The Veneration of a Non-Existent History

The Triumphs of the Past Are a Shaky Foundation for Self-Justification.

Ian Olson / 7.27.21

In his popular Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell examines untold stories from history and common misconceptions people hold. He revels in upending conventional wisdom: things we thought were unassailably true that turn out to be mere fables. The tone is curious and scientific, but the underlying thesis is grim. People opt for easy truths over the messy complications. The supposedly solid foundations upon which we build our lives turn out to be fairy tales and taboos. And when it comes to history, Gladwell dives in with all the enthusiasm of an iconoclast. Whether intentionally or accidental, your 10th grade history teacher lied to you. The stories we tell ourselves are more convenient than they are truthful.

Perhaps one of the least convenient truths on offer today concerns the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment banning the institution of slavery. The amendment is an important accomplishment, to be sure, but what it actually is is less important for too many people than the wax nose it provides for molding by the triumphalist of both the political left and right.

The past year has witnessed foment on a scale that hasn’t been seen for decades. And in the wake — or is it the midst? — of this upheaval came the 153rd anniversary of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. That anniversary is lauded as a milestone in our nation’s history, particularly given the furor over systemic racism and police violence. But the festivities are also an occasion to celebrate a non-existent history, one in which things are getting progressively better each year and have been this whole time. For even this amendment is not without its own problems that cannot be glossed over without lying about what has happened and who it has happened to.

Section One of that amendment dropped a bunker buster on the infamous Dred Scott decision that asserted a black man — even one born free — couldn’t claim citizenship rights by defining American citizenship as “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” 

It went on to forbid any state from making or enforcing “any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” and expanding the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to be binding on states as well as the federal government before culminating in the “equal protection clause.” In subsequent sections, federal punishment was threatened against states that violated citizens’ rights to vote and other measures were established to enforce the amendment’s first section. 

Much good was done in the ratification of this amendment and that is worth celebrating. But the tares are always there in the midst of the wheat, because the devil’s always in the details, isn’t he? 

Unfortunately, much of that good was formal in nature and so the force of its language would historically be softened or sidelined as in Plessy v. Ferguson. In that decision the Court ruled that segregated public facilities somehow didn’t violate the equal protection clause, essentially establishing the legal precedent for the Jim Crow laws to come.

But additionally, in the text of the amendment itself, is the exception to citizenship made to Native Americans in Section Two. That’s right: the people born on this soil long before the arrival of any settler were denied the citizenship granted in Section One. How could this egregious discrepancy be allowed?

By deeming Native Americans “wards of the government” — that is, children. Children, of course, are unfit for decision-making or self-regulation and depend on the superintendence of a rational adult. Dwell on that. My people as a whole were scripted and enshrined in law as dependents, incapable of influencing what became of themselves.

At the time, Michigan senator Jacob Howard found native exclusion quite agreeable: “I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me.” (That stings especially hard for me since my tribe is in Michigan.)

Two years later, the Senate Judiciary Committee upheld the exclusion: “The 14th Amendment to the Constitution has no effect whatever upon the status of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States.” The opportunities opened by programmatically excluding Native Americans from the benefits of that amendment were too great to leave unexploited: our status as “wards” justified the theft of tribal land as well as the program of assimilation which amounted to the continuation of war by other means.

Native Americans wouldn’t formally be granted citizenship for another fifty-six years after the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification, but even then, full citizenship and voting rights for all Native Americans by and large didn’t become a reality until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because of legal loopholes and ideological disagreements regarding states’ rights. This required a grueling, state-by-state battle against formidable white power dedicated to limiting native participation in the democratic process. Many of the same strategies states used to get around blacks’ voting rights — poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. — were used to deny Native Americans the rights guaranteed them by the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. This component of United States history is routinely overlooked, an inconvenient reminder of the Land of the Free’s transgressions.

The recent discoveries of nearly a thousand dead Native American children buried on the grounds of boarding schools in Canada are cut from the same cloth, grim testaments to the concealment and burying of the truth for which the descendants of the colonists consistently opt. These children are representatives of thousands of others who were ripped from their homes and families and forced into a re-education system to assimilate to the victors’ mores and norms. Thousands of them disappeared over the years and native suspicions that they died and were hidden away were ignored or mocked. But they can no longer. Alive or dead, the flesh of indigenous Americans testifies to the guilt of a nation and its citizens.

History is routinely called upon as an arbiter in contemporary debates, and this history is so commonly misconstrued. Whether it be a tirade about failed socialist states (while leaving out the CIA’s involvement in destabilizing them), or justifying the use of nuclear warfare (without mentioning what Japan was or was not planning to do in the summer of 1945), some conveniently incomplete version of history is enshrined as the justification of the present and defended to the hilt. Manifest destiny is the flip side of the trail of tears. Something within us looks to the progression of history to find exploit some divine right we possess, a golden thread through time that justifies our in-group and legitimizes our standing or our goals today. History is called to the stand as a witness by defense attorneys who either seek to revise what actually took place or to exonerate a guilty past with the special pleading of a thousand mitigating circumstances. 

The triumphs of the past are a shaky foundation for self-justification. For every victory there is a retreat; under every monument there is an unmarked grave. Rhapsodizing over the arc of American history and its supposed upward trend towards justice silences the millions of natives and their untold genocide. Nationalists may decry revisionism and the erasure of  history, but nothing could be further from the truth. The parochially optimistic would suffocate us natives with the nihility of a non-existent history. The sins of this country and its lasting repercussions have never been sufficiently confronted and therefore can never, at any point, have been repented of. 

The truth which Christians serve intends to strip away the whitewash that euphemizes, equivocates, romanticizes, or otherwise depicts a history devoid of its conscious exploitation and ethnic cleansing. We must not pretend our past — and our present — is better than it actually is.

Those who claim that no one is righteous can cite the entirety of human history as supporting evidence. For history will justify no one — justification must enter into the darkness of our history and be broken upon its gears to subvert its wanton destructiveness. And then it must stop us dead in our tracks, in the midst of our own histories, not so much to turn everything upside down but to expose how everything is already upside down and in desperate need of redemption.