How the War on History Is Rewriting America’s Past
A generation ago, America’s Founding Fathers were venerated. Today, they’re more likely to be under attack from the media, teachers, and politicians. And it’s not just the Founders, but our founding documents, institutions, and other leaders from our past. Our colleague, Jarrett Stepman, has written about all this in a new book called “The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past.” In today’s episode, Kate Trinko, our editor-in-chief, sits down with Jarrett to unpack what this effort is all about.
We also cover these stories:
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejects House efforts to get testimony from top State Department officials amid whistleblower feud.
- U.S. manufacturing hits 10-year low amid trade war.
- A sixth-grade student in Virginia recants her accusation against three boys.
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Kate Trinko: Jarrett Stepman, my colleague here at The Daily Signal, is out with a new book. We’re very excited. It’s called “The War on History,” and you can buy it on Amazon or in your local bookshop maybe, but it’s available all around and I’d encourage you to [read it].
If you’re a regular Daily Signal reader, you’ve been reading Jarrett’s excellent analysis of history for years. I know that I personally have learned a lot from him. Of course, he’s really gifted at pointing out what’s great about America’s history, and he’s really great at pushing back at why the left is wrong that everything is terrible and we are a nation of terrible people and all that fun stuff. But before I go any further, Jarrett, thanks for joining us.
Jarrett Stepman: Thank you very much, Kate.
Trinko: Let’s talk about what’s going on. We’ve seen a lot of fighting about history in recent years, whether it’s Christopher Columbus and if we should still have Columbus Day, it’s whether our Founders—who had slaves—were evil men all around, it’s whether the U.S. was founded on good principles or was founded on inherently evil principles, at least in part.
Why do you think we’re fighting so much about history right now?
Stepman: I think it’s a large part, of course, about politics, which a lot of this directly connects to. It’s not just about the details of history. I think a lot of this comes from especially, I think, in the last part of President Barack Obama’s term and some early parts of President Donald Trump’s.
I think you’ve seen the kind of rise of what people call identity politics and I think that has fueled a large part of what we see as this kind of attack on history and statues, that the statues represent for many the things they see as a problem with America, a problem with our history.
They identify as one thing or another and you see a lot of this ugliness, where people who maybe are uncomfortable with history or, frankly, a lot of times don’t know much about it, but have this idea that America is somehow bad and wrong, they see those symbols as something they need to destroy.
So it becomes part of this kind of power politics of today. Instead of winning arguments and debates with people, we need to destroy them and it’s hard to have a debate with the past. What do you do with it? You simply tear it down.
And I think that’s what a lot of these activists have been doing over the last few years and I think that they have only escalated the targets of these attacks.
It started kind of small, and now it spreads from everything—as you introduced this, Christopher Columbus to Founding Fathers. We’re talking across the board now. These things are up for discussion now in a way that they certainly weren’t even 10 years ago.
Trinko: You brought up the term “power politics.” What do you think the heart of these fights are? What are the values that people are fighting about, almost using history as a proxy?
Stepman: Yeah, and that’s exactly it. History is a proxy and a cudgel. And I think that for many, especially on the hard left in America, I’m not just talking about generally liberals, I’m talking about the hard left, they really do see American principles and values as antithetical to their own views.
I think especially with the rise of President Donald Trump, they saw it as an imperative for them not just to win the arguments and debates with those who they disagree with, but to simply wipe them out and destroy.
This is kind of the idea of the deplorables and stuff like that. A lot of people in our history have been turned into the deplorables, and this is what they see as what’s wrong with America now is based on what it was before.
Of course, they want to fundamentally transform the United States. For many of them, they are often radicals and socialists, and they see a lot of the ideas at the heart of America, not just these individuals on these statues, but these real ideas, the Constitution, Declaration, they see these things as impediments to what they really want to accomplish in this country and I think they see American culture as also an impediment.
So that’s why they’ve turned and tried to turn Americans against these things. If they can’t make them forget, then they will simply go out and destroy.
Trinko: Yeah, it’s funny how fast it seems to be happening.
