The fundamental problem in how teachers approach U.S. history and civics in the classroom is the failure to understand contextual history. Without that cornerstone, any attempt at analysis or application of history’s lessons is little more than bathroom gossip designed to sway students toward a particular political ideology.
Teachers should present both sides of a given topic so that students get the chance to think for themselves – something that many students are not afforded a chance to do in our test driven, politically charged environment.
A good example of the above is the speech the venerable Frederick Douglass gave during a Fourth of July celebration in 1852. He seemed to deride the Fourth of July, saying, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
Rather forcefully and quite eloquently, Douglass pointed out the folly of asking a black man in 1852 to celebrate the Fourth of July while the scourge of slavery was still enmeshed in American society, particularly in the South.
It is not wrong when discussing Douglass’s speech to point out that the Fourth of July was not his Fourth of July, as the nation was not living up to its ideals. Earlier in his speech, he described those ideals as “saving principles” and encouraged all Americans to stand “by those principles” and “be true to them on all occasions, in all places, and against all foes, and at whatever cost.” Douglass chastised the nation, pointing out that “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions” – those souls still in bondage in the United States.
“I will, in the name of humanity,” Douglass continued, “which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery – the great sin and shame of America!” In all of this Douglass is correct, and his scathing criticism is noteworthy and quite brave.
However, what Douglass said (again, eloquently) later in his speech, all too often, is conveniently forgotten: “But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, or so I believe . . . clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.”
Why is this portion not typically spoken of when recounting Douglass’s speech? If one follows the argument presented here, the answer is clear: only the portions useful to foster a continuing narrative are included, whereas the rest becomes little more than fodder to be disregarded.
In the final paragraph, Douglass espoused not only the excellence of the Constitution but the very nation itself, despite his scathing indictment of the existence of slavery. To wit: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions….”
Clearly, Douglass did not hate the nation he had every right to hate. He had hope, a hope that is borne out throughout his speech. He spoke reverently of the Constitution, absolving it of being a document rife with the intention of perpetuating that most vile institution.
The entirety of this speech, as well as others like it, should be taught in classrooms, not just the portions that agree with our cultural moment. If we are to educate not only our students but the public as a whole, does it not behoove teachers to ensure that the entire narrative of a given subject be examined? Is it not the inherent right of students to be fully informed so that they can make up their own minds? Is that not what this nation is all about?
Would that our institutions follow the advice of this great American and ensure that our students know the rest of the story.
Michael DiMatteo has taught American, European, and world history and political science in the Illinois school system, both public and private, for over 32 years. In 2010, he was recognized as an Illinois Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction. His writings can be found at Think31.com.