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Reckoning with presidential legacies on Presidents' Day


On this Presidents' Day weekend, we want to talk about how and why we remember those men who sat in this country's highest office or how we revisit our memories, as the case may be. We're in an era of reevaluating presidents, but when we talk about some of their less laudatory attributes - for example, the fact that 10 of the first 12 U.S. presidents owned and enslaved people - the conversation can get heated, like two years ago, when the San Francisco Board of Education decided to take names like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln off of its schools and then reversed itself, or last month, when House Republicans reintroduced the Mount Rushmore Protection Act to try to make sure nobody changes the monument, or the many fights being pushed by conservative activists over how slavery can be taught. So as we get ready to celebrate another holiday that lionizes our commanders in chief, we were wondering if there is a better way to get at the truth of presidents who've been the stuff of myth but who were also human beings and the products of their times.

We thought we'd call Kenneth C. Davis for this because he is a popular history writer, known for his "Don't Know Much" series, where he tries to make history accessible to everybody. His works include the bestseller "Don't Know Much About History" and also "In The Shadow Of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents And Five Black Lives." And he's here with us now. Kenneth C. Davis, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

KENNETH C DAVIS: It is always a pleasure to be with you, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let me just start by asking you how you grew up thinking about these figures. And as you've written more about them, have your own views changed?

DAVIS: Absolutely. And when I was in school as a kid - and I'm talking about the 1960s and even early 1970s - Washington and most of the other presidents, like Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, were still on their pedestals. It wasn't until the 1970s, when a new generation of scholarship started to come along, that we began to talk about the fact that these marbleized statues, as we knew them, the faces on our money, were slaveholders. And that was something that certainly wasn't in my schoolbooks.

And when I set out to write "Don't Know Much About History," which came out more than 30 years ago, I was really profoundly interested in answering this question, how did these men, who defend this idea all men are created equal and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - how did those men say those words and then go home to plantations, businesses, homes completely dependent upon enslaved labor? This is what I call the great American contradiction, that a nation conceived in liberty was also born in shackles. And we cannot escape that fact.

MARTIN: Do you recall - when you first started grappling with these facts, did you find it disturbing? And how did you think about it?

DAVIS: I don't think it was disturbing to me so much as the fact that, you know, growing up when I did, the notion that this story of the Washington who cut down the cherry tree and couldn't tell a lie was a complete fabrication wasn't so much a shock to me. What was more surprising to me as I became more interested in writing about this as a historian was that so many people still did believe it. And it was really woven into this mythic foundation legend of American history. And my interest has always been not to just tear down statues or tear down myths and legends, but to be accurate and be human.

MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, your sort of seminal work, "Don't Know Much About History," is a huge bestseller. It still remains in print. I mean, millions of copies been sold, OK? You've subsequently written other books that have dug more deeply into the lives of the enslaved. I'm thinking as - specifically of "In The Shadow Of Liberty: The Hidden History Of Slavery, Four Presidents And Five Black Lives." I am interested in hearing a little bit about those five lives. So tell me a little bit about that. But I am also curious to know whether those works have been as well received.

DAVIS: Well, I'm happy to say yes, in some respects. "In The Shadow Of Liberty" was written - it came out about six years ago now. It was the result of my concern and questioning about this fundamental contradiction in American history. I had always thought to investigate it in terms of those men themselves - what they said, what they wrote, what they did. And at a different point, largely in my conversations with young people around the country talking about the Civil War and talking about presidents and talking about slavery, I thought, I really need to flip the narrative here and look at this from the perspective of the enslaved themselves.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that some people are so resistant to even acknowledging this aspect of these people's lives? Or is it that you think that they're afraid that there will be no heroes?

DAVIS: I wish it was that simple. I don't think that it is. I think, first of all, we have to say, when people are talking about children feeling ashamed at learning this, we have to be realistic and say, which children would feel such shame? And clearly, their fear is that white children will feel ashamed. It's certainly part of a wishfulness, perhaps, to, you know, have a past that is the way we had the past in the 1950s. And we know that that past is not only inaccurate, but it was racist. And it reflected a white supremacist, nationalistic view that many people contend we cannot teach anymore. But there are those who want to hold fast to a comfortable narrative that is just not true.

MARTIN: But what do you say to people who are concerned, or at least they say that they're concerned, that introducing these stories, particularly at a young age, leads people not to love their country as they should? I guess the argument is that we need national heroes so that we can feel proud of our country and that this diminishes our view of them. What do you say to that?

DAVIS: I say that it's really, really important and valuable to understand those documents that these men wrote because they still really ring true. These notions that Jefferson wrote - that all men are created equal, that we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that governments can only govern with the consent of the governed - these are really fundamentally important ideas that have stood the test of time, in spite of the fact that Jefferson was perhaps the greatest example of this contradiction. And he knew that.

A lot of people will say, well, they were men of their time, and slavery was what they grew up with, and that was their world. That's true. But they also - Washington, certainly, Jefferson and Madison - in particular, those three - they acknowledged that slavery was a contradiction to the ideals that they were fighting for. George Washington writes a letter in 1787 to one of his friends saying, no one wishes more than I for the abolition of it. And he just wants somebody to come up with a plan. Unfortunately, when he's at the peak of his power and popularity, he did really nothing to bring about the end of slavery.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you still admire them, knowing what you know now?

DAVIS: I do. And I guess, you know, with the wisdom of a few years, my admiration is tempered by reality. The truth shall set you free. And understanding what they did and the contradictions that they lived with does not negate the extraordinary accomplishments.

MARTIN: Kenneth C. Davis is an historian. He's the author of many bestselling books. His latest work is titled "Great Short Books: A Year of Reading - Briefly." Kenneth C. Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a great pleasure. And tell everybody out there that history is not boring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.