Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

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In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. This is a one-of-a-kind examination of sites all over the country where history is literally written on the landscape, including historical markers, monuments, historic houses, forts, and ships. With entries drawn from each of the fifty states, Loewen reveals that:

  • The USS Intrepid, the "feel-good" war museum, celebrates its glorious service in World War II but nowhere mentions the three tours it served in Vietnam.
  • The Jefferson Memorial misquotes from the Declaration of Independence and skews Jefferson's writings to present this conflicted slave owner as a near abolitionist.
  • Abraham Lincoln had been dead for thirty years when his birthplace cabin was built.

Lies Across America is a realty check for anyone who has ever sought to learn about America through the nation's public sites and markers. Entertaining and enlightening, it is destined to change the way American readers see their country.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Whole Truth

Historian James W. Loewen took a trip across America, and what he found made him very angry.

In his previous book, the controversial and bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen attacked the myths prevalent in high school textbooks. In Lies Across America, he leaves the classroom and hits the road, and he's shocked (exclamation marks abound in this book) to find the same myths and lies at the very sites that are supposed to teach visitors about the country's history. Museums, plaques placed at childhood homes and massacre sites, roadside markers, and gilded statues all offer a "warped" view of American history and serve to create a "landscape of amnesia."

Despite the occasional emotional outburst, Loewen is a lively, engaging guide as he travels from California to Maine. He convincingly demonstrates that slavery, segregation, and the slaughter of American Indians are either completely ignored or utterly misinterpreted. For example, Sutter's Fort, a California attraction, celebrates a site where Indians were not only enslaved but where more than 8,000 were massacred. In Michigan, a bronze statue celebrates Orville Hubbard, a mayor who is valorized for "speedy snow removal" and other civic contributions. Yet there's no mention of the fact that Hubbard was a staunch segregationist who ran a "Keep Negroes out of Dearborn" campaign.

Loewen's book is an effective exposé of the persistence of racism, but it is not merely an attack. The truth, as Loewen reveals it, is often more interesting than the feel-good myths. The sites offer bland portraits of genuinely fascinating heroes and villains. One would never know that Helen Keller, the blind-and-deaf pioneer, was a radical socialist. Sites inform visitors that author Willa Cather "wrote from her heart wonderful tales," but, according to Loewen, she also arrived at the University of Nebraska dressed as William Cather, her opposite-sex twin. The town of Amherst and the University of Amherst celebrate a war hero who, in fact, helped spread smallpox among Indians, a people he referred to as "the vilest race of beings that ever infested the earth."

Loewen notes that Americans "rejoiced when East Germans toppled their statues of Lenin" yet are unlikely to topple their own monuments to evil men. Americans encouraged postimperialist African nations to change their names (e.g., Rhodesia) but a brouhaha would take place if such a tactic were attempted in, say, Amherst. If vandalism and renaming are too radical, Loewen insists that we still "must tell what happened, without the public relations puffery of local boosters." But it's hard to image that towns like Darien, an all-white Connecticut enclave, will take Loewen's suggestion and mount a sign saying, "Darien is still overwhelmingly white; some clubs within it still keep out African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Thus, Darien poses a problem for the New York metropolitan area and indeed for the nation."

Loewen's angry and witty exposé will surely spark debate. While civic leaders might take issue with his report, the irony is that Loewen actually makes the history of small towns and dead people interesting and lively. His book does what so many sites and museums don't. It presents history as tragic, violent, and dynamic, full of devious eccentrics, arrogant villains, and inspiring heroes.