Jarrett, you and I both grew up in California, in the Bay Area, near San Francisco. And I went to public school in the beginning years of elementary school, and I remember learning about the Pilgrims, and it was great and I just cannot imagine in today’s world that California public school students are still being taught that. I would imagine it’s a lot more fraught. We still had the recycling talks, but yeah, this issue just seems to move faster and faster.
And of course in California recently, in San Francisco, there was the huge fight over the mural of George Washington in a San Francisco high school, which I believe the latest is they’re going to cover it, but not destroy it—but that might kind of be the same.
You talked about how that painting was done by a liberal, or maybe liberal isn’t the right word, but someone on the left who did not think highly of Washington. And I’m wondering, does that suggest to you that we’re reaching, perhaps, a new fever pitch on the war in history? Even acknowledging Washington’s flaws … we still have to destroy Washington?
Stepman: Absolutely, I think you hit the nail on the head. The original portrait that you’re referring to, it was done by a man who I think many would have defined as maybe even a communist, in his own time, it was done in the 1930s.
It was supposed to have a kind of what he would think of as a nuanced portrayal. It depicted slavery, [in one part] there’s a dead Native American there, but the portrayal isn’t glowingly positive once you kind of see George Washington, kind of the marble man of the American Revolution, but that wasn’t enough. …
People were offended by this and even the idea that you would depict George Washington alongside slavery, they wanted it just destroyed, just wipe it out, just completely cover it up because we can’t even see these things or talk about [them], they simply just have to be disappeared.
And we just have to disappear any reference now to George Washington, and I do think that represents the next step. We can’t even be thoughtful about these issues, we can’t even judge them based on the merits of the things. It’s just the idea that, “Well, there’s this thing that makes me uncomfortable, I disagree with, get rid of it. Let’s just turn it to something that I like.”
I think that that creates kind of a fanciful notion of what we should be and I think these debates of our history and certainly people like George Washington, the Founders, I think they’re very fair to have. Obviously, history isn’t just rainbows and sunshine. …
Trinko: If only.
Stepman: If only, but [it] isn’t. … As a conservative I see history as a long string of a lot of ugliness that the great things that have come from it I think are things that should be celebrated, which is kind of the point I make in my book.
For a lot of these people, they don’t see that way. They want some kind of utopian future in which there’s no more wars, there’s no more sadness, there’s no more racism, there’s no more oppression. And they think the only way you can do that is to cover up all the old sins of the past and then just rebuild this brave new future without any reference to where we came from and how we got there.
Frankly, I don’t think it accomplishes their ultimate ends and I think it makes us a less thoughtful society and some ways, a much less tolerant society, incredibly.
Trinko: And of course, if you know your history at all, you know that utopias do not have the greatest track record.
Let’s turn to the actual historical facts here. One of the things that I really enjoyed about your book was your chapter on the founding. And it’s so easy in today’s environment to forget all that went right during the founding and how extraordinary it really was that they had these ideas and these beliefs … they were men of huge intellect.
But before I stammer any further, I’m going to turn over to you. Why was the founding actually great?
Stepman: When you look back at the revolutions in history, there are scant few successes. Really, most turn into violence. Of course, most Americans, people across the globe, know about the French Revolution, which ended in, certainly many what sounded like high-minded ideals and ended up with the guillotine and ended up with mass violence and there was no liberty, there was no equality, there was just misery.
The American founding ultimately was very different. I think it was a product of a lot of Americans who were susceptible to the ideas of the founding.
There were many radical aspects of … the idea that all men are created equal—which is imbued in our Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, based on God-given rights—things like this.
Societies hadn’t been founded on these things. Societies were often a product of force and fraud. How few civilizations had the opportunity to write down a founding document? Really, we were the first one.
And the Founders took that responsibility very seriously and created a founding document, the Constitution of the United States, that survives with very few changes to this day. That’s an incredible thing.
It provided for a country that at the time was 13 colonies, then states, a thin strip along the Eastern seaboard of about 3 million people. Now we have a giant, vast, what Thomas Jefferson would call an empire of liberty that stretches across this continent where you have still under that same Constitution, that same document, that has created liberty and prosperity for untold generations and will for many more.
That’s an incredible accomplishment, especially considering that of all the civilizations in the world, we’re kind of the youngest. We’ve only been around for a short while.
