Exclusive: Many U.S. historians have soft spots for Thomas Jefferson, despite his gross hypocrisy on slavery, and for the Confederates and their supposed gallantry in their fight to preserve slavery. But apologizing for historical racists only invites more racism, warns Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
As the United States edges toward a second Jim Crow era – with right-wing whites seeking to “take our country back” via Supreme Court rulings and voter suppression against black and brown Americans – there is an urgent need to reexamine U.S. history and remove the pro-racist distortions that have been implanted by white supremacists for more than two centuries.
If past indeed is prologue, then the United States must finally begin to get the facts straight and strip away the fawning mythology surrounding Thomas Jefferson and some of America’s other Founding slaveholders – or risk reliving some of the vilest chapters of U.S. history.
I’m sure my experience with how U.S. history was taught was not unique. Though I grew up in Massachusetts, the home of the Civil War’s first African-American regiment, there was no escaping the racist viewpoints embedded in the history schoolbooks. They taught a national narrative of a past that was easy to celebrate but far from the truth.
Subtly and not so subtly, those history texts and many other popular historical accounts minimized the evils of slavery; apologized for the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson and other unrepentant slaveholders who spoke eloquently of “liberty”; viewed the Confederacy through the romantic haze of Southern chivalry and courage; treated Northern demands for black civil rights during Reconstruction as unreasonable if not crazy; disparaged President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration as corrupt for financial scandals rather than as heroic for defending freedom for African-Americans; and generally downplayed the suffering of blacks, Native Americans and other minorities in the later decades of the Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth.
However, to evaluate today’s historic push from the Right to roll back voting rights for black, Hispanic and low-income people requires Americans understanding the real history. For many, that will require unlearning many pleasing myths and confronting some unpleasant realities.
Only then can Americans recognize the fork in the road that they now face, with one direction leading toward a multicultural democracy reflecting the best principles of the Republic – and the other, a U-turn back toward the nation’s shameful days of racial repression and bigotry.
This demythologizing will not be easy for many Americans. It will force them to reexamine some of their favorite historical figures, the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and James Madison. Though all were slaveholders, they have been made icons on the “libertarian Right,” which never seems to be troubled by the contradiction between liberty and slavery.
Racial Code Words
The historical reassessment would also put into a different – and far more negative – light the claims about the value of “limited government,” another favorite libertarian slogan and one that has served as code words, much like “states’ rights,” for the defense of slavery and segregation.
Even the phrase “Jeffersonian democracy” – often used to suggest the highest ideal of popular government – will have to be rethought, as just one more euphemism for a system based on the interests of slave-owning plantation owners, the real base for Jefferson’s political movement.
Ironically, this reevaluation was provoked by the Right as it sought to cloak itself in the garb of the Revolutionary War era and to sell gullible Tea Partiers on a gross misreading of the Founding Era’s history and the U.S. Constitution.
The Right sought to strengthen its claim to the Revolution’s aura by sending “scholars” back in time to cherry-pick some quotes which were then disseminated by the Right’s imposing propaganda machinery. The result was a “history” that served the current political needs of right-wing Republicans and libertarians, but wasn’t real.
Yet, having spent millions of dollars on this historical propaganda and billions on its right-wing echo chamber, the Right insisted that it was speaking for the nation’s First Principles. The Right’s version of history held that the Framers of the Constitution intended to strictly “limit” the federal government and to create “sovereign” states.
According to this right-wing “scholarship,” these principles were violated by activist presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt (with his Depression-era New Deal), Lyndon Johnson (with his civil rights laws and Great Society), and Barack Obama (with the Affordable Care Act and new Wall Street regulations).
Some prominent rightists, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, even pretend to intuit the Framers’ “original” intent while striking strike down modern federal laws that deviate from the supposed Founding ideals. Some rightists argue to this day that Social Security and Medicare are “unconstitutional” (along with, of course, Obamacare).
