America’s historically ignorant iconoclasts

They won't stop with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; statues of Washington, Jefferson and Columbus will fall to mobs who understand America's history less than they understand astrophysics.

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Demonstrators haul down statue of Confederate soldier.

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2017 — Assaults on monuments to our history are growing. Not only are statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson under attack; so are monuments to Christopher Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and others.

These attacks are fueled in part by a profound lack of historical knowledge on the part of those who would tear down our past, and those to whom they appeal.

A survey released just ahead of the 230th anniversary of the close of the Constitutional Convention shows that nearly four in 10 Americans cannot name a single right protected by the First Amendment. The survey, conducted in August by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), showed that 37 percent could not name any of the five rights protected by the First Amendment, and only 48 percent could name freedom of speech.

The same survey found that 33 percent were unable to name even one of the three branches of the U.S. Government: legislative, executive and judicial. “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are.  The fact that many don’t is worrisome,” says APPC Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.


The APPC’s survey found that some respondents erroneously believe that illegal immigrants are afforded no protections under the U.S. Constitution, while 15 percent of say atheists do not have all the rights of other U.S. citizens. Eighteen per cent say that Muslims do not have the same rights as other U.S. citizens.

Now that we have largely abandoned teaching American history, the idea that historical figures are unworthy of being commemorated because they were imperfect, flawed human beings is gaining support from those who have little knowledge of who these people were and what they achieved. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough laments, “We are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate. We can’t function in a society if we don’t know who we are and where we came from.”

Judging men and women of the past by the standards of the present time was called the sin of “contemporaneity” by Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood. Those who speak of tearing down statues are familiar figures in history.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China did the same. ISIS has destroyed remnants of pre-Islamic civilizations in the Middle East. At the time of the French Revolution, churches were destroyed and the calendar was eliminated. In Nazi Germany, books and works of art were burned.

Those assaulting our monuments today tell us is that those who owned slaves should not be celebrated, no matter what their accomplishments. Slavery was somehow a uniquely American institution. But from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. It played an important part in ancient Greece and Rome.

Most people of the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition, one that could befall anyone at any time. The legal codes of ancient Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the fourth millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”

Slavery has existed almost universally through history among people of every material culture: nomad pastoralists of Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. It existed in Africa; black Africans were sold into slavery to white Europeans by other black Africans.

People became slaves in a variety of ways. Many gave up their freedom because of economic necessity. A man who could not pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor. In ancient Greece and China, poor families who could not feed all of their children might sell some of them as slaves. In medieval Europe, slavery was often the punishment for crimes like treason and wife abduction. The Bible discusses how slaves should be treated, but accepts the idea of slavery itself.

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. Denmark became the first country to abolish the slave trade in 1792. What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies wanted to eliminate it and pressed vigorously to do so.

Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of the opposition to slavery and the slave trade. One of the great debates of the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade, and George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal.

Many criticize the Framers for their decision not to eliminate the slave trade immediately in order to bring the Southern states into the union; others understand that they established opposition to slavery that would bear fruit in the future. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut stated, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”

The anti-history frenzy of those with little knowledge of history is increasingly irrational. In New York City’s Times Square subway station, a group of tiles formed a blue X on a red background to symbolize the area’s nickname,”the Crossroads of the World.” The Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that the design would be removed for its supposed resemblance to the Confederate battle flag. A tweet from the Millennial-progressive blog journal Vice declared, “Let’s blow up Mt. Rushmore.” In Brooklyn, a plaque was removed after it stood by a tree for 105 years bearing the legend, “This tree was planted by General Robert E. Lee while stationed at Ft. Hamilton from 1841-1847.”

If we judge the past by the standards of today, must we stop reading Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aristophanes, Dante and Chaucer? Will we hear calls to demolish the Acropolis and the Coliseum? Must we abandon the Bible because it lacks modern sensibility? Where will it end?

Only a society which has abandoned the teaching of its history and culture to the next generation would find itself facing such a dilemma. We have seen where such assaults upon history have led in other countries. If we knew that history, we would not want to repeat it. It is time that those who do know it come forward and help to stop our current descent into chaos.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.