Jim Mamer Original Politics

Ron DeSantis’ Strategic Delusions

American history continues to be rewritten as the conversation around education heats up.
Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at a “Unite & Win Rally” at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost

Stupid statements attributed to conspicuous politicians are common. But they are not always accurate. I’ve learned to check.

It didn’t take long, for example, to find out that Sarah Palin did not say that she could see Russia from her house or to discover that Al Gore never said that he invented the internet. But then came Ron DeSantis.

About a week ago, in answering a question about school curriculum, DeSantis correctly said that “In Florida we are required to teach slavery, the post-reconstruction, segregation, and civil rights; those are core parts of American history that should be taught. But it should also be taught accurately.”

He added that “… it was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided, as Americans, that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal. Then that birthed abolition movements.”

There is so much wrong in these last two sentences that I doubted the Florida governor would have said it, but a search for verification confirmed the reports. Thankfully his remarks were recorded.

There are two issues here. First, are his facts accurate? Second, if they are not, why were they said? In an essay on “The Use and Abuse of History,” Howard Zinn wrote, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying. It is omission or deemphasis of important data.” There is no evidence that DeSantis is omitting or deemphasizing historical data; he is simply lying. 

The evidence is plentiful that the governor’s claims are false. In “American Negro Slave Revolts,” originally published in 1936, historian Herbert Aptheker estimated there were 250 revolts, uprisings, and conspiracies both before and after the United States became a nation.

Revolts began soon after people were enslaved. The first recorded rebellion in North America occurred in San Miguel de Gualdape, a Spanish colony on the coast of present-day Georgia, in 1526, before any of the founders were born.

The beginning of the American abolitionist movement arrivesd in 1688, when Quaker colonists in Pennsylvania denounced slavery with the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery

The rebellions continued. On September 9, 1739, in the colony of Carolina, enslaved people carried banners that proclaimed “Liberty!” That began what is known as the Stono Rebellion. which ended with more than 50 dead.

In 1766 the enslaved, African-born, Olaudah Equiano purchased his freedom from a Quaker named Robert King, after which he moved to England, where he became active in the abolitionist movement. No Declaration of Independence was needed to tell him slavery was wrong. 

That same year, in an early version of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote a passage that condemned slavery, but it was cut from the final wording. At the time of his death, Jefferson still owned more than 100 enslaved people.

Clearly Ron DeSantis was wrong in suggesting that it was the American Revolution that caused people to first question slavery, but I suspect that the governor knows that. After all, before attending law school at Harvard, he graduated from Yale with a degree in history and then spent a year teaching history at the Darlington School in Georgia.

So, why did he say it?  Determining why Gov. DeSantis said what he said is not simple. Could it be that he actually hopes to convince as many as possible that the Declaration of Independence led to abolition? Or could it be that by suggesting that “no one” had questioned slavery before the American Revolution might allow others to claim that “credit” for abolition should only go to white men? Maybe, but there are other possibilities.

DeSantis is not alone in the attempt to create a new and more comforting creation story for the United States. So, I suspect something more coordinated is going on.  

Although current attempts at an ahistorical revision of the American past are, according to the author Chris Mooney are mostly the work of a very conservative right-wing, even President Biden has said that the Declaration of Independence meant that “in America, we’re all created equal.” So, the desire for a more convenient American Genesis is, at least, slightly bi-partisan.

Soon after the Civil War, northern and southern states created very different stories about how to teach that war in schools. Advocates of the southern version planted the seeds of the Lost Cause which, among other things, minimized the role of slavery in causing the war.

Because of the decentralized structure of education policy in this country, the fight over curriculum is dispersed among states and among local school districts so it can be difficult to keep track of the various challenges to what and how things are taught. In February of 2022, Education Week published a list of the subjects that various lawmakers want banned from classrooms.

These include multiple efforts to prevent teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in “divisive” ways (although “divisive” remains undefined). There have also been multiple attempts to prevent even the discussion of race, which include bans on teaching that the United States is, or has been, a racist country.

In interviews with the publication, various state representatives said these new bills are “designed to prevent teachers from telling children what to think, encouraging them to see divisions, or asking them to adopt perspectives that are different from those of their parents on issues like policing, Black Lives Matter, gender identity, and human sexuality.”

Recognizing that revolts of enslaved people and support for abolition preceded the American Revolution doesn’t take anything away from the work of the founders, nor does it cancel out Jefferson’s clearly aspirational statement that “All men are created equal.” Teaching an accurate history should never be interpreted as an attempt to make students disagree with their parents, “hate their country” or “change history.”

All of this, whether it be the call by the Trump administration to teach a patriotic history; or the attempts to ban discussion of race or racism in the United States; or the attempts to diminish the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War; or the attempts to hide what happened to the native peoples, whether that be as victims of genocide or as victims of the version of a “cancel culture” practiced by the federal Indian boarding school system. All of this is an attack on truth and reason. And all of this is a shameless and dangerous attack on history itself.

Jim Mamer
Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).

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