Conquest by Context in the History Wars | Opinion

In today's bitter battles over telling America's story, the Left seeks to emphasize shame and shortcomings, while the Right hopes to block the most negative depictions of the nation's past. What both sides should demand instead is expansion, not restriction, of the history we teach—with a deeper, richer perspective on our republic's place in the world.

Yes, of course students must learn that the first slaves—an estimated 23 of them—arrived in Virginia in 1619, a year before the Mayflower. But they should also understand that at the time of this fateful encounter, the African slave trade to the New World had already been well established for more than a century, and that the United States played a relatively minor role in the cruel commerce in human beings that Madison denounced as "unnatural traffic" and "the barbarism of modern policy."

Leading historians of slavery, including David Brion Davis of Yale and Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, support the consensus conclusion that over the course of 400 years, some 12 million enslaved Africans made the cruel journey to the New World, with less than 5 percent transported to settlements that eventually became the United States. The Slave Voyages Consortium—a project of Rice, Emory and several other universities—carefully examined ship registries to determine the number of slaves to embark on ships from each of seven different nations between 1514 and 1865. The United States placed sixth on that list, with American ships transporting about one-twentieth the number of people seized by Portugal, one-tenth of Great Britain's total and one-third of Spain's slave trade activity. What's more, the Danish West Indies (today the United States Virgin Islands) had been populated almost exclusively by slaves, with an economy totally dependent on their labor—an evil aberration never true of even the most slavery-reliant American colonies like South Carolina.

None of this renders the United States blameless for its participation in a monstrous, ancient evil that so clearly contradicted the lofty ideals of the Founders. But America's guilt must be contextualized if it is to serve any constructive purpose now or in the future. Students of history should understand that the American colonists came late to the horrors of slavery and early to the efforts to abolish them. In 1688, a small group of Philadelphia Quakers organized the world's first known anti-slavery society and signed a petition demanding abolition.

In general, Americans understand that judging the leaders of past centuries by the standards of the present makes no more sense than evaluating contemporary issues and leaders according to values from the distant past. The only way to come to terms with the inglorious elements of our nation's history is through deeper understanding of the world in which they occurred.

George Washington statue
A view of the equestrian statue of George Washington at a park on June 25, 2020 in New York City. Washington who served as the first president of the United States owned slaves but was troubled by the institution of slavery and would later free them. Rob Kim/Getty Images

For instance, the Declaration of Independence enumerates 27 "oppressions" King George III had allegedly afflicted on his American subjects. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the sovereign has "endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

To a high school or college student in 2021, that statement might qualify as an example of appalling, unalloyed racism. But for many Americans of 1776 it registered as lived experience. Most of the prominent colonial leaders, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, had been directly involved with the French and Indian War—a brutal struggle that raged for seven years, with French officials encouraging allied Indian tribes to drive English settlers out of disputed territory. In one horrifying incident, warriors of the Miami tribe attacked a British outpost in modern-day Ohio and tortured an honored chief named Memeskia. They then proceeded to boil and ritually cannibalize him.

Some two generations before that, colonists endured King Philip's War, a catastrophic two-year struggle. A fierce alliance of formidable tribes attacked more than 100 New England villages, destroying 12 of them completely. An estimated 10 percent of all settler males of fighting age lost their lives.

The truth about this protracted conflict—the greatest disaster in the first century of the American colonies—receives limited attention from many of today's historians. It conflicts with the "woke" stereotype of Native peoples as gentle victims, living in peaceful harmony with nature and one another. In fact, the Indians didn't count as victims without fault any more than European settlers qualified as villains victors with no virtue. Most consumers of popular culture understand that classic Hollywood westerns bear scant resemblance to reality when the films deploy simplistic formulas showing Indians as one-dimensional, blood-stained savages. In the same way, the new educational imperatives bend the past for propagandistic purposes, portraying English-American "pale faces" as invariably ruthless, rapacious exploiters.

Historical figures of every race and nationality deserve more consideration for the long-term impact of their contributions, and richer recognition of their achievements as well as their misdeeds. To move beyond the dismissive, anachronistic judgments of some subsequent century, historical perspective demands attention for other nations and other eras. Instead of provincial isolationism, or pummeling our children with repetitive propaganda about guilt and grievance, new generations need contextual narratives that prove more gripping, more gratifying and more truthful.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.