A Real Historian Responds

by TFN

Why do members of the Texas State Board of Education insist on rejecting guidance from real experts? Case in point: far-right board members continue to argue that they were justified in removing Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, from a key curriculum standard for high school world history courses. Those board members claim that Jefferson, who argued that a “wall of separation between church and state” is essential to freedom, was misplaced in the standard.

The original standard read: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.”

Cynthia Dunbar, one of the board’s most outspoken religious conservatives, persuaded the board to change the standard to this: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.”

Board members have pointed to no historian to support the change. In fact, the board’s far-right members, such as Chairwoman Gail Lowe, have simply stated their own opinions about Jefferson as fact. Here’s what Lowe said last week:

“This was inappropriate placement of Jefferson ’s name. Jefferson was not himself an Enlightenment philosopher, although he was heavily influenced by the writings of these individuals.”

We decided it was past time that someone — especially if the board itself won’t do it — ask a real historian, instead of politicians, to weigh in on this. So we forwarded Lowe’s statement and the revised standard to Dr. Edward Countryman, university distinguished professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Prof. Countryman is an award-winning author and specialist on colonial America and the American revolution. Here is what he has to say:

There is absolutely no question that Jefferson is an Enlightenment figure of the first order. In my major-level Revolution course I’ve just taught Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (1782), having previously taught his emergence piece (“A Summary View of the Rights of British America”) and the Declaration. We’ll continue the Notes on Tuesday dealing specifically with the tortured language on slavery and race.

My class is excellent, but Jefferson stumped them today. I wanted them to see him as a scientific thinker, in the late eighteenth-century sense. So I walked them through his interest in the emerging sciences of geology, paleontology, and anthropology, noting that he is part of a trans-Atlantic Republic of Letters whose participants exchanged ideas and information constantly. What was taking shape was the concept of Deep Time, which won’t be fully in place until the 1830s and from which Darwin would springboard. Jefferson is aware of the issues that render the Biblical Creation account untenable, including fossils high in the Appalachians that had to be maritime in origin. He poses the questions, though he doesn’t have the answers and knows it.

He wrote the Notes on Virginia for a French friend who was a fellow savant, and his larger readership, when it was published, was such people on both sides of the Atlantic. One interesting point, marking him as a man of the eighteenth-century: he knows about the exhumation of mastodon and mammoth bones and is very interested. He puzzles on what species they belong to. But Darwin hasn’t happened yet, and he has no notion of either the extinction or the origin of species of animals. So he firmly believes that the creatures are alive somewhere “out there.” He would instruct Lewis and Clark to seek them.

His Enlightenment thinking is present as well in his political thought. In the Summary View (1774) he cuts right through all the old, tortured arguments about British belonging that had erupted out of Britain’s decision to reform colonial administration. One of the figures whose thought he dismisses is (William) Blackstone, though he doesn’t mention him. In the Notes he ponders what is going wrong with his own Virginia, adopting an Enlightenment take on his state’s public life, which comes down to “what is wrong can be understood and can be fixed.” He also has a long chapter at the end of the book on the problem of religion in the polity, criticizing Virginia (where the Anglican Church has been disestablished but where heresy was still a crime at common law) and Massachusetts (where the Congregational Standing Order still stood) and praising New York and Pennsylvania where the separation had become complete.

I just do not get the Board’s list (of recommended names for the standard). I would not dismiss Aquinas or Blackstone as thinkers. Far from it. Blackstone’s insight in the Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) that all societies must have an absolute authority above them was precisely what the rebellious colonials resisted. He was saying, in effect, that Britain’s formulaic of the King-in-Parliament, though different in form from the “l’etat, c’est moi” of Louis XIV or the formula “yo el Rey” of a Spanish monarch, was nonetheless absolute from the subject’s point of view. Parliament said the same thing in the Declaratory Act (1766), when it asserted its power over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Jefferson would list those words at an important point in his long indictment of the king that forms the centerpiece of the Declaration.

The Blackstone formula does come back in “We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution [which shall be] the Supreme Law of the Land,” but in a way modified precisely by the very Enlightenment debate about sovereignty and authority that Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Jay and their like (including many so-called ordinary folks) carried on between the Declaration in 1776 and the Constitution a dozen years later. The old order that the Revolution demolished had rested on a legitimacy drawn from its long history (the Burkean position that long experience justified continuation) and from its supposed sacred origins (“Got almightie in his most holy and venerable providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind that in all times and places some must be rich, some poore, some high and mightie in power and dignitie, others meane and in subjection . . . the reason hereof . . . that we may have need of one another,” John Winthrop, founding governor of Massachusetts, 1630). The order that Jefferson helped to originate rejected that whole position, very much in the Enlightenment position that all things and all human arrangements are open to human inquiry and to human remaking. This underpins the achievement of the people we honor as the Founders, among whom Jefferson figures large.

So, again, on intellectual grounds I just do not get it. On historical grounds it is outrageous. Such people are likely to go on about historical revisionism, not in the (accurate) sense of taking fresh evidence and fresh problems into account but in some supposed sense of rewriting according to an ideological agenda, which is not what serious professionals do. That describes precisely what these people are doing. It’s akin to condemnations of so-called “judicial activism” and to upholding so-called originalist Constitutional jurisprudence – and then handing down the decision about corporate spending in the electoral process on the spurious ground that corporations, like living human beings, are persons with equal First Amendment rights.

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Gregorio Casar

It’s like I’ve been saying. @GregAbbott_TX and @RepDennisBonnen care more about attacking our local democracies than actually improving living conditions for Texans. You don’t even have to take my word for it, Bonnen’s clearly happy to say the quiet part out loud. twitter.com/wellsdun…