Why It's Time for a Patriot's History of the United States
For a half a century, the interpretation of America's story has drifted steadily leftward, sometimes almost imperceptibly and sometimes rather obviously. Whether through deliberate revision designed to question America's unique place in the world---often out of guilt---or whether through the steady assault of race, class, "gender," and other "oppressed/oppressor" scholarship, the overwhelming majority of U.S. history textbooks today have a distinct leftward slant. This became apparent to me more than a decade ago as I struggled to find a textbook that would emphasize the Founders and their visionary documents, analyze the New Deal critically (pointing out its myriad long-term harms), and deal with religion fairly rather than as a pathology.
When I could not find such a text, I joined with Michael Allen to write A Patriot's History of the United States (Penguin/Sentinel), which is the first comprehensive "conservative" history survey written by Americans. The big themes are not difficult to find. We portray the European founding of the New World as beneficial; the Founders as virtuous and wise; the Jacksonians as the forerunners of the modern "big government" Democrats; Lincoln as heroic; the notion of the "robber barons" as a myth; the New Deal as a disaster; American foreign policy in the twentieth century as stemming from genuine national security concerns and humanitarian goals; and Ronald Reagan as one of the century's greatest leaders. That is not to say we don't have criticisms of American leaders or policies, but unlike the majority of texts, we refuse to wallow in them. In the course of developing a fair assessment of our past, for example, it is essential not only to note that some of the Founders were slaveholders (and that many were not) but that a great many of them attempted to inject language in the founding documents that would place slavery on the road to extinction. Perhaps some were overly optimistic, but that is a far cry from the charges of "racism" often levied against them. It is likewise essential to point out that where the white hunters nearly exterminated the buffalo, they nearly succeeded only because they had better technology than the Indians, whose own hunter patterns were destroying the herds (if only more slowly). But then one must note that it was white frontiersmen and entrepreneurs who preserved the species, and, indeed, provided entire start-up herds to Yellowstone and other government parks. It is necessary to challenge the claims that the New Deal "rescued" American capitalism, and certainly it is critical to detail the disastrous long-term results of FDR's Depression-era policies. From the minimum wage to Social Security to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, one could hardly imagine a set of programs more effective at creating a massive entitlement-oriented population and a subset of fatherless families.
Where Patriot's History differs from almost all other so-called "texts" out there, however, is that American mistakes are presented as exceptions, instead of as results of deep-rooted corruption intrinsic to a free-market, democratic system. Readers searching for contrasts between our book and virtually all of the other twenty or so "texts" that we analyzed during the writing of Patriot's History can flip go to almost any page but among the "hot button" topics that stand out are:
- The "Columbian Exchange." We review extensive recent scholarship
that disputes the numbers of "Native Americans" here when Europeans
arrived, and note that considerable new research in the hard sciences and
medicine shows that some diseases thought to be "transmitted" from
Europe likely were already here. Moreover, we dispute throughout the book
the "Noble Savage" interpretation of most texts, wherein Indians
are portrayed as dedicated environmentalists who lived in peace with nature
and each other prior to whites arriving.
- The "Age of Jackson." Recently, not only have old-school leftists
cast Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and the Democrats as champions of "small-government,"
but so have modern Libertarians. The Whigs, on the other hand, were the evil
"big-government" party of business. Or so one would be led to think.
Typical textbook treatments of the era include comments such as these, by
David Kennedy's The American Pageant, was the characterization of Henry
Clay as a "big-money Kentuckian," while Jackson was the "idol
of the masses." (Davy Crockett, who hated Jackson, and Abe Lincoln, who
supported Clay, must not have qualified for membership in the "masses.")
John Murrin's textbook claims Jackson represented "a society of virtuous,
industrious producers," as opposed to "parasites who grew rich by
manipulating credit, prices, paper money and government-bestowed privileges."
Apparently Jackson's stuffing federal money into the "pet" banks
run by his cronies constituted "virtuous, industrious production."
