On a recent afternoon drive through Jefferson, New Hampshire, with the majestic Presidential Range in view, my ever-inquisitive 5-year-old son wanted to know about our nation’s third president.
I paused and recalled what I had learned about Thomas Jefferson as a boy some 30 years ago. I thought of the towering bronze statue of Jefferson, encircled by marble columns beneath a limestone dome, that I would gaze upon in wonder during early trips to Washington, D.C.
I remembered those timeless words he penned in the Declaration of Independence, which I proudly learned in school and hung on my wall: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I thought of Jefferson’s many lasting contributions as president, from doubling the territorial expanse of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase to building up the Library of Congress to abolishing the international slave trade in his final year.
And I recalled my early visit to Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in the late 1980s: how I marveled at the exquisite architecture and furnishings and inventions while learning almost nothing about the human beings he enslaved to establish and sustain not only his estate but also his family. (Years later, as an adult, I learned the truth about Sally Hemings, the enslaved teenaged girl who Jefferson first raped while she accompanied his daughter in France and who became the mother of at least six of his children in a decades-long liaison that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation finally declared “a settled historical fact” in 2018.)
Should I keep things simple and introduce my kids to the storybook Thomas Jefferson I encountered as a boy? Or should I reveal the darker side of one of America’s most admired Founding Fathers and tell them of a rapist and enslaver whose policies as president paved the way for the removal and even annihilation of countless Native Americans? Would they take a greater interest in a pristine statue or a man?
As the sun was setting over Mounts Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, I told the kids that President Jefferson was a brilliant writer and thinker and inventor who did many good things and also did evil by enslaving human beings with darker skin. We talked again about how there is both good and bad in everyone, as well as in our nation, and how our purpose in life is to do good and stop bad whenever and however we can, with God’s help.
In that moment, I made the fateful decision that my children should know Jefferson and the Founding Fathers as more than merely heroes, but as the complex forces they were in the many-sided story of America.
Then we reached our destination and talk of Jeffersonian ethics gave way to dinner! But I should not have been surprised when, a few days later, my son asked me if his mom had been enslaved. And why, for that matter, had people with darker skin who looked like them been mistreated by people who looked like me, as their children’s books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King revealed? As I attempted to assure him that Mama was never in chains and then convey, in simplistic terms, the inter-generational sin of racism not just between individuals but in our systems too, I thought of the dilemma New Hampshire’s teachers now face in the aftermath of the infamous “divisive concepts” law, not to mention a recently introduced “teacher loyalty bill”.
Under the former, teachers and state agencies are barred from teaching that racism and sexism (whether conscious or unconscious) exist between groups in our society, contrary to the longstanding and well-documented truth about individual and institutional bias. Although Gov. Chris Sununu pledged to veto the measure, his eventual support of the amended language in this year’s budget was in keeping with his public denunciation of the term “systemic racism,” which Republicans claim (against the evidence) does not exist in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, the new “teacher loyalty bill” would up the ante by making it illegal for teachers to impart “any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America in New Hampshire public schools,” according to the official text – a demonstration of fear over facts.
As it stands today, if someone believes a New Hampshire teacher has taught that groups exhibit inherent, unconscious racism or sexism in our society, they can sue the school district for damages. What’s more, the State Board of Education can terminate any teacher it deems in violation of the ban and can even strip them of their teaching license (and livelihood). As one New Hampshire social studies teacher told ABC News, “It’s a form of psychological warfare against educators.” No wonder it is now being challenged in court.
As if that weren’t enough, a national right-wing group with deep ties to the Florida Republican Party recently announced it would pay a $500 “bounty” to the first New Hampshire family that “catches” a public school teacher violating the “divisive concepts” law. The organization, Moms for Liberty, purports to speak for parents like me who seek to “stoke the fires of liberty” in our kids. Sadly, theirs is a freedom from facts that stands in opposition to “all men are created equal” and renders our children ill-equipped to engage uncomfortable truths and grow into free-thinking adults. Neither their bounties nor the abhorrent laws that inspire them have any place in New Hampshire. They should be roundly rejected by Republicans and Democrats alike.
It’s time that liberty-loving moms and dads stood up to the denial and intimidation of a fearful few and embraced the noble, never-ending work of shining light in the dark places to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all.
This article was published in New Hampshire Bulletin on December 17, 2021 and other papers.