Last week we published a post on Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s op-ed in The New York Post condemning critical race theory and promoting his personal view of what young Americans should learn in history class. His views are encapsulated in the “Love America Act,” a bill he recently introduced in the Senate.
Hawley’s bill begins:
A bill to prohibit Federal funding for educational agencies and schools whose students do not read certain foundational texts of the United States and are not able to recite those texts or that teach that those texts are products of white supremacy or racism.
Let’s start with paragraph one:
Since the founding of the United States, the institutions of the United States of America have set the worldwide standard for promoting democracy, freedom, liberty, and virtue.
Is this true? I know this may be a bit obsessive, but Hawley’s use of the words “democracy,” “freedom,” “liberty,” and “virtue” require some greater context.
First, most of the founding fathers were not huge fans of democracy. They feared that the people were incapable of governing themselves without society degenerating into a mobocracy. See, for example, my C-SPAN lecture on the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.
In a 1774 letter to Thomas Penn, Gouverneur Morris, the future author of the preamble of the United States Constitution, wrote with “fear and trembling” that “if the disputes with Great Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions; we shall be under the domination of the riotous mob.” In reflecting on Thomas Paine’s democratic plan for American government as laid-out in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, John Adams wrote, “What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass.” Edmund Randolph of Virginia said that the early United States suffered under the “turbulence and follies of democracy.” Connecticut’s Roger Sherman wanted “the people [to]…have as little to do as may be about government.”
Here is John Adams to James Sullivan on May 26, 1776:
Depend on it, sir it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Leads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell.
I am sure Hawley read Federalist #10 at some point in his schooling. In this document, James Madison argues that the people’s passions, rooted in the selfish nature of humankind, must be held in check by balanced government. Let the people elect members of the House of Representatives, but don’t let them elect Senators. The Senate was designed as an august body of elite men appointed by the state legislatures for six terms with the primary role of holding the raucous people’s house in check. Hawley is a Senator. Has he ever wondered why he got to serve as part of the jury in two impeachment trials?
Second, Hawley is correct to suggest that the founding fathers believed in “freedom” and “liberty.” But as I argued last week, they also thought freedom comes with responsibilities to one’s fellow citizens. Even Thomas Paine believed this. In 1786, he said, “The public good is not a term opposed to the good of individuals; on the contrary, it is the good of every individual collected.”
Third, what does Hawley mean by “virtue?” He certainly cannot mean the 18th-century brand of virtue in which men and women occasionally sacrifice their “rights” for the greater good of the nation. Hawley’s career has not been marked by this kind of virtue. So perhaps he is equating “virtue” with “morality.” If this is the case, Hawley is the latest to advance the myth of American innocence. I just picked up a copy of my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, and found this passage about founding father John Witherspoon:
Witherspoon provided some specific reasons why God would naturally support the American cause. America, for example, was morally superior to England . Apparently sinful human nature did not have the same effect on the people of the American colonies as it did on the imperial administration in London. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable both in number and effect.” The colonies offered relatively few example, Witherspoon believed, of “dishonesty and disaffection” because their people exercised greater public spirit than the people of England.”
Witherspoon’s words almost sounds comical today in light of what we now know about slavery, race, native Americans, women, politics and social class in the British-American colonies. As my friend and former colleague Richard T. Hughes has noted, “The myth of an innocent nation” is one of the many myths “American’s live by.” Hawley apparently lives by it too. Any good historian knows that the United States has been a nation of both liberators and oppressors.
Hawley’s bill continues:
Increasingly, students across the country are being taught misinformation, including that the principles of the founding of the United States were lies from the start, that the core institutions of the United States are fundamentally racist and designed to propagate racism, and that it is acceptable to impute guilt to present-day individuals based on the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character.
One might think that a bill brought before the United States Senate for consideration might have some quantitative evidence to show that indeed American history teachers are teaching students that “the principles of the founding…were lies from the start.” If teachers are “imputing guilt” on students “based on the color of their skin,” and this practice is as widespread as Hawley implies, then we have a problem that needs addressing. I spend a lot of time with American history teachers and I am not convinced that this is happening to the degree Hawley thinks it is happening.
Of course an American history teacher would be committing pedagogical malpractice if they did not point out that there was an inherent moral contradiction at the heart of the American founding. It is hard to defend the founders’ view that “all men are created equal” when many owned large numbers of slaves. (And that’s just a start). So yes, there was racism at the founding. Yes, it was propagated by the founders in the documents they created. If Hawley is really serious about the distinguishing “truth” from “lies” in the classroom then he will want students exposed to what Edmund Morgan described in 1975 as the paradox between “American slavery” and “American freedom.”
Then comes this:
The best antidote to misinformation is the truth, which is reflected in the documents relating to the founding of the United States and other artifacts of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Pledge of Allegiance. It is the policy of the United States that students in elementary and secondary school should know the truth about the history and documents relating to the founding of the United States, which express the principles that unite the people of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Pledge of Allegiance…
This part of Hawley’s bill will backfire on him. Why? Because he does not consider the role that history teachers play in their classrooms. Hawley seems to think that the ideas in these founding documents will somehow–perhaps by osmosis, maybe–sink into the brains of children and thus produce good patriotic members of the Republican Party. Frankly, I would welcome a law requiring these documents to be taught in schools. Good history teachers know that these documents articulate profound American ideals that are drawn from the wells of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and, at the same time, are deeply flawed and morally problematic.
And then comes this:
RESTRICTION ON FEDERAL FUNDS.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, Federal funds shall only be provided to an educational agency or school in which—(1) students in the first grade read and are able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance; (2) students in the fourth grade read the Constitution of the United States and are able to recite its preamble; (3) students in the eighth grade read the Declaration of Independence and are able to recite its preamble; and (4) students in the tenth grade read and are able to identify the Bill of Rights.
Again, no problem here.
But I’m pretty sure, however, that the Pledge of Allegiance is recited in most elementary schools. It is also worth noting that students cannot be required by law to say the Pledge. The Supreme Court dealt with this in 1943. Of course students who can “identify the Bill of Rights” (to use Hawley’s phrase) will already know that forcing a student to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance is a violation of the First Amendment. Again, Hawley’s insistence that students master the Constitution and the Bill of Rights could have unintended consequences that may not be conductive to his political vision.
I don’t have time to check all the state social studies standards, but I did give a quick look at the standards in some really, really blue states. Here is what I found:
New York: Students learn about the American Revolution in 4th grade, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution/Bill of Rights in fifth grade and seventh grade, and learn it all again in 11th grade.
Massachusetts: Kindergarten students learn about democracy. The American Revolution is taught in Grade 3 and Grade 5. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution/Bill Rights are taught in 8th grade and again in high school (U.S. History I).
By the way, I recommend students learn to memorize the preamble the way I did:
More of the “Love of America Act”:
RESTRICTION ON FEDERAL FUNDS FOR TEACHING THAT CERTAIN DOCUMENTS ARE PRODUCTS OF WHITE SUPREMACY OR RACISM.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds shall be provided to an educational agency or school that teaches that the Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the United States is a product of white supremacy or racism.
What does Hawley mean when he says that teachers cannot teach these texts in a way that portrays them as the “products of white supremacy or racism?” Again, any good American history, at the bare minimum, will teach students:
- That many members of the Continental Congress were slaveholders.
- That the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that says “all men are created equal” was morally problematic in the context of the 18th century.
- The 3/5ths clause
One more thing: Are teachers allowed to teach students that the writer of the Pledge of Allegiance was a socialist?
This bill is a waste of time. It serves merely as a way for Josh Hawley to advance his political career among the God and country crowd that currently dominates the GOP.