The truth is, government employment and spending grew steadily during the
Age of Jackson, even when adjusted for population. If anyone was the enemy
of "small businesses," it was Jackson with his policies.
- The "Robber Barons." The bias of the majority of textbooks really
emerges in sections that deal with titans of industry like John D. Rockefeller,
Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan. The philanthropy of men like Carnegie,
if mentioned, is cast as "blood money" spread around to appease
their consciences. We, however, emphasize the fact that these industrial giants
created jobs at astounding rates, developed new products that improved peoples'
lives, and presided over a period of steadily rising wages and falling prices
for consumer goods. Travel became affordable because Cornelius Vanderbilt
challenged one government-subsidized monopoly after another. Kerosene became
dirt cheap, so much so that the brutal whaling industry ended in favor of
Rockefeller's cheaper kerosene-based indoor illumination. Countless other
entrepreneurs patented new products and created new processes that made the
United States the envy of the world. Lenin himself marveled at the appliances
in the kitchen of his New York flat.
- The "Roaring Twenties." Perhaps because historians dislike the
bottom-line nature of the market so much, they so consistently get economic
episodes in American history so wrong. (It took an economist, Peter Temin,
to correct a century of error about the Panic of 1837.) In the case of the
Roaring '20s and the Great Depression, these weaknesses have left the texts
trying to tell a moral story about the "excesses" of "speculation"
in the 1920s and how that resulted in the Great Crash . . . except it ain't
true. Again, many texts cite no recent economic studies (there are plenty)
that on a micro level repudiate the notion of a "speculative bubble."
Like the Panic of 1837, the theory of "speculation" causing the
crash all seems to conform conveniently into a broad story, but as Temin showed
with the nineteenth century events, the pieces don't fit when they are scrutinized.
The single biggest factor in stimulating the Great Depression appears to be
the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, with recent economic scholarship showing clear correlations
between the advances of the bill through Congress and the (negative) reaction
of markets and industry as it neared passage. Likewise, the deleterious role
of the Federal Reserve Board turned a fairly typical recession into a calamity.
In both cases, government--not business--was the main culprit. Thus it should
not be surprising that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal could hardly solve the
problems of government with bigger government. The New Deal not only ensured
that recovery from the economic collapse would be almost impossible--due
to the restrictions on industry, the minimum wage law, government's cozy relationship
with labor through the Wagner Act, and the heavy tax burden, to mention but
a few--but that in the longer run, most of these programs would wreak havoc
with the economy and America's social fabric.
- World War II. One is struck by not only the amazing productivity of America's
(now-unleashed) capitalists during the war, but by the astounding reaction
of the Hollywood stars of the day. Patriot's History points out that
virtually every leading man and many leading women went to war, most of them
as volunteers. Many not only saw combat, but were genuine heroes: Lee Marvin
assaulted beaches in the Pacific and in one engagement was one of only five
men out of more than 200 to survive; Walter Matthau won six silver stars;
Telly Savalas, later to gain fame as television's "Kojak," was critically
wounded and told he would never walk again; and a female star like Carole
Lombard died while on a tour selling war bonds. One looks at today's Hollywood
or music industry and is hard-pressed to name a single actor, actress, or
celebrity who has made a similar commitment in time of war.
- "Happy Days." Most texts have ridiculed the 1950s as an age of
cookie-cutter blandness, of unimaginative people stuck in robotic routines.
But we view the 1950s as a decade of tremendous upheaval--in many ways more
so than the 1960s. Racial issues started to unravel American society, while
the threat of atomic annihilation loomed. Transportation advances meant that
people could--and did--travel and move with unprecedented frequency and
ease. These and other factors led Americans to crave stability and reliability
in other areas of their lives. They found comfortable reassurance in housing
(Levittown), fast food chains (McDonalds), motels (Holiday Inns), and even
in the explosion of AM radio, where the famous "play lists" ensured
that a person in Colorado listened pretty much to the same songs as someone
in New Jersey. Fittingly, America's premier artist (whom texts constantly
ignore and elite critics deride), was Norman Rockwell, the essential illustrator
of American values.
