As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington in 1775 firmly ordered his soldiers not to celebrate Pope’s Day. It had been a New England tradition for 150 years to set afire effigies of the pope. These straw men were filled with live cats whose screams were said to be those of the popes in Hell. Washington knew that the Continental Army “swarmed with Roman Catholic soldiers” and he wisely put an end to such bigotry. He not only ended Pope’s Day in the Army, he ended it in America.
King George III in 1783 said that if General Washington resigned his commission to Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, he really would be “the greatest man on earth.” Washington did that. What does it take to get that kind of praise from your enemy? Go to Annapolis today, and you are likely to be told that “someone told Washington he had to resign.” Similarly, several popular history textbooks simply edit down George Washington (and other greats like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt) to less than greatness; or, they insist on giving equal time to presidents like John Tyler and other figures like Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani.
There’s little sense that textbook writers have taken to heart the criticisms of the rejected National History Standards of 1994. These Standards totally neglected Washington’s role as the first president. For example, Professor Harry Jaffa notes that Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, written in 1790, was the first time in history that any national leader addressed the Jews as equal fellow citizens. Isn’t that remarkable fact worth favorable attention?
These stories about our greats like Washington are accessible in excellent biographies by writers such as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis. Why don’t high schoolers get them in their texts?
Frederick Douglass is almost forgotten in history, or, as Howard Zinn treats him in his A People’s History of the United States, he is a bitter and harsh critic of the U.S., not the hopeful, humorous, full-blooded reformer crying out for justice. Douglass — a one time slave — was once so popular (and supportive of our leaders) that he turned down a run for president of the United States on a third party ticket in order to campaign for the now historically maligned Ulysses S. Grant. History has been unkind to Grant as well, but Douglass knew him as “the great chieftain whose sword cleft the hydra-head of treasons,” who helped give the black man the vote with his “true heart and good right arm.”
Young Fred knocked down the slave-breaker Edward Covey when his owners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore wanted him beaten into submission. Frederick later wrote the fight was his “resurrection as a man.” Later, he held onto the seat in the first class section of a Massachusetts train. The white conductor enlisted several toughs to beat up Frederick and throw him out of the whites-only section. Frederick protested that he’d purchased his ticket. He wound up on the train platform, bruised and rumpled, but still clutching the seat he’d paid for. Riveting details like these show Frederick Douglass as a man with a passion for justice, a man of courage and combativeness. He was not a potted plant nor was he just another bitter critic of America and her ideals.
While speaking of Douglass, let us re-teach who this man was. He and Lincoln were the greatest political thinkers of their day. Douglass was the greatest Marylander of all time. We should put up a great statue of him in front of Maryland’s Historic Old State House. We can make room for Douglass by moving the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to the front of the State Archives Building in Annapolis, where he belongs.
While speaking of moving, parents are our children’s first teachers and constitute the single-best Department of Education. While looking for summer vacations and road trips, consider taking your children to some of our great historical sites and monuments where the magic of “once-upon-a-time” can be touched and seen with children’s own two hands and own two eyes: Antietam; Gettysburg; Mt. Rushmore; the Lincoln, FDR, and Jefferson Memorials; the Alamo; Pikes Peak — these are all great vacation destinations, and children will love and know what happened there, what is taught there, the stories there.
In his farewell address to the nation, the large-minded amateur historian President Ronald Reagan warned of what we see in our nation’s report card today, saying “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” How much more dangerous is this now, as we fight a war for our very existence and expect young Americans to sign up and fight for a country and way of life worthy of their own lives? In the long run, why will future Americans want to stand up and fight for a country they do not even know — a country in which they are born aliens? How do we ask them to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know?
Our history is full of controversy, suffering, struggling, overcoming, and winning. There is no reason to elevate its failings at the expense of its successes, nor is there reason to ignore its failings or, worse, turn it into a snooze-fest. The task is to tell the truth — but can we not do so in an interesting, lively, and glorious way — the way I know and have seen some teachers do?
The great adventurer Bernard DeVoto once wrote to Catherine Drinker Bowen about why her task as a historian was so important:
If the mad, impossible voyage of Columbus or Cartier or La Salle or Coronado or John Ledyard is not romantic, if the stars did not dance in the sky when our Constitutional Convention met, if Atlantis has any landscape stranger or the other side of the moon any lights or colors or shapes more unearthly than the customary homespun of Lincoln and the morning coat of Jackson, well, I don’t know what romance is.
Indeed. Our history is all that and more, much more. America was, is, and — we hope — will continue to be the place where, more than anyplace else, dreams actually do come true. It is, as Abraham Lincoln described it, “the last best hope of earth.” But to live that dream, to know what hope we convey, and to teach it from generation to generation, we must describe it, appreciate it, and learn to fall in love with it all over again. Thankfully, historical amnesia still has a cure. Let us begin the regimen now.
— Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett is the author of America: The Last Best Hope, Volume 2 (From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom), and the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute.