Kevin Levin, at his blog Civil War Memory, recently posted an image and an excerpt from an old Virginia history textbook. He was disgusted (and rightly so) by the book’s outlandish description of slavery, which emphasized feelings of “strong affection” between masters and their “cheerful” slaves.
I was thinking of this while proofreading our entry on the writer Mary Tucker Magill (1830–1899). Magill was a novelist and Lost Cause enthusiast who also authored a set of Virginia history textbooks. Here’s the relevant paragraph from our entry:
“Her textbook, The History of Virginia for the Use of Schools (1873), written for students in the fourth and fifth grades, portrays Virginia’s founding fathers as wise aristocrats. Because the Virginia State Board of Education required its use in teaching Virginia history for more than forty years, Magill’s textbook shaped the historical perspective of several generations of Virginians. Magill also wrote a history of the state for younger children, published under two different titles: Stories from Virginia History, for the Young (1897) and Magill’s First Book in Virginia History (published posthumously, in 1908).”
Intrigued, I purchased a couple of Magill’s books. I can now verify that, yes, The History of Virginia for the Use of Schools does, in fact, portray Virginia’s founding fathers as wise aristocrats. But there’s more to the story than that. Following Kevin’s lead, I looked for what Magill had to say about slavery. You might ask whether this is entirely fair. After all, hundred-year-old textbooks are unlikely to reflect modern attitudes about issues as thorny as race. And perhaps it’s a bit unseemly to make a big to-do about pointing this out. What’s interesting, though, is the way in which Magill’s texts, for forty years, “shaped the historical perspective” of Virginians through subtle and not-so-subtle interpretations of historical events, through masterful uses of factual ellipses, and, in a few places, through outright distortion and mistruth.
I’m sure there will be more to say about this over time, but for now, here is Magill on slavery: “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.” In Magill’s First Book in Virginia History, she is even more to the point:
“Many years before the Revolution, slaves had been brought to America, and the English Government made so much money by capturing Africans and selling them in America, that they insisted that it was right. Virginia never liked it, and remonstrated with England; bit it did no good, and all the colonies had slaves. In their own country they were can-ni-bals, or man-eaters, and very degraded in every way. They were much better off in this country, where they were taught to know about God and about other things which were good for them.”
I myself have written social studies, American history, and world history textbooks, so I understand the difficulty of conveying complexity of any kind to young students. But cannibals? Really?