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American History Is Not What They Say

Mises Daily: Monday, May 04, 2009 by

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[Preface to Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.]

Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism

Americans have been warring with each other for more than a century over the contents of the American-history textbooks used in the nation's high schools and colleges. Nor is the reason far to seek. If, as seems to be the case, these textbooks encompass one hundred percent of the information that most high school and college graduates in this country will ever encounter on the subject of American history, the American-history wars would appear to be well worth fighting. For what Americans know and understand about the history of the society in which they live will determine the degree of their willingness to honor and preserve its ideals and traditions. More than that: it will determine what they regard as the ideals and traditions of their society. It will determine nothing less than the kind of society they will seek to strengthen and perpetuate.

Until very recently, however, the range of the conflict over American-history textbooks was narrow indeed. All sides tacitly agreed that the story of the United States was the triumphant tale of a people fervently devoted to peace, prosperity, and individual liberty; a people left utterly untempted by opportunities of the kind that had led so many other nations down the ignoble road of empire; a people who went to war only as a last resort and only when both individual liberty and Western civilization itself were imperiled and at stake. There had been injustices along the way, of course — the Native Americans had been grossly mistreated, as had the African Americans. Women had been denied the vote and even the right to own property. Yet these injustices had been corrected in time, and the formerly mistreated groups had been integrated into full citizenship and full participation in the liberty, prosperity, and peace that were the birthright of every American — the very same liberty, prosperity, and peace that had made America itself a beacon of hope to the entire world.

So the consensus view of American history has long had it, at any rate. And so almost all the textbooks involved in the American-history wars waged before the 1980s had it, too. The only question at issue back then, really, was whether any given textbook gave one or another of the various formerly aggrieved groups what was felt to be its proper due. Was the suffering of the Native Americans (or the African Americans or the women) detailed at sufficient length? The many contributions the African Americans (or the women or the Native Americans) had made to American culture — contributions without which American culture would simply not be the same — were these detailed sufficiently? The nobility of the female (or the Native American or the African American) leaders who helped bring about recognition of their people's rights — was this sufficiently stressed?

Then, a little over a quarter-century ago, the terms of the debate changed — radically. One might say the opening salvo in the new American-history wars was fired by Howard Zinn, in the form of a textbook entitled A People's History of the United States. First published in 1980, this volume is still in print, was reissued in a revised, updated, "20th Anniversary Edition" in the year 2000, and has become one of the most widely influential college-level textbooks on American history currently in use in this country. Today, Zinn faces intensified competition, however, not only from peddlers of the traditional, America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace version of our past, but also from a number of other writers who have, in varying degree, adopted the rather different view of American history that Zinn himself promotes.

This alternative vision sees America's past as a series of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, in which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded have been gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores. In effect, say Howard Zinn and a growing chorus of others, we have become the people our founding fathers warned us (and tried to protect us) against. And what may be the most significant fact about this alternative or "revisionist" view of American history is the remarkably hospitable reception it has enjoyed both from the general public and from the selfsame educational establishment that only a few short years ago was assiduously teaching students something else entirely.

How can we account for this? Why, suddenly, is there a substantial market for a version of American history quite unlike anything most Americans had ever encountered? Why are the combatants in the current American-history wars so different from each other, so different in their fundamental assumptions about America? Why are the current wars so much bloodier (figuratively speaking), so much more intense, than ever before?

It seems to me that the correct answer to this question is complex and multifaceted. It seems to me that several different forces are at work here simultaneously, combining synergistically to produce the "single" effect we call "our current American-history wars." One of these forces is generational change. It was in the 1980s that college and university history departments came to be dominated by a new generation of historians — historians who had earned their PhDs in the 1960s and '70s and who had been strongly influenced in their thinking about American history by a group of "revisionist" historians, the so-called "New Left Historians," whose books were widely popular and widely controversial at that time. These "New Left Historians" — William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, and a number of others — had in turn been strongly influenced by an earlier group of "revisionists" — the so-called "New Historians" or "Progressive Historians" — whose most prominent figures included Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes.

Another of the forces involved in the recent heating up of the perennial American-history wars was the brilliant critical and popular success, during the 1970s and early 1980s, of the first three books in Gore Vidal's six-volume[1] "American Chronicle" series of historical novels about the United States. Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Lincoln (1984) were enormous successes. They proved beyond any doubt that the public would not rise up in indignation and smite any author who dared to question the motives and the wisdom of even the most venerated American presidents. They proved that there was, in fact, a substantial market for just such skepticism about the glorious American past.

Partisans of the America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace mythology attacked Vidal's novels, of course, but Vidal made it quite clear in a couple of detailed replies to his critics (first published in the New York Review of Books) that he knew at least as much about the history of the periods he depicted in his novels as any of them did — PhD's and members of the professoriate though they might be.

"What Americans know about history will determine nothing less than the kind of society they will seek to strengthen and perpetuate."

Still, doubts lingered in more than a few minds. First there was the problem of Vidal's well-known political views and his high-profile activities as a polemicist and proselytizer for those views. Could a man so opinionated be counted upon to provide an objective account of America's past? Second, there was the problem of historical fiction. Was it really advisable to take any work of fiction seriously as a source of information about history? Fiction was … well, you know — fiction.

It was "made up." How could we rely on any information we picked up about the events of the past from reading such a work?

To answer these questions properly, it will be necessary to take a brief but closely focused look at the discipline of history itself. How does a historian go about determining the truth as regards the past? Is the historian's methodology in any way similar to the fiction writer's? Is the work the historian writes in any way similar to a novel? Is it really appropriate to dismiss historical fiction as "made up," while looking to the writings of historians for an objective assessment of past events?

And so we begin…

Notes

[1] As Harry Kloman writes, The Golden Age "is the narrative Washington, D.C. might have been had Vidal written the books chronologically." Thus "You might think of the new book as an alternative version of the older one." Kloman points out that "[w]hen Vidal published Washington, D.C. in 1967, he had no plan to tell America's story from the Revolutionary War through the present." Accordingly, he counsels,

now that Vidal has completed the series, one might just consider it to be six books in length, with Washington, D.C. standing off to the side, in part an accidental beginning to a Chronicle that it no longer fits, and in part an alternative conclusion that's more literary and introspective than historical. (Harry Kloman, "Gore Vidal's American Chronicles: 1967-2000.")

I take Kloman's advice: I use the term "American Chronicle" to refer to the following set of six novels, arranged and discussed in correct historical sequence: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age.