—Margot Towne

Children's Literature - Children's Literature
Written as a complement to the American Book Award winning Lies My Teacher Told Me by the same author, this text addresses the misrepresentations that often attend national monuments, historical sites, and museums. In this work the author presents 95 specific historic sites. In each instance the current presentation of facts as memorialized at the site is reviewed. Then, a careful reconstruction of the true facts behind the scenes is presented. What unfolds as the reader progresses through this book is a jarring reminder of how skewed our memories of the past can be. For example, several sites related to the Civil War stand out in the overt manner in which issues such as slavery, the massacre of African-American soldiers, and the avoidance of any memory of the horrors of war are subverted. In the area of Native American peoples it is systematically pointed out that many monuments and place names currently still in use are overtly racist in their structure. Labor history sites are also described which re-write or white out the issues of labor oppression in a manner that smacks of censorship. Taken as a whole, or in discrete segments, this is a powerful indictment of how our society chooses to remember the nation's past. It is a wonderfully written and researched book that offers insights into the historiography of our national historic mementos. However, while this text has a great deal to offer it is written for an adult audience. While portions of the book could be used in a high school American History, Sociology, Cultural Studies, or AP History class it would be difficult to find a broader application for the book in a school setting. This is a grand historical effort but one that ismore geared for an adult or collegiate audience. It is also a story that should be read by any current or potential teacher of history. 1999, W.W. Norton, Ages 17 up. Reviewer: Greg M. Romaneck
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684870670
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 11/28/2000
  • Edition description: TOUCHSTONE
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

James W. Loewen taught race relations at the University of Vermont. His previous book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, won the American Book Award, the AESA Critics' Choice Award, and the Oliver C. Cox Anti-Racism Award of the American Sociological Association. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt



1. The Tallest Mountain — The Silliest Naming

ALASKA Denali (Mt. McKinley)

Since people probably reached Alaska before any other part of the Western Hemisphere, they probably named North America's tallest mountain thousands of years ago. They didn't call it Mt. McKinley.

    Replacing Native American names with those of European Americans is a form of cultural imperialism. The practice declares that the new rulers of the landscape can afford to ignore what Native names mean and connote in favor of new names that typically have no relation to what is named.

    Low-profile conflicts have raged for many years between those who want to change the names of localities and geographic features back to their original Native names, and those who want them named for European American people, towns, or words. To some degree this is a contest between Native Americans and European Americans, but European Americans are usually found on both sides of the arguments. The battles might also be characterized as between traditionalists and those desiring change, except that both parties claim to have tradition on their side. Denali, or Mt. McKinley, dramatically embodies these disputes about names all across America, not only because it is such a dramatic place but also because the controversy at Denali has gone on for more than twenty-five years.

    William A. Dickey renamed the peak, the tallest point in North America, Mt. McKinley in 1896. Why he got to nameit is hard to fathom. Dickey had come to Alaska spurred by discoveries of gold in Cook Inlet. With three companions he made it to Talkeetna and saw Denali, "the great one" in the language of the nearby Tanaina Indians. According to C. H. Merriam, testifying before the U.S. Geographical Board in 1917, "The right of the discoverer to name geographical features has never been questioned," but Dickey was no discoverer. Native people had discovered the mountain thousands of years earlier. Even if only white people "discover," Russians saw it in the 1770s or 1780s and named it Bulshaia Gora, "big mountain." Even if only English-speaking white people "discover," George Vancouver saw Denali in 1794. Dickey was not even the first white American to see it; other Americans had preceded him by a quarter century.

    Dickey had no serious reason to name the mountain as he did. William McKinley had not yet been martyred when he received the honor; indeed he had not even been elected president. Nor had McKinley ever been to the mountain, or even to Alaska. William Dickey favored conservative fiscal policies, while most people in the West wanted to expand the amount of money in circulation by minting more silver coins and certificates. Dickey was irritated by arguments he had lost with "free silver" partisans on his trip and decided to retaliate by naming Denali after the gold standard champion.

    "The original naming was little more than a joke," according to George R. Stewart, author of American Place-Names. From the first, some people preferred the Native name, and Dickey's frivolous reason for choosing McKinley gave them ammunition. Nevertheless, probably because he wrote about his trip in the New York Sun, Dickey's choice began to catch on. McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, so at least the mountain turned out to be named after a president, and, when McKinley was shot in Buffalo in 1901, after a martyred president.

    Today however, many Americans consider the Native name more melodious and object to "McKinley" on aesthetic grounds—as if the Mississippi River had been renamed for, say, Zachary Taylor. Others support Native efforts to gain more acceptance, including better recognition on the landscape. "It's time we listened to the Native people of Alaska," declared Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska in 1991. "This mountain is the largest in North America. It was named by the Natives long before we arrived."

