What You Should Know About the Author of the NYT Bestseller, Politically Incorrect Guide to American History


Mr. Muller is George R. Ward Professor, University of North Carolina School of Law.

Regnery Publishing has a bestseller in Thomas E. Woods's Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

Regnery was the publisher of Michelle Malkin's In Defense of Internment, which, you'll recall, was an effort to demonstrate that everything most people know about one tragic episode in American history—the Japanese American internment—is leftist garbage.

Well, Woods's book is like Malkin's, except that its thesis is that everything most people know about all of American history is leftist garbage.

No small task, eh? And Dr. Woods does it in just 246 pages. With wide margins, no less!

I have read the book, which I think Jeffrey A. Tucker summarizes pretty well in his fawning"review" of the book:

[Woods] shows that the Constitution was never understood to be a permanent union, that big government caused the North-South conflict, that Alexander Hamilton's friends were racketeers, that the US didn't have to enter WW I, that Hoover was a big government conservative, that FDR made the Depression worse, that there really were Communists in government, that FDR made WW II inevitable, that the Marshall Plan was a flop, that the Civil Rights movement increased social conflict and made everyone worse off, that unions made workers poorer, that the 80s weren't really the decade of greed, that Clinton's wars were aggressive and avoidable, and that his personal issues were a major distraction from the real problems of the 1990s.
Well, now that I think of it, this summary actually does omit a few things—the kindliness and magnanimity of Puritan settlers toward American Indians, the true conservatism of the American Revolution, the lawfulness of Southern secession, the North's responsibility for the post-Civil-War"black codes" in the South, the illegality of the 14th Amendment, the fact that the provisions of the Bill of Rights don't actually apply to the states, and some other stuff. Lots of other stuff, actually. The book basically stitches together every moment in American history that might conceivably be given a free-market, states'-rights spin and any piece of scholarship that might be used (or misused) to support it, adds to it more than a sprinkling of Democrat-hero-bashing, and seasons the mix with a defense of the white majority against suspicions of racial cruelty or oppression.

The book recently stood at #17 on the New York Times Bestseller List (although a piece in the NY Times the other day reported that it had moved as high as #8). Adulatory appearances on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show, Fox News's Hannity and Colmes, and a variety of talk radio shows have undoubtedly helped the book up the charts. The book is said to be selling like hotcakes on college campuses, where its eye-catching format and its 9th-grade-level prose are undoubtedly appealing.

Reviews are starting to appear. Adam Cohen of the New York Times hated it ("a checklist of arch-conservative talking points" . . ."full of dubious assertions, small and large"); this guy, on the other hand, loved it ("Woods is not wedded to some benighted leftist worldview; he eschews the required subservience to the moribund tenets of socialism.").

But I'd like to take a step back and ask: Where is this all heading? Where, with his states'-rights, absolutist-free-market, isolationist, white-defending retelling of American history is Dr. Woods taking us?

There's no need to guess about it: he is taking us here. To the League of the South, a Southern nationalist organization of which Dr. Woods boasts he is a founding member. (The organization was formed in 1994; Dr. Woods was present at the founding and became a member of the League's Membership Committee, which was headed by the League's President, Michael Hill.) Dr. Woods has been a frequentcontributor to the League's journal, the Southern Patriot, and has spoken at its conventions. (He has also spoken at similar meetings of other organizations, like the Southern Historical Conference and Bonnie Blue Ball, where he shared the lectern with speakers on the"Myths and Realities of American Slavery" and"Why Slaves Fought for Their South.")

What is the"League of the South" that Dr. Woods helped create?

According to its manifesto, it is a group that exists to combat the"[n]ational uniformity [that] is being imposed by the political class that runs Washington, the economic class that owns Wall Street and the cultural class in charge of Hollywood and the Ivy League." (Dr. Woods got degrees from Harvard and Columbia, by the way.)

Dr. Woods's League favors"a return to constitutional republicanism and true federalism, or if that should prove unattainable, secession."

Hmmm. Secession. That turned just a wee bit violent the last time around, if memory serves. What, it seems fair to ask, is Dr. Woods's organization's view on political violence? Are they planning to work within the existing political system in order to accomplish their separatist goals?

According to the League of the South's FAQ, their answer is:

"Yes, as far as that will take us."
How comforting!

One wonders what their plan is for beyond where the political system takes them!

Maybe these excerpts from the League's instructions for starting a local chapter give us a hint of what they might have in mind:

15. Form a “Shooting Club” to exercise your 2nd Amendment rights and to learn gun safety and proficiency.

38. Develop a phone tree and e-mail list to enhance local communications between officers and members. In cases where the transfer of information is sensitive, establish a secure means of communication.

