A Real Historian Responds

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.

29 thoughts on “A Real Historian Responds

  1. Wonderfully eloquent and on-point. But the TX SBOE would just call him (Dr. Countryman) a Nazi or some such nonsense.

  2. Geeze Louise! Don’t y’all get it? The SBOE don’t need your stinkin’ facts and high-falutin’ egghead “expert” opinions.

    Somebody’s got to stand up to the EXPERTS!!

  3. How can any dikscusion take place on enlightenment without the inclusion of Thomas Paine – the Rights of Man and the Age of Reason and many more. If memory serves me he began his writtings when he was in England and the at Ben Franklins urging moved to the colonies where he was a giant in the days leading up to and including the American Revolution. Later he took himself to France and was a member of the French National Convention.

    I jsut googled Mr. Paine and found my answer for his exclusion – he had been ostracized for his criticisms and ridicule of Christianity

  4. Thank you Texas Freedom Network for getting an opinion from a legitimate authority. Thomas Jefferson should be reinstated and the concept of separation of state and religion should be a major element in government.
    I find it incomprehensible that there are no checks and balances regarding the State Board of Education.
    Tejano Sylvia

  5. Thank you, Dr. Edward Countryman.

    I would like to add a few comments which also need emphasized.

    1. Thomas Jefferson is not a Founding Father, with capital Fs, see Webster’s, was in France from 1784 to 1789, and had no personal input whatsoever into the secret drafting of the Constitution.

    2. The 1776 Declaration of Independence is not the founding document of the United States of America and has no legal standing whatsoever in a court of law. It is the Constitution of 1787 which is the supreme law of the land and contains the principles upon which the United States of America is founded.

    3. James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” and he wrote, “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history, William and Mary Quarterly, 3:555. Madison should have included “Educational Bodies” in his protest, because everyone in Texas should understand the meaning of “encroachment,” it is illegally crossing the line. In the same document just noted, Madison also objected to the appointment of chaplains to Congress: “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights as well as of constitutional principles.”

    4. Therefore, regarding religion, the Constitution commands “no religious test,” Art. 6., and “no law respecting an establishment of religion,” First Amendment. What part of “no” or “religion” does the Texas State Board of Education not comprehend?

    For further information, I wrote a whole book on the subject of religion and government: http://www.buynewbooks.net/the-religion-commandments-the-religion-commandments-in-the-constitution-a-primer.html .

    Gene Garman, Baylor ‘62
    Sic’em Bears

  6. Dr. Countryman has done a masterful job of using primary sources to support his assertions, but he’s left out something extremely important. I don’t see any mention of important movies in his commentary! Does this mean that real historians actually read those boring old books? That’s not the way the SBOE does it–if a historical figure has been featured in a MOVIE he must be important.

  7. With regard to the Texas SBOE, I think Yarral Nahguav (above) hit the nail right on the head when he used the term “dikscusion.” He might not have meant to type that word, but it cpatured the Texas SBOE TEKS proceedings quite well. DIKSCUSION. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

  8. The problem with Dr. Countryman’s analysis is that it assumes that 1) the SBOE members can read words with more than 6 letters, 2) the SBOE members can understand phrases like “venerable providence” and 3) that reality has any inpact on their decisions.

  9. Another problem? The new standard is meaningless. The original wording provided context and significance. The revision just lists some names.

  10. “Another problem? The new standard is meaningless. The original wording provided context and significance. The revision just lists some names.”

    Aside from the Jefferson issue, that was also my major gripe with the standard. The proposed standard actually required the students to know who these people are, within a particular context, and to do some basic analytical thinking. The new standard is the same old “know names and dates” type of history that ultimately turns students off to the subject. Which may be what the SBOE wanted — can’t have students actually knowing anything about history now, can we — but more likely the new standard is just a reflection of how simple their minds are.

  11. Thanks for this interesting post. It makes me want to learn more about Jefferson! Just like real education is supposed to do.

    I too noticed that the new standard is much too vague – imagine trying to do that – explain the impact of the general writings of eight different men, with no context.

    The old standard asked students to explain just one aspect of six mens’ writings and to explain the effect that had on something specific. That’s achievable.

    Also, thanks for Rocket Mike for making me lol. We need comic relief here! 😉

  12. It was Jesus Christ Himself who first mentioned the separation of Church and State when he said in Matthew 12, “Render unto Caesar (the State) that which is Caesar’s, and to God (the Church) that which is God’s. The Republicans on the SBOE are opposing the words of Christ.