For years now, the Right claimed to speak for the Framers with little challenge from the American Left, which generally views the authors of the Constitution with disdain for their aristocratic elitism and their compromises on slavery. Many mainstream historians also shied away from this debate presumably fearing that it might put tenure and reputations in jeopardy.
‘Know Your History’
So, in this vacuum, an increasingly assertive Right began calling on Americans to “know your history.” But an honest examination of that history reveals the Right’s version to be thoroughly dishonest.
For instance, the Constitution’s key Framers, including George Washington and James Madison, were determined to expand the power of the central government out of frustration with the states’ rights-oriented Articles of Confederation. That was the document that made the states “sovereign” and “independent,” language that was eliminated by the Constitution, which shifted national sovereignty to “We the People of the United States” and made federal law “supreme.”
Rather than seeking to constrain the power of the central government – as today’s Right would have you believe – the Constitution gave Congress indefinite and elastic powers to “promote the general Welfare.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Made-up ‘Constitution.’”]
This transformation was well understood at the time. That is why the Constitution faced such fierce resistance from the so-called Anti-Federalists who recognized how much the Constitution would centralize government power. In the South, this opposition to ratification centered on the fears of slaveholders that inevitably the North would come to dominate the federal government and would outlaw the institution of slavery.
After the Constitution won ratification in 1788, the fight of the Southern slaveholders shifted to a political battle aimed at reinterpreting the Constitution as they wished it to be, not as it was written.
Thomas Jefferson, who returned from France in 1789, led this fight and eventually recruited his Virginia neighbor (and fellow slaveholder) Madison from the ranks of Washington’s Federalists to the Jeffersonian movement, known as the Democratic-Republican Party. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]
The Route to Civil War
Through bare-knuckled politics and sometimes below-the-belt propaganda, Jefferson’s movement gained the upper hand during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century.
The so-called Virginia Dynasty – 24 years of unbroken presidential rule by Virginians Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe – oversaw the expansion of slavery to new states and territories to the west and concocted the unconstitutional notion of state “nullification” of federal law, setting the nation on course for the Civil War.
The Jeffersonian critique of the federal government’s constitutional powers, of course, was not consistent. There was even hypocrisy within his hypocrisy.
While seeking to protect the institution of slavery from possible federal encroachment – by repudiating the Federalist view of the Constitution’s “elastic” powers – Jefferson and Madison embraced the same concept when it suited their needs, Jefferson when he negotiated purchase of the Louisiana territories from France and Madison when he formed the Second Bank of the United States in order to strengthen the nation’s credit and fund the U.S. military after it failed to protect the capital from British attack in 1814.
Over the next several decades, the battle against the Constitution’s broad federal powers became the subtext for the South’s growing defensiveness over the institution of slavery and the continuing fear that the North would ultimately grow powerful enough to force its abolition, a threat that became acute with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The secession of the 11 Confederate states became the ultimate expression of Jefferson’s earlier political efforts to circumscribe the intent of the Constitution. In that sense, the Civil War and Lincoln’s abolition of slavery represented the defeat of Thomas Jefferson as much as Confederate President Jefferson Davis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rethinking Thomas Jefferson.”]
However, the legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis could not be so easily eradicated. After Robert E. Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Southern white aristocrats were determined to reestablish their political clout and to prevent blacks from achieving full civil rights as citizens, including the right for black men to vote.
The struggle over Reconstruction is another chapter of U.S. history that has been badly taught in American schools. Even in my history books in Massachusetts, the story was told in a sympathetic way toward the Southern whites whose rights were supposedly trampled on by a combination of ignorant blacks and Northern “carpetbaggers.” President Andrew Johnson emerged as a victim unfairly impeached by Radical Republicans and saved from removal by one brave vote in the Senate.
By contrast, President Ulysses S. Grant was presented as largely a failure whose administration was defined by shameful corruption scandals. Getting short-shrift was Grant’s role in enforcing civil rights for blacks as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment and helping to enact the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting and gave Congress specific authority to enforce that right as required.
