Washington The right is rewriting history.
The most ballyhooed effort is under way in Texas, where conservatives have pushed the state school board to rewrite guidelines, downplaying Thomas Jefferson in one high school course, playing up such conservatives as Phyllis Schlafly and the Heritage Foundation and challenging the idea that the Founding Fathers wanted to separate church and state.
The effort reaches far beyond one state, however.
In articles and speeches, on radio and TV, conservatives are working to redefine major turning points and influential figures in American history, often to slam liberals, promote Republicans and reinforce their positions in today’s politics.
The Jamestown settlers? Socialists. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton? Ill-informed professors made up all that bunk about him advocating a strong central government.
Theodore Roosevelt? Another socialist. Franklin D. Roosevelt? Not only did he not end the Great Depression, he also created it.
Joe McCarthy? Liberals lied about him. He was a hero.
While even some conservatives say that some of the revisionist history is simply wrong, at the core, the effort reflects the ever-changing view of history, which is always subject to revision thanks to new information or new ways of looking at things, and often is viewed through a political lens.
“Part of the tide of history is that it’s contested terrain,” said Fritz Fischer, a historian at the University of Northern Colorado and the chairman of the National Council for History Education. “We should always be arguing and questioning what happened in the past.”
It’s not just historians who contest history, however. It’s also politicians and pundits.
“There’s clearly a political impetus behind this that connects to the issues of today,” Fischer said, such as labeling President Barack Obama a socialist. “But when history is ignored to do it, that can be dangerous.”
Here are recent examples of new conservative versions of history:
Reaching for an example of how bad socialism can be, former House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said recently that the people who settled Jamestown, Va., in 1607 were socialists and that their ideology doomed them.
“Jamestown colony, when it was first founded as a socialist venture, dang near failed with everybody dead and dying in the snow,” he said in a speech March 15 at the National Press Club.
It was a good, strong story, but it wasn’t true.
The Jamestown settlement was a capitalist venture financed by the Virginia Company of London — a joint stock corporation — to make a profit. The colony nearly foundered owing to a harsh winter, brackish water and lack of food, but reinforcements enabled it to survive. It was never socialistic.
Theodore Roosevelt was long an icon of the Republican Party, a dynamic leader who ushered in the Progressive era, busting trusts, regulating robber barons, building the Panama Canal and sending the U.S. fleet around the world announcing ascendant American power.
Fox TV commentator Glenn Beck, however, says that Roosevelt was a socialist whose legacy is destroying America.
It started, Beck said, with Roosevelt’s admonition to the wealthy of his day to spend their riches for the good of society.
“Is this what the Republican Party stands for? Well, you should ask members of the Republican Party, because this is not our founders’ idea of America. And this is the cancer that’s eating at America. It is big government; it’s a socialist utopia,” Beck said.
There’s no doubt that Roosevelt was a domestic policy liberal by today’s standards. In a 1910 speech in Kansas, he acknowledged that his “New Nationalism” meant “far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.”
The 26th president insisted, however, that he wanted the government to guarantee opportunity, not a handout.
In his autobiography, he dismissed socialism as taught by Karl Marx as “an exploded theory ... shown to possess not one shred of value.”
Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., burst onto the national stage in the early 1950s with accusations that he had a list of names of known Communists in the federal government. He didn’t name them, was censured by the Senate eventually and his name became synonymous with witch hunts — McCarthyism.
Now, the end of the Cold War has opened up spy files and identified many Communist spies who operated inside the government during the era. Some conservatives argue that this proves not only that McCarthy was right, but also that he was a hero and that he was smeared by liberals, the news media and historians.
“Almost everything about McCarthy in current history books is a lie and will have to be revised,” conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said.
Yet even some prominent conservatives say that McCarthy’s defenders go too far.
“The cause of anti-Communism, which united millions of Americans and which gained the support of Democrats, Republicans and independents, was undermined by Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin,” wrote William Bennett, who was the conservative secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan.