Jim Johnson, who taught American history during my junior year at Fleming County High School, sought to enliven the class one day by setting up a debate on whether the Mexican War was justified. Knowing that I was both a talker and an avid reader of history, he assigned me to take the contrary view.
It was indisputable that the Polk administration sent troops into disputed territory as a provocative act and that when Mexico responded the United States claimed justification to fight a brief war against a weaker nation, the result being an enormous land grab, and I said so. (That view was shared by an obscure member of the U.S. House of Representatives named Abraham Lincoln. Had I known it at the time, I would have used it.)
When the class voted, the decision was overwhelming and inevitable: The war was justified.
The reason the vote was inevitable is that American history as taught in public schools is not history but patriotic propaganda. What can be discerned through the dull stodge of the textbooks* is that we used to have problems: slavery, you know, but that's all over; a civil war, but there were heroes on both sides; sad about the Indians, but they were in the way. And all those problems have been resolved in the steady forward march of American greatness.
This is why The 1619 Project, which I have been reading, is so unsettling to people who were taught that kind of history. But we knew all the things it recounts. We knew that the Constitution was set up to ensure that a minority of voters in the slave states would get disproportionate weight in the House of Representatives and veto power in the Senate. We knew about lynchings and the violence against protesters during the civil rights movement. We knew that school segregation persisted into living memory. We knew that the federal government, cities, and business interests collaborated to keep Black residents in inferior housing.
The other side of our history is also true. The Founders gave us a secular republic informed by the Enlightenment values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, values strengthened by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and by the 19th. And we have always had people strong enough to stand up for those principles and point out how we fall short of them.
We hold those two views of our history in tension, because there is substance in each of them. Benjamin Franklin said that the Constitution gives us a republic, if we can keep it. As we mark the anniversary of our national independence, one way to keep the Republic is to maintain a clear-eyed view of our history, both the promise and the failures of the promise, like adults.
* Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised from 1979 presents a thoroughgoing explanation of why history textbooks have always been manipulated for ideological reasons. (And are consequently bland and dull.)