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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

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

In one of his most iconoclastic essays, “The Anatomy of the State,” Murray Rothbard observed that it is crucial to ruling groups to manipulate the thinking of the ruled. They must get the populace to accept that the rulers are truly good people working tirelessly to advance the common good. Toward that end, the rulers employ a bag of tricks, among them the writing of history to cast the State in a positive light.

Such accounts do not have to be and usually aren’t downright false. The writers need only select the “right” facts to create the desired impression.

The task of historians who understand that the pro-State accounts are misleading is difficult, requiring not just that they write differing, corrective narratives, but also that they fend off the inevitable reaction that they are doing something “unpatriotic” in undermining belief in the saintliness of our government.

In this book Jeff Riggenbach introduces his readers to revisionist historians who have sought to change the way Americans understand their history. If you have never heard of Charles Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, James Martin, William Appleman Williams, or other revisionists, the book will inform you how they came to reject the conventional view of our history and the impact of their work.

Consider first the Constitution. Most Americans believe that the nation was facing a crisis under the Articles of Confederation, so a group of wise and public-spirited men assembled to draft a much better and indeed nearly ideal plan of government. Revisionists have punctured both of those notions. There was no crisis under the Articles, and as for the Constitution, its somewhat vague language did not—and perhaps was not meant to—prevent the reemergence of a government that could assist favored commercial interests. History professor Arthur Ekirch wrote that the Constitution provided “a skeleton for the further development of a strong paternalistic state.”

What about the Civil War? The standard view is that the states of the Confederacy acted illegally in seceding from the Union and did so to preserve slavery. If you accept that, the war looks justified. Beard and Williams, however, saw things differently. Williams argued that “the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right of self-determination—the touchstone of the American Revolution.” Regarding slavery, Beard observed that abolition had never appeared in the platform of any major political party and few northern citizens cared about it, much less wanted war over it.

American involvement in World War I has also come in for a great deal of criticism from revisionists. The pro-State line is that President Woodrow Wilson had to bring the United States into the war to keep the vicious Germans and Austrians from crushing the peaceful, democratic Allies, and that mission was brilliantly accomplished. Harry Elmer Barnes, among others, thought the prowar, pro-Wilson adulation was absurd. Moreover, it took Americans’ attention away from the fact that the war had caused a shocking deterioration of liberties we had always taken for granted.

Okay, but World War II (“the good war”) is certainly above question—right? No. A number of revisionists maintain that the Roosevelt administration contrived to put the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii as bait for the Japanese (a top-ranking admiral was sacked when he complained about moving it from San Diego to Pearl Harbor), made diplomatic moves in November 1941 intended to provoke the Japanese, and gave the commanders in Hawaii no warning of the likelihood of an attack.

Revisionists have similarly taken a skeptical view of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Iraq. Nor have their efforts been limited to challenging pro-State justifications for war. Some have worked to correct conventional beliefs about our economic history, especially the Depression and the New Deal.

A remarkable fact about the revisionists is that although they come from different political philosophies (Riggenbach groups them as “Progressive,” “New Left,” and “Libertarian”), they have come to conclusions that are quite consistent. State power is predatory and harmful, except to some special interests. No, the Progressives, new leftists, and libertarians don’t agree on everything, but there’s more commonality than you might expect, particularly when it comes to war.

Riggenbach argues that the terms “left,” “right,” “liberal,” and “conservative” themselves need revision. Those terms arose from the French national assembly following the overthrow of Louis XVI, where deputies who wanted to conserve the old order of strong governmental control mostly sat on the right side, while those who advocated more individual liberty sat on the left. Therefore, he argues, we currently have two “conservative” parties since both Democrats and Republicans mostly want to maintain the statist, corporatist status quo.

An enlightening and provocative book.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Jeff Riggenbach - journalist and historian - has narrated numerous titles for Blackstone Audio, University Press Audiobooks, and other audio publishers.  He was executive editor of The Libertarian Review and served as a contributing editor of Reason, Inquiry, and Samuel Edward Konkin's New Libertarian.  He produced the nationally broadcast daily libertarian radio program, Byline, for the Cato Institute throughout the 1980s.  His books include In Praise of Decadence 1998); Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009); Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor and the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014); and The Libertarian Tradition (2015).