Questions of history

Michael Belknap

“American parents are not going to accept indoctrination…hateful lies about this country… in our schools,” said Donald Trump as he proposed a commission to promote patriotic education. I agree the purpose of studying history should not be to indoctrinate. The past 244 years of the United States combines contradictions and conflict between people, regions, races and religions. Critical thinking rather than indoctrination teaches students how to separate fact from myth, to assess competing interests and to consider the decisions made by fallible people, at a different time, making imperfect or risky choices when certainties are not possible. Sometimes questions are more revealing than answers. Consider examining the following pivotal questions of American history

American Revolution: How did the 1607-1775 experiences of the people of the thirteen colonies prepare them for revolution and independence? How did they carry on a war for eight years against Great Britain? What were the roles of a local press, of governments created outside the Royal authority enforcing boycotts and maintaining militias; religious leaders preaching the message of resistance in sustaining the war? What was the importance of Paine’s Common Sense with its anti-monarch, pro-people message, which sold more than 620,000 copies to the approximately 2.5 million colonists and was read or heard in taverns by countless more? Why were the British so mistaken about Loyalist support?

1783-1787: To protect Native Americans, should the newly independent states have prohibited settlements west of the Appalachians Mountains? If so, how would the new nation accommodate the needs of the rising white population? How would incursions from the neighboring British, French and Spanish colonies be repelled? Should the Native American policy focus on Europeanization and assimilation rather than conquests and separatism?

1787 Constitution Convention: Should the country continue under the 1781 Articles of Confederation without strong, national governance? Were the delegates wrong to defer the slavery question? Would that question have split the states into two countries? Would that have been the better choice? Was a bicameral legislature with one house based on population and the other by equal representation from each state a workable system? Did the creation of three branches of government with equal power for checks and balances make sense or cause confusion? Would a monarch with supporting governmental entities provide greater stability?

Civil War: Did you know, according to the 1860 U.S. Census, there were 3,953,762 slaves in a total population of 31,443,321, 12.6%? After the Northern states had abolished slavery in the first half of the 19th century, should the Southern states been allowed to form a separate, independent nation — a divorce based on irreconcilable differences? In the Civil War were the people living in the North fighting to preserve the Union or to end slavery? If the Union, was it worth the destruction?

More Perfect Union: Were the post-Civil War ratifications of the 13th (emancipation-1865), 14th (due process/equal protection-1868) and 15th (voting-1870) Amendments to the Constitution meaningful steps towards equality? Should women have been included? How did the Progressive Era (1890-1920) reforms – anti-trust regulation, food and drug standards, labor protection and the income tax – contribute to a more equal Nation? Did these programs impede economic growth, free enterprise and rights in property? Did the New Deal (1933-1939) public works, financial reforms, social security programs resolve the issues raised by the Great Depression? Were these programs an unconstitutional infringement of States rights which unnecessarily increased the size and power of the Federal government? Did the legislative achievements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s relating to civil rights, the Great Society and environmental protection improve the lives of people? If so, were these changes worth the cultural divisions and bitter partisanship of recent years?

During our lifetime, have women, the disabled, LGBT- people gained more rights, power and acceptance? Was this achieved through people exercising the rights of assembly, speech and petition combined with legislative and judicial action? Did these protests and decisions lead to a breakdown of law and order, a disrespect for institutions and destruction of culture norms?

Intertwined in the above questions are the founding ideals of equality, liberty, pursuit a more perfect union and the exploitation, oppression, discrimination based on race, religion and national origin. James Baldwin wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

We should all heed the words of the late Harvard historian, Bernard Bailyn. He called for “An approach to history that emphasizes balance over argument, contest over consequences, and the meaning of the past over the uses of the present.” By considering our Nation’s past with critical thinking, we are better able to make choices and decisions on today’s challenges.

Michael Belknap is President of the Belknap Company, Ltd., a real estate development firm. Belknap has lived in a 19th century house in Columbia County since 1971.

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