Political Correctness, Historical Accuracy, and Presidential Reputations

Over the last several days presidents have been in the news, one way or another. In this case the lucky winners are Thomas Jefferson and Warren G. Harding, two men whose personal lives have been the subject of sustained scrutiny.

First, out of nowhere, came this op-ed about Jefferson. Doubtless it was spurred by news that across the country, state Democratic parties are renaming their traditional “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinners, a sure sign that we are to embark on another discussion of political correctness (and, for all I know, “activist historians,” a term coined by a few unhappy right-of-center bloggers who seem blind to their own political activism and prejudices and how that shapes what they have to say). Professor Robert Turner, who teaches at the law school at the University of Virginia (on national security policy), is unhappy with this turn of events, and so he wants to remind us of Jefferson’s antislavery credentials, including his efforts to bar slavery from the western territories in 1784. Turner reminds us that Jefferson “denounced slavery as ‘an abominable crime,’ and struggled for decades to eliminate it.”

To simplify Jefferson’s views on slavery (let alone race) in such a fashion does violence to the historical record, but Professor Turner wants to feel comfortable about Jefferson. I understand the sentiment. During my four years as a UVA undergraduate, people always struggled to find a version of Jefferson to support whatever they believed (“what would Mr. Jefferson do?” was a common refrain in various discussions). People often discussed Jefferson, slavery, and race, just as much as they examined the intersection of the private and public man, most notably in discussing rumors that Jefferson had bedded slave (and half-sister-in-law) Sally Hemings in a relationship that produced several offspring. Professor Turner’s determined to share his feelings about that as well. Simply put, he tells us it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, we learn that Washington never said anything about abolishing slavery during his lifetime, and that Lincoln remained silent on the subject until 1854, a finding that will astonish people who are familiar with his earlier career, including his time in Congress and in his 1852 eulogy of Henry Clay.

One could argue that “political correctness” swings both ways here. Conservatives, after all, embrace their own form of “politically correct” history even as they denounce others for the same shortcoming. In their time, both Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind were “politically correct” versions of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Students of Jefferson’s life and beliefs know that the story of Jefferson, slavery, and race is a tad more complicated than that offered by Professor Turner. To point this out outrages some people (including one blogger, who went haywire on Twitter when I suggested the article was flawed and declared that to point out such issue “was typical of you Brooks Simpson,” as if it was a bad thing). Talk about an activist historian abandoning scholarly dispassion and objectivity to advance a personal agenda!

Professor Turner also terms Jefferson a “reluctant racist.” Well, that’s reassuring. I’ll remember that when reading “Notes on the State of Virginia” or John C. Miller’s The Wolf by the Ears:Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (1977), an oldie but goodie from my days in Charlottesville (yes, I know there’s been more scholarship since … showoffs).

Compare this to the news today that DNA testing (an issue about which Jeffersonian scholars are a bit too familiar) apparently confirms what Nan Britton knew all along: that she had a six-year tryst with Senator and President Warren G. Harding that resulted in Britton giving birth to a daughter with Harding as the father. I can tell you that while far fewer people are invested in Harding’s legacy than they are in Jefferson’s, the private life of the 29th president has been the stuff of scandal, including a fine study by James Robenalt that highlights another Harding affair with national security implications. Although some people in the Harding family are still unhappy about this finding, others have accepted it, as does Robenalt, whose book expressed skepticism about it. Someone else may be unhappy at the reminder that Harding and Britton were intimate in a small room (in this case a closet) off the Oval Office, which seems to be a favorite place for such things to occur (note: the Oval Office now is not in the same location that it was during Harding’s presidency).

One doubts that this finding will have a major impact on Harding scholarship, in part because far fewer people are as invested in Harding as some are in Jefferson. This was not always the case, by the way: as a kid I took up my father’s interest in stamp collecting, and I was astonished at the number of stamps issued in the wake of Harding’s death that suggested that somebody liked him).

So what are we to make of all this?

First, some of the very people who decry “political correctness” or denounce “activist history” are blinded by their own advocacy of an interpretation of history that justifies their own sentiments and needs. That this is as much emotional as intellectual in origin is evident when one witnesses the desire of such folks to construct a strawman, an “other,” complete with vague allusions about what such people “must” believe … all of which tells me more about the architects of such delusions than it does about the ostensible target of their scorn.