    Nationally, a lone congressman from Ohio prevents the renaming of the mountain. In 1975, Rep. Ralph Regula from Canton, William McKinley's hometown, blocked a compromise proposed by the Alaska legislature to name the mountain Denali and leave the national park surrounding it named for McKinley. Five years later the National Park Service agreed to a compromise Regula couldn't block: it changed the name of Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park, but the mountain stayed Mt. McKinley. This resolution proved unstable, however. Finding its Native lobby more persuasive than Ohio's McKinley lobby, Alaska changed its name for the mountain to Denali, relegating the 25th president to the parenthetical statement, "(also known as Mt. McKinley)." Regula has found a way to block any change on the national level, however. His aide told me, "The Board of Geographic Names won't change names so long as legislation on the subject is pending. Congressman Regula always has legislation pending." The legislation never gets anywhere, but it suffices to prevent action by the board.

    When the Board on Geographic Names was considering a proposal to rename the mountain in 1977, Congressman Regula testified, "This action would be an insult to the memory of President McKinley and to the people of my district and the nation who are so proud of his heritage." But Americans aren't! That's the problem: most Americans don't rank William McKinley very high in the pantheon of presidents. They remember him if at all as a creation of political boss Mark Hanna, beholden to big business, and addicted to high tariffs. He also got us bogged down in a seemingly endless colonial war in the Philippines (25). Such facts do not deter Regula, who portrays McKinley as "a champion of the working class" and credits him for "settlement of the long-standing Spanish-American conflict."

    Naturally the congressman's office claims higher principles, not mere local pride, motivate Regula to block renaming the mountain. "The congressman feels that a lot of money goes into maps," emphasized aide Barbara Wainman, "and names shouldn't be changed lightly." Moreover, she noted, if they win Denali, Native groups will want to change other names.

    On that last point Wainman is right. Entry 24 tells that Native groups do want to change other names all across America. And American Indians are winning some of these battles. Memphis renamed DeSoto Bluff "Chickasaw Heritage State Park." "Custer's Last Stand" is now "The Little Bighorn Battlefield." Also, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a policy in 1990 to favor names derived from American Indian, Inuit, and Polynesian languages. Eventually Natives will outlast Ralph Regula and rename Denali.

* * *

2. King Kamehameha I, The Roman!

HAWAII Honolulu

Kamehameha I was an extraordinary leader. Born on the Big Island of Hawaii about 1758, he died on Kona in 1819. Using his intelligence, courage in man-to-man combat, his own genealogy (very important in traditional Hawaiian culture), diplomacy, Western arms, and capable advisors and underlings, Kamehameha conquered all of the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1790s. He then moved northwest, conquering Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Oahu. Finally in 1810 by negotiation he was acknowledged king over Kauai, unifying all the Hawaiian Islands for the first time.

    Kamehameha's imposing statue stands across South King Street from Iolani Palace in Honolulu. An identical statue stands near his birthplace. A third statue, made from molds prepared from the one in Honolulu, stands indoors in the United States Capitol. Eight and one half feet tall with gold robes, it is "easily the most striking in the National Statuary Hall" in the words of the guidebook for the collection. Kamehameha's likeness can thus be seen on the landscape at more places than that of any other Asian or Pacific Island American.

    Only it's not Kamehameha's likeness.

    The statue had its origin in 1878 when Walter Gibson, a non-Polynesian member of the Hawaiian legislature, proposed it in connection with the centennial of Hawaii's "discovery" by Captain James Cook. This had a certain logic, since Kamehameha was among the many Hawaiians who had met Cook during his two visits to the islands before he was killed there. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project and made Gibson chair of the monument committee, which included native Hawaiian members but soon became a one-man show. Gibson chose Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculptor, to craft the work.

    Gould never went to Hawaii and seems never to have learned what Kamehameha looked like, although several portraits did exist, painted at different points in his life. Photographs of native Hawaiians were mailed to Gould as he worked on the statue in Florence, Italy, but they did not make much impact either. Gould was in Italy, so he made the statue look like an Italian with a long Roman cloak. According to travel writer Hal Glatzer, "The statue is essentially that of a Roman general with dark skin. The features are more Caucasian than Polynesian. The pose, with the right arm extended, palm upturned, is `supposed' to be a welcoming aloha gesture. But it is based on the Roman pose with an upright staff or spear."

