For over 40 years, George Graham Vest served first as a Missouri state Representative, next as a state Senator in the Confederacy, and finally as a U.S. Senator for Missouri from 1879 to 1903.
In a speech from August 21, 1891, Vest included a claim about history that has been echoed by many: “In all revolutions the vanquished are the ones who are guilty of treason, even by the historians, for history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.”
Considering Vest’s complicated relationship with the state and country that he served, we should keep in mind that his comment represents something many people misunderstand about history: All history is biased, and history is created by whoever is telling the story.
Often associated with Winston Churchill, the adage “history is written by the victors” seems to repeat itself in times of great upheaval.
One of our most recent moments of political conflict was the siege on the U.S. Capitol in early January 2021. Less dramatic but more significant, that was soon followed by the Trump administration releasing the 1776 Commission report, a rejection of the 1619 Project published in The New York Times.
The goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.
The 1776 Commission is a direct rebuttal of centering slavery in U.S. history, calling for a return to viewing the U.S. through the lens of the Founding Fathers as well as emphasizing a patriotic message about the country.
Although the Biden administration removed the 1776 Commission report, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) issued a response to the political legacy of that report: The NCSS “strongly rejects the recent development of proposed bills in state legislatures which are designed to censor specific curricular resources from being used for instruction in K-12 schools.”
Lawmakers in South Carolina are considering a bill that would use former President Trump’s 1776 report to help develop the U.S. history curriculum for public middle and high school students, WCSC reports.
The Restore America’s Foundation Act would require South Carolina’s State Superintendent of Education to “review and prescribe suitable texts and online materials aligned with the principles and concepts of the January 2021 report of the 1776 Commission.”South Carolina may implement Trump’s controversial ‘1776 Report’ in its schools
The essential problem with this bill is it contradicts its own goals. The 1619 Project is a source for teaching history, but it has no direct political power, and any influence it has on classroom teaching is entirely voluntary.
Yet, SC Republicans are claiming that the teaching of history and social studies is politically corrupt (the basic argument of the 1776 Commission), and then proposing a bill that politically corrupts the teaching of history and social studies.
Further, this bill is endorsing a report discredited by historians across the U.S. For example, the American Historical Association asserted: “The authors [of the 1776 Commission report] call for a form of government indoctrination of American students, and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.”
That statement has nearly 50 signees, and this sort of critique from historians discredits the value of the report for teaching students in SC.
Additionally, the 1776 Commission report is not suitable for use in education since the report is plagiarized, further eroding its credibility in addition to its partisan use of historical facts.
The irony here is that this bill is politicizing SC social studies and history classrooms in the exact ways that Republicans have falsely criticized the 1619 Project for doing. The difference is that legislation does change how students are taught, but newspapers do not.
“If we really want to ‘save American history,’” NCSS concludes in their rebuking of misguided state legislation similar to the one being proposed in SC, “we should address the marginalization of social studies, and why instructional time for history and social studies learning has declined so rapidly in the 21st century—especially at the elementary level.”
Mandating debunked history is political theater, but it certainly isn’t serving the students of South Carolina.