40. Develop emergency rendezvous points throughout the County in case of natural disasters, etc. We want to be able to help our neighbors during a crisis.

41. Secure detailed topographic maps (including all back roads) of your County to familiarize yourself with the “lay of the land.” This resource will be invaluable should your Emergency Response Team have to react to a natural disaster.
Bunkers, anyone?

And who can we expect so see huddled in those League-of-the-South bunkers? Why, Christian white folk, of course—which is what you'd expect, given that the League's "ultimate goal . . . is the restoration of Christian liberty to the South."

You see, according to the FAQ, while Dr. Woods's organization

"ha[s] no religious requirement for membership, as an organisation we do recognise the legacy of Christianity and the universal sovereignty of the triune God. Most League members are Christians, and we base our movement on Christian principles. Trinitarian Christianity cannot be separated or removed from Southern society or culture without both ceasing to be Southern.
And while Christianity is a necessary condition for Dr. Woods's organization's concern, it is not sufficient. You also need to be"Anglo-Celtic":
The League seeks to protect the historic Anglo-Celtic core culture of the South because the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English have given Dixie its unique institutions and civilisation. Should the Christian, Anglo-Celtic core be displaced, then the South would cease to be recognisable to us and our progeny. We must maintain this all-important link to our European heritage from which we have drawn our inspiration. Anglo-Celtic Southerners and their European cousins have a duty to protect that which our ancestors bequeathed us. If we will not promote our own interests, no one will do it for us.
You'll no doubt be comforted to know that, according to one of its position papers, Dr. Woods's League of the South"recognise[s] an obligation to treat Christian blacks (slave and free) as brothers in Christ, and to recognise their common humanity (original sin, all created in God's image, etc. Moreover, all (except those convicted of felonious offenses) should have their lives, liberties, and property protected by the civil magistrate." But that doesn't mean, the position paper insists, that the League has to
subscribe to the flawed Jacobin notion of egalitarianism, nor does it mean that white Southerners should give control over their civilisation and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants. Nowhere, outside of liberal dogma, is any nation called upon to commit cultural and ethnic suicide.
"[L]et us always speak the truth about race," the League's position paper intones,"no matter how uncomfortable it may be or how politically incorrect it is. . . . [W]e should speak the unvarnished truth and continue to work positively for the interests of our own people. And of course this means protecting ourselves when necessary, individually and collectively."

"The unvarnished truth."

This, I guess, would include Dr. Woods's view that"[t]he real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends that continue to ravage our civilization today was the defeat of the Confederate States of America in 1865."

It would include Dr. Woods's insistence that nineteenth century slavery abolitionists were"not noble crusaders whose one flaw was a tendency toward extremism, but utterly reprehensible agitators who put metaphysical abstractions ahead of prudence, charity, and rationality."

It would include Dr. Woods's endorsement (in an essay appealingly entitled"Christendom's Last Stand") of the view that whereas those who sought the abolition of slavery were"atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, [and] jacobins, those who owned slaves were"friends of order and regulated freedom."

It would include Dr. Woods's view that the desegregation and integration of the races in America were at best"allegedly desirable social outcome[s]."

It would include Dr. Woods's horror at the"moral anarchy" in the notion that some who opposed the enslavement of blacks also opposed the unequal treatment of women. ("It is worth recalling," says Dr. Woods,"that a good number of anti-slavery feminists took the next step and compared the status of the slave to that of the married woman. In fairness, a great many abolitionists were horrified by this line of argument, but having made their bed, they were now being forced to sleep in it.")

It would include Dr. Woods's claim that opposition to state-sponsored display of the Confederate battle flag is grounded in"ignorant blather about slavery."

It would include Dr. Woods's mocking of Unitarianism for"turning Jesus Christ into a divine Barney the Dinosaur."

It would include Dr. Woods's claims that"[t]he driving force behind liberalism is a hatred of Christianity" and that liberals are"fundamentally totalitarian."

A commitment to"the unvarnished truth" would also presumably include Dr. Woods's description of current American foreign policy as"war after war against the enemies of Israel, at American expense."

It would also include Dr. Woods's belief that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was planning to"use the distraction of [an American] war with Iraq … [as] an opportunity to carry out the ethnic cleansing of the two million Palestinian Arabs living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza."

It would also include Dr. Woods's memorable insistence that the September 11 attacks were"bound to" happen to us because of"the barbarism of recent American foreign policy" in"attempt[ing] the hubristic enterprise of running the world – and not even on Christian principles."