Second, we still must ponder the crossroads of public and private lives in prominent people, including presidents. We often find that these junctions are messy indeed, filled with contradiction, conflict, and cognitive dissonance. Things are rarely as easy as we would like them to be.

Third, the concept of historical accuracy does not exist to make you feel comfortable. It is a principle that should guide real scholars in trying to find out what happened and why. In fact, it should be “typical” practice for historians. For someone to get upset about that tells us about them … maybe too much, in fact.

36 thoughts on “Political Correctness, Historical Accuracy, and Presidential Reputations

  1. robert basin August 13, 2015 / 11:08 am

    Interesting take. Is it political correctness to adjust history based on new data?

  2. John Foskett August 13, 2015 / 1:56 pm

    A very, very insightful post. One variation of this stuff which we see all the time is the “time travel” to which people subject these historical figures and then pose them as mannikins modeling modern political viewpoints. So we get FDR, the lion of the left – who in fact may have blundered his way into a second mini-Depression, made peace with blatant racists to get his programs enacted in Congress, to the disadvantage of Black Americans, and helped.Earl Warren intern thousands of loyal Japanese Americans. Or Lincoln the Republican – who introduced the first income tax and the first massive Government spending in U.S. history, and violated civil rights all over the place. Or JFK, another darling of today’s Democrats – a Cold Warrior at least as tough as Nixon on that issue and a very reluctant traveler on the Civil Rights crusade. And on it goes. None of this, by the way, is intended to diminish the accomplishments of those men. It’s simply to illustrate the faux history with which are presented all too often by trying to move these figures out of their times and contexts. Thanks, by the way, to alerting us to the Harding book. I hadn’t seen it before.

  3. bob carey August 13, 2015 / 3:33 pm

    Excellent thought provoking piece.
    People in general have a tendency to believe in history which fits their own value system. They tend to exalt their heroes and vilify the people who opposed their heroes. In the extreme sense this tendency leads to complete denial of historical facts, ie: the Va. Flaggers and their ilk.

  4. The Other Mark August 13, 2015 / 4:14 pm

    I agree with your assessment regarding the shortcomings of Prof Turner’s piece in terms of understating the complexity of Jefferson’s thoughts and actions regarding slavery.

    However, your characterization as it coming “out of nowhere” but “doubtless spurred” by the recent spate of Democratic Party distress over Jefferson -Jackson Day Dinners implies what sparked the piece is a bit of a mystery. But Turner makes it clear at both the beginning and end of the piece that it was spurred by the actions of Connecticut’s Democratic Party. Combined with your references to disparaging references to those who use the terms “activist historians” and “activist history” at the beginning and end of your piece it can lead a reader who does not go to the linked article to think Prof Turner is using those terms, which he does not. His piece is simply a response to the Connecticut action rather than an attack on other historians.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 13, 2015 / 7:25 pm

      I think his discussion of the Hemings matter comes out of nowhere. So does an article in a Richmond paper about Connecticut, which is not alone. I think the rest of it is partisan taunting and poor history.

      Readers of the blog who read other blogs (including other bloggers who claim not to read this blog but who comment on its contents all the time) understand the reference. I’ve written about people who talk about “activist historians” before, and I suggest you search the term to discover those discussions. I note that I was talking about another blogger. I never said that Professor Turner used that term. I’m sure he’s too smart to do so.

      If Professor Turner wants to address Connecticut Democrats, perhaps posting his op-ed in a Richmond paper is not the best way to communicate his displeasure. However, he’s opened the door to people in Connecticut telling Virginians what to do.

      Normally, I wouldn’t think this is such a big issue, because, frankly, it’s not. Who really cares what Connecticut Democrats do? It’s their party. But poor and slanted history is poor and slanted history.

      Anyone who wanted to quote Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration could have gone to this source rather than get entangled with something else in what remains an incomplete tweet lacking useful clarification or elaboration. Moreover, anyone who wants to discuss what Jefferson said in his draft of legislation in 1784 should have gone directly to that text. Look at it here.. I note no one’s cited this interesting clause: “That they [the territories/states] shall for ever remain a part of the United States of America.”

      • The Other Mark August 14, 2015 / 8:12 am

        “he’s opened the door to people in Connecticut telling Virginians what to do” ??