In support of a Radical Republican plan to restructure the South by purging its legacy of white supremacy, Grant stationed the U.S. Army in the South to combat the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist paramilitaries that were terrorizing blacks with acts of murder, rape and violent intimidation. Defiant ex-Confederates were determined to deny blacks full citizenship by any means necessary.
Jim Crow I
Despite the pro-civil rights efforts of President Grant and the Radical Republicans in Congress, the Democratic Party, which traced its lineage back to Jefferson, reclaimed political control in the South.
New state laws were passed restricting the rights of blacks and reasserting the notion of “states’ rights.” Then, as part of the settlement of the disputed election of 1876, which was awarded to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Reconstruction was formally brought to an end.
The cruel era of Jim Crow had begun. Generations of African-Americans in the South and parts of the North would face brutality, lynching, segregation and second-class citizenship. Various tricks were employed to keep blacks from voting and to maintain white power.
In effect, the white racists never accepted that blacks and other non-whites deserved American citizenship, a position shared by Thomas Jefferson and his Virginian political allies. Again, the reassertion of Jefferson’s interpretation of “states’ rights” was at the center of Jim Crow.
It would not be until the 1950s and 1960s that a new civil rights movement would finally challenge white supremacy across the South. Then, the Republicans, many of whom had remained true to the heritage of Lincoln and Grant, were at the forefront of the struggle along with liberal Democrats who recognized the justice of the civil rights cause.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Dwight Eisenhower – both Republicans – played key roles in asserting federal authority in defense of Southern blacks, but Democratic leaders, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, pushed forward the most important civil rights legislation, including prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations and in voting.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally gave teeth to the promise contained in Grant’s Fifteenth Amendment. Recalcitrant Southern states and some districts in the North were required to submit electoral changes for pre-approval by the federal government, which could reject the revisions if they were regarded as discriminatory. Finally, the United States began to make real progress toward racial equality.
However, the old racist legacy of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Davis and the Ku Klux Klan remained a potent political force. The white backlash against black civil rights snapped forward with Southern whites abandoning the Democratic Party in droves, lured by crypto-racist appeals from Republicans such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, “states’ rights” advocates began rebranding their neo-Confederate hostility toward blacks as hostility toward the federal government. Some adopted the guise of race-neutral “libertarianism.”
This political realignment – redefined from racial prejudice to an appeal for “small government” – helped power conservative Republicans into the White House and eventually into control of Congress. That, in turn, produced a right-wing Supreme Court majority inculcated with the bogus Constitutional history that right-wing think tanks, like the right-wing Federalist Society, had made popular.
In another part of this repackaging of white racism into a “small government” philosophy, more and more right-wing groups abandoned the Confederate “Stars and Bars” battle flag in favor of Revolutionary War-era imagery, like the Tea Party’s yellow banner of a coiled speaking snake warning “Don’t Tread on Me,” with the elected U.S. government standing in for the tyrannical British monarchy.
However, racism was never far beneath the surface as became apparent after the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, who personified the nation’s demographic changes in which non-whites would soon become the majority.
The old racist bigotry about “inferior” blacks being unqualified to be citizens reemerged in conspiracy theories about Obama being born in Kenya and thus supposedly disqualified to be President.
The Neo-Confederate Court
The Supreme Court’s right-wing majority also lent a hand on behalf of Republican political power and the need to suppress the votes of pro-Democratic constituencies, including blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and the poor.
With the Citizens United ruling in 2010, the five right-wing justices – John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending by right-wing billionaires like the Koch Brothers.
Then, in June 2013, the same five justices gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which had been reauthorized in 2006) by removing the requirement that states and districts with a history of racial bias in voting needed to get pre-approval for electoral changes.
Despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s empowerment of Congress to enforce voting rights, the five justices decided that “states’ rights” trumped that clear-cut Constitutional authority. The heart of the Act was removed unless Congress devised a new formula, something that today’s right-wing Republicans will make sure won’t happen.
