Commentary: Freedom is link between history’s path and judgment

By Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The sudden changes in our political culture which have emanated from recent events have cast a harsh light on many of our revered historical figures, including those who helped to make July Fourth the meaningful day it is. This article examines how this came about, what actions have been taken and what can be done to create consensus for common understanding.

As we study our past, we should be aware of distinctions between history’s path and history’s judgment. The former has features which include a long span, continuous time and natural influences. Conversely, the latter version of history can be sudden, conflicted, decided by the populace rather than a few in power and is difficult to change. Sometimes, as in the present predicament, these approaches to history can intersect.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The Black Lives Matter movement and focus on police and criminal justice reform have spawned a renewed critique of American history. However, such scrutiny has always been with us in some form. For example, philosopher Michael Foucault in a 1976 book identified the phenomenon of political historicism, defined as a way to see the present as a continuation of previous conflict. In her 2020 book, Nandita Sharma propagates a thesis of U.S. history in which the oppressed became aggressors following independence, practicing racist policies that have hurt minorities and immigrants. Likewise published in 2020, Colin Woodward’s study describes how dual and competing visions of American history have shaped the national narrative.

We are often reminded that history is written and commemorated by the winners. However, that stereotypical sentiment ignores the contributions of dissenters and the defeated. Further, it gives ammunition to those who want to erase history’s progress. Although attacking those who wrote and supported the Declaration of Independence is a start, it has not stopped there. So, we are now forced to contemplate a new version of the American past. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders, and for that, we must banish the Revolution, changing its name to the Devolution? Does bringing down Andrew Jackson’s statue means eliminating an era in which the Democratic Party was founded? Reminding of Abraham Lincoln’s initial wavering on the slavery question means ignoring the positive traits that he initiated and planned for Reconstruction. Demanding the removal of a Theodore Roosevelt monument and excising Woodrow Wilson’s name from a university program for their sins translates to downgrading the Progressive Era that they molded to the Regressive Era.

The legitimate and long overdue battle against racism and hate has fostered a plethora of positive outcomes, some because of political pressure and others a consequence of economic factors. But that should not mean excommunicating those who disagree, as was done in the Cold War years among other eras. Nor does it mean granting an exception for violence by some current protesters. Making decisions with consequences for all citizens doesn’t mean reflexively defunding police or targeting successful programs like school resource officers. A June 16 Washington Examinereditorial warns that a republic cannot long withstand intolerance and peripheral efforts to undo uncomfortable cultural symbols.

Rather, history’s ruling on the present situation will turn on how changes are implemented. To have reasoned discussion and debate that leads to overwhelming support by elected representatives and the public alike will have more staying power than acting on emotional impulse. Just as important, however, is to propose positive alternatives to what is destroyed. A recent New York Timesarticle by Bret Stephens observes that “(a)n intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions, starting with the one between those who made our union more perfect and those who made it less.”

Which brings us back to the nation’s founding era and those who led America’s bid for independence. Whatever their flaws ‒ slavery being a most serious violation of human rights and dignity ‒ they nevertheless suffered and sacrificed for their successors to perpetuate freedom’s expansion. The men known as the Founding Fathers had every reason to be fearful or angry after the release of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, they were hopeful. That, and the principles enunciated in the declaration, are what we should celebrate today: the promise of equality, unalienable rights of life and liberty, just and limited government, the right to alter features of government, and the mandate that governmental authority be derived from consent of the people.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He served as chair of the Dover Human Relations Commission from 2005 to 2010 and led the movement for a slavery apology by the Delaware General Assembly.