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

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also by jeff riggenbach
In Praise of Decadence
Jeff Riggenbach
Ludwig von Mises Institute, 518 West Magnolia Avenue, Auburn,
Alabama 36832; mises.org.
Copyright 2009 © by Jeff Riggenbach
Published under Creative Commons attribution license 3.0
ISBN: 978-1-933550-49-7
History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly
unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly
knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
—ambrose bierce
The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)
This book is for Suzanne, who made it possible.
Portions of Chapter Three and Chapter Five appeared earlier, in
somewhat different form, in Liberty magazine, on RationalReview.
com, and on Antiwar.com. David J. Theroux of the Independent
Institute, Andrea Millen Rich of the Center for Independent
Thought, and Alexia Gilmore of the Randolph Bourne Institute
were generous with their assistance during the researching
and writing stages of this project. Ellen Stuttle was her usual
indispensable self. And, of course, responsibility for any errors of
fact, usage, or judgment in these pages is entirely my own.
The Art of History
Objectivity in History
History and Fiction
The Historical Fiction of Kenneth Roberts
The Historical Fiction of John Dos Passos
The Historical Fiction of Gore Vidal:
The “American Chronicle” Novels
Burr and Lincoln
1876, Empire, and Hollywood
Hollywood and The Golden Age
The Story of American Revisionism
The Birth of American Revisionism and
the Rise of Harry Elmer Barnes
Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams:
From Progressivism to the New Left
Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin:
From Progressivism to Libertarianism
James J. Martin: Historian and Pamphleteer
The Libertarian Historians and Their Colleagues on the New Left
Some American Wars—Both Hot And Cold—
Through Revisionist Eyes
u.s. Civil War—the Revisionist View
America in the World Wars—A Revisionist Perspective
A Revisionist Look at America in the Cold War
The Politics of the American Revisionists
“Left” and “Right,” “Conservative” and “Liberal,”
Differentiated Historically
The Decline of American Liberalism—the Early Years
Conservative Republicans and Liberal
Democrats in 19th Century America
Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson,
and the Triumph of Conservatism
Herbert Hoover’s New Deal
The Myth of the “Old Right”
vii. The Goldwater Anomaly
viii. The Reagan Fraud—and After
The New American History Wars
American History According to Eric Foner
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. vs. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen
History, Fiction, and Objectivity—Some Concluding Observations 203
Why Textbooks Matter
The Breakdown of the Consensus—the Case of Howard Zinn
“Now there are some who would like to rewrite history—
revisionist historians is what I like to call them.”
—george w. bush
June 16, 2003
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-aspure-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 Ph.Ds 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, 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 “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-libertyprosperity-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—Ph.Ds and members of the professoriate though they
might be. Still, doubts lingered in more than a few minds. First there
was the problem of Vidal’s well known political views and his highprofile 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
an 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 . . . .
Objectivity in History
IT is two decades now since University of Chicago historian Peter Novick
published his landmark work That Noble Dream, a gloomy analysis of
“the objectivity question” and its importance for the American historical
profession. In 1989, That Noble Dream won the American Historical Association’s prize for the best book of the year in American history. From
the date of its original publication a year earlier, it attracted much, and
heated, attention. Yet, in all the years that have passed since its first appearance, little or no progress has been made toward any sort of solution
for the conundrum Novick posed in his book.
On the one hand, Novick argued, the “ideal of ‘objectivity’” had
long been “the rock” on which “the professional historical venture” in
this country “was constituted, its continuing raison d’être. It has been
the quality which the profession has prized and praised above all others—whether in historians or in their works. It has been the key term
in defining progress in historical scholarship: moving ever closer to
the objective truth about the past.” 1 On the other hand, this ideal of
objectivity is “essentially confused.” It is based on “philosophical assumptions” that are “dubious.” It is “psychologically and sociologically
naïve. As a practical matter, I think it promotes an unreal and misleading invidious distinction between, on the one hand, historical accounts
‘distorted’ by ideological assumptions and purposes; on the other, history free of these taints.” 2
Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, uk: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 1.
Ibid., p. 6.
For, of course, there is no history that is free of such “taints.” In a post
to an e-mail discussion group on December 12, 1995, Novick noted that
[i]n writing a work of history, the historian inevitably […] is radically
selective, choosing from among the infinite number of (“true”) facts
which could be recorded a small portion which he or she will record.
Further, also inevitably, some are centered, others marginalized. And
all of them are necessarily arranged, in different ways. Selection, centering, and arrangement are inherent in the process; and are typically
decisive in determining the sort of picture which emerges.3
And yet, to say all this is barely to have scratched the surface of the problem. For before the historian can select, center, marginalize, or arrange
the facts, he or she must first ascertain the facts. And this is by no means
as unproblematical a matter as at first it might seem.
“The past is never dead,” the attorney Gavin Stevens declares in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” 4 What he means
by this is plain enough to anyone who has ever taken a stroll through
any of our older American cities—Boston, for example, or New York or
Philadelphia or San Francisco. Walking through such a place, one passes, like a geologist, through what Carl Gustavson calls “a present world
which is also the world of the past,” a world in which “outcroppings” of
the past—buildings, statues, place names, institutions, and even transportation infrastructure (like San Francisco’s famous cable car tracks)—
appear cheek by jowl and fully contemporaneous with buildings, statues,
place names, institutions, and transportation infrastructure established
only within the last few years, or at least within living memory. 5 Stevens
was right. The past is still here. It is all around us, inescapable, no matter how we may try to shatter the bonds that tie us to it.
There is a problem, however. For not all of the past is still here.
Some of it is still here. But the rest—the majority—is indeed past, gone,
inaccessible. The historian, in studying the past, “is at a great disadvantage when compared to the trained journalist on the spot,” wrote Harry
Elmer Barnes, for that journalist “witnessed the events at first hand.”
The historian, by contrast, “can never have more than a secondhand
and remote contact with the issues, events and peoples he is seeking
to describe.” 6 Still, the historian, in putting together the best possible
See http://www-english.tamu.edu/pers/fac/myers/novick_debate.html
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 92.
Carl G. Gustavson, A Preface to History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), p.16.
Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing (Norman, ok: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1938), p. 370.
secondhand account, can make productive use of such buildings, statues, place names, institutions, and transportation infrastructure as may
remain from the time in question. Mainly, however, s/he will tend to
rely on documents. “The reason,” John Tosh reminds us, “is not just
academic conservatism. From the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300) onwards, the written word survives in greater abundance than any other
source for Western history.” 7
The surviving written word is of a number of types. There are published and unpublished sources. The unpublished sources include the
diaries, journals, and letters of individuals; the records and correspondence of those engaged in business enterprises; and the paperwork generated by government at all its levels. The published sources include
flyers, pamphlets, almanacs, catalogues, newspapers, magazines, and
books. Far and away the most important of these latter—“the most important published primary source for the historian,” Tosh calls it—is
the daily newspaper. Nor should this be surprising. Newspapers “record
the political and social views which made most impact at the time”;
moreover, they “provide a day-to-day record of events” and “from time
to time present the results of more thorough enquiries into issues which
lie beyond the scope of routine news-reporting.” 8
On the other hand, daily newspapers are by no means perfect sources of information for the historian. As Tosh notes,
the very fact of publication sets a limit on the value of […] these
sources. They contain only what was considered to be fit for public
consumption—what governments were prepared to reveal, what journalists could elicit from tight-lipped informants, what editors thought
would gratify their readers, or [politicians] their constituents. In each
case there is a controlling purpose which may limit, distort or falsify
what is said. 9
More important, “they recount only what people found worthy of note
about their own age—which may not be what interests us today.” 10
Then, too, even if newspaper accounts of events did focus on what
interests us today, and even if the reporters and editors responsible for
them were able to gain access to the information they sought, there
would still be the age-old problem of journalistic incompetence. A hun7
John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of
Modern History (London: Longman, 1991), p. 31.
8 Ibid., pp. 37-38.
9 Ibid., p. 39.
10 Ibid., p. 34.
dred years ago, George Bernard Shaw satirized it in The Doctor’s Dilemma in the person of an unnamed character, The Newspaper Man,
a cheerful, affable young man who is disabled for ordinary business
pursuits by a congenital erroneousness which renders him incapable
of describing accurately anything he sees, or understanding or reporting accurately anything he hears. As the only employment in
which these defects do not matter is journalism (for a newspaper, not
having to act on its descriptions and reports, but only to sell them to
idly curious people, has nothing but honor to lose by inaccuracy and
unveracity), he has perforce become a journalist, and has to keep up
an air of high spirits through a daily struggle with his own illiteracy
and the precariousness of his employment. 11
Fifty years ago, H. L. Mencken did not find the situation markedly
improved. “The more reflective reader,” he wrote “reads next to nothing”
in the way of newspapers
and believes the same amount precisely. Why should he read or believe more? Every time he alights on anything that impinges upon
his own field of knowledge he discovers at once that it is inaccurate
and puerile. The essential difficulty here is that journalism, to be
intellectually respectable, requires a kind of equipment in its practitioner that is necessarily rare in the world […]. He should have the
widest conceivable range of knowledge, and he should be the sort
of man who is not easily deluded by the specious and the fraudulent. Obviously, there are not enough such men to go round. The
best newspaper, if it is lucky, may be able to muster half a dozen at
a given moment, but the average newspaper seldom has even one.
