Patriotic History Is Comparative History

Statue of George Washington in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Evils such as slavery are characteristic of the human race throughout human history. What needs explaining is how and why America broke the mold.

This past week President Trump announced his intention to establish “a national commission to promote patriotic education.” Its aim will be “to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.” The animating spirit of the initiative was laid out by the president during a speech at the first White House Conference on American History:

Our children our instructed from propaganda tracts like those of Howard Zinn that try to make students ashamed of their own history. The left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom. Nothing can be further from the truth. America’s Founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.

Fittingly, the president christened this new project “The 1776 Commission,” drawing a deliberate and pugnacious contrast with the 1619 Project and its evangelical promulgation of historical illiteracy.

The form and content of this new patriotic curriculum remains to be seen, but in order to be effective, it will have to teach American history by way of comparison with the broader history of mankind.

Whenever the word “canon” is used in the context of education, people tend to associate it with a certain set of “great books” that have stood the test of time. Taken in this sense, the “canon” for English-speakers consists of the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, among others. This was not, however, the word’s original meaning. In classical antiquity, a “canon” was simply a straight line, by which crooked lines can be judged. As Aristotle writes in On The Soul:

By that which is straight, we discern both the straight and the crooked; for the carpenter’s rule (canon) is the test of both, but the crooked tests neither itself nor the straight.

Unless we know what a straight line looks like, we don’t have the knowledge to call anything crooked. All judgments depend on some reference point by which we can judge the subject in question. In other words, there is no knowledge without comparison.

Understanding this helps to make sense of the contrasting ways in which progressives and conservatives approach history. For progressives (and Marxists in particular), the reference point by which historical judgments are made is some imaginary, as-yet-unrealized vision of utopia or the ideal society. Everything in this veil of tears that falls short of perfect equity, universal fellowship, and absolute justice warrants unequivocal condemnation. By contrast, conservatives make their historical judgments by appealing to context. And since the context of human life across time and space has largely been one of mutual animosity, suffering, violence, and want, they tend to praise and defend any and all historical developments that have lifted mankind above this sorry state. Comparing American history not with utopia but with the aggregate experience of mankind in this way engenders the greatest of all conservative virtues: gratitude.

That is why anti-American ideologues do not teach American history in a comparative manner. If the far Left is to succeed in brainwashing children, the history of the American Revolution cannot be taught in such a way that the lives, actions, and ideas of the patriots are compared with their contemporaries in Britain, France, Spain, China, Africa, and the Middle East. If such teaching were allowed, then children might be led to the dangerous conclusion that certain evils that they have been told are uniquely Western or American, such as slavery or sexism, are in fact global and have been ubiquitous among mankind for most of human history. Moreover, they might learn that the only concerted opposition that these evils have ever faced has emerged from Western civilization. Seen in the context of the world in which they lived, the exceptional traits of the Founders would then rightly be identified with their uncharacteristic resistance to these evils, not with their participation in them.

Let’s take slavery as a case study. It’s vitally important for the intersectional Left that the Founders’ entanglement in this infernal institution be judged according to one reference point alone: the prevailing moral standards and sentiments of 21st-century Americans. If this standard serves as the normative reference point for all historical judgments, then the work of the intersectional Left is done. Were a white man to take up residence at Monticello this afternoon and demand to be waited on hand and foot by African Americans whom he claimed as his own personal property, we would rightly denounce him as a moral monster. It is Nikole Hannah-Jones’s purpose to convince Americans that there is no meaningful moral distinction between this hypothetical tyrant and Thomas Jefferson. The one consistent factor across all historical considerations must be the supremacy of today’s moral standards as a transcendental historiographic reference point.

A conservative historiography, with the premium it places on context, seeks to understand the provenance and prevalence of social attitudes before forming a moral judgment on any individual. The reference point for a moral judgment on an individual must be the wider moral context and constraints of the culture and society in which that person operates.

So how would a comparative history of slavery work in a school curriculum?

