Whitewashing a "hideous blot" from American history...

Last week, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that a coalition of Tennessee Tea Party groups visited members of the Tennessee General Assembly to lobby for five priorities for legislative action. Included among those five priorities is a demand to focus the state's educational curriculum on "the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government."

The group's spokesman, Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, introduced himself by declaring, "My name is Hal Rounds, R-O-U-N-D-S like .45 caliber rounds. I teach the Constitution coast-to-coast for Tea Parties." Then Mr. Rounds took aim squarely at Tennessee's educational system.

George Washington and slavery on the Mount Vernon plantation.
According to Mr. Rounds, Tennessee's American history textbooks contain "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another." Rounds added, "The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at."

The Tea Party coalition demanded that lawmakers amend state laws governing school curriculum, and for textbook selection criteria to say that "No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership."

As you can imagine, this story has generated quite a bit of commentary and criticism. Regarding the "made-up criticism" of the Founding Fathers for owning slaves, an editorial published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal stated, "Like it or not, history reveals that many of them did own slaves. Revising textbooks won't set them free."

I thought it might be instructive to learn what history really does tell us about our Founding Fathers...

  • Visit George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and you'll learn that "George Washington became a slave owner when his father died in 1743. At the age of eleven, he inherited ten slaves and 500 acres of land. When he began farming Mount Vernon eleven years later, at the age of 22, he had a work force of about 36 slaves. With his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, 20 of her slaves came to Mount Vernon. After their marriage, Washington purchased even more slaves. The slave population also increased because the slaves were marrying and raising their own families. By 1799, when George Washington died, there were 316 slaves living on the estate."
  • Visit Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and you'll find out that "Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery throughout his life. He considered it contrary to the laws of nature that decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. He called the institution an 'abominable crime,' a 'moral depravity,' a 'hideous blot,' and a 'fatal stain' that deformed 'what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts.'" Yet, Jefferson held a "lifelong adherence to the plantation-slave system of agriculture,"and relied heavily upon slave labor to support himself and his family's estate high atop Monticello.

The Founding Fathers were men of extraordinary courage and intellect, but they also lived in a time in which slavery was an accepted practice. The fact that many of our Founding Fathers owned slaves all the while abhorring that "peculiar institution" makes the study of their lives in the fullest possible historical context even more interesting. Ignoring that fact amounts to educational malpractice. We should embrace all our history, "warts and all," not just the parts that are agreeable to us.

We cannot whitewash this "hideous blot" from our collective history and memory. Doing so, in my opinion, would lead to an outcome that Hal Rounds actually seeks to avoid -- obscuring the experience and contributions of one group at the expense of another.

As legislators consider changes to Tennessee's history curriculum with a greater emphasis on "American exceptionalism," I think it is important to emphasize that America is an exceptional nation due in large measure to the diversity of its citizens and the complex nature of our political, cultural, economic, and social institutions. Our ability to coexist within a nation founded upon the ideals of freedom, liberty and equal access to opportunity is a remarkable achievement. We haven't always succeeded in our quest to emulate that ideal vision of America, and in my view, history should not attempt to overlook our shortcomings. Through both our triumphs and our tragedies, we learn what it means to be an exceptional nation.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, special collections librarian, archives advocate, public historian, and founding editor of The Posterity Project. He is the past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists, and is the author of the forthcoming book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, published by The History Press. On The Posterity Project, Gordon blogs about archives, public history, genealogy, and social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations.

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