Thus American journalism (like the journalism of any other country)
is predominantly paltry and worthless. Its pretensions are enormous,
but its achievements are insignificant. 12
And today, according to the late David Shaw, longtime media critic
of the Los Angeles Times, the situation detailed by Bernard Shaw and
by Mencken persists. “I’ve long since lost track,” Shaw reported to his
readers on May 22, 2005, not long before his death, “of the number of
times that readers from all walks of life have told me, ‘Any time I read
anything in the paper that I know anything about, it’s wrong.’” 13
Consider then the plight of the historian dependent upon newspaper accounts for his information about a period, a series of events, the
11 Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma: A Tragedy (London: Penguin, 1946), pp.167-168.
12 H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York: Knopf,
1956), p. 74.
13 See http://poynter.org/dg.lts/id.45/aid.82799/column.htm
doings and sayings of an historical figure—the “facts” which are his
principal concern. “The historian possesses the advantage of better perspective on the events recorded in the newspapers,” according to Barnes,
“and he can check and compare the reports submitted in the various
newspapers. Yet, his results cannot, in the end, be more accurate than
the sources which he has used.” 14
Of course, newspapers do not stand embarrassed and alone with regard to these deficiencies. Quite the contrary, for, as John Tosh observes,
“[m]any primary sources are inaccurate, muddled, based on hearsay or
intended to mislead,” and, indeed, “the majority of sources are in some
way inaccurate, incomplete or tainted by prejudice and self-interest.” 15
So some of the facts the historian needs are inaccessible and much
of what is accessible is also unreliable. But never mind all that. When
it comes to the facts of history, we have what we have, and whatever its
deficiencies we must make do with it. Novick emphasizes, as we have
seen, that history is “radically selective.” Tosh agrees. “The facts are not
given,” he writes, “they are selected.” Moreover,
Historical writing of all kinds is determined as much by what it
leaves out as by what it puts in. That is why it makes sense to distinguish […] between the facts of the past and the facts of history.
The former are limitless and in their entirety unknowable; the latter
represent a selection made by successive historians for the purpose
of historical reconstruction and explanation.
But “[i]f historical facts are selected, it is important to identify the criteria employed in selecting them. Are there commonly shared principles,
or is it a matter of personal whim?” 16
The answer, of course, is neither—or, perhaps, both. To some extent the criteria will be personal—though, for all that, not necessarily whimsical; and such commonly shared principles as may exist may
not necessarily redound to the benefit of those who seek useful information from their study of history. Consider, as a case in point, the
commonly shared principles that informed most high-school-and-college-level textbook writing in the field of American history until very,
very recently. The American history taught in most schools during the
past hundred years faithfully reflected received opinion, and received
opinion sees the United States as a consistent, devoted partisan of
the same spirit of individual liberty that once moved its Founders—
14 Barnes, op.cit., p. 370.
15 Tosh, op.cit., pp. 33, 65-66.
16 Ibid., pp. 136-137.
a peace-loving nation that wishes the rest of the world only the best
and never goes to war except in self-defense (or in defense of Western
Civilization itself).
Apply this set of principles to what we know of the past and, at the
end of the day, you’ll wind up with quite a pile of facts that didn’t meet
the criteria for selection and now litter the cutting room floor. The facts
about the gross violations of individual liberty that have been championed by u.s. presidents almost since the beginning, for example—
John Adams’s Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s genocidal treatment of
the American Indians, Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription (to
say nothing of his suspension of habeas corpus and his imprisonment
of newspaper editors who dared to disagree with his prosecution of
the Civil War), William McKinley’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines after the Spanish American
War, Franklin Roosevelt’s order to round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry and imprison them in concentration camps—are any of
these inconvenient facts likely to be selected for inclusion in a textbook
based on the “commonly shared principle” of the saintliness of the u.s.
But if John Tosh is correct, the only alternative to such “commonly
shared principles” is “personal whim.” As Harry Elmer Barnes put it,
[a] historical fact refers to a specific concatenation of circumstances
which was both born and terminated at the moment of its occurrence. When we say that we have discovered a historical fact we actually mean only that we have acquired information which allows us
to make a highly subjective and incomplete reconstruction of one or
more of the elements which once existed in a now extinct historical
situation. No one can ever entirely recreate this historical entity and,
in general, we make of a historical fact essentially what we put into
it as a result of our subjective imagination. 17
When Barnes refers to the historian’s “reconstruction” of an historical event as “highly subjective,” when he declares that what “we make of
a historical fact” is “essentially what we put into it,” using “our subjective imagination,” this may sound at first like a warning of impending
disaster. Surely if every historian relied on “subjective imagination” as
the basis for selecting facts, no two historical accounts would agree, and
the discipline of history would be plunged into chaos.
17 Barnes, op.cit., p. 267.
History and Fiction
But we should calm ourselves; no such outcome looms on the horizon. To understand why, we should turn our attention at least briefly
to what may seem at first an obvious irrelevancy—namely, the world
of imaginative literature, and particularly fiction. Today, history is regarded, if not as one of the social sciences, then at least as an independent discipline that deals in facts, not fancies; in edification, not
entertainment. But it was not always thus. Harry Elmer Barnes reports
that before the 18th Century, “there had been either no attempt to cite
sources or else the citations had been hopelessly confused; there had
been no general practice of establishing the genuineness of a text; there
had been little hesitancy in altering the text of a document to improve
the style.” 18 And even after the 18th Century itself had begun to fade
into history, the new standards Barnes describes had still not really
become universal. On the contrary: “Prior to the French Revolution,”
Hayden White writes,
historiography was conventionally regarded as a literary art. […] The
eighteenth century abounds in works which distinguish between the
study of history on the one side and the writing of history on the
other. The writing was a literary, specifically rhetorical exercise, and
the product of this exercise was to be assessed as much on literary as
on scientific principles.” 19
In point of fact, until late in the 19th Century, most historians regarded
themselves neither as social scientists (a concept that did not even exist
before the 19th Century) nor as humanistic scholars, but rather as literary
men, men of letters. The stories they were telling were true, of course,
but nonetheless they were telling stories, just as though they were novelists, and their job, as they saw it, was to tell their stories as vividly and
poetically as any novelist. Peter Novick reports that
George Bancroft, William Lothrop Motley, William H. Prescott,
and Francis Parkman […] each, in at least one of their major works,
employed the organization of the stage play, with a prologue, five acts,
and an epilogue. Sir Walter Scott was, by a wide margin, the most
18 Ibid., p. 241.
19 Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 123.
popular and imitated author in the early-nineteenth-century United
States, and the florid style of the “literary” historians gave clear evidence of his influence. 20
And not only did the most representative 19th Century historians
think of themselves as litterateurs, most of them saw themselves in particular as the providers of an important kind of inspirational literature.
As Novick puts it,
[t]he “gentleman amateurs” wrote not to keep the pot boiling, or out
of professional obligation to colleagues, but because they had an urgent message to deliver to the general reading public. “If ten people
in the world hate despotism a little more and love civil and religious
liberty a little better in consequence of what I have written, I shall be
satisified,” Motley wrote.21
More specifically, most of the 19th Century American historians were
convinced that, as Peter Charles Hoffer writes,
by celebrating our history we might heal our political differences.
Look to the Founders, these historical boosters argued; praise, exalt,
and honor them. Ignore their faults and failings, for the message must
be an uplifting one to which everyone can subscribe. The greatest of
the Founders, George Washington, became at the hands of the itinerant bookseller and preacher Mason Weems an unblemished paragon
of virtue, whose “great talents, constantly guided and guarded by religion he put at the service of his country.” 22
Of course, in order to transform George Washington into “an unblemished paragon of virtue,” Weems had to exercise a bit of literary license,
even making up one of his most famous anecdotes—that of the young
Washington and the cherry tree—out of whole cloth.
But Weems was far from alone in employing such techniques. As
Hoffer puts it, “Against the vast profit perceived in this approach, what
reader could object to the historians’ rearrangement of their subjects’
language, or to their selective use of facts?” Hoffer calls attention to “an
1835 edition of Washington’s letters, edited by Reverend Jared Sparks,”
in which the editor “regularly altered Washington’s words” and “sometimes pasted one piece of a document into another document entirely.”
