By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
For 35 years I taught high school classes in politics, economics and American history. And for 35 years I struggled against a mythological past that is central to virtually every state-approved secondary American history textbook. I’m not referring to what might be called “conservative” texts or to those one might label as “liberal.” Mythological history is present in all of them.
There are countless examples, but here are a few that frustratingly stand out. It is impossible to find a secondary text that does not feature Manifest Destiny as either an explanation or an excuse for the murderous westward expansion into territory owned and occupied by the native peoples. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are not mentioned. The undeniable cruelty of race-based slavery is minimized. And in some states the mystifying term “American Exceptionalism” has become required curriculum.
Obviously historical myths are not limited to school books; they are commonly used in ad campaigns, in religious preaching, and they are expected in political speeches. That is one reason I try to avoid presidential speeches, but for some reason, on September 1, I tuned into President Biden’s speech attacking the MAGA mob.
Given the subject I thought the speech would be, at least, acceptable. After all, there is no need to resort to mythology to build a case against the likes of Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert when they talk election fraud and boast about making America great again.
Nevertheless, President Biden began his speech with a transparent myth that the Declaration of Independence suggested that “in America, we’re all created equal.” I can’t imagine why he, or his speech writers, thought that would impress. Doesn’t everyone know that when Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” he meant some white men and no one else? Don’t most Americans know that, in 1776, slavery existed in all 13 colonies? That women were not regarded as citizens and could not vote?
To anyone interested, the Declaration of Independence is available online and, in the list of grievances against the English King, it includes the following racist description of Native Americans: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” There is no mention of equality.
After the president announced the mythic meaning of the Declaration, he added, as foundational, the Constitution of 1787 and asserted that, “These two documents and the ideas they embody — equality and democracy — are the rock upon which this nation is built. They are how we became the greatest nation on earth.” There is no mention of equality in the Constitution of 1787, but an Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1972. It was never ratified.
Unfortunately for the president’s credibility, neither the Declaration nor the Constitution of 1787 suggest that “in America we’re all created equal.” It should be apparent by now that MAGA rhetoric cannot be criticized by suggesting, as Hilary Clinton did, that America was “always great.” I suspect that Biden and his speech writers know this and simply thought no one would notice. They were wrong, and last week they blew their chance at a memorable speech.
It could have been very different. Imagine if the president had begun his speech with a line that appeared near the end when Biden said, “We have never fully realized the aspirations of our founding, but every generation has opened those doors a little bit wider to include more people who have been excluded before.”
By stipulating that, “We have never fully realized the aspirations of our founding” Biden could have recognized the valiant and unending struggle for a democratic United States. He could have recognized some of the countless people and organizations who deserve to be remembered. Some are in the textbooks, but many are not. They all deserve credit.
The President had the time necessary to list at least a few. Here are some suggestions that would have made for an effective and very memorable speech: He could have mentioned that although four of our first five presidents were slaveowners, there were always Americans opposed to slavery. The American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, made a significant contribution toward an American democracy. Among the founders were William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and he could have suggested that statues of Garrison and Douglass should replace those featuring Civil War Confederates on horseback.
He could have mentioned the very unfinished struggle for the rights of women. He could have paid homage to Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone. He could have thanked those suffragettes who marched and practiced civil disobedience including Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916 and who demonstrated in front of the White House to force President Woodrow Wilson into supporting a federal suffrage amendment.
He could have mentioned the vital contribution of the labor movement in the struggle for a real democracy by fighting for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. He could have honored the contributions of hundreds who struggled, including Eugene V. Debs, Samuel Gompers, Frances Perkins, Dolores Huerta and César Chávez.
He could have admitted that real democracy would be impossible without the accomplishments of the modern Civil Rights movement. He could have mentioned the foundational writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, the activism of Paul Robeson, the work of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, the accomplishments of Thurgood Marshall, the writings of James Baldwin, the inspiration of Rosa Parks, and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have mentioned the importance of the Freedom Riders, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the (late) Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He could have mentioned that the American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, was an important step in calling attention to the conditions in which many native peoples still live. He could have mentioned that his own Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, is the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. And he could have congratulated her for initiating a review of the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies. He could have ended by apologizing for the now documented deplorable conditions that existed in those schools.
The president also said, near the end of his speech, “I believe it’s my duty, my duty to level with you, to tell the truth no matter how difficult, no matter how painful.” No kidding. Unfortunately saying that the United States was founded on equality and democracy does not make it so. In spite of everything, no matter how painful it might become, the struggle will continue.