It would begin with the acknowledgement that slavery has existed on every continent and archipelago virtually all of human history. For most of human history, slavery was simply assumed in most cultures to be a natural part of human relations. The historian Martin A. Klein observes “there is no evidence that slavery came under serious attack in any part of the world before the eighteenth century.” What requires an explanation, then, is not how our ancestors were able to so grossly violate the moral sensibilities of today, but how we ourselves came into possession of our enlightened sensibilities in the first place. This is especially the case given the fact that slavery has received the universal approbation of most cultures across history. Moreover, as Thomas Sowell notes, in Black Redneck and White Liberals:

Slavery did not die out quietly of its own accord. It went down fighting to the bitter end — and it lost only because Europeans had gunpowder weapons first. The advance of European imperialism around the world marked the retreat of the slave trade and then of slavery itself. The British stamped out slavery, not only throughout the British Empire — which included one-fourth of the world, whether measured in land or people — but also by its pressures and its actions against other nations.

These actions included the British naval invasion of Brazilian waters in 1849 and the subsequent destruction of all ships associated with the slave trade, the pressure exerted by British Imperial diplomacy on the Ottomans to stamp out slavery in Africa, and the Royal Navy’s maintenance of a fleet on the western coast of Africa — even at the height of the Napoleonic wars — with an express directive to extirpate the Atlantic slave trade. The non-Western response to the West’s newfound abhorrence of slavery was not a welcoming one. We should remember that even when the numbers of Africans being captured and coerced into the middle passage were at their height, African slavers still kept more slaves for themselves than they ever sent across the ocean. When the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston broached the topic of abolition with the ruler of Zanzibar in 1841, the Zanzibari king replied that the main duty he had to his people was to serve “as the person who should protect and guarantee for them their dearest interest — the right to carry on the slave trade.”

The Founders of the United States inherited the institution of slavery from all of mankind. But they also inherited the historically exceptional antipathy toward slavery from their mother country, Great Britain. When Thomas Jefferson composed a state constitution for Virginia in 1776, he included a ban on the further importation of slaves. His 1783 draft of the same document included a plan for gradual emancipation. Both proposals were defeated in the state legislature. A year later, he proposed a national ban on slavery in all of the western territories — a measure that was defeated by a single vote. George Washington went even further than this, directing that all his slaves be freed upon his death (the earliest point at which he could under Virginia law) and liquidating his estate in order to pay for the younger freedmen to be “taught to read and write” and to be trained for “some useful occupation.” Money was also set aside to care for the elderly and infirm among the freed Washington slaves. In An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, historian Henry Wiencek noted the striking nature of the language Washington used in his will when referring to his slaves:

The emancipation clause stands out from the rest of Washington’s will in the unique forcefulness of its language. Elsewhere in it Washington used the standard legal expressions — “I give and bequeath,” “it is my will and direction.” In one instance he politely wrote, “by way of advice, I recommend to my Executors . . . ” But the emancipation clause rings with the voice of command; it has the iron firmness of a field order: “I do hereby expressly forbid the sale . . . of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretext whatsoever.”

The specific evil of American slavery (on top of the intrinsic evil of the institution writ large) was its race-based nature. But even this was not an exclusively American phenomenon. The word “slave” itself derives from “slav,” because the Islamic slave trade of the Middle Ages was perpetrated largely against the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe.

Of course, none of this matters a damn to Jefferson’s or Washington slaves, who were forced to live their lives as the chattels of other human beings. But when decrying any historic evil, we have to make sure that our condemnation is directed at the right object. We have to determine whether the evil in question is attributable to our species as a whole, to a nation or a people in particular, or to an individual. The political aim of the intersectional Left is to blur these distinctions.

They wrongly identify human evils with exclusively American evils and then proceed to identify these supposedly American evils with the actions of venerated American patriots. Evils that are characteristic of the human race as a whole are depicted as inherent in the political enemies of the radical Left. This allows progressives to draw the line between good and evil not where it belongs, down the middle of every human heart, but between themselves and those they dislike. Moral action in such a framework is no longer defined as self-improvement (which is difficult) but as attacking the enemy (which is simple and cathartic). But this easy and straightforward substitution of human evil with American evil is a fraud, and it will be exposed as such if we teach our kids American history in a global, comparative way.


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