Writing about the newly established American Constitution in a letter to a friend, Benjamin Franklin quipped, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would add another certainty to Franklin’s assertation: Donald Conkey’s poor understanding of early American history.
In his most recent opinion piece, Conkey attempts to draw parallels between the grievances Thomas Jefferson outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the imagined “abuses progressives have already implemented on America.” Conkey claims that the 27 objections Jefferson listed against King George III of England in 1776 “are similar to what the Biden administration is attempting to foster off on the American people today.”
Constrained to 400 words, I am unable to correct all the problems in the piece. I would, however, like to highlight one important interpretive error and draw attention to a real connection between Jefferson’s grievances and the present that Conkey seems content to entirely overlook.
Conkey promotes what we professional historians call a “whiggish” interpretation of history. Playing fast and loose with details, these narratives favor invented lessons and neatly contrived morals instead of facts. Conkey’s piece tries to suggest that like much like their colonial ancestors, modern Americans are ruled by tyrant who cares little about individual freedoms. The solution, at least for Conkey, is simple: fight back. “Those that are beginning to fight back are much like those in 1776 who pledged all they had, including their lives,” Conkey explains, “to sign [the Declaration of Independence] and to implement it in 1789 with the implementation of the Constitution.”
The problem with this comparison is that it overlooks important historical complexities. While Conkey wants you to believe that Jefferson’s grievances Declaration of Independence laid the groundwork for the Constitution, and thus helped create this country’s government, this is simply not true. In fact, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was in Paris when Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and strongly objected to many aspects of the new Constitution. These complexities matter. The Declaration of Independence is an important document, but it had little bearing on the creation of the American government and even less on the way it functions today.
If there is a connection between the Jefferson’s declaration and the present, it can be found in the last abuse he listed. Jefferson charged that George III had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” It does not take much imagination to see real a connection between Jefferson’s grievance from 1776 and the Trump-inspired storming of the Capitol on January 6. If there was a tyrant, it was certainly Trump.