    David Kalakaua had become king of Hawaii in 1874, and in 1882 Hawaiians finished the Iolani Palace for him. The statue of King Kamehameha I, not ready for the 1878-79 centennial of Cook's visit, was scheduled as part of Kalakaua's belated coronation festivities connected with opening the new palace in 1883. Cast in bronze in Paris and then shipped to Hawaii via Cape Horn, the statue was lost before rounding the Cape when the ship wrecked at the Falkland Islands.

    The Hawaiians had insured the statue for $12,000, and with that money they ordered another one. Gould made a copy and sent it off to Hawaii. Before it could get there, however, a ship came into Hawaii with the original! Enterprising Falkland Islanders had recovered it from the sea and sold it to the captain for $500. He sold it to Gibson for $875. Now Hawaii had two statues, and neither looked anything like Kamehameha. The reordered statue was placed in front of Iolani Palace, while the original went up near the northernmost point of the Big Island, near Kamehameha's birthplace.

    Making Kamehameha look Roman is a classic example of Eurocentrism. Hawaiians do not look Italian. James King, lieutenant to Captain Cook, said Kamehameha had "as savage a looking face as I ever saw." "Savage" of course was a Eurocentric way of saying "Polynesian"; Hawaiian women found Kamehameha quite attractive. Nevertheless, Native Hawaiian activist Poka Laenui points out that the statues do symbolize how Hawaiians of that era were finding ways to "walk in two worlds"—their own culture and the European-dominated world economy. Hawaii adopted a written constitution and other accoutrements of modern nationhood. Regardless, Europeans were taking over Hawaii as they were taking over Kamehameha's likeness. In 1887, whites forced Kalakaua to sign a constitution supporting white interests. Venereal disease, cholera, influenza, measles, typhoid, smallpox, and other diseases from Europe and Asia, including leprosy which arrived in 1830, decimated the Hawaiians. Hawaii's Native population shrank from perhaps 350,000 when Captain Cook arrived to about 35,000 by 1893. In that year American residents on Hawaii, aided by 162 United States sailors, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, Kalakaua's successor. It seemed then that Native Hawaiians might disappear from their own country as thoroughly as the likeness of King Kamehameha had from his own statue.

    Since then, "pure Hawaiians" have continued to decline in number to about 8,000. In the 1970s and 1980s however, in a development that paralleled Black Power and American Indian movements on the mainland, the number of Hawaiians who identified themselves as Native Hawaiian soared. So has the number of Native Hawaiians learning Hawaiian music, dance, language, crafts, and navigation. In the 1990 census about 140,000 people had substantial Hawaiian ancestry and were identified as Native Hawaiian Although that is only one-eighth of the population of the islands, their numbers continue to increase rapidly.

Entry 26 tells of a similar population decline and rebound among Native Americans, and a corresponding rise in the number of those identifying themselves as American Indians.