- The "Gipper." Nowhere is textbook bias more apparent than in the treatment of Reagan. Authors apparently could contain themselves no longer when dealing with the Gipper, bashing him at every opportunity, often with snide comments. Reagan "was no intellectual," the American Pageant informed its readers, while Daniel Goldfield's American Journey agreed: "critics questioned [Reagan's] grasp of complex issues." Reagan's decisive victory over Jimmy Carter was explained away by citing low voter turnout or weaknesses in his 1984 opponent, Walter Mondale, rather than as a rejection of liberalism. Photo captions of the Reagans at a formal ball remind readers of his wealthy supporters (but Bill Clinton's wealthy supporters are never mentioned). And, once again, the textbook writers seem unable to grasp the basics of Supply Side economics. Indeed, in one of the most notable instances of bias, the American Pageant went out of its way to present what can only be seen as a deliberate distortion of federal debt and deficit levels in the 1980s so as to ignore the phenomenal positive results of Reagan's tax cuts. (The charts, which were still in use in the last edition we consulted, fail to adjust dollar amounts in "real" terms, and do so, not once, but twice.) A lock-step attack on Reagan's "Star Wars" program infects all books, and these in particular were so obvious that we outlined them in a note (p. 891). Nowhere in any major text was Reagan given credit for defeating communism. Indeed, in the texts, the only person given credit for ending communism was the "great" Russian "leader," Michael Gorbachev.
One could find in Patriot's History an interpretation of almost any event in American history that is in juxtaposition to those of other texts. In terms of emphasis, we stuck to politics, economics, and religion, and where social history was included, it had to be justified on the grounds that it was more important than the developments in those three areas. We certainly did not assume that every malcontent social critic "had a point." Nevertheless, as we note in the introduction, we utterly reject "My country right or wrong;" but we likewise reject the destructive approach that we found in the majority of texts, "My country, always wrong." Only by assuming from the outset that America is evil and oppressive can one come to any conclusion than the story of America's past is one of hope, optimism, faith, and, yes, greatness.
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James Stripes - 1/24/2008
I looked at "A Patriot's History" in the bookstore several times, and more or less dismissed it. Then, I read the footnote on depopulation that Schweikart highlights in this HNN promotional article. It seemed to me that the footnote had several strange omissions and offered inconsistent claims. Rather than continuing to dismiss this hefty text as propaganda, I bought it and resolved to read it clear through. I've taken on a daunting task, as I'm reading the text and many of the texts it cites, too. I'm also rereading Zinn.
If this book's errors are as flagrant as several scholars have alleged here, on the one hand, but on the other it is enthusiastically embraced by James Albert Soderberg and others, then clear analysis of what it (and Zinn) get wrong, as well as what they get right merits attention. I have devoted a chunk of my time to this task. I blog this reading process at "Patriots and Peoples."
Part of the way through reading every text they cite on depopulation, and many that they don't, I'm leaning towards the conclusion that their "review [of] extensive recent scholarship that disputes the numbers of 'Native Americans' here when Europeans arrived" is either incompetent or dishonest.
In reference to an article by John D. Daniels, which Schweikart and Allen call "the best single review of all the literature on Indian population numbers" (9), I wrote:
"Schweikart and Allen both assert and conclude a depopulation ratio (DR) near 1:2. They state that 56 million deaths, as some have alleged, requires an aboriginal population of 100 million (56% depopulation). Then by rounding Ubelaker’s 1,894,350 down to 1.8 million, they state 800,000 died (50% depopulation). I’ve already noted in “Depopulation: Ubelaker’s Low Estimate” that Ubelaker’s own figures include nearly 1.4 million dead (72% depopulation). It would seem that Schweikart and Allen have reversed Dobyns’s most controversial process, applying a ratio of 1:2 to the lowest available estimate after rounding it down. Such numbers are dishonest."
