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.
During a debate last fall, failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell asked her opponent, "Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?" Rick Santorum explained that John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 statement that "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute" was "radical" and did "great damage." ("Jefferson is spinning in his grave," he added.) Sarah Palin couldn't agree more:
"Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They're quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the 10 commandments, it's pretty simple."
According to Palin, that goes double for George Washington, the man who, she eventually told Glenn Beck, "got to rise to the top" of her list of favorite Founders.
"Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers. And George Washington, he saw faith in God as basic to life."
Just not to other people's lives. In his letter to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia in 1789, Washington wrote, "I have often expressed my sentiments, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." Washington also misspoke when he blessed Article 11 of the 1797 treaty he negotiated (and John Adams signed) with the Barbary pirates:
"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
Luckily, we have "historian" David Barton to set the record straight for the Father of the Nation - and for us.
The man Michele Bachmann called "a treasure for our nation" and whose lectures Americans Mike Huckabee said should be "forced at gunpoint" to listen to leads the organization WallBuilders. It's mission?
God wants us to know our history and learn its lessons. At WallBuilders, we present American history, and we do so with a Providential perspective. In short, history not only shows God's workings and plans but it also demonstrates the effectiveness of biblical principles when applied to church, education, government, economics, family, entertainment, military or any other aspect of life.
For Barton that includes, among other things, the revelation that the Founders frowned on the teaching of evolution in public schools 70 years before Charles Darwin published his seminal book:
"As far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, they'd already had the entire debate over creation and evolution, and you get Thomas Paine, who is the least religious Founding Father, saying you've got to teach Creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that!"
Thanks to our friends in the Republican Party, we also know the Framers were just joking when they wrote in Article VI of the Constitution that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Herman Cain let us know that Muslims would need to swear a special loyalty oath to serve in his Cabinet. In 2007, Mitt Romney said they need not apply at all:
"[B]ased on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."
The GOP has made clear that they have place in Congress, either. After Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison swore the oath using Thomas Jefferson's Koran, Virginian Virgil Goode warned that "if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran." In 2007, Idaho Rep. Bill Sali similarly cautioned:
"We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes -- and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers."
In ways large and small, Newt Gingrich suggested the Founding Fathers would be "very, very severe critics" of President Obama. (As for his hero Ben Franklin's maxim that "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety," Gingrich provided an update, explaining "If there's a threat, you have a right to defend society, people will give up all their liberties to avoid that level of threat.")
The Republican Party, including 26 state attorneys general now suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act, tells us that the individual insurance mandate in unconstitutional. (On this point, President John Adams committed a major gaffe by signing the 1798 "Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen" which authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.) Rendering the "general welfare" clause a constitutional typo, Georgia Congressman Paul Broun claimed, "We don't have constitutional authority under the original intent of the Constitution to fund Planned Parenthood or NPR." Congressman and Republican White House wannabe Ron Paul pointed out that the Supreme Court erred when declaring Social Security constitutional. Mercifully, Paul explained, states can always nullify laws from Washington that they don't like:
"In principle, nullification is proper and moral and constitutional...That is why I am a strong endorser of the nullification movement, that states like this should just nullify these laws."
Boy did James Madison have it wrong when he argued that nullification would "speedily put an end to the Union itself" by allowing federal laws to be freely ignored by states. A mistake or two like that, and the next thing you know you're fighting a Civil War.
620,000 dead Americans and 150 years later, even Justice Antonin Scalia can misread the new Republican constitutional history:
"If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede."
Apparently, Scalia never read the memo from Texas Governor and possible instant GOP presidential frontrunner, Rick Perry:
Perry told reporters following his speech that Texans might get so frustrated with the government they would want to secede from the union.
"There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."
For one thing, a whole new meaning for the Fourth of July.
(An earlier version of this piece also appeared at Perrspectives.)