“If we wish to honor previous generations and do justice to ourselves and our posterity, we must once again try to understand and defend the world-shaking ideas, actions, and men who made America great.”
That is what author Jarrett Stepman sets out to do in his new book, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past. The book provides insight into both the ideas that shaped America into what it is today, and the historical figures whose sacrifices and vision helped to create a country like no other.
Today, history is often rewritten in terms of “white supremacy” and sexism, as some call for the renaming of schools and organizations, such as the Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations at my own alma mater, Princeton University, or the Jefferson-Jackson dinners of the Democratic Party.
Others take a more hands-on approach, defacing or destroying statues raised to such personages as Columbus, Robert E. Lee, and Teddy Roosevelt. Jefferson was a slaveholder and Lee, though he did not own slaves personally, came from a slave-owning family, and their detractors argue that to hold up these men as models is an endorsement of slavery. While slavery is indeed an abhorrent stain upon the history of the United States, these men must be understood within the context of their time.
Police and government officials often look the other way as protesters deface public property, the images of individuals who, at one time were considered so exemplary that statues were erected to immortalize them in our nation’s history.
Stepman sets out to defend many of these actors and the principles for which they stood that are now under attack. He doesn’t deny their faults, but he does show why we should continue to honor them and their ideas. Despite imperfections, they helped create a great nation.
Stepman argues that “instead of tearing down men who rose to prominence in our past, we should pay attention to why our society thought to raise them on a pedestal to begin with.”
Stepman organizes the book around several different battles in the larger war on history. Each of these involves an attack on the founding principles of the country. One is an attack on the “great inheritance” that we have enshrined in the Thanksgiving holiday. It is the attack on “the Puritan ethos: the values of hardy folk who braved incredible hardship so that future generations could enjoy a new and better world than the one their ancestors lived in.”
There is also a war against the very concept of national pride and loyalty to our country. We used to believe in the “melting pot,” the notion that from different countries of origin a worthy and uniquely American culture emerged; today we see attempts to destroy this unity. Teddy Roosevelt would have been shocked. He believed in a vision of an America that would be “both a nation of immigrants and a nation of citizens with undivided loyalty — Americanism pure and simple.”
Throughout the book, Stepman does not deny that there has been oppression and violence in our beloved country, but he stresses that those moments have been the exception, not the rule, in the history of the U.S. When it comes to the issue of immigration, Stepman makes a compelling argument. He says that “it is telling that twenty-first-century activists condemn America and its immigration laws as racist yet at the same time demand that more people from the allegedly oppressed groups be brought into the country through an open border.”
The United States of America was built on the promise of freedom. Freedom to live, practice one’s religion, thrive, and create a country that would protect these freedoms for all of posterity. Stepman does not attempt to gloss over the blots on our history. He recognizes these shortcomings. But he also works against the mentality now held by many in America, that we have evolved morally so as to no longer need or even accept, leaders and values dear to our ancestors.
We will be the losers in this war against history if we can only see the failures of a country that has been a beacon of freedom to the world. Stepman provides an alternative to the recent wipeout wave in our country: “Instead of feeling smug self-righteousness about our superiority and selectively combing through history to find fault, perhaps it is better to take a step back and recognize that the good and the great can exist in a flawed world.”
The War on History provides an excellent analysis of our nation’s situation today and how we can learn from the heroes of our history. Instead of focusing solely on the shortcomings of those who came before us, we must continue to have pride in a heritage that brought freedom to millions. Instead of decrying them for their faults, we must recognize the incredible work that they have done and celebrate what makes America so great.
“Focus too much on what is unexceptional about America — the flaws in human nature that are universal to mankind — and we can easily miss what is exceptional,” Stepman concludes.