I may yet learn that I've missed something important, however. The jury is still out.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
"Intentionally playing the ideologue is not useful."
I'd nominate that for the masthead of HNN. Then perhaps the roughly two-thirds of articles here that violate that precept could be deleted and the donations to Seattle put to good use instead.
Also un-useful is knocking over so many straw men that basic facts get lost. "Supply side economics" did not reduce the deficit. It is and was a far-fetched theory, not supported by mainstream "neo-classical" (pro-capitalist) economics. The boom of the '90s was in no small measure due to Papa Bush and Clinton reversing Reagan's policy of supplanting tax-and-spend with borrow-and-waste. Of course, compared to W's incompetence, even the Reagan era looks fiscally responsible.
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
A free-fall abuse of history for any and all political and ideological purposes (including hyping textbooks that go at least somewhat in a similar ahistorical direction) is perhaps a fair description of what HNN is. Its stated objectives are, however, in flat contradiction of this.
Your remark about textbooks allowing "students chances to draw their own conclusions" concerning supply-side economics reminds one of the "debates" on whether evolution and Biblical creation should be given equal space in high school texts, as equally unproven "scientific theories". You would be hard put to find a serious credentialed economist who would claim (as Bush pretends and as some of his diehard loyalists here -including those with initials BH- apparently believe) that huge deficits can be run indefinitely without negative consequences for America's economy. If there is a genuine academic or professional debate, it is, for example, over how long the general federal budget deficits are likely to persist in the context of Bush's other economic policies (such as his deceptive -in my and Paul Krugman’s opinion- proposal which would make future Social Security deficits worse -in the opinion of MOST economists), not over whether long term and open-ended continuation of hisorically large federal deficits hurts American prosperity.
I am not saying that I never engage in political slanting here on HNN. But, if Bush stood up and said 2+2=5, week after week, year after year, it would not be an "ideologically driven" to say that he is either a liar or a fool.
When HNN claims, as it has for years, that its “raison d’etre” is to
“expose politicians who misrepresent history. To point out bogus analogies. To deflate beguiling myths. To remind Americans of the irony of history. To put events in context. To remind us all of the complexity of history...”
it is not "ideological" of me, to point out that it has run hundreds of articles, and allowed thousands of comments, which are clearly designed to utterly disregard (if not directly undermine) these objectives.
Levi Wilson - 4/30/2007
The ACLU did not invent "separation of church and state." These words were uttered first by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Danbury Baptists assuring them that our Bill of Rights ensures a "Wall of Separation between Church and State." What better man to turn to for clarity about one of our fundamental "natural rights" than one of the men who helped pen and explain those rights.
It is an inconvenient truth to those who now try to convince us that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation.
Levi Wilson - 4/30/2007
I read sections of this book and it reads pretty much as dryly and conventionally as my history lessons in elementary and high school. I'm not sure I understand the problem with learning about how the Native Americans were consistently lied to and betrayed by the United States, to address one issue. Dispelling the illusion of the "noble savages," while true and should be mentioned, doesn't excuse any of the actions of the United States. Its merely a distraction from the issue.
Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005
Zinn plugs his book in precisely the same way, even though the ideas it represents are about as "innovative" as the failed ideology that informs them.
Clayton Earl Cramer - 2/16/2005
It turns out that other than the title and the rather strongly worded preface, this book is very close to be a mainstream American history text.
Clayton Earl Cramer - 2/16/2005
I'm about half-way through the book right now, and I don't see any problem with Schweikart and Allen's description of the establishment clause. (There are a number of typos and minor errors scattered throughout, unfortunately.)
The "separation of church and state" idea is not the same as "no establishment of religion." Establishment of religion means that the government gives special favors, benefits, or legal protection to a particular religion or denomination. It does not mean that the government may not promote, encourage, or facilitate religion and religious institutions, as long as no particular entity receives unfair advantage. As I point out at http://www.claytoncramer.com/UnderGod.html, it is very clear that the federal government was pretty consistently supportive of religion in general and Christianity in particular until at least the Civil War, starting with the First Congress, and including the actions of the Jefferson and Madison Administrations.
