All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1987

Book Review: A Basic History of the United States (five volumes) by Clarence B. Carson.

Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. • 1986 • 78 pp. • $7.95 paperback

A Basic History of the United States (five volumes)

by Clarence B. Carson.

I.       The Colonial Experience, 1607-1774 (1984) 184 pages

II.       The Beginning of the Republic, 1775-1825 (1984) 262 pages

III.       The Sections and the Civil War, 1826-1877 (1985) 224 pages

IV.       The Growth of America, 1878-1928 (1985) 300 pages

V.       The Welfare State, 1929-1985 (1986) 346 pages

Published by the American Textbook Committee, P.O. Box 8, Wadley, Alabama 36276 • Paperback $9.00 per volume: $32.50 per set. • Also available from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

These five volumes are probably the best available survey history of the United States. They cover almost four centuries-from the arrival of the first European settlers through Ronald Reagan’s first administration. Dr. Carson, frequent Freeman author and former college history professor, has formed a richly woven tapestry of events and the ideas that spawned them.

For Carson, history is not merely a collection of facts and dates, an account of explorations, settlements, westward expansion, wars, Presidents, and elections. History is the product of the actions of countless individuals, each under the influence of certain ideas. And Carson explores those ideas, ideologies, and “isms.” He shows how they were responsible for the settlement of this continent, the struggle for freedom, the westward expansion, the construction of schools, churches, factories, and the founding of new religious denominations. He explains why our ancestors fought for their beliefs, and strove to create a government, limited in scope, with checks and balances, that would not have the power to oppress the people.

As the late Ludwig von Mises wrote, “The genuine history of mankind is the history of ideas. . . . Ideas engender social institutions, political changes, technological methods of production, and all that is called economic conditions. . . . New ideas . . . are the response offered by a man’s mind to the ideas developed by his predecessors.” (Theory and History, p. 187)

This is Carson’s approach. He explores the ideas from which events spring, explains their complex interrelationships, and makes them understandable. He discusses at length the 19th- century authors, romanticists, utopians, and religious crusaders who sought to make society over according to their own plans. He shows how the views of some of these idealists served in time to undermine the role of law and to limit the freedom of individuals. He deals with radicalism, Marxism, populism, and progressivism, and shows how each has contributed to the growth of government.

Volume I backtracks to discuss the intellectual climate in Europe before Columbus sailed west. Carson then reports on the influences that led the several colonies to struggle for independence from England.

Volume II carries the chronicle through the years when the colonies were becoming unified into a single nation and beginning to expand westward.

Volume IiI describes the development of north-south dissension, the Civil War, the devastation of the south, and its painful recovery. Carson shows how Congress violated constitutional principles during the post-Civil War reconstruction period, rode roughshod over the rights of individuals, and thus contributed to the expansion of government.

In Volume IV, which deals with the latter half of the 19th century, we begin to see the origin of the ideas and “isms” that spawned 20th-century government intervention. Here Carson explores the germs of socialism, communism, international imperialism, World War II, and the monetary manipulation that led to the artificial boom of the 1920s.

Volume V brings the narrative to times within the memory of many of us. We read here of the depression, FDR’s New Deal, World War II, welfarism, the “cold war,” Korea, the radical 1960s, Vietnam, and Watergate.

Carson considers the 1960s, under the Warren Court (1953-1969), to have been a second period of “reconstruction.” Once more the Constitution was ignored and the rights of individuals violated. To wipe out the remnants of racial segregation, and to assure voting rights, religious freedom, and the rights of the criminally accused, the Court altered the system of constitutional checks and balances. This contributed to the breakdown of law and order, and the attack on family values.

Carson’s final chapter, “The Conservative Response,” credits writers such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Henry Hazlitt, Leonard Read, Robert Welch, Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, and others for the recent shift toward “conservatism.” He gives Reagan credit for helping to revive patriotism and confidence in America. However, the welfare state is so thoroughly entrenched that government continues to grow in both size and scope.

Carson earned his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. As the author of books on this nation’s early years (The American Tradition and TheRebirth of Liberty), 19th-century America (Throttling the Railroads and The Fateful Turn), the ideological turn toward socialism (Flight from Reality and The World in the Grip of an Idea), and recent government intervention (The War on the Poor and Organized Against Whom?), he is well equipped to write a survey of U.S. history. Whatever the future brings for this country, Carson’s overview will help us to better understand how it came about.

These five volumes are profusely illustrated. Each contains portraits and biographical vi- gnettes of leading figures, and is indexed and footnoted. The footnotes, which are numbered in sequence from the beginning to the end of each volume, make it easy to locate a specific reference. At the end of each volume there are “Suggestions for Additional Reading.” Thus these volumes are not only “storybook history,” but they can lead the reader to further exciting reading.

  • Sylvester Petro (1917–2007) was a professor of law and the author of several books on the history of labor policy in the United States, including The Labor Policy of a Free Society, The Kohler Strike, and The Kingsport Press Strike.
    As professsor and director of the Wake Forest University Institute of Law and Policy Analysis, he taught generations of students about the history of labor unions, while defending free association and free contract as essential to the free and prosperous commonwealth.