If somebody was around in 1600 and they suddenly found themselves here today, I think the only civilization that would truly shock them would be the creation of the United States—seemingly out of nowhere that suddenly arose to become a superpower and a country with vast liberty and prosperity.
Trinko: Confederate statues have been, I’d say, the biggest flashpoint in recent years. Should they be taken down? Should we have plaques added to them? Well, I don’t think they should, but sometimes it’s just mob rule and they are taken down.
You delve into the book a little bit [about] the history of these statutes. So how did they come about? Why were they done so long, in many cases, after the Civil War and what was the greater context that led to the creation of these statutes?
Stepman: There’s a lot of localism involved with this kind of stuff. And I think that’s an unfortunate missing part of this debate. … There were some statutes that were created for sordid reasons and a lot of others were there as simple tributes to those who had died. Some of them were actually symbols of unity where the nation came back together.
I think there’s actually, and I did mention this in my book, this happened recently, a so-called Confederate statue that’s actually near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, which is kind of a head-scratcher. Why would they have a Confederate statue?
The truth was, they put that there because there was a Southerner who had moved up there who had built a statue to the Union soldiers and the ending of slavery in this country and giving thanks. And so they said, “Hey, this guy, we know he fought for the Confederacy, but he’s a good guy, he understands what happened.”
There was this moment of forgiveness and saying, “Well, he’s one of our Americans now, too. And we’re going to have a monument to the Confederates who fought against us knowing that now again, we’re all Americans once again. Slavery’s been destroyed and we can go on in the future as countrymen.”
Trinko: Are you saying the guy who put up the original Union statue was a former Confederate soldier?
Stepman: He was.
Trinko: Oh, that’s fascinating.
Stepman: Yes. And so they’ve actually taken this statue down, which I think is very sad because they call it a Confederate statue, but it wasn’t there to celebrate the glory of the Confederacy or slavery, anything like this. It was simply put up to remark on a lot of Southerners. After the war, the country went on. And a lot of people had a change of heart.
Many former Southerners said, “Hey, we’re happy that the Union has come back together.” Some of them admitted that they fought for the wrong thing and I think that was an important part of the healing process that this country had to go through.
Most civil wars don’t end up with a rebuilding of the nation or anything like liberty, they usually entail years, decades, maybe violence forever between different groups.
Our Civil War ended and there certainly was a lot of ugliness even after the war. But there is a kind of miracle that took place in that we actually had a country after this war that certainly caused more deaths than all of our other wars combined where the issues were of the highest stakes.
So there’s a lot of complexity, especially when it comes to the creation of a lot of these Confederate statues, some of the speeches that have taken place at the base. There were some people who at some statues said racist things, others who did not, who said that they wanted to pay tribute to those who had died and to family members.
Sometimes we lose a little of that humanity. Now we’re over 150 years later, we forget that if a school had a lot of young men who went off, most of them in their early teens, they go off to war and they never come back.
How does a community talk about that and memorialize that? These are brothers, these are husbands, even if they fought for, in many cases, a bad cause, how do you memorialize that?
And the nation kind of came to this kind of agreement. We’re going to memorialize, we can say that the Union was right and that slavery was an evil. And yet notice also that a lot of Southerners, they’re our fellow Americans and we should still be sad that so many Americans had to die to purge this evil of slavery.
Trinko: One of the charges alleged against these statues is that they were built around the same time as the rise of the KKK or increased prominence. Why was there such a delay between the Civil War and when the statutes started being erected?
Stepman: The first thing is after the war, the South was, frankly, so impoverished that it was impossible to build statues when they can hardly feed people. And that’s something that was certainly noted, that immediately after the war there wasn’t much building going on, period.
A lot of these statues were built especially at the 100-year anniversary, and, actually, there were Union statues going up around the same time. In fact, funny enough, a lot of statutes around the country look exactly the same, whether they’re Union or Confederate, because they were making them out of the same factories. They were just these kind of generic statues.
So there were a lot of tributes, especially on the 100-year anniversary, which I think was very big. A lot of Americans were trying to look back and say, “Hey, this is this horrible war that our grandfathers and our grandmothers witnessed firsthand.”
