This week kicks off a rare opportunity for a series of national reflections about the costs and consequences of a divided nation. Well, yes, the outcome of today’s midterm elections promises to harden attitudes over our shared destiny for certainly the next two years and well into the 2012 presidential and congressional contests. But that’s not what I’m talking about at this moment in our history.
This week marks the beginning of the sesquicentennial observance of the most divisive epoch in American history, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. More precisely, as historians agree, the November 6, 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th U.S. president was the definitive event pushing 11 southern states to debate, then withdraw—first South Carolina on December 20, then Mississippi on January 9, 1861, on down finally to Tennessee on June 8, 1861—from the Union.
Nothing in our collective history as a nation was as bloody, painful, and divisive as the Civil War. For the next five years or so, we will revisit a succession of Civil War moments—Lincoln’s election, Fort Sumter, Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Appomattox, Reconstruction—all offering us an excellent series of teachable moments to learn and grow from our history. But will we take advantage of it?
Maybe not, if the battles currently waged in some southern classrooms are any indication. Last month, fourth-graders in Virginia’s public schools opened "Our Virginia: Past and Present," a new history textbook, to read falsely that two battalions of black soldiers embraced the treasonous confederate cause to fight under Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s leadership. That would have made about as much sense as two coops of chickens scratching and pecking to get into Col. Harlan Sanders’s kitchen. But present-day states’ rights advocates will go to any length to claim the fight to end slavery was not the leading cause of the Civil War.
Earlier this year, conservative activists in Texas successfully challenged the facts of history and economics to put a right-leaning tilt on the textbooks used by schoolchildren in the state. The impact of their decision was to highlight the role of confederate leaders in defending states’ rights and to diminish the emphasis of constitutional commitment to separation of church and state. “They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians,” Mary Helen Berlanga, a member of the Texas Board of Education, told The New York Times. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”
We study history to learn lessons that inform our contemporary decisions. But if the wrong lessons are taught from a fundamental misunderstanding or outright distortion of the facts, then there’s no way to make reasonable decisions. That’s why right-wing activists are so eager to manipulate what goes into history books.
After all, repeated declarations of false facts lie at the heart of the strategy pursued by some far-right conservatives. It also infects the core principles of the Tea Party. Tell a huge lie over and over—on Fox News and elsewhere—and soon the too-busy-to-check citizenry believes it. The most vocal among them will condemn those who place trust in facts as elitists. But worst of all, the ignorant will act and vote based on misinformation.
To be sure, 150 years after the start of the Civil War, conservative activists and Tea Party advocates draw strength from the failed lessons of the secessionist states. Their arguments against the current progressive leadership in Washington ring with shouts about “taking back the nation,” and about resisting the federal “big government.” It’s the discredited, but impossible-to-kill states’ rights argument all over again.
Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney recently quoted a confederate sympathizer who brazenly suggested that President Obama is the second coming of Lincoln—brazen because he said the current president’s policies, such as universal health care, finance reform laws, and climate change legislation, harken back to an overreaching federal bureaucracy of a century and half ago.
That’s utter nonsense, of course, yet listen to Grayson Jennings, first lieutenant commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He told McCartney that today’s Tea Party warriors are the resistance troops just as ol’ Jefferson Davis and the other rebels were in the 1860s. “They were fighting for the same things that people in the Tea Party are fighting for now,” Jennings said, apparently without a trace of irony.
That’s not a history that we Americans should be proud to repeat.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.