Yet, so far as readers and other historians were concerned, “[i]t did not
20 Novick, op.cit., pp. 44-45.
21 Ibid., p. 45.
22 Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from
Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesisles, Ellis, and Goodwin (New York: Public
Affairs, 2004), pp. 18-19.
seem to matter […]. After all, the entire purpose of editing the letters
was moral instruction, and ministers like Sparks long had the tradition
of cutting and pasting Scripture in their sermons.” 23
Hoffer also suggests that we take a close look at George Bancroft’s
“monumental ten-volume History of the United States, the last volume of
which appeared in 1874. Bancroft’s History was to become the standard
work on American history for generations. […] When he died in 1891, he
was the most honored of our historians, and his works were widely read.”
Bancroft “believed that his job was to write a chronicle that would make
his readers proud of their country’s history,” Hoffer tells us,
[a]nd when it suited his didactic purposes, he fabricated. He “felt free
[as Bancroft himself explained in the preface to his great work] to
change tenses or moods, to transpose parts of quotations, to simplify
language, and to give free renditions.” If the purpose of history was
to tell stories that taught lessons, such “blending” could hardly be
objectionable, and for contemporary reviewers, it was not. 24
Hoffer notes that Bancroft was also sloppy about crediting his sources. For example, he “made no real distinction between primary sources
and secondary sources. When a secondary source cited a passage from
a primary source, Bancroft felt perfectly free to reuse the language of
the secondary source in his own account wilthout identifying it as such.
He cited the secondary-source pages, but copied or closely paraphrased
rather than quoted.” After all, a work of history was a work of literature,
was it not? All that really mattered was whether the passage in question
fit into the flow of the style, whether it fit artistically into the work—
not whether it was accompanied by some sort of footnote!
It was the tail end of the 19th Century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent
that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of
their discipline that we now take for granted—the historian as dispassionate seeker after truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist
or sociologist than a novelist or playwright. Still, there were holdouts.
The long tradition of historical works written by novelists and poets and
offered frankly, not as scholarship but as lovely letters, died particularly
hard. In the 1890s, just as the new social-scientist paradigm was at last
coming to dominate the historical profession, Edgar Saltus, a then very
popular and successful writer who is now utterly forgotten, was putting
the finishing touches on his best known and most frequently reprinted
23 Ibid., p. 19.
24 Ibid., pp. 21-22.
book, Imperial Purple (1892), a specimen of what Claire Sprague calls “a
genre almost non-existent today—history decked in the colorful impressionism of the magazine essay of the last [19th] century.” 25 Before his
death in 1921, Saltus would also do for Russia’s Romanov dynasty what
he had done for the Caesars of imperial Rome in Imperial Purple. The
Imperial Orgy was brought out by Boni and Liveright in 1920.
A few years later, the renowned poet Carl Sandburg would begin
publishing an even more ambitious work, though one quite as free of
footnotes or bibliography as Saltus’s works had been—a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. “The two volumes of The Prairie Years
were the publishing event of 1926,” reports James Hurt, “and the four
volumes of The War Years were an equal success in 1939.” 26 As late as
1969, Richard Cobb, whom John Tosh describes as “a leading historian
of the French Revolution,” could write of the historian that “His principal aim is to make the dead live. And, like the American ‘mortician,’
he may allow himself a few artifices of the trade: a touch of rouge
here, a pencil-stroke there, a little cotton wool in the cheeks, to make
the operation more convincing.” 27 Only five years later, in 1974, the
late Shelby Foote, who made his early reputation as a novelist, published the last volume of what The New York Times called his “2,934page, three-volume, 1.5 million-word military history, The Civil War: A
Narrative,” a work characterized by “punctilious, but defiantly unfootnoted research.” It was immensely popular, earning “considerably more
in royalties than any of his novels had earned,” and winning him an
invitation to serve as a consultant and onscreen expert for the “smash
hit” Ken Burns documentary on the war, a job that made Foote into “a
prime-time star.” 28
It is difficult indeed to ignore the many similarities between the historian’s task and that of the novelist. As Hayden White writes, “[v] iewed
simply as verbal artifacts histories and novels are indistinguishable from
one another.” Moreover,
the aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of the writer
of a history. Both wish to provide a verbal image of “reality.” The
novelist may present his notion of this reality indirectly, that is to say,
25 Claire Sprague, Edgar Saltus (New York: Twayne, 1968), p. 72.
26 James Hurt, “Sandburg’s Lincoln Within History.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln
Association. Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter 1999), p. 55.
27 Tosh, op.cit., pp. 23-24.
28 See Douglas Martin, “Shelby Foote, Historian and Novelist, Dies at 88.” The
New York Times 29 June 2005. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/29/
by figurative techniques, rather than directly, which is to say, by registering a series of propositions which are supposed to correspond
point by point to some extra-textual domain of occurrence or happening, as the historian claims to do. But the image of reality which
the novelist thus constructs is meant to correspond in its general
outline to some domain of human experience which is no less “real”
than that referred to by the historian. 29
To achieve this common end of “providing a verbal image of ‘reality,’”
both historians and novelists tell stories. “The late R. G. Collingwood
insisted,” White reminds us,
that the historian was above all a story teller and suggested that historical sensibility was manifested in the capacity to make a plausible
story out of a congeries of “facts” which, in their unprocessed form,
made no sense at all. In their efforts to make sense of the historical record, which is fragmentary and always incomplete, historians have to
make use of what Collingwood called “the constructive imagination,”
which told the historian—as it tells the competent detective—what
“must have been the case” given the available evidence […].
“Collingwood suggested,” according to White, “that historians
come to their evidence endowed with a sense of the possible forms that
different kinds of recognizably human situations can take. He called
this sense the nose for the ‘story’ contained in the evidence or for the ‘true’
story that was buried in or hidden behind the ‘apparent’ story.” 30 Journalists, those historians in a hurry who provide what legendary Washington
Post publisher Phillip Graham famously called the “first rough draft
of […] history” (and whose rough draft not infrequently becomes the
final draft), make a very similar disinction. You either have a “nose for
news,” they say—good “news sense,” good “news judgment”—or you
don’t. If you do, you can see the story contained in the evidence, the
true story buried or hidden behind the apparent (or, sometimes, the
official) story.
The important point here is that describing any historical event,
whether one that took place yesterday or one that took place a century
ago, by telling a story is inescapably an act of imagination. As White
sketches the problem,
traditional historiography has featured predominantly the belief that
history itself consists of a congeries of lived stories, individual and
collective, and that the principal task of historians is to uncover these
29 White, op.cit., p. 122.
30 Ibid., pp. 83-84.
stories and to retell them in a narrative, the truth of which would
reside in the correspondence of the story told to the story lived by real
people in the past. 31
Yet, “real events do not offer themselves as stories […].” 32 In fact,
the notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes
of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin
in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really represent itself
to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects,
proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits
us to see “the end” in every beginning? Or does it present itself […]
either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of
beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? 33
In short, “stories are not lived; there is no such thing as a real story. Stories are told or written, not found. And as for the notion of a true story,
this is virtually a contradiction in terms. All stories are fictions. Which
means, of course, that they can be true only in a metaphorical sense and
in the sense in which a figure of speech can be true.” 34
A metaphor is a lie that conveys truth—or, at any rate, what the
maker of the metaphor regards as truth. “Men are pigs.” “The world
is a ghetto.” “The years are gusts of wind, and we are the leaves they
carry away.” 35 Taken literally, all these statements are untrue. They are
falsehoods, lies. Taken figuratively, however, each of them conveys an
arguable truth about its subject. A novel—a long, elaborate lie, involving the events in the lives of wholly imaginary human beings—is a
metaphor for human life in the world as we know it. In this sense,
every work of fiction is philosophical, because every work of fiction
conveys an at least implicit statement about or judgment upon the human condition.
This does not mean that every fiction writer is also a philosopher
or even philosophical by temperament. Consider, in regard to this issue, the testimony of three fiction writers who are also, in some sense,
31 Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. ix-x.
32 Ibid., p. 4.
33 Ibid., p. 24.
34 Hayden White, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 9.
35 The last of my three examples of metaphor is attributed to the French poet, novelist, and playwright Philippe Auguste Mathias de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (18381889). The second example is taken from the title of a hit popular song of 1972,
written and performed by the rhythm and blues band War.
philosophers: Jean Paul Sartre, William H. Gass, and Ayn Rand. 36 According to Gass, “ fiction, in the manner of its making, is pure philosophy,” and “the novelist and the philosopher are companions in a
common enterprise, though they go about it in different ways.” 37 “The
esthetic aim of any fiction,” he writes, “is the creation of a verbal world
[…], often as intricate and rigorous as any mathematic, often as simple
and undemanding as a baby’s toy, from whose nature, as from our own
world, a philosophical system may be inferred […].” 38 Moreover, “the
world the novelist makes is always a metaphorical model of our own.” 39
Nevertheless, “[t]he philosophy that most writers embody in their work
[…] is usually taken unconsciously from the tradition with which the
writer is allied.” Alternatively, “[h]e may have represented, in just the
confused way it existed, the world his generation saw and believed they
lived in […].” 40
Rand agrees. “The art of any given period or culture,” she writes, “is
a faithful mirror of that culture’s philosophy.” This is so because “[s]ome
sort of philosophical meaning […], some implicit view of life, is a necessary element of a work of art.” Art is “the voice of philosophy.” 41 Indeed,
in a sense, art is the language we employ to express philosophical ideas.
Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units—so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into the
equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct
perception. The claim that “art is a universal language is not an
empty metaphor, it is literally true […].
36 Sartre published works of technical philosophy (Being and Nothingness), novels
(Nausea), and plays (No Exit). Rand did the same (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Atlas Shrugged, The Night of January 16th). Gass’s case is a bit different. He
received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell and calls his meeting with Ludwig
Wittgenstein there in the 1950s “the most important intellectual experience of my
life.” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, p. 248) He earned his living as a philosophy
professor for nearly fifty years, first at Purdue, latterly at Washington University
in St. Louis, from which he retired in 2001. His publications have all been literary
in character, including novels (Omensetter’s Luck), short stories (In the Heart of the
Heart of the Country), belles lettres (On Being Blue), and literary criticism (Fiction
and the Figures of Life).
37 William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Knopf, 1970), pp. 3, 5.
38 Ibid., pp. 7-9.
39 Ibid., p. 60.
40 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
41 Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: World,
1969), pp. 79, 50, 28.
The philosophical ideas that are “in the air,” taken for granted, during
the lifetime of a fiction writer need not, cannot, be the only source of
the philosophical ideas that find their way into that fiction writer’s fiction, however. Another source, one drawn upon by many novelists, is
religion, which Rand calls “the primitive form of philosophy.” 42 Still another, drawn upon inescapably by every fiction writer, is the individual
writer’s “sense of life.”
“A sense of life,” Rand wrote in 1966, “is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of
man and of existence.”
Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics,
man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions
and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and valuejudgment implies some estimate of himself and of the world around
him—most particularly, of his capacity to deal with the world. He
may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he
may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely
feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums
up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions
or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern
and becomes his automatic response to the world around him. What
began as a series of single, discrete conclusions (or evasions) about
his own particular problems, becomes a generalized feeling about
existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational
power of a constant, basic emotion—an emotion which is part of all
his other emotions and underlies all his experiences. This is a sense
of life. 43
According to Rand, “[t]he key concept, in the formation of a sense of
life, is the term ‘important,’” and it is crucial that we understand, she
says, that
“[i]mportant”—in its essential meaning, as distinguished from its
more limited and superficial uses—is a metaphysical term. It pertains to that aspect of metaphysics which serves as a bridge between
metaphysics and ethics: to a fundamental view of man’s nature. That
view involves the answers to such questions as whether the universe
is knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not,
whether he can achieve his goals in life or not. The answers to such
questions are “metaphysical value-judgments,” since they form the
basis of ethics.
42 Ibid., p. 23.
43 Ibid., pp. 31-32.
In the end, “[i]t is only those values which he regards or grows to regard
as ‘important,’ those which represent his implicit view of reality, that
remain in a man’s subconscious and form his sense of life.” 44
And what has all this to do with fiction writing? Everything, for, as
Rand puts it, “[e]sthetic abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what
is important?” Another way of saying this is that “[a]n artist […] selects
those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant—and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant
and accidental, he presents his view of existence.” 45 Thus, particularly
among those fiction writers who are unphilosophical, but to some extent among all fiction writers, “[i]t is the artist’s sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has
to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style.” 46
Accordingly, Rand defines art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” 47
Needless to say, then, by publishing a novel, a novelist displays his
metaphysical value-judgments, his sense of life, for all to see. As Rand
puts it, “nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man’s
character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work […].” 48 Sartre
saw the same phenomenon. Literary artists, he wrote, are noted for “the
involuntary expression of their souls. I say involuntary because the dead,
from Montaigne to Rimbaud, have painted themselves completely, but
without having meant to—it is something they have simply thrown into
the bargain.” 49 They could hardly have done otherwise, however, Sartre
notes, for
[i]f I fix on canvas or in writing a certain aspect of the fields or
the sea or a look on someone’s face which I have disclosed, I am
conscious of having produced them by condensing relationships, by
introducing order where there was none, by imposing the unity of
mind on the diversity of things. That is, I feel myself essential in
relation to my creation. 50
For when it comes to “the unique point of view from which the author
can present the world,” it is always and everywhere true that “if our cre44
Ibid., pp. 34-35.
Ibid., p. 46.
Ibid., pp. 43-44.
Ibid., p. 22.
Ibid., p. 55.
Jean Paul Sartre, Literature and Existentialism (New York: Citadel, 1962), p. 32.
Ibid., p. 39.
ative drive comes from the very depths of our heart, then we never find
anything but ourselves in our work.” 51
But of course, all this is true of historians as well. Most historians
are no more philosophically minded than most fiction writers. On the
contrary, they are notoriously “sceptical of abstraction,” as John Gray put
it not long ago in the New Statesman. 52 Yet every work they produce has
philosophical implications, provides support for various general ideas—
ideas about the nature of government, for example, and the utility of
war, and the way national economies work. Where do these ideas come
from, in the works of unphilosophical historians wary of “loose generalization” (as Gray puts it)? Some of them are inherited, so to speak, from
earlier practitioners of the historian’s particular area of specialization.
Some are absorbed unthinkingly from the culture in which the historian grows up and matures. Still others are provided by sense of life. For
every historian has a sense of life, just as every fiction writer does—a set
of “metaphysical value-judgments” built up subconsciously over years
of living until they provide a sort of “automatic response to the world”
and an automatic answer to such questions as “whether the universe is
knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not, whether
he can achieve his goals in life or not.” How any given historian has
inwardly answered such questions will exercise considerable influence
over what that historian regards as a realistic view of government, war,
and economics—and, thus, how that historian treats these subjects in
his or her work.
It is little wonder, then, that Roy A. Childs, Jr., ever an assiduous student of Ayn Rand, offered the following definition of history in
his influential essay, “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism”:
“History is a selective recreation of the events of the past, according to a
historian’s premises regarding what is important and his judgment concerning the nature of causality in human action.” 53 Childs saw clearly
that the historian proceeds much as the fiction writer proceeds, and obtains similar results. Nor was he alone in doing so. John Tosh writes that
“[i]n many instances the sources do not directly address the central issues
of historical explanation at all. […] Questions of historical explanation
51 Ibid., pp. 63, 40.
52 See his review of Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud in the
New Statesman for 28 May 2005. Online at http://www.newstatesman.com/
53 Roy A. Childs, Jr., “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” in Liberty
Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr., ed. Joan Kennedy Taylor (San Francisco:
Fox & Wilkes, 1994), p. 18.
cannot, therefore, be resolved solely by reference to the evidence. Historians are also guided […] by their reading of human nature […].” 54
The legendary economist and social theorist Ludwig von Mises notes
that any historical writing “is necessarily conditioned by the historian’s
world view” and stresses the importance of what he calls “the understanding” in making sense of historical evidence.
The historian’s genuine problem is always to interpret things as they
happened. But he cannot solve this problem on the ground of the theorems provided by all other sciences alone. There always remains at
the bottom of each of his problems something which resists analysis
at the hand of these teachings of other sciences. It is these individual
and unique characteristics of each event which […] the historian can
understand […] because he is himself a human being. 55
More recently, the historian John Lewis Gaddis has proposed that every
historian approaches his subject with certain assumptions, based on personal experience, about “how things happen” in the world—assumptions
about “the way the world is,” 56 the way the world works. “Sorting out
the difference between how things happen and how things happened,”
Gaddis writes, “involves more than just changing a verb tense. It’s an
important part of what’s involved in achieving [a] closer fit between
representation and reality.” 57
But if the historical enterprise can be difficult to distinguish from
the fictional enterprise (particularly in light of the concept, introduced
some four decades ago by Truman Capote, of the “non-fiction novel”),
what does this imply about so-called “historical fiction”? Is there any
reason a reader should place any more confidence in the work of an
historian than in the work of an historical novelist? The answer is
that everything depends on what historian we’re talking about, what
novelist we’re talking about, and what kind of historical fiction we’re
talking about.
54 Tosh, op.cit., p. 141.
55 Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Edition.
(New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 49.
56 This phrase has long been associated with the American philosopher Nelson
Goodman (1906-1998). Anyone interested in Ayn Rand’s concept of sense of life
would profit from reading Goodman’s classic 1960 essay “The Way the World Is,”
reprinted recently in Peter J. McCormick, ed. Starmaking: Realism, Anti-Realism,
and Irrealism (Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 1996), pp. 3-10.
57 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 106-107.
