In our era of rampant political strife with scores of public policy disputes, the casual observer may question the importance of worrying about the teaching of history and the interpretation of historical sites. But as Brenda Hafera so articulately and thoroughly explains in this report, any assessment of Americans’ understanding of our nation’s founding principles must necessarily take account of the quality of historical interpretation at three leading historic homes—George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier.
The diagnosis is sobering. Though Mount Vernon should be lauded for its balanced portrayal of history, the tour scripts and exhibit text at Monticello and Montpelier relegate the achievements of their owners to the background—at best, an indefensible oddity, considering the contributions of Jefferson and Madison. Unfortunately for visitors to those two homes, historical interpretation has descended into a contorted narrative poisoned by the inanity of modern political correctness. The fact that these distorted views are funded by so many radically left-wing foundations and activists at least proves the point: History matters.
The problem today is that the predominant way we “do history” in our classrooms, museums, and historic homes is a violation of the historian’s first objective—to let the evidence, not our personal biases or modern sensibilities, form the basis of our narrative. As Hafera shows, some sites like Mount Vernon have mitigated the damage from this fallacy of presentism, but the trends are still troubling.
What’s needed is a correction to this hyper-revisionism. Historians of slavery (like me) who were trained a quarter-century ago, mostly by Marxist-leaning or neo-Marxist social historians, were charged by our mentors with bringing to life the voices of the forgotten. Though the historical records of the enslaved—that is, as individual human persons—are scant, earnest historians have augmented our national narrative with stories of heroic resistance to oppression. These are important, good, and even rejuvenating, both for our history and for our contemporary civic life. Emphasizing them, however, at the expense of the achievements of those very men whose ideas and actions made it possible to build, however imperfectly and slowly, a republic in which everyone was free undermines not just the accuracy of our history, but also the belief in our shared principles as a pluralistic republic animated by our zealous commitment to self-governance.
That, unfortunately, is the very purpose of this historical revisionism. And that is precisely why analyzing it—and then correcting it—is as important as any other public policy issue of our era.