        I live in Connecticut and can assure you people here already think they should be able to tell Virginians what to do.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 14, 2015 / 12:16 pm

          But now he accepts that idea. This wasn’t always the case. 🙂 Turnabout’s fair play.

  5. Chunk August 13, 2015 / 6:41 pm

    “One could argue that ‘political correctness’ swings both ways here. Conservatives, after all, embrace their own form of ‘politically correct’ history even as they denounce others for the same shortcoming. In their time, both Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind were ‘politically correct’ versions of the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

    I think your use of “political correctness” is a little loose here, because the doctrine didn’t exist and therefore could not have applied at the time of Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Further, “political correctness” is the chief tenet of leftist ideology. Political correctness — ideological purity — trumps everything, which is why it makes perfect sense for the Dems to purge the name of Jefferson from their banquets. Jefferson must go. Washington’s next. And when they discover that Lincoln was a racist like every other white person in the nineteenth-century Union, lefties will send him the way of Jefferson — straight into Orwell’s memory hole.

    But your conclusion is still true — especially the third point — and the University of Virginia should can Turner for malfeasance (or incompetence).

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 13, 2015 / 7:21 pm

      The term “evolution” did not exist when evolution started. Yet we use it all the time.

      I would not advise terminating Professor Turner. That is what academic freedom is all about.

      I don’t think historical accuracy is a partisan position. I understand that some people do.

      • Chunk August 14, 2015 / 1:17 pm

        “I would not advise terminating Professor Turner. That is what academic freedom is all about.”

        I understand the academy gives broad latitude in these things, but as you note in your post, Turner’s revisions are simply not true. It’s one thing to stretch the truth under the guise of freedom (which I believe is wrong); it’s still another to teach outright falsehoods, which is why I called it malfeasance. It’s a violation of the public trust.

        “I don’t think historical accuracy is a partisan position. I understand that some people do.”

        Exactly, and Turner will produce clones who believe that history must conform to political correctness as opposed to the historical record. Anywhere else we’d call this indoctrination.

        PS: A few weeks ago I asked my wife to tape anything on TV that is Civil War related because of a project I’m on. So last night we’re watching a two-hour History Channel show on American presidents and, blamo, there’s Brooks D. Simpson. Good stuff.

    • msb August 14, 2015 / 1:33 am

      “when they discover that Lincoln was a racist like every other white person in the nineteenth-century Union, lefties will send him the way of Jefferson — straight into Orwell’s memory hole”

      Actually, quite a number of people – lefties and righties – know about Lincoln’s views on race, and he’s a long distance from the memory hole.

      • Chunk August 14, 2015 / 1:19 pm

        @MSB: Political correctness has never been about what you know or when you know it — it’s about what political correctness requires — that is, what ideological purity requires — at any specific point in time.

        For example, the NYT article quotes Obama in 2014 saying, “Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America.” However, the same article quotes Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House, saying, “We not only want to move the country forward, but we recognize that we can’t be anchored by a history that diminished any of our fellow citizens.”

        This means that in less than 2 years Thomas Jefferson went from what’s best in America to an anchor of diminishment, which is quite a fall. And Jefferson fell so far so fast because political correctness required it of ideological purists — at this exact time.

        Today slavery is the litmus test. And once they purge all slaveholders, they will move to racists. I give Lincoln less than 20 years.

    • Sandi Saunders August 14, 2015 / 6:17 am

      Speaking of pure partisan hooey, Political correctness is not “ideological purity” nor does it “trump” anything. That is the right-wing meme but it is not reality or historically accurate.

      Changing the name of an event, taking a flag off government property, changing the name of a street or moving away from divisive icons is not “purging” either. Why you or anyone thinks history is so fragile is the only mystery.

      • Chunk August 14, 2015 / 1:20 pm

        1. Please define “political correctness.”

        2. I did not comment about removing the Confederate battle flag or changing the name of a street or moving away from divisive icons and I never called these things “purging.” But notice your language — you called these things “divisive,” which is just code for saying that they do not conform to politically correct ideology.

        3. Stripping the names of two fathers from an annual fundraiser is the linguistic equivalent of a political purge. And since political correctness (ideological purity) requires conformity of thoughts, words, and deeds, this purge makes perfect sense. It’s one of the few places where Dems demonstrate consistency (not necessarily logical consistency, but consistency nonetheless).