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Table of Contents

In What Ways Were We Warped? 15
Some Functions of Public History 25
The Sociology of Historic Sites 29
Historic Sites are Always a Tale of Two Eras 36
Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments 43
The Far West
1 Alaska Denali (Mt. McKinley): The Tallest Mountain -- The Silliest Naming 51
2 Hawaii Honolulu: King Kamehameha I, The Roman! 54
3 California Sacramento: The Flat Earth Myth on the West Coast 57
4 California Sacramento: Exploiting vs. Exterminating the Natives 62
5 California San Francisco: China Beach Leaves Out the Bad Parts 67
6 California Downieville: Killing a Man is Not News 70
7 Oregon La Grande: Don't "Discover" 'Til You See the Eyes of the Whites! 74
8 Washington Cowlitz County: No Communists Here! 76
9 Washington Centralia: Using Nationalism to Redefine a Troublesome Statue 77
10 Nevada Hickison Summit: What We Know and What We Don't Know about Rock Art 81
11 Nevada Nye County: Don't Criticize Big Brother 84
Mountains and Plains States
12 Idaho Almo: Circle The Wagons, Boys -- It's Tourist Season 89
13 Utah North of St. George: Bad Things Happen in the Passive Voice 93
14 Arizona Navajo Reservation: Calling Native Americans Bad Names 99
15 Montana Helena: No Confederate Dead? No Problem! Invent Them! 102
16 Wyoming South Pass City: A Woman Shoulda Done It! 108
17 Colorado Pagosa Springs: Tall Tales in the West 110
18 Colorado Leadville: Licking the Corporate Hand That Feeds You 113
19 New Mexico Alcalde: The Footloose Statue 119
The Great Plains
20 Oklahoma Oklahoma City: The Oklahoma State History Museum Confederate Room Tells No History 123
21 Kansas Gardner: Which Came First, Wilderness or Civilization? 126
22 Nebraska Red Cloud: No Lesbians on the Landscape 127
23 South Dakota Brookings: American Indians Only Roved for about a Hundred Years 130
24 North Dakota Devils Lake: The Devil is Winning, Six to One 133
The Midwest
25 Minnesota St. Paul: "Serving the Cause of Humanity" 136
26 Iowa Muscatine: Red Men Only -- No Indians Allowed 144
27 Missouri Hannibal: Domesticating Mark Twain 148
28 Wisconsin Racine: Not the First Auto 151
29 Illinois Chicago: America's Most Toppled Monument 152
30 Indiana Graysville: Coming into Indiana Minus a Body Part 157
31 Indiana Indianapolis: The Invisible Empire Remains Invisible 161
32 Kentucky Lexington: Putting the He in Hero 164
33 Kentucky Hodgenville: Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace Cabin -- Built Thirty Years after his Death! 166
34 Michigan Dearborn: Honoring a Segregationist 170
35 Ohio Delaware: Who Menaced Whom? 173
The South
36 Texas Gainesville: "No Nation Rose So White and Fair; None Fell So Free of Crime" 177
37 Texas Alba: The Only Honest Sundown Town in the United States 182
38 Texas Pittsburg: It Never Got Off the Ground 186
39 Texas Fredericksburg: The Real War Will Never Get into the War Museums 188
40 Texas Galveston: This Building Used to be a Hardware Store 195
41 Arkansas Grant County: Which Came First, the Statue or the Oppression? 197
42 Arkansas Little Rock: Men Make History; Women Make Wives 200
43 Louisiana Laplace: Suppressing a Slave Revolt for the Second Time 206
44 Louisiana Colfax: Mystifying the Colfax Riot and Lying about Reconstruction 210
45 Louisiana New Orleans: The White League Begins to Take a Beating 214
46 Louisiana Baton Rouge: The Toppled "Darky" 220
47 Louisiana Fort Jackson: Let Us Now Praise Famous Thieves 227
48 Mississippi Hazlehurst: The End of Reconstruction 230
49 Mississippi Itta Bena: A Black College Celebrates White Racists 235
50 Alabama Calhoun County: If Russia Can do it, Why Can't We? 239
51 Alabama Tuscumbia: Confining Helen Keller under House Arrest 243
52 Alabama Scottsboro: Famous Everywhere but at Home 246
53 Tennessee Fort Pillow: Remember Fort Pillow! 250
54 Tennessee Woodbury: Forrest Rested Here 258
55 Georgia Stone Mountain: A Confederate-KKK Shrine Encounters Turbulence 261
56 Florida Near Cedar Key: The Missing Town of Rosewood 266
57 South Carolina Beech Island: The Beech Island Agricultural Club Was Hardly What the Marker Implies 268
58 South Carolina Fort Mill: To the Loyal Slaves 273
59 South Carolina Columbia: Who Burned Columbia? 279
60 North Carolina Bentonville Battlefield: The Last Major Confederate Offensive of The Civil War 288
61 Virginia Alexandria: The Invisible Slave Trade 290
62 Virginia Alexandria: The Clash of the Martyrs 294
63 Virginia Richmond: "One of the Great Female Spies of all Times" 298
64 Virginia Richmond: Slavery and Redemption 302
65 Virginia Richmond: The Liberation of Richmond 305
66 Virginia Richmond: Abraham Lincoln Walks through Richmond 310
67 Virginia Appomattox: Getting Even the Numbers Wrong 317
68 Virginia Stickleyville: A Sign of Good Breeding 320
The Atlantic States
69 West Virginia Union: Is California West of the Alleghenies? 325
70 District of Columbia Jefferson Memorial: Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father 327
71 District of Columbia Lincoln Memorial: A Product of Its Time and All Time 333
72 Maryland Hampton: "No History To Tell" 338
73 Delaware Reliance: The Reverse Underground Railroad 352
74 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Telling Amusing Incidents for the Tourists 357
75 Pennsylvania Valley Forge: George Washington's Desperate Prayer 362
76 Pennsylvania Lancaster: "You're Here to See the House" 367
77 Pennsylvania Gettysburg: South Carolina Defines the Civil War in 1965 371
78 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Remember The "Splendid Little War" -- Forget the Tawdry Larger Wars 377
79 Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Celebrating Illegal Submarine Warfare 381
80 New Jersey Trenton: The Pilgrims and Religious Freedom 383
81 New York Manhattan: Making Native Americans Look Stupid 385
82 New York Alabama: Which George Washington? 389
83 New York North Elba: John Brown's Plaque Puts Blacks at the Bottom! 390
84 New York Manhattan: The Union League Club: Traitors to Their Own Cause 394
85 New York Manhattan: Selective Memory at USS Intrepid 404
New England
86 Connecticut Darien: Omitting the Town's Continuing Claim to Fame 408
87 Massachusetts Boston: The Problem of the Common 413
88 Massachusetts Amherst: Celebrating Genocide 415
89 Massachusetts Boston: What a Monument Ought to Be 419
90 Vermont Burlington: Shards of Minstrelsy on a Far-North Campus 425
91 New Hampshire Peterborough and Dublin: Local History Wars 430
92 New Hampshire Concord: "Effective Political Leader" 433
93 Rhode Island Block Island: "Settlement" Means Fewer People! 436
94 Rhode Island Warren and Barrington: Fighting over the "Good Indian" 438
95 Maine Bar Harbor: At Last -- An Accurate Marker 442
Snowplow Revisionism 443
Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape 447
A Selecting the Sites 455
B Ten Questions to Ask at a Historic Site 459
C Twenty Candidates For "Toppling" 460
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First Chapter