  13. Just for the sake of clarity and accuracy, I humbly repeat from my commentary above.

    History 101: Thomas Jefferson is not a “Founding Father,” see Webster’s Dictionary, had no personal input whatsoever into wording the Constitution because he was not even in the USA at the time, and his words have no legal significance in the USA because his words are not words in the Constitution. The words “church and state” are not in the Constitution. The word in the First Amendment is “religion,” not church. No one objects to the history revisionism of the Texas SBOE more than I, but if we are going to condemn revisionism, please, do not be guilty of doing the same thing by distorting the facts of history just as does David Barton.

    Why is the above important to understand? Real history is accurate and factual. Use of the wording “church and state,” as if those words are in the Constitution, distorts what the Constitution commands, that is, it is “religion” which shall not be established by Congress, law, or government at any level, not just a church. “Religion” is the word used in the First Amendment and it covers everything related to “religion,” not just to churches. What is the practical value of understanding what the wording of the First Amendment actually says? “Religion” covers everything,” whether “God” on the money or in Public Law 396 of 1954, which put “God” into the unenforceable pledge of allegiance, or a governmental executive order which established the Office of Faith-based Partnerships. All are related to “religion” and therefore are an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.”

    The six men on the joint Senate-House committee who drafted the words of the First Amendment wrote exactly what they meant and meant exactly what the wrote. Words mean things, and it is unacceptable to revise the words of the supreme law of the land, as does David Barton. Article 6 and the First Amendment outlaw governmental establishment of the whole subject of “religion.” When you use the words of the Constitution, you win the debate about “religion” and what shall not be established by law or Congress or government at any level. The limited word “church” is a revision and should not be used in a constitutional debate, except to include “church” into the understanding of “religion.” The Founding Fathers and the First Congress got the words right from the beginning. Do not revise them. James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” not Thomas Jefferson–History 101.

    Thanks for reading.

  14. Dunbar’s motion taking out Jefferson was awful but taking out “food, clothing and shelter” from a list of basic human needs taught to kindergarteners leaves me aghast. The one Sunday-school lesson I remember really understanding as a child is the Golden Rule. The hyper-pious board members ought to go off somewhere and study it for a while and report back to us.

  15. @Al Stanley, I didn’t know that “food, shelter and clothing” were left out of a list of basic needs in this curriculum. That truly is appalling. I did not know that we could survive without food. In fact, other than those three, what is left of the most basic of human needs? Water? I’m interested what they left in that list, but afraid to ask. Yes, the hypocrisy is appalling, regarding religious values. But that was around in Jesus’s day. It was one of the few things that made Jesus really angry.

  16. Fantastic article. In the past few days, I’ve started to see some good writing about what actually has taken place in the revisions to the TEKS standards, moving beyond the ridiculous hyperbole of the last couple of weeks. But Countryman’s analysis is at a whole different level. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  17. I went off trying to summarize Dr. Countryman’s response, but found I could not. For example, it’s not clear to me whether Blackstone was for or against government reporting to a divine authority — I seem to be able to read it either way. I’ve also read that Blackstone argued against Catholicism, suggesting that he was against divine authority. But Dr. Countryman seems to be putting him in opposition to Jefferson and the Enlightenment and concluding that he doesn’t understand the board’s action.

    Can we summarize this and maybe get Dr. Countryman to confirm the summary? Thanks!

  18. Joe Lapp:

    I have a better idea. Let’s have TFN sponsor a public debate on American history between Dr. Countryman and David Barton. This would be a great opportunity for Mr. Barton to “…stand up to one of these experts.”

  19. Charles, unfortunately simplicity and showmanship wins debates, not detail and accuracy. The National Center for Science Education recommends not holding debates with creationists for this reason. Academia often comes off as off-putting, and that by itself puts people on the other side. Likability is also a big factor, and objective academic critique does not often look friendly.

  20. Yeah Joe. You’re right. I was about to ask the good doctor to violate my own principles—not debating with fence posts. Thanks for the reality check.

  21. @Janet – I’m sure there are many fine ways to learn about Thomas Jefferson, but let me recommend to you a very interesting book called “Liars for Jesus” by Chris Rodda (I got mine through Amazon). It takes the “facts” presented by the religious right to support their arguments that the founding fathers supported the establishment of America as a Christian nation, and fills you in on the actual context from the source documents. I have learned many interesting things about the early years of our country – what? you can be liberal and patriotic??

