J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Tennessee Tea Party Vision of American History

Last week the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Nashville City Paper reported that about a dozen members of “Tea Party” groups in Tennessee had gone to the capital to present their legislative “demands.” One item that got a lot of attention, including a critical editorial in the Commercial Appeal, involved history education. Or, as an unfortunately edited handout put it, “educating students the truth about America.”

The Memphis paper reported:

Regarding education, the material they distributed said, “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

That would include, the documents say, that “the Constitution created a Republic, not a Democracy.”

The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
As Caitlin G. D. Hopkins noted, focusing on “the majority of citizens” should mean concentrating on the history of children, because they were the most numerous group in any society before the 1900s. If “majority” is defined along gender lines, that means women’s history. But these groups seem to be defining “majority” and “minority” only along ethnic and racial lines. Evidently they wish Tennessee schools to focus on Natives through the Revolution, and whites since statehood. (The same standard in some other states would mean studying black history for much of the ante-bellum period, since African-Americans comprised the majority of their populations.)

As to how the groups define “Republic” and “Democracy,” the article doesn’t say. Curiously, the groups’ other demands include being able to elect the state’s attorney general, which would be more democratic than the current system. Their respect for the considered decision of elected representatives—a hallmark of a democratic republic—is obviously limited to the laws they like.

The newspaper report quoted one particular activist on history education:
Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.
Critics immediately pointed out that the founding generation did intrude on the Indians—that’s how we got the state of Tennessee. They did have slaves, despite praising liberty as a natural right. To be fair, Rounds doesn’t suggest those facts are “made-up,” only that the criticism is. Or something like that.

Here is Rounds’s bio on his website. He offers a “Constitution Refresher” lecture and was an attorney for the Tennessee Firearms Association, though a more prominent part of his practice seems to have been contesting speeding tickets.

Other websites identify Rounds as “Education Committee Chairman--Tennessee Tea Party Coalition, Fayette County Tea Party.” He was on the board of the Tennessee Conservatives Fund, and headed the Libertarian Party of Shelby County. However, his form of libertarianism does not preclude the government from telling people whom they can marry or whether they can enter the country.

Naturally, I was most curious about Rounds’s views on American history. For example, in 2008 he wrote about the aftermath of the Civil War:
Reconstruction was the Marshall plan in reverse, a military occupation which concentrated on keeping all the experienced, competent public officials out of public affairs, to tax and restrict economic activity, and to maintain a monologue of hatred against the former rebels. Reconstruction was successful in driving the entire South deeper into poverty and chaos than it had been at the end of the war.
In addition, this site says:
Hal has drafted a booklet on why the South seceded and he has copyrighted a T-shirt featuring the Rebel’s Creed that he sells.
I haven’t found those texts, but the evidence suggests that Rounds is an adherent of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

What is his understanding of the early republic? On 9 Apr 2009 Rounds published a letter in the Commercial Appeal that claimed “Obama Is Extinguishing Our Spark” [and, perhaps, blocking our precious bodily fluids] this way:
The Somali pirates’ attack on an American ship is an event that illustrates the conflict between the American character and President Barack Obama’s vision.

Americans have always been the exception: From our beginnings, rather than pay the ransom the European powers had been yielding to the Arab hijackers of that time, we chanted “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” and Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to release American hostages. . . .
In fact, from 1786 to 1801, U.S. governments paid the North African states protection money and ransom amounting to millions of dollars. Before becoming President and sending the Marines to Tripoli, as Secretary of State Jefferson had sent diplomats to negotiate treaties. Without a navy (which he opposed), the country couldn’t do much else.

The First Barbary War ended with the U.S. of A. still paying a much reduced ransom to redeem captives. From 1807 to 1815, North African states resumed seizing American crews, and the U.S. resumed paying ransoms. The Second Barbary War in 1815 finally ended the issue. Rounds’s summary of that history was incomplete, one-sided, and politicized.

Three days after that letter appeared, U.S. Navy forces acting on President Obama’s orders killed three pirates and rescued the captured captain. I haven’t found Rounds’s response to that development, but his dislike of Obama is an enduring theme in his public writing. In that April 2009 letter he falsely claimed, “Obama has made his mark by apologizing for all the achievements our independence, courage and persistence have bestowed on the world.” Rounds called Michelle Obama anti-American and totalitarian, and said the Obama administration as “inhabited by personalities whose expressed positions on vital American issues are unmistakably anti-American” (P.D.F. download). I believe the term for such statements is “an awful lot of made-up criticism.”

During the 2010 election, many “Tea Party” groups claimed to be interested only in lower taxes and smaller government. However, events like this show that members are happy to fight the “culture wars” and impose their values and prejudices on others wherever they can.


Gordon said...

Unfortunately, Mr. Rounds has an eager audience for his views in the Tennessee General Assembly, and the real danger is that his deified view of the Founders and American History will find its way into our children's textbooks. Thank you for bringing this subject to the attention to your readers. It's a "hideous blot" on Tennessee's reputation -- as if we needed another...


Anonymous said...

Another excellent post. Combined with recent news of the GOP's intent to slash history and heritage-related funding, it looks like sad times ahead for the nation's history and historians.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments! And thanks to Gordon Belt for the excellent link.

Peter Fisk said...

Excellent refudiation, John.

Peter Fisk said...

From Mr. Rounds' "tea party" site:
(Where he is shown boldly desecrating the American flag by wearing it as a shirt)

"Hal has long been involved in the Libertarian Party, he is active in the Marine Corps League, the Sons of Confederate Veterans [emph added], The Tennessee Firearms Association, and, more recently, the Fayette County Tea Party."

The SPLC says:

"The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a Southern heritage group that has been largely dominated by racial extremists since 2002, has again elected a commander in chief and other national leaders who are closely tied to its radical faction.

At its August convention in New Orleans, SCV delegates selected as their national commander Chris Sullivan, a longtime ally of outgoing commander Denne Sweeney and a fellow South Carolinian. Sullivan is the editor of Southern Partisan, a controversial neo-Confederate magazine that has depicted antebellum slaves as happy and slave traders as benevolent. ..."

J. L. Bell said...

That S.P.L.C. report is from 2006, and I’m not sure what the leadership philosophy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is now. They were indeed taken over by racists connected to the League of the South and other groups.

At that time, some members wanted the S.C.V. to remain a heritage organization for members rather than take on modern political issues. I found nothing about Rounds’s opinions on those disputes, so I chose not to highlight that group.

Anonymous said...

Your article is excellent. As a high school US History teacher I'm used to having to walk on eggshells with teaching my subject. Historical facts are fudged to indoctrinate and folks like Mr. Rounds are the result. I watched the Texas school board last year revise their social studies curriculum with trepidation and feel they are the beginning of a trend to swing more toward teaching historical fables rather than history.