A sense of awe
by Matthew Spalding
A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen (Sentinel, 944 pp., $29.95)
THE most influential historian among today’s college students isn’t David McCullough, despite the wide public appeal of his several books. It’s likely an obscure writer named Howard Zinn, whose A People’s History of the United States has gone through five editions and several printings, and sold well over a million copies. It should come as no surprise that the book has been successful mostly because college professors and high-school teachers require the book in their classes.
A People’s History, as the title might suggest, is written from a neo-Marxist perspective. The book is, in Zinn’s words, a “history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance,” portraying states and statesmen as pawns of bourgeois elites standing in the way of the proletarian revolution. One comment about the movement from the Old World to the New sums up the thesis: “Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private profit.” All history, in the end, is the history of class struggle.
The more basic problem is that A People’s History is not all that extreme by today’s academic standards. Variations on the argument, seen through the prisms of class, race, and gender studies, dominate almost any mainstream U.S. history textbook. Indeed, Zinn’s radical history is but part of the intellectual transformation wrought by progressive historians (starting with Carl Becker, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Charles Beard) who, over the course of the 20th century, declared American ideas and institutions outdated and oppressive, a barrier to change and reform. The result has been a constant deconstruction of the past according to the latest take on societal evolution.
Hearkening back to the histories and historians of the more distant past, A Patriot’s History of the United States is a new book that takes a very different approach to the course of human events. Rather than viewing those events as mere steps in an ever-advancing march of liberal history, it sees individuals and their ideas, and by extension nations and their principles, as the motivating force. And so it takes seriously the thoughts and actions of political figures: It demonstrates that qualities of deliberation and decision, character and virtue, matter deeply. Flaws and mistakes are there, too, but they are just that, which is to say they are exceptions and not the rule. The book doesn’t reinterpret history according to the academic fashion but seeks to present history as it happened, trying to understand the intentions of the main actors and the movement of events.
A Patriot’s History has its idiosyncrasies, to be sure; like any sweeping epic, it isn’t perfect. But as an antidote to A People’s History and its comrades, the book succeeds mightily. Consider how the two books treat the American Founding. In A People’s History, the American Founders are said to have “created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times” in order to “take over land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire . . . and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.” It’s a modern adaptation of the Beard thesis that our greedy forefathers plotted for their own economic interest. At best, the American Revolution is a misstep in the sweeping struggle for democracy on the part of disenfranchised and underprivileged groups searching for social justice.
In contrast, A Patriot’s History rejects the economic determinism of Beard, Zinn, and others who “wrongly assume that people were (and are) incapable of acting outside of self-interest.” Instead, the book lets history tell a different story, of a concern for the common good and equal rights, the public interest and popular self-government under the rule of law. And so it spends considerable time developing the ideas of the American Revolution, the theory of republican government, the importance of religion and the concept of religious liberty, the lessons of the early state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation, the arguments of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, and the extensive debates about the Constitution. “No matter how Beard and his successors torture the statistics, they cannot make the Constitutional Convention scream ‘class struggle,'” the authors conclude. “The debate was genuine; it was about important ideas, and men took positions not for what they gained financially but for what they saw as the truth.”
A Patriot’s History is biased in its own way, of course, for it assumes that “if the story of America’s past is told fairly, the result cannot be anything but a deepened patriotism, a sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passions invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built.” Anything that has to do with patriotism has long been controversial in academic circles. The idea that the teaching of American history might actually foster patriotism is to some deeply problematic. The rejected assumption, which is the foundation of A Patriot’s History, is that there are principles and purposes reflected in American history that make this imperfect country worthy of our affection, and that honest history should explain those principles and illustrate those purposes as the centerpiece of our nation’s story.
“Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country,” Noah Webster wrote in 1788. “As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.” Not for the sake of a national myth meant to create blind affection, but to prompt an enlightened love of country–or, as Webster put it, to “implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.”
As study after study shows that our students know less and less about our history, and at a time when our deepest principles and national convictions are–sometimes literally–under attack at home and abroad, A Patriot’s History is a welcome, refreshing, and solid contribution to relearning what we have forgotten and remembering why this nation is good, and worth defending.
Mr. Spalding directs the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.