  22. @Belle – thanks for the recommendation! Did you know you can also be a liberal Christian? I know – you did – but I’m sure there are some out there who don’t. 😉

  23. I would add another comment regarding a correct understanding of our nation’s founding history. James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” not Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was in France from 1784 to 1789. It is James Madison was an actual member of the 1787 Constitutional Convention which debated and drafted the words and principles in the supreme law of the land, not Thomas Jefferson. James Madison literally attended every session in Philadelphia and took daily notes as to what was debated at the secret Convention. James Madison was also a member of the First Congress. Thomas Jefferson did return from France in 1789 to become Washington’s Secretary of State, but Jefferson was not a member of the First Congress. It was James Madison who was an actual member of the six-member joint Senate-House conference committee in the First Congress which debated and drafted the words of the First Amendment, which was approved by Congress and ratified by the states. In other words, Jefferson had nothing to do with wording either the Constitution or the First Amendment. Yes, Jefferson was involved in drafting the Declaration of Independence, from King George, but it is a document with no legal significance in a court of law and completely different in historical significance from the Constitution. Yes, the Texas State Board of Education is in error in more than one way regarding our nation’s history, but it is important we too correctly understand and do not distort our national history. All of this history is detailed in my book on the subject, but thanks to this blog I can share some of its information which I hope is of value. And, Sic’em Bears.

  24. I’ve recently had a stroke (brain attack) so my thinking and writing abilities have been impeded. The good news is that it forces me to think more deeply before saying or writing anything and I will get most of those abilities back.

    But it has given me an insight into the lack of grey matter between the ears of the SBOE. There has to be a way of getting rid of them before their “recommendations” go into effect. With today’s publishing techniques, it is possible for publishers to readily change versions of text books so that they don’t have to accept the SBOE’s idiotic pathetic powers for the entire nation.

    Tom J. was not only a political thinker, he was a scientific thinker and pretty much proved that the literacy of the bible was incorrect and Darwin was right before Darwin was born! Mr. Jefferson had a wide knowledge that earned him the term “savant” in his day. Now the SBOE probably think the term savant is a negative term meaning he had a skill in one area but couldn’t do normal things. No, you poor idiots, savant means expert or wise man or woman. Jefferson was a savant of the first order.

    I’m not a lawyer…again, how to we block the SBOE’s recommendations? There has GOT to be a way.

  25. Well said, Dr. Kurtin. Thomas Jefferson was brilliant, and he was in France from 1784-1789 and not a participant in the 1787 secret constitutional convention.

    It is also true James Madison and the other men at the 1787 Constitutional Convention were men with exceptional knowledge of history and understanding of about what America should be, which is why they wrote in terms which clearly express the exact constitutional principle in respect to religion and government and use specific terms which address the entire issue of religion and government: “no religious test shall ever be required” Art. 6. And, the First Congress promptly added, in regard to religion, “no law respecting an establishment of religion,” First Amendment.

    In other words, there was no hesitation on the part of the “Founding Fathers,” that is, the fifty-five men who actually attended the 1787 Convention and drafted the words which are supreme in the laws of our land, to use a specific word. The wording they, in both instances, chose to define the terms, under which our society exists, is “religion,” the whole subject thereof. The plainly stated point is obvious. That part of the media, including TIA, and the public which continues to distort the wording of the Constitution are all obviously responsible for continuing the distortion of about what the Constitution commands: which is not about just “no law respecting an establishment” of a national “church,” the argument of our opponents, as it was the argument of Justice Rehnquist in Wallace v. Jaffree.

    In the USA, it is not the “establishment” of a single national church, but of the entire subject and essence of “religion” which is not to be established by law or government. And, until TIA and separationists start emphasizing the actual wording of the Constitution and the total meaning of the word “religion,” our opponents will continue to deteriorate the constitutional argument in such a way that even some courts will continue to exempt Christian crosses in public parks or Moses’ commandments on public school property, or “prayers” at governmental events, etc., etc., etc.

    As Professor Lakoff teaches, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” in a debate, do not use terms which misrepresent the argument. So, never use the words “church and state” because those words are not in the Constitution.

    Gene Garman, M.Div., author, The Religion Commandments in the Constitution: A Primer.