Chapter 70: Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father

District of Columbia: Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial, dedicated in 1943, resembles the earlier Lincoln Memorial in its classical Greek architecture and the practice of putting words by its president on its stone walls. Saul Padover, assistant to the secretary of the interior under FDR, chose the monument's quotations while writing an adulatory biography of Jefferson published in 1942. But while the Lincoln Memorial presents the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural in their entireties, the Jefferson Memorial juxtaposes fragments from widely scattered writings of Thomas Jefferson to distort his ideas and policies.

The first panel misquotes the preamble and conclusion of the Declaration of Independence, leaving out five words from within its selected excerpts. The architect requested the omissions so the text would fit better! Surely this memorable text should not be altered for so petty a reason. We know Jefferson would not approve, for whenever he sent correspondents a copy of the Declaration he took pains to show what the Continental Congress had added to his draft and what it had cut. The altered text reads,

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,
among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure
these rights governments are instituted among men. We...solemnly
publish and declare, that these Colonies are and of right ought to be free
and independent states....And for the support of this declaration,
with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually
pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.

Omitting "that" before "among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" may be minor though it does makes Jefferson's parallel constructions seem less parallel and more awkward. Omitting "United" before "Colonies," however, alters the sense of the document to insinuate that thirteen separate states declared independence. One could argue that omitting "to each other" from the sentence, "We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour," removes a redundancy. Emphasizing that the 56 signers were talking to each other however, as well as mutually to the embryonic nation and the world, suggests their lonely courage. They knew if they didn't hang together they might hang separately and worried lest some might break faith and betray the rest.

The second panel, on religious freedom, takes three quotations from Jefferson's Act for Religious Freedom, passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1779, and adds a sentence from a letter he wrote to James Madison a decade later. That final sentence is ripped out of context: "I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively." In the context of religious freedom, preceded by phrases like "Almighty God" and "the Holy Author of our freedom," the sentence seems to imply that Jefferson held to an absolute moral code. Actually, a self-described Unitarian, Jefferson believed in the power of reason as a foundation of morality. Here he was writing in the context of political economy; he and Madison were corresponding about such issues as whether institutions determine individual behavior and how then to shape those institutions.