        4. And when you write, “Why you or anyone thinks history is so fragile is the only mystery,” you are projecting your behavior on me. Lefties typically project to compensate for their cognitive dissonance. One minute Jefferson is an American hero, the next minute he’s a walking hate crime from whom ideological purists must flee. Fragile mystery indeed.

        • Msb August 15, 2015 / 12:51 pm

          Political correctness = a new-fangled way to say “courtesy” or “treating other people with respect”. Unless it is itself an ideology, it has nothing to do with ideology.

          • Chunk August 16, 2015 / 1:36 pm

            Hi MSB, thanks for your response.

            “Political correctness = a new-fangled way to say ‘courtesy’ or ‘treating other people with respect.’”

            Let’s test your definition. Brooks writes, “Doubtless it was spurred by news that across the country, state Democratic parties are renaming their traditional “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinners, a sure sign that we are to embark on another discussion of political correctness. . . .”

            But according to your definition, he could have written, “Doubtless it was spurred by news that across the country, state Democratic parties are renaming their traditional “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinners, a sure sign that we are to embark on another discussion of courtesy, or treating other people with respect. . . .”

            Of course, this is absurd because

            1. It makes no sense, and
            2. The remainder of the post makes no sense.

            Unless, that is, you really believe that the Dems changed the name of this annual fundraiser as a matter of courtesy or to treat others with respect. If so, you’d have to explain exactly who the Dems are respecting by this purge as well and why you think it’s an act of courtesy. You’d also have to explain how Robert Turner’s revision is an act of courtesy, etc.

            That said, you’ve furnished a great example of Orwellian linguistics. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Political correctness is courtesy.

            You write, “Unless it is itself an ideology, it has nothing to do with ideology.”

            Whenever a term or phrase has the word “political” in it, you can be sure that its definition has a political element to it. You, however, don’t want an overtly political term to be ideological despite the prima facie evidence in the very term itself. This too is absurd and I’m curious why you want to remove “politics” from the definition of “political correctness.”

  6. gregdehler August 13, 2015 / 7:17 pm

    I think the better course would have been to argue that despite some views that we currently hold abhorrent (slavery, of course), Thomas Jefferson made numerous positive contributions to expand the concept of democracy that the Democratic Party should still celebrate. The definition of “all men are created equal” continues to grow and become more inclusive.

  7. T F Smith August 13, 2015 / 7:32 pm

    Appreciate history, warts and all … The story of our human ancestry, and all those who have trod the dust of our world before us, is incomparable drama, comedy, tragedy, writ large … To deny the realities of the rogues and villains, heroes and heroines, setting aside their failings as human beings, in the cycle of their day and from our perspective today, is to set aside what makes our species’ journey real, and not fantasy.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 13, 2015 / 7:38 pm

      Frankly, given the bad press devoted to Jackson lately in the campaign for a new $20 bill, I can get that. That’s someone’s judgment call. I don’t think Jefferson’s issues (which were well known before this) merit this over-the-top response. But hey, it’s a dinner, and I somehow doubt that Professor Turner had planned to be in attendance. Wonder what he has to say about Lee-Jackson Day in Charlottesville.

      • bob carey August 14, 2015 / 4:34 am

        Is there a move on to change Mount Rushmore? Maybe we can remove Jefferson and add FDR and Ronald Reagan to be politically correct. Jefferson is so complex,we must strive to separate Jefferson the practical politician from Jefferson the moralist. As for Harding his private life gives a whole new meaning to “Normalcy” .

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 14, 2015 / 8:08 am

          To the people who once occupied that land, the whole idea of Mount Rushmore is problematic.

          • bob carey August 14, 2015 / 10:52 am

            I tend to agree with them.

          • John Foskett August 14, 2015 / 2:26 pm

            The good news is that they at least got the NPS to add some substance to the battlefield on the Little Big Horn. And they persuaded we of the climbing culture to agree to voluntarily stay off of Devil’s Tower in June (resulting in a reduction of 80% of usage in that month).

      • TFSmith August 14, 2015 / 7:18 am

        True enough – fair point on Lee-Jackson Day.
        Historical accuracy is not in the eye of the beholder; however, making a reasonable judgment of the historical significance and accomplishments of an individual’s life, and whether said life is worthy of commemoration at whatever remove is being considered, presumably is possible and seems a fairly rational response to said questions. Mene, mene is hardly a new concept in human affairs.


