Mary Beth Norton: History Under Construction in Florida

Roundup: Talking About History

AS a historian, I love facts. I especially love facts about early America, the subject I have researched, taught and written about for more than 40 years. The Florida Legislature would seem to share my enthusiasm. An education law it recently enacted insists, "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable." The statute places particular importance on the facts of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Second Continental Congress two days after its vote for independence on July 2, 1776 — 230 years ago today.

Yet the wording of the law befuddles me. Facts mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for "constructed." All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.

Take an example from my own experience. Several years ago I was delighted to uncover proof in the British Public Record Office that an accused male "witch" in 1692 Salem, Mass., had been trading with enemy French and Indians, just as a young accuser had charged. That document confirmed my developing conviction that the Salem witch trials were linked to New England's hostile relationships with the French and Indians. But to many other scholars who previously had encountered that document, it meant no such thing.

The Florida law, while claiming to eschew constructed interpretations, is itself an obvious construction. The statute specifically defines what the term "American history" includes: "the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present."

Among the multitude of omissions from that list is any discussion of the religious development of the country or the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The statute thus constructs an American past that values certain aspects — especially wars and the civil rights movement — more than others.

Nowhere is this construction more obvious than in the law's emphasis on the Declaration of Independence as a key founding document. "The history of the United States," it asserts, "shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Elsewhere, it lists those principles: "national sovereignty, natural law, self-evident truth, equality of all persons, limited government, popular sovereignty and inalienable rights of life, liberty and property."

Reading that made me wonder if Florida's legislators had familiarized themselves with the Declaration and the context of its adoption. Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase, after all, was "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" — not property.

The Declaration ended, rather than created, a government. It forcefully asserted the right of the people to alter or abolish a polity unresponsive to their needs, a "universal principle" overlooked by Florida's legislators. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — who drafted the document on which the nation is actually based — rarely mentioned the Declaration in debate. Indeed, as Pauline Maier, a historian, has pointed out, we owe the current interpretation of the Declaration to 19th-century commentators, especially Abraham Lincoln....

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