I know no problem with the words on the fourth panel, a single extended quotation from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1816 on the need to change institutions "to keep pace with the times." The third panel however, which the National Park Service brochure describes as "devoted to his ideas on freedom of the body and to his beliefs in the necessity of educating the masses of the people," is a hodgepodge of quotations from diverse writings by Jefferson from widely different periods in his life. The effect of this medley is to create the impression that Thomas Jefferson was very nearly an abolitionist. In their original contexts, the same quotations reveal quite a different Jefferson conflicted about slavery — at times its harsh critic, often its apologist.

The words on the wall read:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation
be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties
are the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect
that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce
between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly
written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the
business of the state to effect and on a general plan.

By putting these fragments back into their wording and supplying their contexts, we can see what the monument leaves out.

The first fragment is based on the sentence, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time," part of the conclusion of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, a pamphlet written in 1774, where it follows a sentence objecting to taxes imposed on the colonies by the mother country. By grafting it onto sentences about masters and slaves, the Memorial implies that the passage was about slavery, when it wasn't.

Padover took the second, third, and fourth sentences from a long paragraph, "Manners," in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson's only book, published in 1785. The paragraph contains Jefferson's most important treatment of slavery, but Padover has rearranged its phrases to make a much tamer impression than Jefferson's original. Jefferson began by lamenting the harmful impact slavery had on whites:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it...and thus nursed, educated and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The panel's second sentence as arranged by Padover seems a pious plea to pay tribute to God as the giver of liberty; many visitors never realize that slavery is its topic. In context, Jefferson is prophesying that one of slavery's harmful effects on whites is to undermine political liberty. He has just lamented how slavery transforms slaveowners "into despots" and slaves "into enemies." "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" refers to the former transformation, which prompts slaveowners to believe that liberty is theirs to give or take away. For a nation to remain free it is essential, Jefferson here implies, that its people and leaders respect freedom as one of man's God-given natural rights; here he recognizes, albeit obliquely, the inherent conþict between this theory and the practice of slavery.

The third sentence refers to the other transformation Jefferson has lamented, of slaves into enemies. As truncated by Padover — "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever" — it becomes a vague warning to the United States to shape up. Few readers would infer that slave revolt is its real topic, but Jefferson goes on to finish the sentence: "that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events." This is the slaveowners' familiar fear of rebellion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2002

    Promising Premise Ruined By Falsity and Biases

    I picked up this book because the premise sounded promising (ie correcting historical sites incorrect data) even though the reasoning behind it was rather weak. (The author claims that a huge chunk of the public gets its info from these sites when in actuality it is more likely to get its info from school and movies since most people only visit a handful of historical sites.) The book was disappointing to say the least and enraging to say the most. The first few pages give the reader what he/she can expect in the rest of the book, namely inaccuracies and a legion of half-truths. An example of the former is that the author stated Nathan Bedford Forrest founded the KKK. In reality, Forrest did not. He was a leader after the founding and later ordered the group disbanded. An example of the half-truths is the author listing a speech from a Dakota Indian decrying Mount Rushmore as a symbol of conquerors. In actuality the Dakota TOOK the Black Hills area from other tribes, notably the Crow. Thus it is more than a bit hypocritical to complain about conquerors. The author was under an obligation to point that fact out since the purpose of his book was supposedly to tell the whole truth about information historical sites don't list. However, he doesn't. (This in itself is surprising since the author complains at the start of the book about being 'warped' by inaccurate historical sites and yet by not telling the whole truth the author is doing that same thing with unintiated readers of his book.) Another problem with the book is the author's extreme biases which pop up again and again such as his dealing with Nathan Forrest. He decries Forrest having more monuments built to him than anyone else and leaves the reader thinking that this is obviously because Forrest was a racist. However, the author never mentions Forrest's Civil War record which shows that Forrest was arguably the best cavalry commander of the war, North or South. To be fair, there are some nuggets worth reading but frankly it just isn't worth what the reader has to wade through to get to them. By his biases and refusal to tell the whole truth, the author destroyed what had the makings of a great book.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2008

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