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For months, people have marched across America to remind us of the legacies of neglected chapters of our history that we must understand to heal as a nation and realize the promise of our Constitution.
In September, President Trump responded by announcing a 1776 Federal Commission to promote "patriotic history education,” discouraging the kind of history that he claims “teaches our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” With this commission, Trump would erase our nation’s history, rather than preserve it.
History matters here in Boston. We are proud of it. It is central to our economy and our identity as a city. Now this commission presents a direct assault on the historical legacy that we carry for American democracy.
Boston’s legacy is that of continuous becoming. People call Boston the birthplace of the American Revolution and of freedom. We are also proud to call ourselves a city of innovation. Innovators too, build on history and work to solve the challenges, improve the conditions or fix the systems with which history presents them. Innovators build an arc of history into the future and strive to make things better.
The story of our democracy is not, however, one of linear progress, nor is progress inevitable. Our history may be filled with hope, creativity and enlightenment, but it is also tainted by anger, bigotry and ignorance. Massachusetts-educated William Hastie, a former judge and the first African American governor in the U.S., understood these contradictions when he explained, "Democracy is a process ... It is becoming rather than being. It can be easily lost, but never is fully won."
That democratic process of continuous evolution is visible all over Massachusetts. Across the state, you can find markers of America’s imperfect and uneven struggle to complete the revolution that began here. It is in Quincy that John Adams wrote the constitution for Massachusetts that informed the Constitution of the United States. It is in the Berkshires that Elizabeth Freeman used that very constitution to sue for her freedom from slavery. David Walker wrote his famous "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" from his Beacon Hill home in 1829, challenging America to provide her promised liberties to all.
Our history may be filled with hope, creativity and enlightenment, but it is also tainted by anger, bigotry and ignorance.
To be an American patriot in Boston has often meant realizing that the pursuit of freedom can require breaking the law. Civil disobedience was the preferred strategy of some of our city’s most important trail-blazers, including white Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Hayden — a Black activist who defied the fugitive slave laws — Concord reformer Henry David Thoreau and Massachusetts-born suffragists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.
At our most optimistic, we believe it is fundamentally American to call on our systems to do better. In the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," which was published just yards away from City Hall in 1845, Douglass penned a searing testament to the moral and legal horrors of slavery. Despite his frustrations, he never lost hope in the democratic pursuit of justice. Similarly, Wong Ar Chong, a Chinese immigrant in Boston who was distressed by rising anti-Chinese prejudice, wrote a letter in 1879 full of hopeful dismay, stating, “In your Declaration of Independence it is asserted that all men are born free and equal, and it is understood by the civilized world that the United States of America is a free country, but I fear there is a backward step being taken by the government."
Such backward steps are part of the democratic process of becoming, because living up to the lofty ideals of democracy is hard. We are socialized to distrust people who are different from us. We often take rights and privileges that we enjoy for granted and fail to see that others have the right to enjoy them, too. We struggle to negotiate between conflicting priorities and opinions. Visionaries push for -- and often affect -- change but we are humans, and we predictably respond to change with fear and backlash.
[B]ackward steps are part of the democratic process of becoming, because living up to the lofty ideals of democracy is hard.
It is the job of historians to chronicle our progress and the backsteps, and to create an understanding of the forces that have been at work in our society. Acknowledging the faults and failures, the bigotry and blind spots in our past is not unpatriotic or un-American. It is in telling stories of these tensions and contradictions that historians help us understand who we are as free people.
And free people are full of contradictions. Some of Boston’s most avid supporters of abolition were among the loudest anti-immigrant and anti-Irish voices in the country. Champions of civil rights were often openly discriminatory towards women. As we acknowledge these contradictions, we celebrate each step that makes our democracy more complete.
Teaching history, as compared to propaganda, promotes foundational civic skills, including the ability to inquire about the world, to analyze and interpret what we are learning, to recognize patterns across time and to avoid mistakes of the past.
History is not, to paraphrase Shakespeare, an ever-fixed mark. Nor should it be used to promote nationalism or single narratives. A federal commission for patriotic history that denies the truth goes against the fundamental values of America, against liberty and continuous innovation towards the ideals of our revolution. As a city of history, we should lead our nation in resisting the creation of such a commission and ensure that we practice and teach history that will allow us to become a better democracy.
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