David Barton on the Texas Social Studies Standards: Part Five

We continue with our discussion of David Barton’s review of the Texas Social Studies standards. You can get up to speed by scrolling down on this blog and viewing the previous posts.

In the next session of his report, Barton focuses on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Here are his suggestions for change:

1. Students should examine the grievances listed in the Declaration. This examination should go well beyond a discussion of “no taxation without representation” to include all 27 grievances listed in the document. This is a great idea. Students need to know a lot more about the Declaration than what they get from movies like National Treasure. Give them a copy of the Declaration and let them go at it.

2. Students should discuss the sacrifices made by the Founders. What did it mean for the signers of the Declaration to pledge their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to this cause. Barton believes that this is important because it will “inculcate the elements of patriotism and citizenship required by law.” Again, as I have noted in my previous posts, this is another example of Barton’s view that history must always serve patriotism. Nevertheless, any additional information students might learn about the framers and signers seems to be a good thing.

3. Students should pay particular attention to the first 126 words of the Declaration of Independence. By doing so, they will learn that “there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature,” “there is a Creator,” “The Creator gives to man certain unalienable rights,” Government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual,” and “Below God-given rights and moral law, government is directed by the consent of the governed.”

On the one hand, Barton’s over-emphasis on the role of God in the Declaration of Independence could lead to a false understanding of what the document meant in its eighteenth-century context. Barton would like to take a document that was meant to announce American independence to the world and teach it as if it were a theological document. Jefferson and the committee who wrote the Declaration never understood this document to set forth theological or religious principles. Barton needs to take a look at Pauline Maier’s American Scripture or David Armitage’s The Declaration of Independence: A Global History .

On the other hand, Barton is right when he suggests that the Founders believed that unalienable rights came from God. Even deists such as Franklin and Jefferson could agree with this. In fact, scholars such as John Witte Jr., Brian Tierney, and Nicholas Wolterstorff have argued that the Western idea of natural rights is rooted more in Christianity than it is the Enlightenment.

4. Students should learn that the Declaration of Independence “is symbiotic with the Constitution rather than a separate unrelated document.” This idea is open to interpretation. Akhil Amar has made a similar argument in The Constitution: A Biography, but there are also scholars–such as Woody Holton and Gordon Wood–who have suggested that the Constitution was a way to limit popular democracy in states where the inhabitants seemed to take the democratic ideals of the Declaration of Independence seriously. It seems to me that students should, through the use of primary documents, explore both sides of this debate.

5. Students should understand the concept of “American Exceptionalism.” According to Barton,
“students must learn that they have a responsibility to defend and protect the fundamental ideas behind American Exceptionalism if they wish to continue enjoying the prosperity, stability, and freedoms to which we have become accustomed.” I am not opposed to students learning that the American experiment has been unique and somewhat exceptional in world history. In fact, students should learn this. But any understanding of American exceptionalism must also: a). include the ways in which America has not measured up to its highest standards and b). avoid the theological pitfall of concluding that somehow America is “exceptional” because it has a special destiny from God as the new Israel.

Stay tuned…