The Historical Fiction of Kenneth Roberts
Consider, in brief summary, the careers of three prominent historical
novelists of the last century: Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), John Dos Passos (1896-1970), and Gore Vidal (1925-). Kenneth Roberts grew up in
his hometown of Kennebunkport, Maine, matriculated at Cornell from
1904 to 1908, then traveled to Massachusetts, where he spent a decade
as a reporter and columnist for the Boston Post. He served in u.s. Army
intelligence during World War I, then joined the staff of the Saturday
Evening Post as a roving correspondent. He spent the next decade moving constantly, from London to Paris to Berlin to Prague to Washington,
D.C. and back again, in search of material for his articles for America’s
most popular general magazine.
Finally, in 1928, at the age of forty-three, Roberts turned his back
on journalism and embarked on a project he had long considered and
dreamed about, but had never before attempted: the writing of a carefully researched historical novel. “I’ve had a theory for a great many years,”
he wrote in a 1935 letter, “that a writer can write more effectively about
his own people than he can about people that aren’t in his blood.... My
people have always lived in Maine.” 58 Four years earlier, in a letter to
fellow writer Julian Street, he had confessed that he began writing historical novels to help insure preservation of “the speech, the events, the
customs and the appearance” of his beloved native state. 59 Accordingly,
then, he called this first historical novel of his Arundel (Arundel having
been the original name of Kennebunkport—the name was changed in
1821). Arundel was published in 1930. It was followed, in short order, by
The Lively Lady (1931), Rabble in Arms (1933), and Captain Caution (1934).
None of these volumes became bestsellers, or anything close to it.
But Roberts persisted in his chosen course, and his next novel, Northwest
Passage (1937), not only made the bestseller lists but was also sold to Hollywood and became the basis for the February 1940 motion picture of the
58 Quoted by Linda M. Orlando in her short essay “Kenneth Roberts: Maine Writer, Historian,” 22 April 2003. Online at http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/
59 Quoted by Jack Bales, Roberts’s biographer and most notable critic, in “At the
Nadir of Discouragement: The Story of Dartmouth’s Kenneth Roberts Collection,” April 1990. Online at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~library/Library_Bulletin/Apr1990/lb-A90-Bales.html
same name, starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, and Walter Brennan.
So successful was this cinematic debut at the box office that by October,
another, much less ambitious film had been quickly thrown together to
cash in on the new Roberts boom—an adaptation of Captain Caution,
starring Victor Mature. Roberts’s next two novels, Oliver Wiswell (1940)
and Lydia Bailey (1946), were bestsellers as well, and the latter title was
adapted by Hollywood for release in the late spring of 1952. All this activity by Roberts on the bestseller lists and the silver screen during the late
’30s, the ’40s, and the early ’50s stimulated new interest in—and new sales
for—his earlier novels as well. In 1957 he was awarded a special Pulitzer
Prize for “his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”
In a nutshell, then, Roberts’s novels attracted relatively little attention for several years, only to become the cat’s meow and the toast of
the town by the end of the first decade in which he occupied himself
writing them. To what may we attribute this sudden and very definite
turnaround in public opinion?
Well, consider the nature of most of Roberts’s novels. His first two
novels of the American Revolution, Arundel and Rabble in Arms, focus
on Benedict Arnold—his unsuccessful expedition against Quebec in
Arundel, his victories at Lake Champlain and Saratoga in Rabble in Arms.
Roberts maintained to the end of his life that Arnold had been “the
most brilliant soldier of the Revolution.” 60 Moreover, in his third and
final novel of the Revolution, Oliver Wiswell, Roberts describes the last
year of the conflict through the eyes of his title character, a loyalist spy
who joins Arnold when the most brilliant soldier switches sides. Linda
Orlando may be overstating the case when she writes that Roberts “explained and defended the treason of General Benedict Arnold” and that
Roberts considered Arnold “misunderstood,” and “not the villain history had depicted him to be.” But there can be little doubt that Roberts’s
novels were taken in just this way by many of his contemporaries.
Now, generations of Americans had been taught in school that the
revolutionaries of 1776 were on the side of the angels, that the views of
the loyalists were the merest rubbish, scarcely worth recounting, and
that Benedict Arnold was a Traitor with a capital “T,” an utterly evil and
despicable man, as close as you could come in American history to the
Devil himself. Moreover, the England of the 1930s was no more likely
to win any popularity contests held in the United States than was the
England of George III. As Charles Callan Tansill reminds us, it was
60 Bales, op.cit.
only twenty years earlier, in the first years of World War I, long before
the United States had become involved in that conflict, that the British
government had commenced seizing “American vessels under such specious pretexts that even our Anglophile President lost his patience and
called for some action that would protect American rights.” 61 And now,
two decades later, the British were up to the same tricks all over again.
Up to the middle of November 1939 the British had detained thirty-three American ships for examination, and had removed cargoes,
wholly or in part, from seven of them. After November 4, under the
terms of the Neutrality Act, American ships were forbidden to carry
cargoes in combat areas in European waters. It was expected in Washington that British detentions would sharply decrease after this date.
But the British Government, with the same irritating unconcern for
American feelings that it showed during the years 1914 to 1917, continued the practice of detention and even compelled American ships
to proceed to control ports within the combat area which was closed
to them by the express terms of the Neutrality Act. 62
Not that this was the full extent of the beef most Americans felt
they had with the English in the 1930s. There was also the fact that, in
the popular mind at least, the great war the English had helped persuade the United States to enter in 1917 had been a disastrous waste. As
Thomas Fleming puts it,
Disillusion with the American experience in World War I permeated
the nation. The soaring idealism with which Democrat Woodrow
Wilson had led the country into that sanguinary conflict “to make
the world safe for democracy” had ended in the vengeful Treaty of
Versailles. Thanks in large part to that document, Europe’s statesmen had created a world in which democracy soon became ridiculed
and dictatorships of the left and right ran rampant. Worse, America’s
democratic allies, England and France, had welshed on repaying billions of dollars loaned to them to defeat Germany. 63
As late as the late summer of 1941, only a few months before the Pearl
Harbor attack, Fleming points out, “polls revealed 68 percent of the
people preferred to stay out [of the war in Europe], even if that meant a
German victory over England and Russia.” 64
61 Charles Callan Tansill, Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933-1941
(Chicago: Regnery, 1952), p. 7.
62 Ibid., p. 568.
63 Thomas Fleming, The New Dealers’ War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Within
World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 4.
64 Ibid., p. 89 [emphasis added]
The confidence of those Americans who held that position was
fast eroding by the summer of ’41, however. It had been eroding, with
gathering speed, ever since 1937, when the intellectual leadership of the
“liberal” wing of the Democratic Party—which dominated American
politics from 1932 to 1952—began revising its view of u.s. foreign policy.
As James J. Martin reminds us,
[m]any American liberals were warm supporters of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy which led us into war in 1917. Disillusioned with
the outcome of this first American crusade in foreign lands, they
repudiated their previous position on the First World War, bitterly
opposed the Treaty of Versailles, seriously criticized the motives and
conduct of our wartime Allies, adopted and supported revisionist historical writing, and became the main bulwark and shocktroops of the
peace movement and disarmament for nearly two decades between
the two World Wars. 65
As Martin sees it, liberals in the ’30s displayed “[a] benign, friendly and
optimistic attitude towards the ‘collective security’ foreign policy of Soviet Russia” but were “shocked and repelled by what was presented in the
public prints and personal reports as the nature of the Fascist systems
in Italy and Germany.” Gradually, but with rapidly accelerating speed,
they allowed themselves to be persuaded by articles, including editorials and reviews, “on the subject of United States foreign policy and our
relations with the rest of the world by […] authors, journalists, essayists,
professors and related specialists in the realm of the social studies, in a
[…] group of highly influential periodicals circulated nationally in the
United States.” 66
These “authors, journalists, essayists, professors and related specialists” were, of course, the people Friedrich Hayek labeled “the intellectuals” in his famous essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Intellectuals,
Hayek declared, were “professional secondhand dealers in ideas,” or,
differently formulated, “professional interpreters of ideas.” The intellectual, he wrote, is
neither […] the original thinker nor […] the scholar or expert in a
particular field of thought. The typical intellectual need be neither:
he need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor
need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as inter65 James J. Martin, American Liberalism and World Politics: Liberalism’s Press and
Spokesmen on the Road Back to War Between Mukden and Pearl Harbor (New York:
Devin-Adair, 1964), p. xi.
