from the Congress Action newsletter

Abraham Who?

by: Kim Weissman
July 23, 2000

Last week President Clinton, using the Antiquities Act of 1906, designated the Anderson Cottage as a national monument.

What is the Anderson Cottage? It was the summer White House of President Abraham Lincoln, where he and his family lived during the summers of 1862 through 1864 during the darkest days of the Civil War, the place where Lincoln was reported to have drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Over the past few years, Bill Clinton has used the Antiquities Act to take millions of acres of public and private land in various western states and isolate them from human impact, and incurred quite a bit of entirely justified criticism for acting more as a feudal despot than as the elected leader of a free people governed by a Constitution.

But in the case of Anderson Cottage, Clinton did the right thing. Being Bill Clinton, of course, there is no doubt that there was a political motive to his action, which was probably designed to appeal to minority voters. After all, in the cartoon version of American history now being taught in schools, it was Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves during the Civil War. Of course it did no such thing. By its terms, the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those slave states and parts of states then in rebellion, over which Lincoln exercised no presidential authority whatsoever; and by its terms the Emancipation Proclamation exempted from its operation those slave states and parts of states that were not in rebellion and that had remained loyal to the Union. But poll-tested, modern-day political machinations notwithstanding, sometimes Bill Clinton actually does something useful in spite of his self-serving political calculations.

The designation of the Anderson Cottage as a national monument was useful because of its sadly poignant implications. Anderson Cottage is a historic relic in a nation fast becoming devoid of its historical memory. In a 1998 multiple choice survey by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, fully 45% of the adults surveyed thought that Abraham Lincoln was one of the Founders of this nation, and an astonishing 87% of school children thought so. A more recent study, the results of which were released February 21, 2000, was done by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, surveying the historical knowledge of seniors at 55 of America's most prestigious colleges and universities. A mere 22% of those college seniors could identify the lines "…government of the people, by the people, for the people…" as coming from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Only 60% could place the occurrence of the Civil War in the proper half century; only 29% knew what the term "Reconstruction" following the Civil War referred to; 73% didn't know what the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished (a void directly relevant to Clinton's designation of Anderson Cottage); and less than half could place Lincoln's tenure as president within the proper two-decade span.

In broader terms, only 23% could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution and only 60% knew what the Constitution established (to know what the Constitution means, it is useful to read the writings of the man who helped to create it, and to do that one has to know who that was). Just over half knew what the Magna Carta was (25% thought that it was signed by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower). Remember, these were multiple choice questions, given to college seniors at such eminent institutions of "learning" as Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, and Mount Holyoke, to name just a few. These results came from the most highly educated students in the nation. Imagine how much worse the level of knowledge is for the rest of the students in this country. But we should not be surprised. Not one of the 55 colleges and universities surveyed required their students to take a course in American history prior to graduation, and only 22% required any kind of history at all.

Most students are required to take some form of American history in high school, and apparently most colleges think that is sufficient. But what is the content of that history, that leave students so devoid of knowledge? Several years ago, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute reviewed the content of history textbooks just coming into use in high schools:

"Today's textbooks are reinventing America. They are creating a past that never existed. The textbooks are reinventing our nation — from a multi-ethnic liberal democracy based on individual citizenship to a multicultural confederation based on membership in different ethnic, racial, and gender groups. From the story of the American democratic republic to the separate histories of different peoples. From the American people to the American peoples. From a nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethical principles, English law, and Anglo-Scottish enlightenment ideas to a conglomeration of three civilizations: indigenous Amerindian, Islamic West African, and European. From a nation that is the leader of Western civilization to a world where the very concept of Western civilization disappears."

As anyone with any knowledge of the turnover rate of textbooks in public schools well knows, new textbooks purchased a mere 1 or 2 years ago will be spreading their venomous disinformation into classrooms for a very long time to come.

According to the AEI scholar, one prominent text attributes the origins of our nation to a convergence between pre-Columbian Indians, western Africans, and Europeans. Yet despite the reference to western European philosophy and values, there is no mention of British common law, or of the ideas of natural law and natural rights, no mention at all of John Locke (who greatly influenced Jefferson in his writing of our Declaration of Independence), or of the Magna Carta (explaining why the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that nearly half of college seniors didn't know what the Magna Carta was). But the text goes to great lengths analyzing various American Indian traditions and religions. And the modern scourges of socialism and communism are painted in fuzzy hues without any mention at all of gulags or the hundreds of millions slaughtered by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other communist tyrants.

"If we now repudiate the quite marvelous inheritance that history bestows on us, we invite the fragmentation of the national community into a quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettos, tribes. The bonds of cohesion in our society are sufficiently fragile...that it makes no sense to strain them by encouraging and exalting cultural and linguistic apartheid. — Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ("The Disuniting of America")

"Good history is a question of survival. Without any past, we will deprive ourselves of the defining impressions of our being." — Ken Burns (producer of the PBS series "Civil War")

But so what? What is history but a pile of dusty old facts about things that happened ages ago to people long dead; of what relevance is any of that quill-pen, horse-and-buggy philosophy to the light-speed internet world?

Well, consider this: Those same people who have no idea what the Magna Carta was, or how and why it came about, also probably believe that our American Constitution is a living, breathing document, which is flexible enough to be "reinterpreted" to suit changing values and beliefs. That the Constitution is a fixed structure, a sacred contract designed to rigidly confine the power of government, escapes their consciousness. But again, so what? Of what use is a fixed Constitution that rigidly confines government power, at a time when feelings and compassion are the watchwords of governmental activities?

The rigid confines of a 200 year old piece of parchment would prevent the government from doing all the good works that those in charge envision for it. The federal government has no Constitutional role in providing health care or retirement security, but people are sick and the elderly must be cared for. The federal government has no Constitutional role at all in education, but children need books and schools. The federal government is strictly prohibited from interfering with speech or the exercise of religion, but people must be protected from hate speech and from those who believe in God when they themselves do not. The federal government is strictly prohibited from interfering with a man's right and ability to defend his family, but children are shooting each other in schools.

All true, yet all irrelevant. Because around the world — and yes, down through history — there have only been two kinds of governments: those with no limits to their power (by far the most numerous), and those whose power is limited (exceedingly rare). Ours is of the latter variety, and those limits are imposed by our Constitution. Consideration of the former variety — governments without limits to their power because they have no Constitution, or because they have "reinterpreted" it out of meaningful existence — brings us back to history once again, to Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro… Those who are ignorant of the lessons of history are also ignorant of the danger posed to Liberty by smooth-talking demagogues. And they will follow the next smooth-talking demagogue to their own, and our, destruction and enslavement. Whether that demagogue be called "commissar" or "president".

The above article is the property of Kim Weissman, and is reprinted with his permission.
Contact him prior to reproducing.

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24 jul 2000