All Commentary
Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror

A Readable and Persuasive Narrative

U.S. history textbooks are important because they are a benchmark of what we as a nation value in our past and what we envision for our future.

After thumbing through a recent batch of texts, David McCullough, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, concluded that “most of them, it appears to me, have been published in order to kill any interest that anyone might have in history.” What’s more, he discovered that “they’re often hilariously politically correct and they are not doing any good.” Not surprisingly, students hate them and refuse to read them; used book stores often refuse to buy them, or even to put one on their shelves.

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, authors of A Patriot’s History of the United States, observed this trend and tried to do better in writing their own text. The result is a magnificent achievement—a readable narrative that persuasively explains the rise of America, and directly challenges the endemic political correctness in texts today.

Schweikart and Allen start by praising character and hard work as the building blocks of American success. Because Americans had a Christian culture, they took the right to life, liberty, and property seriously. The Founders, Schweikart and Allen remind us, wanted limited government, and that limited government, born in the 1700s, gave free rein to the triumph of entrepreneurs in the 1800s, which helped build the United States into a superpower in the 1900s.

Most history texts are weak in analyzing economics and economic development. Few historians understand how capitalism works and how government intervention often stifles growth and hinders the very groups targeted for benefits. Schweikart and Allen, by contrast, have published widely on banking, entrepreneurship, and economic development. Rather than indulging in the usual “robber baron” line of attack, they describe how Carnegie and Rockefeller out-produced the world in steel and oil — which then drew millions of hard-working European immigrants to America’s shores.

In writing on the twentieth century, Schweikart and Allen are critical of the growth of government. Many U.S. history texts are a thousand pages that can be condensed into ten words: Businessmen created problems; government repeatedly moved in to solve them. Schweikart and Allen, however, conclude that the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society were often harmful to most groups of Americans, rich and poor alike. The progressive income tax is described as “irrational antipathy toward wealthy Americans.” Antitrust laws produced “a burden of regulations [that] fell on unintended groups.” By contrast, the tax cuts under Coolidge, Kennedy, and Reagan boosted economic development and sparked the creation of new industries.

This non-mainstream, economically literate treatment of business and regulation is the book’s greatest strength. In foreign policy, Schweikart and Allen are controversial, but always interesting. For example, they call actions in Mexico and Oregon in the 1840s “a pair of the most spectacular foreign policy achievements in American history.” (A good case can be made that our policy in this era was unnecessarily bellicose.) The authors also denounce communism (“just another political system”) and laud Ronald Reagan for his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). They quote approvingly Vladimir Lukhim, former Soviet ambassador to the U.S., who said, “It’s clear SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.”

On the Civil War, Schweikart and Allen praise Lincoln for his unionism and for promoting emancipation. They disagree with the libertarian school, led by scholars such as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, which argues with some validity that the Civil War set dangerous precedents for transferring authority to the central government. Schweikart and Allen avoid the tendentiousness and simple-mindedness of most texts. People are complicated, and the authors let us know that: Calvin Coolidge encouraged limited government, but at the same time supported high tariffs; Reagan was on target with SDI, but “made a serious error” when he sent peacekeeping troops into Lebanon; our Declaration of Independence enshrined natural rights, but we denied them for a century or more to most black Americans.

In explaining the success of the American experiment, Schweikart and Allen, unlike many others, point not to vast fertile land and abundant raw materials, but to “more important qualities: initiative, inventiveness, hope, optimism, and, above all, faith.”Also, ever since the arrival of the Puritans, Americans have had the vision that they were to be a “city on a hill,” or to a later generation that broke from England, the “last best hope for mankind.” Such a vision, the authors argue, help make America greater than the sum of its parts, its resources and its people—“a beacon of liberty.”

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network

  • Larry Earl Schweikart is an American historian and professor of history at the University of Dayton. He is the author of more than a dozen books; his best known popular book is A Patriot's History of the United States.