Why It’s Time for “A Patriot’s History of the United States”
By Dr. Larry Schweikart
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,” Mikhail 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.