Let’s revisit the success of Texas State Board of Education member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, in requiring social studies students to analyze Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address. The Texas Education Agency has posted the revised American history curriculum standards (as of the January changes) here. The relevant standard for eighth-grade American history reads:
“(A)nalyze the ideas contained in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address and Abraham Lincoln’s ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address.”
The implication here is that Davis and Lincoln had competing ideas about “liberty, equality, union, and government.” Such competing ideas should be obvious: Davis was defending the Confederacy’s right to secede so that it could maintain the evil institution of slavery. Lincoln, who opposed slavery, was trying to maintain the Union. But that’s not what Cargill and other far-right board members really have in mind.
Writing for the New York Times this weekend, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham looks at how many people in the South continue to view the Civil War as a noble cause in which the controversy over slavery supposedly was a sideshow. He recounts, for example, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s recent proclamation recognizing April as Confederate History Month in his state — a proclamation that originally didn’t even mention slavery. It calls for Virginians to honor people “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth” and “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”
“Advertently or not, Mr. McDonnell is working in a long and dispiriting tradition. Efforts to rehabilitate the Southern rebellion frequently come at moments of racial and social stress, and it is revealing that Virginia’s neo-Confederates are refighting the Civil War in 2010. Whitewashing the war is one way for the right — alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary — to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage.”
People like McDonnell and his supporters, Meacham writes, “would like what Lincoln called our ‘fiery trial’ to be seen in a political, not a moral, light”:
“If the slaves are erased from the picture, then what took place between Sumter and Appomattox is not about the fate of human chattel, or a battle between good and evil. It is, instead, more of an ancestral skirmish in the Reagan revolution, a contest between big and small government.”
Cargill and her partners on the Texas State Board of Education are engaged in the same whitewashing of history and for the same reasons. One of the common themes of their hundreds of changes in vandalizing the social studies curriculum standards in January and March was the concept of ” big government” as a threat to liberty. Davis’s inaugural address fits that theme quite well.
Davis didn’t refer to slavery even once in his address. Instead, he praised the “courage and patriotism” of Confederates, the “rights of person and property” and the rights of “sovereign states” against “wanton aggression” and a federal government that, he argued, had “perverted” the Constitution.
Such language is hardly foreign in today’s far-right screeds against the federal government. Cargill, intentionally or not, has latched on to the wagon of what Meacham and others call the “Lost Cause” — the concept of a noble and freedom-loving Confederacy, destroyed by aggression against its people’s way of life.
But the “Lost Cause” is a lie. Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy were defending the “right” of southern states to continue the race-based enslavement of a large portion of their population. Davis said nothing about that in the address Cargill wants students to analyze alongside President Lincoln’s speeches. She and other far-right board members are simply whitewashing that evil history in our children’s classrooms, all in the service of the radical anti-government nonsense that passes for political discourse in America today. They should be ashamed of themselves — if they were really capable of it.