Ron DeSantis is Making History a Political Issue; What does His Book Say?Roundup
tags: Constitution, Florida, teaching history, Dred Scott, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis
David Waldstreicher teaches at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and is the author of the forthcoming The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley.
History works for ron desantis as an argument. It would be a mistake, though, to think he doesn’t care about it deeply or hasn’t devoted serious deliberation to his own understanding of the American past. In fact, his biography indicates a great respect for the discipline. DeSantis reportedly received special praise for his performance in an Advanced Placement U.S. history course at Florida’s Dunedin High School before he graduated in 1997. He majored in history at Yale during some of the years I taught there. He instructed high-school students in history for a year at the Darlington School, in Georgia, before attending Harvard Law School and joining the U.S. Navy. And get this: Two of his children are named Madison and Mason presumably after James Madison and George Mason, the most intellectually interesting of the Virginians who helped fashion the Constitution.
Former President Donald Trump reveled in his own ignorance and preference not to read at all, much less read history. In his four years in office, most of his statements about the Constitution were bluster about how it allowed him to do anything he wanted. By contrast, DeSantis has an intellectual pedigree and a book from 2011, his first, to prove it. Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is a revealing treatise, lively and polemical. While clearly a direct rebuke to Barack Obama’s 1995 coming-of-age memoir, Dreams From My Father, it is also filled with ample quotation from 18th-century writings, footnotes to a smattering of scholarly works, and highly selective use of then-current reportage, tacking back and forth over 26 thematic chapters from Madison and Alexander Hamilton to Obama and the Democrats, the apparent betrayers of the Founders’ dreams. The book clarifies how DeSantis’s view of history has shaped his politics and explains his fierce reaction to any attempt to discuss the role of racism in America’s past.
Published by a very small (some would say vanity) press in Jacksonville, total sales of the book languished in the low hundreds. It clearly got lost in the generic haze of anti-Obama screeds. Shockingly, for a book by a man who is likely running for president, the only way to acquire a physical copy is to buy a used one, which can sell for over $1,000. But Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is actually a remarkably cogent and well-written attempt to undo exactly what Barack Obama had done: write himself into the national imagination as an emblem of historic, yet distinctly American, change. It’s because Obama had incorporated American history into his presidential campaign, giving his famous speech on race at the National Constitution Center, that DeSantis has to deny at such length that Obama’s Americanism amounted to anything more than a shell game.
DeSantis of 2011 praises the Tea Party movement and the backlash it inspired, which cost Democrats the House in 2010. He thinks the movement was absolutely right to identify itself with the American Revolution, fighting against un-American tyrannies of the Obama Democrats. But he argued it should go deeper than symbolic acts like dressing up in 18th-century garb or brandishing rifles at rallies. The book is intended firstly as a wholesale indictment and a game plan, pointing out the ways Republicans should attack “progressives” for the “transformational change” they are attempting—by which DeSantis meant federally mandated health care, corporate and mortgage bailouts, and increased regulation.
Against this “redistributive agenda” DeSantis positions himself as an originalist’s originalist, though he rarely uses the term, leaning on an “ethic of constitutionalism” that he attributes to the Founders. His favorites are Madison and Hamilton, whom he presents as deeply conservative men whose intent was firstly to protect freedom—especially property—and wise, representative government. Their eventual differences, epitomized by the partisan battles of the 1790s, don’t matter next to what they shared. They fashioned a constitution to check excessive legislation—what they called too much democracy in less guarded moments—in the new states. Constitutionalism, then, is conservative means to conservative ends.
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