As Americans gathered to celebrate their independence this past Fourth of July weekend, for some the festivities were tinged with sadness by the mounting evidence that many simply don't know their own nation's history. While a new study showed that only 35% of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, a Marist poll found that 26% of us couldn't identify the country from which the United States announced its separation.
In the telling of Republican White House hopeful Rick Santorum, it's all liberals' fault. "This is, in my opinion, a conscious effort on the part of the left," Santorum explained, "to desensitize America to what American values are so they are more pliable to the new values that they would like to impose on America."
Which is why everything I know about the Founding Fathers I learned from the GOP.
That education begins in the period before the Founders gathered in Philadelphia to produce the document which changed the world.
Starting with the Boston Tea Party in 1773. As the thousands of furious Tea Party protesters who took to the streets in the spring of 2009, we learned that watershed event was all about "no taxation WITH representation." After all, the duly elected Barack Obama and Democratic-controlled Congress had produced the largest two-year tax cut in U.S. history, delivering relief to over 95% of working American households. And by "Taxed Enough Already" (TEA), the Tea Partiers decried the federal tax burden now at its lowest level since 1950.
The textbooks have the start of the Revolutionary War all wrong, too. The Patriot's Day civic holiday celebrated every April in Massachusetts is especially embarrassing since, as Michele Bachmann pointed out, Lexington and Concord are in New Hampshire. And those annual reenactments of Paul Revere's midnight ride have it backwards, too. As Sarah Palin repeatedly made clear, Revere was warning the British.
As it turns out, all Founders are created equal. As Palin explained to Glenn Beck, her favorite Founding Father was "all of them." That might be because, as she pointed out in 2006, they had the wisdom over 170 years in advance to support adding "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. "If it was good enough for the Founding Fathers," she declared, "it's good enough for me."
Then again, how special could Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and their ilk have been anyway? As Ronald Reagan told Americans in the 1980's, the Nicaraguan Contras were the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers."
Well, according to the Republican National Committee, Madison, Hamilton and the other Framers of the Constitution of the United States were perfect. According to the RNC, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan committed sacrilege when she quoted Justice Thurgood Marshall's assessment that "the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today." Unable to prevent three-fifths of the Senate from voting on Kagan's nomination, Republicans instead suggested in an RNC memo that the Founders' three-fifths of a person standard for counting slaves was no defect:
"Does Kagan Still View Constitution 'As Originally Drafted And Conceived' As 'Defective'?"
Not, it turns out, if you leave out that three-fifths of a person stuff. Which is exactly what House Republicans did during their staged reading of the Constitution in January.
Then again, for Glenn Beck, the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution was a feature, not a bug:
"That's why, in the Constitution, African-Americans were deemed three-fifths people, because the Founders wanted to end slavery and they knew if the South could count slaves as full individuals you would never get the control to be able to abolish it."
As for the Constitution's $10 tax on the importation of each new slave levied until 1808, Beck in his book Arguing with Idiots helpfully pointed out that:
"That's right, the Founders actually put a price tag on coming to this country: $10 per person. Apparently they felt like there was a value to being able to live here. Not anymore. These days we can't ask anything of immigrants -- including that they abide by our laws."
In any event, as Michele Bachmann has told us time and again, the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to rid the United States of the "scourge" of slavery. That includes the Founding Child John Quincy Adams, who died seventeen years before Civil War - and the passage of the 13th Amendment -ended slavery in 1865:
"We know we were not perfect. We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil and it was scourge and a blot and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forebears, who worked tirelessly, men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."
As for the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln praised Thomas Jefferson's Declaration for introducing "to into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression." But while Lincoln at Gettysburg turned to Jefferson to redeem the promise of America, his Republican successors inform us that it's best to ignore the Declaration's author and third President altogether.
The Texas Board of Education, which sets the de facto standards for U.S. textbook publishers, removed Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum, "replacing him with religious right icon John Calvin." (There is, of course, the Tea Party exception, which allows gun-toting Tea Baggers and Republican Congressman like Texas Rep. Michael McCaul to proclaim, "Thomas Jefferson said the Tree of Liberty will be fed by the blood of tyrants and patriots. You are the modern day patriots.") That's what you get when you have the temerity to explain the plain meaning of the First Amendment, as Jefferson did in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
Today's Republicans know better.