Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: A Patriot's History of the United States

A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen

I think it's fair to say that U.S. history as taught to my grandparents was at least somewhat whitewashed. The Founding Fathers were granted demigod status and America was perpetually the land of the free and the home of the brave. Some have called this the "My Country, Right or Wrong" approach. By the 1960s, however, the attitude towards American history underwent a complete revolution. Unfortunately, this new approach didn't offer a more accurate or balanced view; it was just as dogmatic as the old one (maybe even more so) but it reversed the narrative. Instead of the nation that could do no wrong, America could do no right. The Founding Fathers became hypocritical opportunists whose efforts at nation-building were motivated by the desire to benefit their social and economic class. They were branded as racists; intolerant and oppressive of the (invariably) peaceful Native Americans and all other races. Even those founding fathers who were anti-slavery were condemned as sellouts for tabling the issue at the Philadelphia Convention and signing a constitution that acknowledged the continued existence of slavery. This is the "My Country, Always Wrong" approach.

Keep it next to your copy of
the Communist Manifesto!
Although these attitudes have crept into a significant portion of the literature and text books on American history, the writings of Howard Zinn (who was outed as a communist shortly after his death) are among the most widely read. His most popular book, A People's History of the United States, is often used as a text book or is assigned reading in college American history classes. For those who are reasonably well versed in politics and history, the use of the term "people's" in the title of Zinn's book will immediately indicate that the text will have a certain lean to it ("people's" is often used in the names of communist nations or organizations; e.g., "People's Republic of China", China's "People's Liberation Army", the communist "People's Republic of Hungary" or the "People's Republic of Poland").

This brings us to A Patriot's History of the United States by historians Schweikart and Allen. The book is intended to be a remedy to the "My Country, Always Wrong" mentality while also trying to avoid the opposite extreme. The authors say this about their book:
[W]e reject "My Country, Right or Wrong," but we equally reject "My Country, Always Wrong." I think you'll find us quite critical of such aspects of our past — such as the Founders' unwillingness to actually act on slavery on at least three separate occasions; or about Teddy Roosevelt's paternalistic regulations and his anti-business policies. On the other hand, as conservatives, we nevertheless destroy the myth that FDR "knew" about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. Instead, we try to always put the past in the context of the time — why did people act then as they did, and was that typical?
It is the authors' belief 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 passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built." In short, the authors are trying to counter what they see as leftist distortions of the history of the United States while telling a more balanced story of the nation.

Although the authors strive for balance, I believe that the philosophy that it impossible for an historian to be unbiased can clearly be seen in A Patriot's History. The mere act of determining what material will be included in an history, of deciding from what angle to approach the subject, or of selecting among contradicting historical accounts will always reflect the opinions or biases of the historian. In the case of Schweikart's and Allen's book, there tends to be an emphasize on the benefits of small government, the general virtue of the nation (while admitting that there are many flaws), and the beneficial effects of the free market. For example, in their discussion of the Trail of Tears (in which the Cherokee were forcibly driven out of Georgia and into Oklahoma), the authors point out that the Cherokee were evicted from their lands because President Andrew Jackson exceeded his Constitutional authority. Congress had not granted Jackson the right to displace the Cherokee while the Supreme Court had explicitly ruled in Worcester v. Georgia that the Cherokee's land rights could not be legally violated. The authors emphasize that a) the Cherokee's rights were violated by a president who repeatedly expanded executive authority and b) that the tribe's land rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court, which obviously didn't hold the Cherokee's race against them.

While the authors generally defend America, they have little compunction in pointing out where America has fallen short of its promise or ideals, particularly with regards to slavery or racism. The most interesting idea presented in the book echoes a statement made by John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Adams firmly believed that a free society of limited government couldn't exist unless its citizens practiced self-restraint. The authors suggest that the growth of the federal government and the associated reductions in personal liberty were often the result of the moral failings of the American people:
As with much of the history of slavery and racism in America, the desegregation of schools ultimately had required a perversion of the apparatus of the state in order to get people to act responsibly and justly. The Founders never imagined in their wildest dreams that federal courts would be determining the makeup of student bodies in a local high school, yet the utter collapse of the state legislative process to act morally — or at the very least, even effectively — pushed the courts into action. It was a cautionary tale. At every point in the past, the continued refusal of any group to abide by a modicum of decency and tolerance inevitably brought change, but also brought vast expansions of federal power that afflicted all, including the groups that initially benefited from the needed change.
A Patriot's History of the United States is an excellent resource for anyone who is looking for a response to leftist depictions of America's past or who simply wants a general overview of U.S. history. Since the authors didn't set out to write a text book, A Patriot's History doesn't read like one; it is much more engaging than most books one may have read in an American history class. I have but one minor complaint; the text seems to be a bit too informal in places, which can make it harder to take the authors seriously.

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