Humane Studies book review
By John Coleman
Perhaps it was Homer who first injected the study of history with poetry. With a few powerful utterances, the blind bard of Athens spoke into being the exploits of Achilles and Odysseus, and created the heroic age of Ancient Greece. Of course, even he was preceded by the Epic of Gilgamesh—a work of fiction that is our first historical reference not painted on cave walls or carved in stone; and it was two very different moral traditions, Judaism and Islam, which eventually perfected the art of historical narrative. The Prophet Mohammed’s historical existence is the foundation of his moral authority; and tales of King David—true or untrue—have come to dominate the antiquated legacy of Achilles even as they have birthed and buried nations with their moral force.
For thousands of years, historians have painted less-than-objective pictures of the ages and peoples they have catalogued, and it is often history, in some form or another, that provides the foundation for political and social action today. But many modern Americans remain squeamish about the subjectivity of their textbooks and tale-tellers—whether Marxist or Christian, feminist or chauvinist—and this unease too often stifles vibrant and productive discussions of the American past.
“History, especially as written by historians in the English tradition,” Christopher Hitchens once commented, “is a literary and idiosyncratic form. Men such as Gibbon and Macaulay and Marx were essayists and polemicists in the grand manner, and when I was at school one was simply not supposed to be prissy about the fact.” The truth is that history is more than factual inventory—it is a living, breathing legacy worthy of heated discourse; and if we are to engage the legacy of our forefathers (and foremothers!) in the twenty-first century, we must first reconcile ourselves to the debate.
In their latest offering, A Patriot’s History of the United States, Professors Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen abandon the “prissy” pretenses of pure ideological objectivity and, rejecting the liberal historical revisionism of recent decades, openly seek to affirm the moral character of the United States and restore her place as a “city on a hill.” Arguing that “for the past three decades, those writing history have allowed their biases to distort the way America’s past is taught….utterly downplaying the greatness of America’s patriots and the achievements of ‘dead white men,’” the professors, hailing from the University of Dayton and the University of Washington respectively, have produced a comprehensive volume designed as a kind of intellectual rebuttal to liberal revisionists like Howard Zinn. While the work is pockmarked with occasional disappointments, overall, Schweikart and Allen have contributed a grounded and thorough addition to the canon of the country they call home.
A recent study affirmed what many Americans have come to regard as common sense: university faculties, the guardians of academic discourse in the West, are overwhelmingly liberal (in the modern sense)—often to the ideological left of the mainstream Democratic Party. According to the report, more than 72 percent can be classified as liberal (and only 15 percent conservative. Correspondingly, a great deal of recent scholarship has skewed left on the ideological spectrum.
Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson are maligned for their marital indiscretions—in Jefferson’s case, all the more hypocritical because they were with a woman he held as a slave. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a champion of big government, and, by all accounts, a fiercely anti-business campaigner has gained unassailable moral stature for his participation in both the New Deal and World War II, and Abraham Lincoln has become the latest Kinseyan study in human sexuality. The so-called “robber barons” have retained historical scars first inflicted by the likes of Upton Sinclair, even as American Communists like Eugene V. Debs have been deified as political martyrs. If one were to read the average history text today, one would come away with the distinct impression that America’s crimes—the eradication of native people, the Constitutional affirmation of slavery, and the extended denial of women’s rights—not only outweigh her victories, but are indicative of flaws unique to her national character.
Allen and Schweikart reject this view. Arguing in their introduction that American history is truly a history of ideas, “ideas such as ‘All men are created equal’; the United States is the ‘last, best hope’ of earth; and America ‘is great, because it is good,’” the authors frame theirs as a history founded in character and virtue—and all subsequent discussion takes place within the context of individuals’ adherence to or departure from the maxims so eloquently delineated in the Declaration of Independence and in the canon of Judeo-Christian morality. “Honor counted to founding patriots like Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and then later, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt,” Allen and Schweikart contend, “Character counted (xii).” And while they sometimes applaud those with whom they have significant disagreement (like Teddy Roosevelt) and disparage the actions of those with whom they align more closely (such as Nixon), the result of their treatise is a “classically liberal” discussion of the classically liberal Republic.
