Speaking at the White House Conference on American History, Trump stated, “On this very day in 1787, our Founding Fathers signed the Constitution at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization.” In this statement, and throughout the entire event, speakers railed against the the destruction of the “true” history of America’s founding and growth. They spoke about the radical left rewriting the stories of the Founding Fathers and erasing the history of our past. They invoked writers and activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass in their argument for American exceptionalism.
In his remarks, Trump even stated, “We embrace the vision of Martin Luther King, where children are not judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” What he left out, of course, were earlier parts of King’s famous 1963 speech where he stated “ that American has defaulted on this promissory note [of equality] so far as her citizens of color are concerned” and “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Throughout the conference, the speakers who preceded Trump spoke about figures such as King, Douglass, Jefferson, and more. One pointed out Douglass’ thoughts on the Constitution from his 1852 speech “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” There, Douglass called the Constitution “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” as he spoke about those who used it to support slavery. What the speakers did not mention, and which Robert Jackson only mentioned in passing, was Douglass’ scathing critique of America throughout the speech, rhetorically using “you” and “your” throughout to indicate that he was not, as a Black man, considered a citizen.
As well, he spoke about the ways that the church sanctioned slavery. In this manner, he both challenged the history of America and it’s supposed divine blessing and Christian founding. He writes, “But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.”
The use of the Bible and the church in upholding the institution of slavery in America and elsewhere has been well documented, and Douglass, in his Narrative, even points out that the cruelest master he had was a “Christian.” John Marrant, in his 1785 narrative, he held an evening school for enslaved men and women on the plantation where he taught them the Bible. When the mistress found out about the school, she shut it down, and as Marrant writes,
They caught them, and tied them together with cords, till the next morning, when all they caught, men, women, and children were strip’d naked and tied, their feet to a stake, their hands to the arms of a tree, and so severely flogg’d that the blood ran from their backs and sides to the floor, to make them promise they would leave off praying, &c. though several of them fainted away with the pain and loss of blood, and lay upon the ground as dead for a considerable time after they were untied.
The mistress could not do anything to Marrant because he was a free man, but she made sure the enslaved men, women, and children did not learn about God and the Bible. As punishment, she had them beaten mercilessly and ran Marrant off of the plantation. Laws, of course, were put in place in slave-holding states that prohibited teaching enslaved individuals reading and writing, thus limiting their access to the Bible and relying on what the enslaver told them.
Introducing Trump, Mike Pence wrapped the nation and the Constitution in the robes of civil religion when he said, “And I know these great principles will prevail because like our president I have faith in the American people. And I have faith that He who guided our founders on this day 233 years ago guides us still.” He then quoted James Madison who stated, “It is impossible for the man of Pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”
Pence was not the only person to link the birth of America to Christianity and the divine. This is a narrative that has been replayed over and over and over again. In essence, what this narrative does, as the authors of White Jesus: The Architecture of Racism and Religion and Education point out, is link Christianity to Empire, entangling the two so intricately that they become subsumed by one another. Pence’s linking, joined with the message of the conference that, as he put it, seeks to to change the fact that “we live in a time when too many are forgetting history today,” defines America as a “Christian” nation. This is dangerous because what this does it it essentially turns Christianity into a “civil religion” that, as the authors of White Jesus put it, “perpetuate[s] a patriotism that can devolve into ethnocentrism and nationalism.”
We have to remember that the founders were not as “Christian” as we have made them out to be. Benjamin Franklin was a deist which means he believed that a higher being placed on earth then let us live our lives without interference. For all of the praise heaped on Jefferson and other early Presidents for being “Christian” founding fathers, he had a project that he undertook which would become the Jefferson Bible. For this bible, Jefferson cut up the Bible “to create a revision of the Gospels that was consistent with human reason and enlightenment.” He excluded Jesus’ miracles, the Devil, and Jesus’ resurrection. This, in essence, erases the divinity of Jesus and negates the Christian faith, right?
We have to remember, as well, that America, from the outset, was not “Christian.” Not all of the colonists who arrived in the colonies were “Christian,” even though we focus on the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. We must remember that Indigenous religions flourished here. We must remember that Muslims were in early America. Omar ibn Said is a prime example of the latter. Brought to America and enslaved, he wrote his narrative in Arabic and used the Quran and his faith to subvert the conversion narrative veneer of his text pointing out the incongruities of chattel slavery with Islam and by extension Christianity.
This narrative presents the Founding Fathers as devoutly Christian and purposefully focused on making American a “Christian” nation; however, that is not necessarily the case, and even if it is, as Lillian Smith points out in “The White Christian and His Conscience,” “Ever since the first white Christian enslaved the first black African the conscience of America has been hurting.” The use of Christianity to support American nationalism was only one part of the conference. The main thrust of the conference was to promote the “truth” of American history against the “lies” being spouted in the educational system and through works such as the 1619 Project.
In his remarks, Trump stated, “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” In order to achieve this, Trump said he was establishing the “1776 Commission” in order to “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history.”