The ACLU's "separation of church and state" is much more severe. It is what gives us absurdities such as prohibiting a county seal from having a cross in it--even though the cross represents an historic event, the founding of Los Angeles.
William J. Stepp - 2/6/2005
Schweikart and Allen do blame the Fed, as LS does in his summary above. I have never read an economic historian who put the blame for the Great Depression on either "agricultural and primary resource overproduction"
or Europe's productivity and consumption in the 1920s.
They rely heavily on Friedman and Schwartz, who put the blame primarily on the Fed, which is where it belongs.
Btw, LS's says in his overview above that Lenin liked the gadgets he encountered in the U.S. Doesn't he mean Trotsky, who spent some time in New York around 1917?
James Spence - 2/5/2005
I suppose this book was supposed to correct the "biases" of Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States."
One important point about Schweikart’s supposition - that that the founders intended the First Amendment to apply only to "free practice of religion." This is not correct. The First Amendment has a free exercise clause and an amendment clause that bars Congress from establishing a religion in any manner. He’s got to know this. Is he pandering to the conservative readers? The majority of states wouldn’t ratify the amendment without the establishment clause and insisted on it. Schweikart claims there is no "separation of church and state" is accurate but only in semantics; these words never appear in the Constitution. The separation clause is however written in the Constitution and clearly bans government establishment of religion.
James Spence - 2/5/2005
Good history is not supposed to be "patriotic." I tried hard to find a good reason to like this book because I wanted to be fair. I probable will be accused of being a liberal or some other cliche but that's the way it goes and the right ideologues will automatically attack the left ideologues.
Jonathan Dresner - 2/4/2005
And the world history textbooks with which I'm familiar also cite agricultural and primary resource over production and the failure of the European economy to return to productivity and consumption in the 1920s. That's not in Schweikart either, as near as I can tell.
Jonathan Pine - 2/4/2005
Maybe people look for historical perspectives to fit what they already believe in. Instead of reading the US Constitution or The Federalist for themselves, for example, they would rather read someone elses interpretation (of history).
Ralph E. Luker - 2/3/2005
Mr. Soderberg, Please consider the possibility that education necessarily includes reading material with which one does not agree. How are young minds to stretch and grow if they are not exposed to ideas and perspectives that they do not already hold? What do you think the difference is between an education and an indoctrination?
James Albert soderberg - 2/3/2005
Finally! I have seven children we are homeschooling (ages 3-16) and we have wanted a text like A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror. We have been using Bill Bennett's online "K12" curriculem and the history books sent to us by K12 are filled with liberal bias to the point where you cannot read a page without severe editing. You would not expect it to be so considering the source but I do not think there are decent texts to fill the gap. I read Larry Schweikart's interview on FrontPage Magazine and this article in History News Network like an excited kid with a new toy. This is great! Now to find a good deal on purchasing them. ... James Soderberg
Jim & AnnaMarie Soderberg
Johanna, Elizabeth, Helen, Johnny, Jimmy, Peter & Marian
874 Beers Humbird Road, Sagle, ID 83860
Michael Lewis Goldberg - 2/2/2005
I have been studying US History textbooks for several years, and this author is generally off-base about specific claims. I don't have time to challenge them all, so I will settle for one. I can't find a single textbook that claims the sole or main reason for the Great Depression was the speculative bubble. Instead, they portray it as a multi-causal event, including the actions of the Federal Reserve, the underlying structural weakness of the economy, tarriff policy, overextension of credit beyond the stock market, and speculation, among others (it is a reflection of the general problem of textbooks that few note all of these factors--but that is not an ideological problem). It's mostly strawmen out there, rather than accurate representation. Doesn't give me a whole lot of confidence for the authors' skills as scholars. Indeed, some of their claims border on outright intentional misrepresentation. Simply go to the textbooks, reference the indexes, and compare the authors claims to what you find in the textbooks. I'm not saying that there isn't a liberal-left tilt to most of the textbooks, but it tends to come in bits and pieces, and not in the type of schematic claims that the authors make.