People wanted to pay tribute to that. How they did that was incredibly varied across this country. I think we sometimes nationalize every issue and a lot of these statues had a lot of local significance to people in the community. Some of that is forgotten today, but a lot of these statutes were created for memorialization.
Now, I’m not saying that every single statue had the purest of motives, period. There was a lot of racism in this country, certainly in the 1920s, certainly up into the 1950s, things like this.
So certainly those sentiments existed, but the idea that all of these statutes were simply created as a part of white supremacy or the Ku Klux Klan, it’s not accurate, it’s not factual, and I think it really does a disservice to the actual ones, the sometimes very complex history that is there.
Trinko: Yeah, and I think that something that I really enjoyed about your book was that you do get into the complexities and it’s something that I personally struggle with, what I think should be done with Confederate statues.
In all the reading I’ve done, obviously, The Daily Signal has covered a lot of these controversies, I don’t remember ever reading a news report that got into whether the original statue was commemorated with racist speeches or not. And to me that’s a huge signifier. It’s always just so broad.
Stepman: It really is and it’s upsetting, and I talk about certain figures. I wrote about Robert E. Lee, obviously, he’s been a major figure in this, and I talk about [how] Robert E. Lee made the wrong decision to go to war.
I think it’s OK for Americans and maybe even a lot of Southerners to say, “Hey, he made the wrong decision to go fight for the Confederacy.” And yet a lot of his statements that he made about teaching your children to be Americans once again after the war were very important to this being a united country once again.
Not all of his legacy is perfect or great, but that part of it is. And that’s something that we should celebrate and a lot of Americans across the board, many who hated slavery and the Confederacy, came to recognize that.
So again, these are nuances that are often lost in modern debates over these statues and these figures who now just simply thrown into the modern political debate without any nuance.
Trinko: In another chapter of your book, you discuss how Teddy Roosevelt is great. That is not a commonly held opinion among conservatives. So tell me what you like about him.
Stepman: Yeah, I defend Theodore Roosevelt very specifically in this book. And I very intentionally chose figures who were not just simply conservative or liberal figures, but ones who contributed something very specific to this country.
And Roosevelt … is coming under attack, especially the Natural History Museum in New York wants to take down his statue, they say it looks imperialist, things like this.
Theodore Roosevelt, he is a larger-than-life kind of individual. I think a lot of Americans, whether they be conservatives or liberals, both have kind of grabbed hold of him for their causes. I think it serves kind of the martial aspects of Theodore Roosevelt. Progressives like the fact that he seemed to like some bigger government programs. He was kind of an economic nationalist or things like this.
So to me, that was not what ultimately Theodore Roosevelt contributed to American civilization. To me, it was his Americanism, his grappling with the very serious issue at the time, which was high levels of immigration, which were very common in the late 19th century. And how is America going to deal with that?
I think Theodore Roosevelt, his speeches and his discussions over bringing in new immigrants are incredibly important because he is a chief proponent of what I would call patriotic assimilation.
He absolutely believed that we need to make sure that those who come here wave the American flag, will be welcomed just like us. And he wrote speeches both rebuking those who didn’t want that, who essentially, and even in his own day, wanted some kind of form of, I guess you could say multiculturalism and also the nativists.
He said, “If a man comes here or a woman comes here or anybody comes here and they want to be Americans, they adapt to our ways. It doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re an American, period.” And I think his statements about that and why that’s so important, how to deal with these issues, are so important, especially in the modern context.
Our fights over immigration are so ferocious and a lot of this gets lost. How do you build a unified country when you have people who come from all over the world to that country from many different backgrounds? Roosevelt came from a time where the nation’s elite tried to direct newcomers to American ideas, to our history, to the founding.
Theodore Roosevelt was very much a part of that. And to me, as a conservative, yes, I don’t agree with all of his economic policies, I think sometimes he looked over federalism as an important issue, but on that issue, he was very much right. And he had a lot to teach Americans in the 21st century.
And I think he’s certainly somebody that shouldn’t simply be erased from history or disappeared because we don’t agree with everything he said, he has a lot to teach us. I think that’s an important part of his legacy, certainly one that very much influences us today.
