by W.D. Ehrhart
Lately I’ve been ruminating on American history, in particular on how little most of my fellow citizens know about it. I recently wrote an essay in the Gazette (September 24, 2021) that took note of the missing stanza of our national anthem that condemns the British for offering freedom to American slaves, the missing stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” that criticize capitalism and the owner class, the overt anti-immigrant racism imbedded in American society, and a number of other fun facts most Americans are oblivious to.
I wrote a whole essay (Gazette, October 8, 2021) about a Virginia planter named Robert Carter III, who freed all 452 of his slaves in 1791, and whom few people have ever heard of—including, I admit, even me.
But I keep getting reminded of how little we know about ourselves and our country, so once again I find myself returning to the subject, especially in the midst of a societal breakdown that is based on national mythology, the legitimization of bigotry and intolerance, and staggering ignorance.
Only a few weeks ago, I had lunch with a Wellesley graduate in her 80s and a Princeton graduate in his 50s. These are educated, well-read, and thoughtful people. But they have no grasp of how African Americans consistently end up at the bottom of society. The Princeton grad pointed out that Black Democrats have controlled Philadelphia politics for decades, but crime and poverty have only gotten worse, stating his belief that Black politicians have failed to lead properly, and instead have turned their backs on “their own people.”
Neither of these well-meaning and humane people knew that African Americans were denied most of the benefits of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs because had they been included, southern Democrats would never have approved these programs. Neither of them knew that the post-World War II GI Bill also excluded most Blacks from its benefits, and for the same reason.
Nevermind the illegal discrimination against African Americans—the false arrests (read Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon), literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, lynching. The “legal” discrimination alone was enough to keep an entire class of Americans at the bottom of the ladder for a century and more after the end of slavery.
And it wasn’t just Blacks, though the former slaves had a burden no other class of Americans was forced to carry. How many of you have ever heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act? Or the Supreme Court case Ozawa v. United States? Or Hernandez v. Texas? Do you realize that Native Americans weren’t even considered Americans until 1924?
Here are a few other fun facts about U.S. history:
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a loyal British subject who wanted nothing more than to preserve the empire and eventually retire to England right up until the spring of 1774 when Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General of the King’s Privy Council, [inset] publicly humiliated Franklin before Parliament, in the space of one hour turning Franklin into a flaming revolutionary who subsequently returned to Philadelphia and told all those young men of the Continental Congress, “Screw the Brits, boys, they can’t treat Ben Franklin like that!”
Did you know that at the end of the French and Indian War, Virginia Colonial Militia Colonel George Washington applied for a regular commission in the British Army only to be told, “Hey, that militia bit was all well and good, but don’t think you have the stuff to be a regular British officer.” Why do you think George accepted command of the Continental Army in 1775? “Think I haven’t got the right stuff? I’ll show you!”
Ever heard of Lydia Maria Child? You might know her as the author of the happy little children’s poem that eventually became the song “Over the River and Through the Wood.” But I’ll bet you didn’t know she’s also the author of Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times, an 1824 novel about a white Puritan woman who marries and has a child with a Native American. It didn’t make the bestseller list.
And you just might recognize Julia Ward Howe is the author of the poem that became “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which calls upon young northern men to enlist in the Union army and thrust the “burnished steel” of their bayonets into the guts of young men from the South. But you may not know that eight years later, she wrote the first Mother’s Day Proclamation, which mentioned neither Hallmark greeting cards nor taking Mom out to dinner, but rather calls for the women of the world to come together to organize and put an end to war.
Not long ago, I spent a morning with 8th graders at a local middle school. At the beginning of the school day, the entire school—via a PA system—recited the Pledge of Allegiance to a piece of colored cloth, and to the republic for which it stands, though I rather doubt that a single one of them could explain what a republic even is. And I’ll bet they don’t know that very few other countries in the world even have a pledge of allegiance. One that does is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea.
I wonder what those kids will ever learn about the republic for which their flag stands, what their teachers know and don’t know, and how much their teachers are allowed to teach their students without getting fired. I doubt that any public school in the United States would allow a teacher to draw upon Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, nor would most private schools (though I was lucky enough to get away with it for 18 years). If you want to learn more fun facts about American history, one of these books would be a great place to start.
W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.