It would include, presumably, League of the South President Michael Hill's not entirely unrelated insistence that

as long as a completely politicized law enforcement and legal establishment favors the interests of"dark skinned" people (including Arab Muslims and the black Nation of Islam) over those of white men, then we can expect more terrorism and chaos on the streets of America.
And it would include, presumably, Hill's claim—in an official League of the South press release—that"[t]he 'Reverend' 'Dr.' Martin Luther King, Jr., far from being the saint of recent liberal myth, was nothing but a philandering, plagiarizing, left-wing agitator."

For Dr. Woods's League of the South, the NAACP, you see, is an"enemy" with which the League of the South is"at war."According to the League's President, Dr. Michael Hill, League members"know that the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world are nothing but vile race hustlers and that 'institutional racism' is merely an excuse to mask black failure and to justify lawless and aggressive behavior against 'white oppressors.' . . . [T]he leftist agenda on race is pretty clear," says Woods's colleague."The question is, what are we white traditionalists going to do about it?"

What Thomas Woods is doing about it is writing books."As far as that will take him," anyway.

Allow me to anticipate one objection to what I have written. Some will undoubtedly say that it's not fair to call Woods's book into question on the basis primarily of his other writings, and on the basis of the positions of a private organization that he helped found and has assisted. And you know what? If he were a physicist who wrote a book about quarks and string theory, I guess I'd agree that his views (and those of his organization) on politics and race wouldn't really be fair game.

But there is a short, direct line from the rabid anti-statism and wholesale civil rights revisionism of"The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History" to the agenda of the League of the South and its ilk.

And you don't have to take my word for it. Take Dr. Woods's own say-so, on a bulletin board of the Free State Project (which advocates that 20,000"liberty-loving" people move to New Hampshire to transform its its government into a libertarian ideal):

"Thanks to those who have spoken on behalf of the book. And I agree completely with what has been said here: the book is being pitched to precisely those who need it most, namely the neocon-influenced right-wing-radio-listening masses. Perhaps it might help draw them back to antistatism. We can hope."
Indeed they can. With an eager and sycophantic right-wing media machine to bring Woods's words to an enormous audience, the Old South has reason for optimism. Or, as"Bro Jim," a good Southern Patriot at the Confederate Flag Forum, recently put it,
Hey, we win some and we lose some! Overall, H[annity] & C[olmes] have done some positives for us like Dr. Thomas Woods's appearance and the Jackie Duty dress flap.
"Overall," said Bro Jim,"I see more of a little bitty up trend for us."

I don't know about Bro Jim, but I don't call #8 on the New York Times Bestseller List"a little bitty up trend."

This article was originally posted at ACSBlog, the blog of the American Constitution Society, and IsThatLegal?, law professor Eric Muller's blog.

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More Comments:

Lisa Kazmier - 4/23/2005

Are you kidding? The guy is an apologist for the "paternalistic" slaveholders; does it take a rocket scientist to figure out how this applies to the "weaker sex"?

Simply put, the "good ole days" are a myth, but more so for women, esp. slave women. I wonder if Woods has ever read "Celia, A Slave" or anything by Sojourner Truth or the slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs (i.e., Linda Brent). I guess he wishes he owned a mistress or two.

James Guinivan - 4/12/2005

Good point. And I'd like him to tell us whether he's stopped beating his wife, too.

James Guinivan - 4/12/2005

I have never seen any "review" of one of Hobshawm's books that failed to discuss the book itself but spent all its time dwelling on various statements made by the Communist Party.

Jay Galt - 4/11/2005

Funny how a college professor can claim 'secession' caused a lot of violence last time around. Apparently, Mr. Muller believes he owns other people. How tragic in a country that was supposed to be free.

Todd Tharp - 3/17/2005

Lisa, you say 'that is how you read it', but you offer not one argument, not one quote, nothing at all to back up what you say.

So what are YOU basing your claims on? Have you read the book? If so, then surely you can provide us with an example or two to support 'how you read it'!

Lisa Kazmier - 3/11/2005

This is how I read it; you think I'm wrong. What are you basing this on?