66 Ibid., pp. xii, xv.
mediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is
the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and
a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new
ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself. 67
It is the intellectual class, Hayek contends, that exercises the greatest
influence in “shaping public opinion.” 68
There is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or
ideas except through the medium of this class; and outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men,
dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it
their job to keep abreast of opinion. It is the intellectuals in this sense
who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are
important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what
angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the
results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends
mainly on their decision. 69
The intellectuals’ “selection from the multitude of new ideas presenting
themselves at every moment creates the characteristic climate of opinion, the dominant Weltanschauung of a period.” And it can do so more
quickly than one might expect, for “once the more active part of the
intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which
these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible.” 70
Thus it was that the intellectual leadership of the “liberal” wing
of the Democratic Party in the 1930s brought off the considerable feat
of turning its members around 180 degrees—from doves to hawks, as
we say today—in a mere handful of years. But to accomplish this, the
intellectuals had to first accomplish a number of lesser public relations
triumphs. One of these was rehabilitating England’s tarnished reputation. Martin notes that before 1937, “cordiality toward England was not
a feature of editorial policy” in the “liberal” press. On the other hand, he
reasons, “[t]he sudden growth of deep affection for England at war after
a lengthy period of often grievous criticism could hardly have been possible if a basic, underlying favorable pre-disposition had not been lying
dormant during this spell of coolness.” 71
67 Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism” in The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. George B. de Huszar (Glencoe, il: Free Press, 1960), pp.
371, 380, 372.
68 Ibid., p. 371.
69 Ibid., pp. 372-373.
70 Ibid., pp. 376, 374
71 Martin, op.cit., pp. 1032-1033.
Perhaps it was this same “underlying favorable pre-disposition”
that led the reading public to suddenly embrace the pro-British novels
of Kenneth Roberts, after years of ignoring them. Or perhaps, as the
efforts of the “liberal” intelligentsia to reshape public opinion on the
crisis in Europe began to succeed, the pro-British stance of Roberts’s
novels began to seem more palatable—even appealing. Or did a confused American public, still only partially weaned from its suspicion
of England and its distrust of what George Washington had called
“foreign entanglements,” reach out for Kenneth Roberts’s novels out of
a felt need to find a way to justify the friendlier attitude toward the
English that already seemed well on its way to becoming the new conventional wisdom?
We don’t know. But we do know this: history is, as Cicero insisted,
“the witness of the times.” Note the plural. History is the witness both
of the times it describes and of the times in which it is written, for each
generation revises history to accord more closely with its own particular
values and preoccupations. Roberts’s meticulously researched depictions
of the American Revolution tell us much about the times they depict,
but they have much to reveal as well about the times in which they were
published and first found a mass audience. For the writers who gain the
widest fame and favor with the public in any given period are the writers who do the best job of reflecting back to that public whatever are its
own major preoccupations—the ideas, the dreams, the notions of what
things in life are the most and least important, most and least worthy of
a person’s attention and concern.
The Historical Fiction of John Dos Passos
For that matter, the writers who fail to gain wide fame and favor with
the public in any given period have much to tell us about that period,
too. John Dos Passos, eleven years younger than Kenneth Roberts, is
a case in point. While Roberts was settling into the newspaper trade
in Boston, Dos Passos, born in Chicago, was growing up in a series of
European hotels and in boarding schools in England, New England,
and Washington, D.C. While Roberts was signing up with u.s. Army
intelligence, Dos Passos, a newly minted Harvard graduate, was taking
“lessons in driving, automobile maintenance, and medical techniques as
preparation for volunteer service” with the Red Cross as an ambulance
driver in World War I France. 72 In the ’20s, while Roberts was traveling
through Europe and the United States filing articles for the Saturday
Evening Post, Dos Passos was publishing “essays, poems, and reviews in
The Dial, The Nation, and The Freeman” and writing Three Soldiers—
along with E. E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, one of the best known antiwar novels to come
out of the American experience of World War I. 73
For Dos Passos was one of those “disillusioned” liberals of whom
James J. Martin wrote—those liberals who “repudiated” their previously
“warm support” of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy and became “bulwarks” of the peace and disarmament movements. “When Woodrow
Wilson led the country into the European war,” Dos Passos wrote nearly
forty years later, “however little we approved this reversal of American
tradition, most of us just out of college were crazy to see what war was
like. We experienced to the full the intoxication of the great conflagration […].” 74 But when Dos Passos reached the front, he did not find
exactly what he had expected. During 1917, in the first year of his ambulance corps service in France, he wrote to a friend that “[t]he war is utter
damn nonsense—a vast cancer fed by lies and self seeking malignity on
the part of those who don’t do the fighting…none of the poor devils
whose mangled dirty bodies I take to the hospital in my ambulance really give a damn about any of the aims of this ridiculous affair.” A year
later, he was “[a]ccused of disloyalty by Red Cross authorities,” not only
because of his “insubordinate attitude” but also because of his “criticism
of ‘stupidities’ of modern war expressed in an intercepted letter.” 75 War,
Dos Passos found, was a “[w]aste of time, waste of money, waste of lives,
waste of youth.” Those of his generation who had eagerly marched off
to war “came home with the horrors.” 76
And this attitude toward the war found its way into Dos Passos’s
fiction—not only Three Soldiers but also the U.S.A. trilogy, his major work of the 1930s: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big
72 See Daniel Aaron and Townsend Ludington, “Chronology,” in John Dos Passos,
U.S . A. (New York: Library of America, 1996), p. 1246.
73 Ibid., p. 1247.
74 John Dos Passos, The Theme Is Freedom (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956), p. 1.
75 Aaron and Ludington, op.cit., p. 1246.
76 Dos Passos, Theme, op.cit., pp. 1-2.
Money (1936). U.S.A. was a fictionalized history of the war years and the
years of disillusion that followed. It was composed in a new, patchwork
style which Dos Passos had developed, placing tightly written fictional
scenes in quick juxtapostion with collages of newspaper headlines (both
real and invented), popular songs, radio commercials, and short prose
poems on real people ( Woodrow Wilson, Randolph Bourne, Sacco and
Vanzetti) and events of the years during which the story unfolded. Dos
Passos thought of “novels as history, history presented more accurately
and more deeply than conventional history,” Linda W. Wagner explains.
As he saw it, “a few great novels,” the ones he sought to emulate, “drew
much of their force from their mixture of history with fictional narrative and character.” In such novels as War and Peace and Vanity Fair, Dos
Passos argued, “the story is the skeleton on which some slice of history
is brought back to life.” Or, as Wagner puts it, in novels of the sort Dos
Passos himself wrote, “characters and their adventures exist not because
they are of interest in themselves but because they illustrate the ways in
which society has developed.” 77
World War I soured Dos Passos on war for good. His newfound
pacifism and distrust of centralized authority found expression, not just
in Three Soldiers and U.S.A. but in everything he wrote thereafter. In
1950, looking back on Dos Passos’s career up to that point, Granville
Hicks wrote that “[n]othing is deeper in the man than his fear of power.”
Unless, of course, it was his hatred and fear of war. “As for war,” Hicks
wrote, “Dos Passos hated it in and for itself and because it inevitably
resulted in the piling of power upon power.” So it was that, as Wagner
notes, “[m]aterials used in 1919 […] and in Mr. Wilson’s War,” the nonfiction work which Dos Passos published in 1962, “are frequently similar
and might also have appeared in […] Three Soldiers.” 78
Not surprisingly, in light of these views, Dos Passos was prominent
among the liberals who counseled against u.s. involvement in World
War II. Martin reports that in the summer of 1937 he was advising his
fellow liberals “to avoid the involvement talk by fellow travelers, stay
home, and concern themselves with domestic reform.” 79 Later that
year he warned that “[l]ashing ourselves up into a partisan fever will
only make us the prey of whatever propaganda the warmongers want
to put over on us” and that “[f]ascism thrives on the war spirit. Fan77 Linda W. Wagner, Dos Passos: Artist as American (Austin, tx: University of Texas
Press, 1979), p. xx.
78 Ibid., pp. xviii, xvix.
79 Martin, op.cit., p. 503.
ning the war spirit is preparing the ground for destruction of our own
rights and liberties.” 80
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor late in 1941, Dos Passos
abandoned his effort to talk Americans out of going to war, as did nearly
all of his liberal colleagues. But he could never bring himself to fully
accept the war, either, for, as he himself put it many years later, “For
better or for worse the uselessness of war has been basic in my political
thinking all my life.”
District of Columbia, Dos Passos’s second trilogy of novels on
contemporary American history, applied the U.S.A. technique to the
1930s and early ’40s, depicting the Great Depression, the rise of the
American Communist Party, the Spanish Civil War, the New Deal,
and World War II. Of the three volumes—Adventures of a Young Man
(1939), Number One (1943), and The Grand Design (1949)—it is the final
one that most succinctly conveys Dos Passos’s by now familiar take
on war:
At home we organized bloodbanks and civilian defense and imitated
the rest of the world by setting up concentration camps (only we called them
relocation centers) and stuffing into them
American citizens of Japanese ancestry (Pearl Harbor the date that
will live in infamy) without benefit of habeas corpus […].
The President of the United States
talked the sincere democrat and so did the members of Congress. In
the Administration there were devout believers in civil liberty. ‘Now we’re
busy fighting a war; we’ll deploy all four freedoms later on,’ they said.
War is a time of Caesars.
And the American People were supposed to say thank you for the century of the Common Man turned over for relocation behind barbed wire so
help him God.