As a history book, A Patriot’s History is both thorough and easy to read. Just over eight hundred pages in length, it covers events from Columbus’ “discovery” of the new world to the War in Iraq, and it possesses the meticulous documentation so essential to reputable historical works. Encumbered with a definitive emphasis on the mechanics of economic and financial markets, A Patriot’s History is unique in its thorough discussion of tariffs, the gold standard, and Andrew Jackson’s bank policy (one can likely thank Dr. Schweikart, a financial historian). However, these complex topics are consistently accompanied by a commonsensical mode of explanation and clean, uncomplicated prose. A history of the United States, it does not focus on world events that did not impact the U.S., nor does it grant equal time to the pre-revolutionary era of North America. The entirety of the period spanning 1492 to 1707 is grouped in one chapter shorter than the discussion of the five year period encompassing World War II; and while other works may focus more on regular people, Schweikart’s and Allen’s tales generally revolve around chief executives or powerful business and political leaders at the occasional expense of broader cultural discussions or tangential analyses of less powerful American figures like Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Francis Scott Key.
Key to this opus are insightful discussions of military history. The tactical descriptions of the Civil War and the two World Wars are interesting, thorough, and fast-paced. Even those intimately familiar with major conflicts are sure to delight at authors’ intellectually voracious coverage of even minor military engagements; and any reader is bound to come away with a new appreciation for America at war—particularly when those wars involve Europe and Mexico, though Native American skirmishes are presented with less detail. Throughout, Schweikart and Allen excel at humanizing the characters paramount to these conflicts and highlighting their courage, or, for lack of a more specific term, virtue. And if the goal of the work is to deepen patriotism by instilling “a sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built (xi),” that goal is accomplished by the time one leafs through even the initial discussion of the American revolution and its heroes.
That said, if anyone comes off as well as the military hero in A Patriot’s History, it is the American businessman. Repeatedly, the authors proclaim the vital role and personal integrity of America’s innovators and industry leaders in an attempt to vindicate the oft-demonized role of the private sector in American life and reclaim the soiled names of leaders and philanthropists like J.P. Morgan, Eli Whitney, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie; and they do this with form and force. Lamenting the animosity of well-meaning, but hopelessly anti-business “progressive” leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, they address the issue of capitalism with fairness, persistence, and honesty. Repeatedly they defend “the fantastic productive capabilities of capitalism (446),” and honor the men who “enabled the United States to leapfrog past Britain and France in productivity, profitability, and innovation (434).” If you never had an appreciation for the role entrepreneurs played in defeating Japan and Germany in the second World War, you will upon reading this book.
In addition, the authors avoid completely one mistake that too often plagues “conservative” accounts of U.S. history—a rationalization or a defense of slavery. While nearly every review of Thomas E. Woods’ The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History notes that author’s regrettable confederate leanings, Schweikart and Allen repeatedly state that slavery may have been our country’s greatest moral evil, and that it was an inexcusable practice that was rightly remedied by the prosecution of the Civil War. Certainly, rational people can disagree about the execution of the Civil War or its necessity, and A Patriot’s History does couch its criticism of the Founders—noting that many of the systems they established were put into place precisely to ensure the eventual eradication of slavery. But Schweikart and Allen leave no confusion as to the fact that they see slavery as the primary cause of the War Between the States, and a just cause, at that, stating, “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Civil War was about slavery, and, in the long run, only about slavery (302).” The authors reveal themselves to be tremendous fans of Lincoln, and there are really only two major stumbles with which to take issue. First, they rather unfairly lump together “modern neo-Confederates” and modern libertarians (like Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and Robert Higgs—whom they cite at length), despite the lack of homogeneity in real “libertarian” positions on the War, and the divergent attacks on the Civil War that those two groups (neo-Confederates and libertarians) generally mount. Second, they make a few rather unfortunate rhetorical choices late in the work, at one point stating that President Johnson’s welfare society would “reenslave many poor and minorities into a web of government dependency (687).” Granted, Johnson’s various schemes were less than optimal and are deserving of criticism, but surely the differences between welfare dependency and antebellum slavery warrant a more appropriate metaphor.
It is a similar tendency towards hyperbole that eventually mars what could have been some of the finer moments in the work—particularly with reference to the authors attacks on FDR and Bill Clinton. Both Clinton and Roosevelt have received an overly warm reception among many left-wing scholars (particularly Roosevelt), but the lengths to which Schweikart and Allen go to degrade the legacies of these men seem, at times, overly ambitious, moderately unfair, and highly alienating to those unsympathetic to their views.