The winking and nodding between the rightists on the U.S. Supreme Court and those in Congress and in the states was reminiscent of the trickery that racist officials in the Jim Crow era devised to keep African-Americans from the polls.
Jim Crow II
Much as the Citizens United ruling brought of flood of secret money into the coffers of mostly Republican candidates, the Court’s voting rights ruling unleashed a rush of Southern states imposing new restrictions on voting, aimed at disqualifying or discouraging blacks and other minorities from casting ballots.
As the New York Times reported on July 6, “State officials across the South are aggressively moving ahead with new laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls after the Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act.
“The Republicans who control state legislatures throughout the region say such laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. But such fraud is extremely rare, and Democrats are concerned that the proposed changes will make it harder for many poor voters and members of minorities — who tend to vote Democratic — to cast their ballots in states that once discriminated against black voters with poll taxes and literacy tests. …
“Within hours [of the Supreme Court ruling], Texas officials said that they would begin enforcing a strict photo identification requirement for voters, which had been blocked by a federal court on the ground that it would disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters.
“In Mississippi and Alabama, which had passed their own voter identification laws but had not received federal approval for them, state officials said that they were moving to begin enforcing the laws.
“The next flash point over voting laws will most likely be in North Carolina, where several voting bills had languished there this year as the Republicans who control the Legislature awaited the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had covered many counties in the state.
“After the ruling, some Republican lawmakers said that they would move … to pass a bill requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. And some Republicans there are considering cutting back on the number of early voting days in the state, which were especially popular among Democrats and black voters during the 2012 presidential election. …
“The Republicans who control the state government in Texas passed what some called the strictest photo identification law in the country in 2011. … A three-judge panel in Washington blocked the Texas law last year on the ground that it ‘imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.’”
Immediately after the Court’s ruling, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has famously mused about the possibility of secession, declared that “Texas may now implement the will of the people without being subject to outdated and unnecessary oversight and the overreach of federal power.”
Luther Strange, Alabama’s state attorney general, hailed the Supreme Court for recognizing “that Alabama and other covered jurisdictions could not be treated unequally based on things that happened decades ago.”
But the reality is that Republican and Tea Party efforts to suppress the votes of pro-Democratic minority groups are not distant events recorded in grainy black-and-white news clips, but rather are now spreading beyond the South and the traditionally racist jurisdictions. Discriminatory voter ID laws have been approved by Republican-controlled legislatures in Northern states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, too.
War on Democracy
Indeed, today’s Republican Party appears determined to battle democracy whenever it means the GOP losing power. After the 2010 census, Republican-controlled state governments aggressively gerrymandered congressional districts to ensure a continued GOP majority in the House even though Republican candidates lost nationwide in 2012 by a collective one million ballots.
Since Election 2012, the Republicans have used this minority-majority status in the House to block President Obama’s domestic agenda, including an immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who happen to be predominantly brown-skinned.
Meanwhile, the Republican minority in the Senate has deployed the filibuster at historically unprecedented rates to frustrate legislation and block President Obama’s executive and judicial appointments.
In addition, the Right has used its well-financed media infrastructure to hype alleged “scandals” to further undermine public confidence in Obama and federal governance, much as the conservative newspapers of the 1870s used scandals to define and discredit President Grant and his efforts to enforce civil rights for Southern blacks.
Stepping back and taking a broad look at this right-wing campaign, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the goal is nothing short of a second Jim Crow era, in which white-dominated “anti-government” movements will seek to maintain their political clout through a combination of voting disenfranchisement, Republican obstructionism, right-wing rulings by the Supreme Court, and a well-financed propaganda machine.
Playing a crucial role in this sequel to one of America’s ugliest chapters is the Right’s bogus history of the United States, a distortion of reality that makes slavery, secession, segregation and racism look like a quaint, understandable, even slightly charming part of the nation’s past.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.