Daniel Martin German - 2/2/2005
It is even worse than you think. The individual acts of heroism provided were not as described.
While Walter Matthau served in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, he did not win six silver stars, nor for that matter did he win one. According to the various obituaries of Matthau which are available on the net, Matthau received six "battle" stars, not "silver" stars.
A battle star is a symbol on a medal ribbon indicating that the wearer has served in at least one military campaign, with an additional star awarded for each additional campaign; a silver star is awarded for an act of individual bravery. The battle star can be classified as a medal indicating that one had served, without providing any evidence that the recipient had performed their tasks with any degree of bravery, while an act of bravery or courage is required for receipt of a gallantry decoration such as a silver star.
In the case of Matthau he may very well have served his country with great bravery, as many brave men and women never received a gallantry decoration, but possession of a battle star is by no means proof of bravery.
This information is extremely easy to find, and does not require much in the way of a backgraound in military history. It does, however, require the ability to do some rudimentary research.
I am not saying that the authors of A Patriot's History demonstrate bad research, but it is hardly a credible start when one of their proofs is so easily disproven.
Ronald Dale Karr - 2/2/2005
"World War II. One is struck by not only the amazing productivity of America's (now-unleashed) capitalists during the war, but by the astounding reaction of the Hollywood stars of the day. Patriot's History points out that virtually every leading man and many leading women went to war, most of them as volunteers. Many not only saw combat, but were genuine heroes: Lee Marvin assaulted beaches in the Pacific and in one engagement was one of only five men out of more than 200 to survive; Walter Matthau won six silver stars; Telly Savalas, later to gain fame as television's "Kojak," was critically wounded and told he would never walk again."
Huh?? How's that??
First of all, although there were plenty of stars who did volunteer and served with distinction (i.e., Col. Jimmmy Stewart)--as there were among all ranks of Americans--none of the folks mentioned above were Hollywood stars when they volunteered. Instead, they later launched their Hollywood careers as veterans AFTER the war! (What was extraordinary about that? Some 14 million American men and women were veterans of WWII. It would be impossible to find any American institution in the 1950s that didn't feature lots of veterans. But that's an entirely different point.)
The slipshod anecdotal evidence offered in support this uncontroversial observation doesn't inspire confidence in the quality of the rest of the work.
Derek Charles Catsam - 2/1/2005
But surely you differentiate between textbooks and think pieces on politics. I have no idea why a piece on HNN ought not to have idelogical leanings, ardent opinions, and the like. i can see why a textbook is a different story. Keep in mind the urpose of each. i would never write a journal article or book with the same fervor or slant of an op-ed. It is a huge problem when a textbook is in fact a 500 page op-ed.
Your last paragraph is as ideologically driven as anything you decry on the artticles pages, and that is fine, because that is what the articles and comment boards and blogs are for. That is not, however, what a textbook would be for. A textbook, even if its author had a decided slant, ought to be asking questons about supply side economics that give students chances to draw their own conclusions. An author who cannot do that should not be writing textbooks. Fortunately, most of us are not asked to write serious scholarly work related to such relatively contemporary concerns.
Derek Charles Catsam - 1/31/2005
I'd stick with Paul Johnson's comprehensive history to what is being presented here as the counterpoise to Zinn. Then I'd tell my students to read neither of them. Intentionally playing the ideologue is not useful.
Sandor A. Lopescu - 1/31/2005
Zinn plugs his book in precisely the same way, even though the ideas it represents are about as "innovative" as the failed ideology that informs them.
Oscar Chamberlain - 1/31/2005
How does one respond to a PR piece for a new text--which is all this is--that uses a paragraph on text's coverage of World War II to critize current Hollywood stars for not having had a world war to prove their heroism in?
If that is representative of the text's attention to social history, we can be happy that Schweikart and his partner did not emphasize it.