We learned. There were things we learned to do
but we have not yet learned, in spite of the Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence and the great debates at Richmond and
how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man
and to make him use it wisely. 81
80 Ibid., p. 939.
81 John Dos Passos, The Grand Design (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), pp. 416-418.
Dos Passos spent 1941-1946 as a correspondent for Harper’s and Life
magazines, filing stories from cities and towns all over America, and
from Europe and the Far East as well. “A tour of the beaten-up cities
of Europe six months after victory is a mighty sobering experience for
anyone,” he wrote in the January 7, 1946 issue of Life.
Europeans, friend and foe alike, look you accusingly in the face and
tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American.
They cite the evolution of the word “liberation.” Before the Normandy landings it meant to be freed from the tyranny of the Nazis. Now
it stands in the minds of the civilians for one thing, looting.
“Never has American prestige in Europe been lower,” Dos Passos reported. “People never tire of telling you of the ignorance and rowdy-ism
of American troops, of our misunderstanding of European conditions.
They say that the theft and sale of Army supplies by our troops is the
basis of their black market.”
Worst of all, perhaps, was the destruction the war had brought.
The ruin this war has left in Europe can hardly be exaggerated. I
can remember the years after the last war. Then, as soon as you got
away from the military, all the little strands and pulleys that form
the fabric of a society were still knitted together. Farmers took their
crops to market. Money was a valid medium of exchange. Now the
entire fabric of a million little routines has broken down. No one
can think beyond food for today. Money is worthless. Cigarettes
are used as a kind of lunatic travesty on a currency. […] “Well, the
Germans are to blame. Let them pay for it. It’s their fault,” you say.
The trouble is that starving the Germans and throwing them out of
their homes is only producing more areas of famine and collapse.
Had fighting the war been worth it? Dos Passos wasn’t at all sure.
“All we have brought to Europe so far,” he wrote, “is confusion backed
up by a drumhead regime of military courts. We have swept away Hitlerism, but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse
than the disease.” 82
In another 1946 dispatch, after a visit to Berlin, Dos Passos wrote:
The ruin of the city was so immense it took on the grandeur of a
natural phenomenon like the Garden of the Gods or the Painted
Desert . . . you drove in past the shattered university and the heaps
that had been Friedrichstrasse and the empty spaces where a little of
the shell of the Adlon still stood. The Brandenburg Gate was oddly
82 See John Dos Passos, “Americans Are Losing the Victory in Europe.” Life 7 January 1946. Online at http://www.kultursmog.com/Life-Page01.htm
intact. Through it you looked out over the waste, punctuated by a few
stumps of trees and a few statues, that used to be the Tiergarten. At
the further end of the Tiergarten were crowds of furtive people with
bundles under their arms scattered in groups over a wide area that
looked like an American city dump. 83
There were worse things than physical destruction, however, Dos
Passos found: “Once war has broken the fabric of human society, a
chain reaction seems to set in, which keeps on after the fighting has
stopped, tearing down the decencies and the inhibitions that hold
civilization together.” 84
For half a century John Dos Passos railed against war and the
strong, centralized State in novels, essays, polemics, and works of history. Little wonder, then, that his historical fiction sold poorly during
the same period in which Kenneth Roberts’s novels were topping the
bestseller lists and wowing Hollywood producers. Little wonder that in
1942 and 1943, while Roberts was happily building a spacious new home
in Kennebunkport with the profits from his historical novels, Dos Passos, “despite literary fame,” found that his “finances continue[d] to be
shaky.” 85 Little wonder that his entire career was marked by what Linda
W. Wagner bluntly calls a “lack of any real financial success.” 86 He was
swimming against the tide of popular opinion. He was not telling readers what they wanted to hear.
Gore Vidal, like Dos Passos, was born with a silver spoon in his
mouth and was educated in expensive private schools in and around
Washington, D.C. Unlike Dos Passos, whose father was a wealthy corporate lawyer and world traveler, Vidal grew up around politics. His
father was a high ranking official in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, the agency known
today as the Federal Aviation Administration (faa). His maternal
grandfather, who lived in the Vidal family home, was the venerable,
sightless u.s. Senator Thomas Pryor Gore (D-Oklahoma), and Vidal
recalls the daily ritual of being
sent with car and driver to pick up my grandfather at the Capitol and
bring him home. In those casual days [ca. 1935-1937], there were few
guards at the Capitol—and, again, [“Washington was a small town
where”] everyone knew everyone else. I would wander on to the floor
Dos Passos, Theme, op.cit., p. 232.
Ibid., pp. 233-234.
Aaron and Ludington, op.cit., p. 1255.
Wagner, op.cit., p. xxi.
of the Senate, sit on my grandfather’s desk if he wasn’t ready to go, experiment with the snuff that was ritually allotted each senator; then I
would lead him off the floor. 87
In his thirties, after years as an author of modern mainstream novels,
a scenarist for motion pictures and television, and an intellectual journalist, Vidal decided to try his hand at historical fiction. (Dos Passos
had also been in his thirties when he sat down to begin The 42nd Parallel.)
Given his early political background, Vidal might well have been expected to focus his new historical fiction on the politics and diplomacy
of the times he sought to depict. And that is precisely what he did. His
first historical novel was Julian (1964), a portrait of the Roman emperor
who attempted to reverse his nation’s official adoption of Christianity
as the state religion, in hopes of reverting to the long-discarded paganism of earlier days. His second historical novel, Washington, D.C. (1967),
takes place in this nation’s capital between 1937 and 1952 and depicts
the major events of that time—the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,
the Second World War, the death of fdr, the bombing of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union,
the McCarthy Era—as they might have been seen by politicians and
journalists plying their crafts on the shores of the Potomac during those
years. This second historical novel has its admirers, but it seems fair to
say that its principal importance lies not in its text but rather in what
it led to. For it was the first step in the creation of Vidal’s American
Chronicle, a series of historical novels whose phenomenal success makes
it worthwhile to contemplate at some length. It may fairly be said, I
believe, that no success on this scale has been enjoyed by any historical
novelist writing with serious artistic and scholarly intent about America
since . . . well, since the days of Kenneth Roberts.
Consider: The first of Vidal’s American Chronicle novels (Burr)
was the fifth biggest fiction bestseller of 1973 88; it was so successful that
three years later the Book of the Month Club acquired its sequel, 1876,
“sight unseen” and before the manuscript had even been completed;
and the club’s gamble paid off handsomely, for, upon publication, “1876
quickly went to the top of the bestseller list.” 89 In 1984, when the third
volume in the series, Lincoln, was published, Vidal found that he was
87 Gore Vidal, “At Home in Washington, D.C.” in At Home: Essays, 1982-1988 (New
York: Random House, 1988), p. 6.
88 See “Making the Bestseller List,” Online at http://www.lib.virginia.edu/small/exhibits/rave_reviews/list_making.html
89 Fred Kaplan, Gore Vidal: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 686-687.
faced with another “huge bestseller,” another “critical success, reinforced
by […] immense sales.” 90 Four years after its first publication, Lincoln
was adapted as a made-for-tv movie. In the ’90s all three of these novels
(the first three in the series) were confirmed as modern classics by being
reissued in Modern Library editions. The later volumes in the series
enjoyed less spectacular sales than the first three, but all the novels have
sold briskly, and the entire American Chronicle enterprise has been a
profitable one, both for Vidal and for his publishers and producers.
But I get ahead of my story. Let us pause, then, and examine more
closely this American Chronicle series of Vidal’s.
90 Ibid., pp. 738, 740.
Burr and Lincoln
WASHINGTON, D.C. (1967) was followed six years later by Burr (1973),
which covers the period 1775 to 1840 as it was lived and understood by
the notorious Aaron Burr. Another three years went by, and Vidal published 1876 (1976), portraying the events leading up to and immediately
following the hotly contested presidential election campaign of the u.s.
Centennial year, which pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York
against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.
It was nearly a decade before Vidal would add another volume to
the American Chronicle series. That next volume was the celebrated
Lincoln (1984), which follows events in Washington from Abraham
Lincoln’s surreptitious arrival in the city to be inaugurated for his first
term in the White House to his assassination scarcely four years later.
Lincoln was followed, in quick succession, by Empire (1987), which focuses on the years 1898 to 1906, and Hollywood (1990), which focuses
on u.s. involvement in World War I and its immediate aftermath—
the years 1917 to 1923. Then, after a decade of work unrelated to the
American Chronicle, Vidal published the final volume of the series,
The Golden Age (2000). Oddly, this volume does not depict a previously undramatized period of years. As Harry Kloman puts it, “Rather
than simply taking place after Washington, D.C.—which covers the
years 1937 to 1952—The Golden Age loops back to re-cover the same
years, 1939 to 1954.” It also features almost all of the same characters.
And, of course, the major historical events in the two novels are the
same. As 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.” 91
In the following pages, 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.
