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Vail Daily column: Don’t sanitize U.S. history

Jack Van Ens

Jefferson County school board’s GOP majority in Denver suburbs faces a stern critic. It’s the county’s namesake—Thomas Jefferson. His protest is the Declaration of Independence.

The JeffCo school board’s conservatives support a proposal to appoint a curriculum-review committee. This group would monitor whether students in Advanced Placement of United States history are reading literature that promotes patriotism, besides respecting authority and free enterprise. These watchdogs would guard students from educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.”

The Declaration of Independence stands in the way of political conservatives who reject U.S. history riveting on colonial dissenters who broke British laws.

Colonial street protesters viewed life differently from their British rulers. Jefferson’s occasional dinner companion Thomas Paine observed, “We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those formerly used.” Colonists peered through spectacles of protest, which led them to challenge British rule.

Jefferson served as a prime instigator of protest. In The Declaration of Independence he claimed that “all men are created equal.” That is, Nature’s God has conferred on each of us dignity, self-worth and intrinsic value. The right of equality gives opportunity to better ourselves.

Such revolutionary protest challenged British leaders who wanted colonials to respect their authority. Jefferson’s radical principle of equality threw British society off-balance. “In British North America, a well-ordered society was thought to depend on obedience to authority — the power of rulers over their subjects, husbands over wives, parents over children, masters over servants and apprentices, slaveholders over slaves,” writes Columbia University historian Eric Foner. “Inequality had been fundamental to the colonial society order; the revolution in many ways made it illegitimate” (“The Story of American Freedom”).

Paine and Jefferson protested inequality. “Whenever I use the words freedom or right,” Paine insisted, “I desire to mean a perfect equality of them … . The floor of freedom is as level as water.” That is, rich and poor share a common dignify that acts like a leveler, spreading equality.

The JeffCo school board’s GOP majority believes free enterprise built America’s ladder of opportunity for economic success. Hard work, healthy competition and calculated risks are rungs achievers scale to earn the good life. The board’s majority wants AP history students to read books supporting this slant. School board member Julie Williams down-plays history books which emphasize roadblocks to equality, such as “race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and America-bashing.”

What of women and African-Americans, however, who tried but failed to move up the ladder of economic success? They were stymied because voting rights and the right to hold political office were denied them. These marginalized groups protested.

In 2012, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney cleverly omitted Jefferson’s emphasis on equality in his final debate against incumbent Barack Obama. Jefferson used equality to frame a literary portrait of citizens’ rights. Romney ignored this key dynamic.

After reciting in the Declaration of Independence that all citizens share an equality that promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Romney put the GOP spin on these elegant words. He keyed on “life” and “liberty,” preserved with military spending hikes. Romney’s confidence in a “creator” supported religious tolerance and freedom. His pursuit of happiness mandated caring for the needy, introducing business innovations and motivating citizens to reach the American dream by getting government off their backs.

The JeffCo school board’s conservative majority takes directly from Romney’s playbook the free enterprise they want hyped in AP history classes.

What’s missing? Champions of free enterprise gloss over equality for all. Strivers climb their ladder of financial success. What about seekers who want to move up but find their way blocked because some rungs are missing? Their protests must be studied and analyzed and they are in current AP history classes.

Here’s the grim fact of U.S. history that invites protest: When Jefferson wrote about inalienable rights of liberty and equality for all citizens, he owned over 100 slaves. The words “slave” and “slavery” were cut from the Constitution because Southerners worried such frankness would “contaminate the glorious fabric of American life.” During the first 16 presidential elections between 1788 and 1848, “all but four placed a Southern slave holder in the White House,” reports historian Foner.

Protesters shaped our nation as much as the founding fathers. “The authors of the notion of free as a universal birthright, a truly human ideal,” writes Foner, “were not so much the founding fathers, who created a nation dedicated to liberty but resting in large measure on slavery, but abolitionists who sought to extend the blessing of liberty to encompass blacks, slave and free; women who seized upon the rhetoric of democratic freedom to demand the right to vote; and immigrant groups who insisted that nativity and culture ought not to form boundaries of exclusion.”

Equality, conflict, protest and innovation are woven in U.S. history’s fabric. Because the JeffCo school board’s GOP majority favors curricula that picture America unfolding as an Eden of free enterprise, they forget Jefferson planted seeds of protest that have not died.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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