Zack Moore - 2/24/2005

Dear Sir,

Your comments concerning states' rights are right on. After all, the United States created states like Virginia, right. Wrong! Your theory of a supreme central government has an underlying flaw. If the states are not soveriegn, how did each enter into an agreement to form a union under the Articles. More importantly, how did they secede from a perpetual union to ratify a constitution that fails to mention the words "perpetual union." Did some of the state legislatures not require their right as a soverign state to be included in the ratification process? Was it not some of the Northern states that were threatening seccession in the early years of the 19th century? I don't recall the Southern states threatening war should any Northen states leave. So why not let the Southern states execute their rights. For the simle fact that the wealth in the Southern states was too much to lose. Sure, the balance of power between slave and free states was the pivotal issue, but how many wars have we fought in Africa to free their slaves? From a legal standpoint you are dead wrong on the issue of states' rights, but wars aren't decided in the courtroom and to the victor goes the spoils.

William J. Stepp - 2/14/2005

How about because neocons kill people?

Chris Bray - 2/13/2005

And the people on the right absolutely refuse to consider Ward Churchill's background and earlier life choices.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/11/2005

Really? Why?

Lisa Casanova - 2/11/2005

I believe the burden is on the claimant. I await a response.

James Spence - 2/11/2005

Please offer proof that he doesn't.

Lisa Casanova - 2/10/2005

Nice smear. Could you please offer some proof that he wants women to go back to being "barefoot and pregnant"?

Michael Beatty - 2/10/2005

Sorry, folks. The last sentence of my post should read, "The intellectual insurrection against socio-political and economic union continues."

Michael Beatty - 2/10/2005

I appreciate Professor Muller's observation that "the unvarnished truth" per Dr Woods would include the belief that "[t]he real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends that continue to ravage our civilization today was the defeat of the Confederate States of America in 1865."

Nothing in modern (post-Civil War) Southern history makes any sense unless one comes to grips with the fact that in the South, the period 1865-present is nothing but an interbellum. Not the United Daughters of the Confederacy, not the ubiquitous Stars 'n Bars in pickup trucks (and university dorm rooms), not David Duke (or David Koresh, for that matter), not the ceremonial reburial of the crew of the CSS Hunley - none of it makes sense if not for the pervasive belief in the Southland that the "end" of the Civil War in April 1865 was only the end of the shooting and march/countermarch phase of the South's struggle to unburden itself of the deadweight of those damned, noisy, self-righteous, ignorant Yankees.

The Southern states had approached their marriage to the Puritan/Calvinist Northern states in 1787-8 with deep skepticism and not a little trepidation. It was an uneasy marriage all along, and the Southern states were always more resentful of what they saw as the burden of union than were the Northern states. Northern abolitionists abhorred the "sin" of slavery, the "crime" of the South; Southerners abhorred the North.

This was not unforeseeable; the Southern distaste for combat in the Revolutionary War is a prime indicator of how unwilling Southerners were to extend themselves on behalf of their Northern neighbors. Witness the relative disproportion of combat activity from 1775-83 that took place in states that would remain loyal to the Federal Union, versus those that would eventually embrace the Confederacy.

Indeed, Virginia was essentially the only state that would embrace secession, which constituted a significant theatre of conflict during the Revolution. And the significance of Virginia as a Revolutionary battlefield lay in the siege of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

So what happened when the British moved the battle to the Carolinas? What was the effect of the skirmishes at Guilford Courthouse and King's Mountain? The British burned a few crops, and the Carolinas nearly folded like a house of cards.

Why so fragile the Deep South's contribution to the Revolution? Why were the Southern colonies so easily brought to the brink of throwing in the towel over a few lost tons of agricultural commodity? Because there was nothing else - there was no second act, no alternative to agriculture to sustain the Southern economy.

This was the truth that no Southerner dared speak aloud, yet all knew to be the truth: Agriculture is a thin foundation on which to base a war economy. After independence had been gained by the determined exertions of the Northern colonies, the Southern bride determined to make the best of a bad situation and embrace the opportunity that Federal union offered to nurture their agricultural economy within the protection of the Federal trade umbrella. This agricultural prosperity allowed successive generations of Southern politicos to convince themselves that their agricultural economy was not a slender reed, that Southern honor and Southern virtue and Southern values would prevail in the coming contest with the North over the question of whether the states could do as they pleased.

This fallacy exploded on the battlefields of the Civil War, as Yankee industry more than outmatched Dixie courage and, yes, skill. Yet the fantasy has continued, the lesson has not been learned. The Southland continues to believe that by embracing its values and culture ever more tightly, "the South shall rise again" even if only by force of will.

The gunfire of the Civil War has long since stopped. The intellectual insurrection socio-political and economic union continues.

Jonathan Pine - 2/9/2005

"Will Rogers once said that the problem in America isn't so much what people don't know; the problem is what people think they know that just ain't so."
--Professor Thomas E. Woods

He should follow his own advice.