Trinko: All right, maybe I’ll have to slightly reconsider what I think of Roosevelt then.
By the way, if any of you ever come to Washington, D.C., there is a lovely island in the Potomac named after him with a slightly bizarre monument in the center, but it’s a great place to walk around.
Stepman: I love that monument, I love it.
Trinko: Speaking of a larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt.
So we hear a lot from parents and grandparents and, as I mentioned earlier in this show, a lot of kids are not being taught history [correctly] right now.
How would you recommend, again parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, whatever, how can you help your child if they’re going to a public school or somewhere else where they’re not learning about history? What would you say are the most important things to teach them about?
Stepman: Absolutely. You can pick up my book, which will, hopefully, debunk some of the attacks on our history that are coming from, I think, unfortunately, a lot of hard-left historians. Of course, a lot of parents probably know about Howard Zinn, who was a hard-left communist, essentially. Unfortunately, his books are used a lot in schools.
I do say for parents especially, be very aware of the curriculum that young children are bringing home. In schools throughout this country, I think a lot of these battles are being fought there. And to a certain extent, you always need to put pressure on teachers and parents, you need to be very aware what your child is learning in school.
You could also go and find resources, teach kids on Fourth of July, it’s great to have a barbecue and it’s great to celebrate this country, but maybe say something and read the Declaration of Independence. Keep a Fourth of July kind of Seder going where you read about this country’s history and ask young people to think about and explain what that means to them. …
One of the reasons why I got pulled out of a public school at a young age—believe it or not, I know the date, it was June 6, 1994, and it was the anniversary of D-Day. And my father asked me when he came to pick me up, “What’d you learn?” And I said, “We learned about writing postcards and stuff.” And he’s, “Well, anything else?” I was like, “No.”
And my father actually went in and confronted the teacher about this. He says, “Why isn’t my son learning about D-Day? This is very important.” There were a lot of young people that aren’t much older than these kids who died and fought for liberty and freedom and things like this and the teacher just couldn’t get this. And eventually, he did pull me out of school because they weren’t teaching these values and put me in a private school.
I understand that’s often a very hard thing for parents, which is why I believe very strongly in the issue of school choice, which is a necessary element in a lot of these cases where if the local public school is not doing a good job and not providing an education, not teaching the civic values that are essential to having a republic, pull them out of school, send them to a place that will teach that, homeschool your kids.
There’s a lot of curriculum out there. There’s a lot of primary sources that teach kids about civics and about what this country is all about. And I think that’s on Americans because that’s vital. We live in a republic, we the people are expected to create our own laws.
We’re expected to be, in some ways, more understanding of how politics works, how civics works, how our history is than other people who live under tyrannical governments. So that is essential to our wellbeing and our future.
Sometimes this takes fighting in a local school board, sometimes this takes pulling your kid out of school, and sometimes it just takes sitting down with your children and using some primary resources, using some books, and saying, “Well, let me teach you about the Founders. This is what they stood for. This is why it matters to you, and pass these things along to other people as well.”
Those things are essential and critical. That’s where it brought us to this point and I think that even in this time where there is, unfortunately, a lot of ignorance about history, I think that a lot of the polls are very bad, this information is available.
We live in the internet age, there’s mass information, there’s amazon.com, and you can buy books. This information exists out there. It’s just a matter of using it and bringing it to the right people and also fighting a little bit.
People are saying that the Founders are no good, the Constitution is rotten. Debate people and say, “Hey, I don’t think that’s right. Let me inform you about what the truth is.” And I think that is important, that Americans have courage to stand up for what their country is and has symbolized. And that’s an incredibly important thing, land of the free and home of the brave.
Trinko: It sounds like you have a great dad.
Again, the book is called “The War on History,” it’s brand new, out this week. Please buy it, it’s a great book, I really recommend it.
In addition to the book, if you are looking for resources, Jarrett does a terrific podcast with our other colleague, Fred Lucas, who is a White House correspondent and also historian. That podcast is called “The Right Side of History.” They get into a lot of these things, it’s always a great listen.
Jarrett, thank you for joining us.
Stepman: Thank you very much.