  8. msb August 14, 2015 / 1:36 am

    “the concept of historical accuracy does not exist to make you feel comfortable” – very true; if history isn’t accurate, it’s no use. Indeed history does not exist to make us comfortable. I try to use it to learn with.

  9. Rosieo August 14, 2015 / 5:06 am

    How many decisions are made based on belief in wrong history?
    Do these ever get corrected? Maybe they do. They may get corrected but the initial and probably most subsequent outcomes cannot be repaired – not without the ability (and desire) to time travel. 🙂
    It is sad.

  10. Sandi Saunders August 14, 2015 / 6:24 am

    I like this piece because it speaks to a melding that society engages in that is dangerous and destructive.


    “People retreat into heritage as a way of feeling better about themselves and resent history as a personal threat to those feelings. As Earnest Fryer, a Georgian, put it in response to the flag controversy, slavery was the “one thing that makes all the rest of my heritage look bad.” Heritage allows you to ignore the stuff that looks bad.

    History, on the other hand, doesn’t care about your feelings. It isn’t therapeutic and its job isn’t to make you feel good about yourself, your relatives, or the ethnic tribe with which you identify. History forces you to think, to question the assumptions you hold about the past in order to analyze the present more deeply.”


  11. Joshism August 14, 2015 / 2:58 pm

    “state Democratic parties are renaming their traditional ‘Jefferson-Jackson Day’ dinners”

    I had no idea Jefferson-Jackson Day existed, much less that there was some kind of celebration for it.

    The Democratic Party should move away from Jackson, but not because of political correctness or anything to do with his attitudes toward minorities.. Instead, Jackson’s political values do not reflect the modern Democratic party’s values. If anything, Jackson should be embraced by the Republicans (although maybe his anti-bank stance would be awkward) who value small government and a strong executive.

    To paraphrase what my esteemed Jefferson-Jackson professor was fond of saying: Jefferson came into office with one view about how the federal government should run and left with largely the opposite view because of his experiences as president. Thus Jefferson can be held up by the Democrats as someone who somewhat shifted his views from modern Republicans to modern Democrats. Not to mention that Declaration thing, but I guess we have to throw that out because he was a hypocrite?

    Unfortunately, most modern Americans aren’t savvy enough to understand that what the Democrats and Republicans are now isn’t what they were in 1860. They can’t fathom that Lincoln was a liberal not a conservative or that because southern racists all flocked to the Democrats during segregation that the Democrats aren’t still the party of racism. Nor can they understand Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, or Lincoln in the context of their own times.

  12. Rcocean August 14, 2015 / 4:34 pm

    I had a hard time understanding the comment about the “reluctant racism” and Jefferson. If someone is so appalled at the “racism” of historical figures, I wonder why they read history since pretty much everyone on Planet Earth prior to say 1940 was – according to present day standards – a racist. Certainly, Grant was a racist, who stated he never was a an abolitionist prior to the Civil war – in fact had a Slave holding Father-in-law and had no problem with “Negroes” being treated differently than whites.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 14, 2015 / 9:39 pm

      Of course, the difference is that Grant began to question his notions and pushed for black equality while Jefferson seemed to become even more defensive of the South and slavery later in life.

    • Joshism August 15, 2015 / 12:36 pm

      There is a segment – I’m not sure how large – of Radical Liberals who do believe that pretty much everyone before modern times is a shitty person because they were racist, sexist, imperialist, etc. and history is just one big story of rich white men abusing everyone else. I think some of them like to expose how famous people from the past were, in their opinion, just as much of a terrible person as everyone else at the time.

      I think that viewpoint is awful skewed, but it does exist and it’s got alot of company in the “skewed views on history” department.

      • Brooks D. Simpson August 15, 2015 / 6:27 pm

        And then there is the view of history that everyone from generations ago with whom they agree (or think they do) was perfect, which is ideal for ancestor worship.

        • rcocean August 15, 2015 / 10:28 pm

          Except, I don’t know anyone who thinks their white American ancestors were perfect in either academia or among recently published historians. Maybe you could name a few. I’m always wiling to learn.

          • Brooks D. Simpson August 15, 2015 / 11:33 pm

            I’m sure you are. So keep reading this blog.

            Hint: it’s not historians who have this problem … at least not reputable ones.

    • Msb August 15, 2015 / 12:54 pm

      And, when he was given a slave, promptly freed him.

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