This move can be seen as a reaction to the 1619 Project and other things, but what we must keep in mind is that this is nothing new. The fight over America’s “true” history did not begin with this moment. It did not begin with the Lost Cause. It began, in earnest, at the outset of America’s nationhood. It began when writers challenged the mythological narratives that had already arisen during the later part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century.
In his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, David Walker confronted Thomas Jefferson and his views of race and enslavement. Along with this, he also pointed out that the wealth that American gained came from the backs of enslaved men, women, and children. He wrote that while others such as Greeks, Irish, Jews, and others “are called men”; yet, we, (coloured people) and our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever!! to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!!”
Walker directly confronted the American myths taking shape in the early years of the republic. As well, as the nineteenth century moved forward and debates around what “all men are created equal” actually meant, others challenged the patriotic narratives that did not reflect the realities of America. One of the first African American novels, William Wells Brown’s Clotel or the President’s Daughter (1853), directly speaks to the rise of the the Founding Fathers’ myths. As Robert S. Levine puts it in the introduction to one edition, “Purporting to tell the stories of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress, daughters, and granddaughters, Clotel ‘talks back’ to U.S. culture, providing a brilliantly ironic challenge to the nation’s patriotic narratives.”
Rumors about Jefferson raping Sally Hemmings and fathering children by her swirled in the early part of the nineteenth century, and these rumors, as substantiated by DNA evidence in the twentieth century, proved true. However, this narrative did not reach into the cultural conversation, at least for me, until the DNA studies conducted in 1998. As such, I never knew about these connections or Jefferson raping a woman he enslaved. “[I]f Thomas Jefferson matters,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in his congressional testimony on reparation, “so does Sally Hemmings.” We cannot have one without the other. We cannot cherry pick which historical records and narratives we want to celebrate.
The story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is another example, along with veneration of Mt. Vernon and the narrative that Washington freed his enslaved upon his death. Washington became an enslaver at the age of eleven when his father passed away in 1743 and willed Washington ten enslaved individuals. As well, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association were working to purchase Mount Vernon to preserve it, they enlisted the help of Edwin Everrett to speak across the nation. Everrett would tell audiences Washington was a man of “serene dignity. . .whose probity you would trust with uncounted gold. . .whose lead you would implicitly follow in the darkest hours of trial.”
However, others, such as William Wilson (Ethiop) challenge the mythologizing of Washington that does not take into account the fact that while he fought for independence he enslaved countless individuals. In “Afric-American Picture Gallery,” Ethiop talks about Mt. Vernon, the way that the public perceives it, as an idyllic, pastoral space, and the ghosts of the enslaved that built up the space and still haunt the land. With this knowledge, Ethiop asks the reader, “Is this the home of the Father of his country?”
William Apess challenged these myths as well, specifically the mythological renderings we have created of the Pilgrims and the ways they “tamed” a “savage” continent. Apess specifically countered celebrations such as the December 22 events which celebrated the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth, MA. The narrative went, and goes, that the Pilgrims, ordained by God, tamed an uncivil land, making it inhabitable. Daniel Webster, in his 1820 address, stated, “Here was man, indeed, unprotected and unprovided for, on the shore of a rude and fearful wilderness; but it was politic, intelligent and educated man.” That man (the Pilgrims) civilized the Indigenous peoples, and if they could not “civilize” them, they killed them or forced them off of their land.
Apess challenged this narrative, specifically in his 1836 Eulogy on King Phillip. There, he pointed out the colonists actions towards the Indigenous populations. Apess, a Methodist minister, condemns their actions, even condemning the ways they get upheld as “Christian” colonists whom God divinely touched. He writes,
But some of the New England writers say, that living babes were found at the breast of their dead mothers. What an awful sight! and to think too, that diseases were carried among them on purpose to destroy them. Let the children of the pilgrims blush, while the son of the forest drops a tear, and groans over the fate of his murdered and departed fathers. He would say to the sons of the pilgrims, (as Job said about his birthday,) let the day be dark, the 22d of December, 1622 let it be forgotten in your celebration, in your speeches, and by the burying of the Rock that your fathers first put their foot upon. For be it remembered, although the gospel is said to be glad tidings to all people, yet we poor Indians never have found those who brought it as messengers of mercy, but contrawise. We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22d of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy. Let them rather fast and pray to the great Spirit, the Indian’s God, who deals out mercy to his red children, and not destruction.
Apess, like Douglass, Walker, Ethiop, and more, calls out the hypocrisies rooted at the foundation of America. Each points out America’s faults, and specifically the constructed myths that sustain us. This is key. We cannot act as if the founding America was perfect and that we still do not feel the effects of that imperfect founding. The “truth” does not lie within these myths. We must have the whole story.
We must not demonize individuals who work to point out where America has failed because in that acknowledgment they point us to a way forward. That way forward comes from learning about the good, the bad, and the ugly that happened in our history. The acknowledgement of these things does not mean that individuals “hate” America. Instead, it means that individuals, myself included, want to see an America where everyone is equal.
Propaganda’s lyric from “Crooked Ways” sums up my feelings: “I don’t hate America, just demand that she keeps her promises.”