working for him by the name of James Armistad, who acted as a double-spy against the British; he fed them bad intel while making sure the correct information was given to the American colonists. In addition, did you know that there was another rider that rode North to warn that the British were coming while Paul Revere rode West? It was a young black man by the name of Wentworth Cheswell, who in 1768 became the very first black man appointed as a judge in the colonies. Our early American revolutionaries also honored their fellow black soldiers as well, giving those that fought during the Revolution a full military pension, as well as full military honors when they died. After the war, we even saw the first black preacher, Lemuel Haynes, named to lead an all white church congregation in 1783, preaching there for almost 30 years. Fast forward a bit further, past the Civil War, to 1870 when the first black American, Joseph Hayne Rainey, was elected to the US House of Representatives (South Carolina, 1st district) and who later became the first black Speaker of the House. Considering that South Carolina was only recently a part of the Confederacy, both this, as well as the other examples cited above, are amazing testimonies on how liberty can unite a people, regardless of race.
What was the relationship of our founders with black Americans? Well, it depended on where you lived. For instance, in Virginia where Thomas Jefferson lived, slaves were considered property, and therefore part of the estate, which in turn could be used to secure any estate debt. Also, in that state, if one chose to free a slave, their owners were required to put up a bond, as they retained all liability for any future bad behavior of the freed slave. So, in Virginia, not only would it be legally impossible to free a slave in Virginia if you had any debt tied to your estate (like Jefferson did), but you and your family would be forever liable for any freed slave’s future bad behavior. However, if you lived in the state of Connecticut, freed slaves were allowed to quickly absorb into the society, with all the rights, liberties, and responsibilities afforded to any white man. The moral of the story is that we need to remember that like us, our founding fathers were ordinary men, not gods. Like us, they had to work within the current morality of the day and try to change it as best they could. Unfortunately human nature can be stubborn and bloody, a lesson our nation learned during the American Civil War.
Why do revisionists do this? Why do they try to distort so much of our history, which can reveal so much of the greatness from which our liberty springs? Perhaps it is because deconstructing greatness is necessary before tyranny can take hold. After all, if you can convince an entire free people that they are unworthy, that they have no foundation in greatness, and that their entire history is shameful, how could they then care enough to defend their liberty? I have found that knowing accurate history expands liberty, as it reminds us of both our shortcomings and successes. Only through such a delicate balance of humility and encouragement can all men and women ever be empowered to become greater.
“The task of history is to hold out for reprobation every evil word and deed, and to hold out for praise every great and noble word and deed.” Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 -117 AD), senator and historian of the Roman Empire.