FDR is generally portrayed as a pampered and superficial man who achieved much of his positive war record on the basis of blind luck, a skilled pool of military commanders, brave soldiers, and brilliant industrialists. All of this may be true, but it would take more than the evidence presented in A Patriot’s History to support it. The authors initially refer to Roosevelt as “the first U.S. President who had never been obligated to work for a living (555),” and proceed immediately with a discussion of Roosevelt’s marital infidelity (which, to be fair, they do with Jefferson and Clinton among others) (556). They rightly defend Roosevelt against charges that he had foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor (594-595), and they restrain much criticism of his war efforts, but they also disparage the man and his policies relentlessly with regards to his intelligence, his economic policies, and his character—something that may be hard to swallow for FDR’s legion of supporters.
Clinton’s treatment is, in many ways, worse. Certainly, supporters of William Jefferson Clinton are accustomed to harsh criticism—the works of Christopher Hitchens and Rich Lowry come to mind; but Schweikart and Allen take their historical assault too far within the context of this book. The first section on Clinton is entitled “I Didn’t Inhale,” though the discussion of his drug use is only at most a peripheral issue and there is no similar discussion of George W. Bush’s alcohol abuse or alleged cocaine use (774); and while the allegations of sexual misconduct against Clinton were quite serious, the authors devote an inordinate amount of time to detailed analysis of these claims. After repeating the rape allegations of Juanita Broaddrick, they note, “When combined with Kathleen Willey’s testimony about Clinton’s thuggish behavior toward her, it painted a picture of a multiple offender and, possibly, a rapist (797).” And their claim that “the President used the [Oklahoma City] disaster to shift public attention from the abusive actions of government to the crazed behavior of the bomber…(785)”, again, may be true, but the relatively inflammatory nature of this rhetoric undermines an otherwise excellent dissection of Clinton’s policy record—which, in isolation, is far more persuasive than the assault on his purported moral turpitude.
One could nitpick for ages. The various discussions of rock music seem at once incoherent and mildly Bloom-like in their detachment from the culture of youth. The excuses for violence against Native Americans inevitably bear more than a kernel of truth, but they seem misplaced. The book could use a few additional discussions of culture—like the delightful section on the “persecution of Coca Cola”; but the big question is, do these flaws spell doom for the efficacy of A Patriot’s History of the United States? Hardly. The packaging of the book would have benefited from editorial restraint in a few key areas, but overall, the work is a model of balance, and it stays true to the first principles outlined so clearly by the authors in the introduction—defending, one might say, “truth, justice, and the American way.” In addition, for every fault in A Patriot’s History, there are a thousand pleasant surprises and heartening reminders that underneath it all America remains a country of ideas, ideals, and optimism—and no amount of revisionism can take that legacy away.
In a recent essay, writer Tom Wolfe noted the relative absence of American pride at the conclusion of the Twentieth Century—the American Century:
Did a single historian mention that America now dominates the world to an extent that would have made Julius Caesar twitch with envy?
Was a single bard bestirred to write a mighty anthem—along the lines of James Thomson’s “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!”—for America, the nation that in the century just concluded had vanquished two barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods, the German Nazis and the Russian Communists, two hordes of methodical slave-hunting predators who made the Huns and Magyars look whimsical by comparison?
Did anybody high or low look for Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi to create a new tribute on the order of the Statue of Liberty for the nation that in the twentieth century, even more so than in the nineteenth, opened her arms to people from all over the globe.
My impression was that one American Century rolled into another with all the pomp and circumstance of a mouse pad. America’s great triumph inspired all the patriotism and pride (or, if you’d rather, chauvinism), all the yearning for glory and empire (or, if you’d rather, the spirit of Manifest Destiny), all the martial jubilee music of a mouse click.
It is an oddity that the American empire has generated so little nationalism in the midst of so much power. It is no Zion, Sparta, or Mecca; and, in some ways, that is a very good thing. But if the history is as Wolfe, and Schweikart, and Allen say it is—bold, virtuous, and inspiring—perhaps a little patriotism is precisely what America now needs. And in a world suddenly experiencing the first blessed rays of what may constitute a truly global “morning for democracy,” perhaps the nation that pioneered the very concept of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” should take a moment to contemplate the positive aspects of her legacy.
John Coleman is an analyst and writer living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He can be reached at http://johncoleman.typepad.com.