If too many bright students do not know who the founding fathers are, as surveys indicate, then UCLA history professor (emeritus) Gary B. Nash may bear a large share of the blame.
“We now possess a rich and multistranded tapestry of the Revolution, filled with engaging biographies, local narratives, weighty explanations of America’s greatest explosion of political thinking, annals of military tactics and strategies, and discussions of the religious, economic, and diplomatic aspects of what was then called the ‘glorious cause,’” Nash writes in the July 1, 2005 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Yet the great men—the founding fathers—of the revolutionary era still dominate the reigning narrative.”
“Notwithstanding generations of prodigious scholarship, we have not appreciated the lives and labors, the sacrifices and struggles, the glorious messiness, the hopes and fears of the diverse groups that fought in the longest and most disruptive war in our history, with visions of launching a new age filling their heads.”
Nash heads the National Center for History in the schools at UCLA. His latest book is entitled The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America.
“Can we capture the ‘life and soul’ of the Revolution without paying close attention to the wartime experiences and agendas for change that engrossed backcountry farmers, urban craftsmen, deep blue mariners, female camp followers, and food rioters—those ordinary people who did most of the protesting, most of the fighting, most of the dying and most of the dreaming about how a victorious America must satisfy the yearnings of all its people?” Nash asks plaintively.
Nash has been doggedly promoting his multicultural approach to history for some time, not without some success and at least one notable failure. A decade ago, when he sent his own “diverse” guidelines around the country to history teachers hinting that these “standards” were the national benchmarks for the discipline, the U.S. Senate felt compelled to reject the Nash report by a vote of 99-0. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.
“Clio, the muse of history, is hardly recognizable today in comparison to her visage of 1960,” Nash writes exultantly. “The emergence of a profession of historians of widely different backgrounds has redistributed historical property, and the American Revolution is now becoming the property of the many rather than the few.”
“Even the best-remembered heroes are now seen with all their ambiguities, contradictions and flaws.”
Nash is certainly doing his bit on this score as well. In an article published in The Boston Review in June, Nash seeks to deny the influence of religion on the founders. To this end, like many academics who seek to decouple religion and American history, he quotes Thomas Jefferson.
“Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of facetious religion and [clergymen] would catch no more flies,” Jefferson wrote in an oft-quoted letter to John Adams. “We should all, then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe.”
It is interesting that this attack upon religion should refer to the Society of Friends as moral exemplar. It is interesting as well that Nash does not bring out Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation between Church and State” quote.
Historian Thomas Fleming points out that Jefferson used that phrase only once. As president he employed it in his response to a letter from a Baptist minister from Danbury, Connecticut in which Jefferson denied the preacher the government funding he was seeking. Such a libertarian impulse does not square with the image liberal academics would give us of Jefferson in which the Virginian resembles Bill Clinton in tights and a powdered wig.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.