This is a guy who just likes to be contrary. And then it's bad history because he doesn't elaborate when he can or reference when he should; his arguments for the South's right to succeed are not convincing and when he says that Coolidge and Hoover presided over the most economically prosperous time in American history no reference is made to the conditions in the 1920's that led to the crash of 1929.

Justin Raimondo - 2/9/2005

Better a neo-Confederate than a neocon.

Lisa Kazmier - 2/8/2005

Maybe that's why no one finds this publication questionable and damaging: no women. I am disturbed that anyone would take this seriously. The guy is an apologist for slavery and apparently thinks women ought to go back to being barefoot and pregnant. Am I wrong? He must have had too much solid competition from really smart women, among other things. Someone want to tell me what the difference is between this guy's group and the Klan, esp. with its membership requirements?

Paul Noonan - 2/8/2005

So, by your logic, any consideration of the value of Eric Hobsbawm's historical scholarship should make no reference to his practically lifelong membership in the Communist Party of Great Britian?

Eric Leigh Muller - 2/7/2005

Gosh! That analogy is perfect!
Just two tiny little things, though:
(1) I did not co-found the New Jersey State Bar, and
(2) the New Jersey State Bar was not founded to facilitate lying, cheating, drinking, and so forth--even though some of its members do some of those things.
Other than that, the analogy between my membership in the New Jersey Bar and Dr. Wood's co-founding the neo-Confederate and secessionist League of the South is just totally spot-on. Nice work, Mr. Lederer!

John H. Lederer - 2/7/2005

I refer, of course, to the New Jersey State Bar.

John H. Lederer - 2/7/2005

Prof. Muller has for years been a member of a voluntary association that includes drunkards, cheats, swindlers, and crooks. However the specialty of the assoication is crooked politiciians, and a large number of politicians belong to this association. Outrageously it ciculates amongs its members (disproportionately male and white) an internal news letter describing the latest transgressions by its members each month.

Members of the association consort with enemies of this country and with common crooks. They defend their actions.

Despite his awareness of all these issues, Prof. Muller has refused to disasscoiate himself from this organization.

So...bear this in mind when you read his article.

Michael Davidson - 2/7/2005

Without a few specific examples [which should not be particularly difficult to find] of how the arguments in Woods' book were were distorted by his agenda, this merely amounted to a well-written and articulate application of the 'guilt by assocation' and 'circumstantial ad hominem' fallacies.

Or are we to accept to arguments of the right-wing punditry in this country that scholarship is invalidated [a la Ward Churchill] by personal politics?

James Spence - 2/7/2005

An entertaining article about a politically idiotic bestseller. This is what I love about this country. Because we are allowed to say mostly what we want, as citizens we can be informed about the possibilities, of the comical or dangerous points of view.

Michael Green - 2/7/2005

The problem is twofold. One is that while interpretation is welcome, skewing the facts to fit the interpretation in any form in history is unacceptable, from the left, the right, the middle or anywhere else on the spectrum. The other is that the damage that Woods does to history itself may even pale in comparison with the damage that he does to a perfectly good term like politically incorrect. To be politically correct is to deny all of the good things done by those you dislike and all of the bad things done by those you like. That is not what this book does or purports to do. We need less political correctness, but not of this sort.

Vernon Clayson - 2/7/2005

We all take what we want out of these articles. Jesse Jackson and AL Sharpton ARE race hustlers, the rest of the article is of little consequence. The book was meant to be mildly entertaining and will never be used as a scholarly textbook or to start any movements. It isn't Das Kapital which influenced individuals and nations before becoming mild entertainment itself after several generations of lying and dying.

Hugh High - 2/7/2005

John Reed has posed an excellent question : what IS Muller's point? That the League of the South has instruction on how to construct a 'telephone tree' (Yes, re-read what Mueller wrote -- he actually included that in his piece. )That he, Mueller, doesn't like the 'tone' of some of what Wood has written ? Or what ?

Is he trying to damn Wood's via 'guilt by association' with the League of the South (which, of course, assumes that there is some necessary connection between memebership in an organization and the written words of that organization's members. ) If so, what a strange tactic for an ostensible scholar to employ -- but .........

If Muller has some particular criticisms of Ward's work , they might be worth 'publishing' here . BUT guilt by association ???!

{ As a Duke Ph.D., and as a lawyer, I would expect that of people at UNC -- that's a joke, people !! }

John Reed Tarver - 2/7/2005

So, what's Muller's point?