Burr is narrated by a fictional character, Charles Schermerhorn
(“Charlie”) Schuyler, a young clerk employed in the New York law office of Aaron Burr. Charlie moonlights as a journalist, writing fairly
regularly for the poet William Cullen Bryant, in the latter’s capacity as
editor and publisher of the New York Evening Post. It is 1833, Andrew
Jackson has just begun his second term in the White House, and the
political cognoscenti are already debating who should be his successor.
Jackson himself favors his vice president, Martin Van Buren, as does
Bryant. But Bryant’s assistant on the Post, William Leggett, is not convinced of Van Buren’s suitability. He has heard rumors that Van Buren
is one of Burr’s many illegitimate children, and he believes that a book
or pamphlet proving the truth of that rumor to the public’s satisfaction would have the estimable effect of ruining Van Buren’s chances
for the presidency. He hires Charlie to research and write such a book
or pamphlet.
In the course of his research, Charlie will discover that he himself
is one of Colonel Burr’s illegitimate offspring. But in the beginning he
thinks of the Colonel as merely his elderly boss (Burr is seventy-seven
when the novel begins), who turns out to be more than willing to have
his brain picked. He gives Charlie his journal of the Revolutionary
War period to read. He dictates his further memoirs to Charlie in a
series of meetings, some of them at the law offices where both of them
work, some of them in Burr’s home. Burr’s narrative is alternated with
Charlie’s own so that the reader is gradually filled in on the history
91 Harry Kloman, “Gore Vidal’s American Chronicles: 1967-2000.” Online at http://
of the United States from the beginning of the Revolution to the last
days of the second Jackson administration. This history is not, however,
the conventional one which most of Vidal’s readers have presumably
had presented to them in school. As Donald E. Pease puts it, what
Burr presents in these pages is “an alternate American narrative” in
which the founding fathers look somewhat different from the way most
readers are accustomed to seeing them. “Instead of finding them to be
representative of American civic virtue and American democracy, for
example, Burr explains Washington’s belief in a strong central government as an effort to protect his vast landholdings in Mount Vernon,
and Thomas Jefferson’s espousal of states’ rights simply as a political
strategy to win votes.” 92
Burr is appalled at what he considers to be Washington’s “incompetence” as a military leader. 93 He notes that Washington “did not read
books” and that though he “was always short of money, he lived grandly.”
He looks back on Washington as having been “defective in grammar
and spelling, owing to a poor education” and as having been “most puritanical.” He speaks derisively of our first President as having been
“unable […] to organize a sentence that contained a new thought.” 94 He
tells Charlie that when “in September 1777 the British out-manoeuvred
Washington once again and occupied Philadelphia,”
the Philadelphians did not at all mind the presence of the British
army in their city; in fact, many of them hoped that Washington
would soon be caught and hanged, putting an end to those disruptions and discomforts which had been set in motion by the ambitions of a number of greedy and vain lawyers shrewdly able to use as
cover for their private designs Jefferson’s high-minded platitudes and
cloudy political theorizings. 95
Jefferson makes out no better than Washington in Burr’s eye view.
“He was the most charming man I have ever known,” Burr tells Charlie,
“as well as the most deceitful.” All in all, in Burr’s view (as imagined
by Vidal), Jefferson was a prize hypocrite. “Proclaiming the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves, Indians, women, and
those entirely without property),” Burr sneers, “Jefferson tried to seize
the Floridas by force, dreamed of a conquest of Cuba, and after his ille92 Donald E. Pease, “America and the Vidal Chronicles” in Gore Vidal: Writer Against
the Grain, ed. Jay Parini (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 269.
93 Gore Vidal, Burr (New York: Random House, 1973), p.14.
94 Ibid., pp. 55, 56, 58.
95 Ibid., p. 83.
gal purchase of Louisiana sent a military governor to rule New Orleans
against the will of its inhabitants.” 96
Not only did Jefferson betray his supposed individualist ideals, he
refused to fight for them when the time came—at least, as Aaron Burr
sees it. “I do remember hearing someone comment,” he tells Charlie,
“that since Mr. Jefferson had seen fit to pledge so eloquently our lives
to the cause of independence, he might at least join us in the army.”
But did he? No. Instead, while Washington’s army suffered at Valley
Forge, Jefferson “spent a comfortable winter […] at Monticello where,
in perfect comfort and serenity, he was able amongst his books to gather his ever-so-fine wool.” 97 Later, when the British army closed in on
Governor Jefferson fled to Monticello, leaving the state without an
administration. At Monticello he dawdled, thought only of how to
transport his books to safety. Not until the first British troops had
started up the hill did he and his family again take to their heels.
Later Patrick Henry’s faction in the Virginia Assembly demanded an
investigation, but fortunately for Jefferson the proud Virginia burgesses did not want to be reminded of the general collapse of their
state and so their hapless governor was able to avoid impeachment
and censure. He did not, however, avoid ridicule; and that is worse
than any formal censure. 98
Not only was Jefferson a coward and a fraud, according to Burr, he
was also “a ruthless man” who “simply wanted to rise to the top. Odd
how Jefferson is now thought of as a sort of genius, a Virginia Leonardo. It is true he did a great number of things, from playing the fiddle
to building houses to inventing dumb-waiters, but the truth is that he
never did any one thing particularly well—except of course the pursuit
of power.” 99
The pursuit of personal power is, however, difficult to reconcile
with the ideal of individual liberty proclaimed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Bill of Rights. On the other
hand, according to Burr, Jefferson never really believed very fervently in
such individual liberty. Consider freedom of speech and of the press, for
example. Burr quotes Jefferson as having told him in late 1803 or early
1804, that
Ibid., pp. 154, 160.
Ibid., pp. 58, 87.
Ibid., p. 177.
Ibid., p. 219.
“[i]n 1789, Madison sent me a copy of the proposed amendments to the
Constitution, and I wrote him that I thought he should make it clear
that although our citizens are allowed to speak or publish whatever
they choose, they ought not to be permitted to present false facts
which might affect injuriously the life, liberty, property or reputation
of others or affect the national peace with regard to foreign nations.
Just the other day I reminded Madison of that sad omission in our
Constitution, and he agreed that today’s monstrous press is a direct
result of the careless way the First Amendment was written.”
Still, as Burr relates it, Jefferson did not advocate federal action against
members of the press who published “false facts.” On the contrary. “As
usual, Jefferson had a way around the difficulty […]. ‘Since the federal
government has no constitutional power over the press, the states can
then devise their own laws.’” 100
Perhaps worst of all (at least in the eyes of some), there was the matter of Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings—or, as Burr refers to her, “Jefferson’s concubine Sally, by whom he had at least five children.” Sally was
an illegitimate daughter of John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, Burr
tells Charlie, “which made her the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife. […]
Amusing to contemplate that in bedding his fine-looking slave, Jefferson was also sleeping with his sister-in-law! One would have enjoyed
hearing him moralize on that subject.” 101
Nor are Washington and Jefferson the only Founding Fathers to
rank low in Aaron Burr’s estimate. There is also Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr had met and befriended during the Revolution—or
so, at any rate, he tells Charlie. As the years passed, however, the two
men not only grew apart but also came more and more regularly into
conflict. In the end, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. Burr does not
explain to Charlie why he called Hamilton out, but an old friend of
Burr’s, Sam Swartwout, the customs collector of the port of New York,
does the job for him. Hamilton, Swartwout tells Charlie, had accused
Burr, a widower, of living in incest with his lovely, intelligent, and accomplished daughter.
The 1804 duel with Hamilton is perhaps the most famous event in
Burr’s life. The second most famous is probably his arrest and trial, four
years later, on charges of treason. As Burr tells Charlie the latter story, it
reminds him (unsurprisingly) of Jefferson’s hypocrisy and lust for power.
According to Burr, Jefferson tried to suspend habeas corpus so he could
100 Ibid., p. 257.
101 Ibid., p. 196.
continue to hold two of Burr’s alleged associates in a military prison and
“beyond the reach of the Constitution.” In his defense, Jefferson argued
that “[o]n great occasions, every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law, when the public preservation
requires it.” His political opponents, Jefferson acknowledged, “will try
to make something of the infringement of liberty by the military arrest
and deportation of citizens, but if it does not go beyond such offenders
as Swartwout, Bollman, Burr, Blennerhassett, etc., they will be supported by the public approbation.” Burr’s summary of Jefferson’s view
is succinct and unsparing. “In other words,” he tells Charlie, “if public
opinion is not unduly aroused one may safely set aside the Constitution
and illegally arrest one’s enemies.” 102
In the next novel in Vidal’s series, Lincoln, another president employs the same tactics, and justifies his actions in a very similar way. It is
now more than fifty years after Jefferson’s abortive attempt to suspend
habeas corpus. Abraham Lincoln is making war against the Southern
states that seceded from the Union at the beginning of his first term
in the White House. In his attempt to ensure that Maryland does not
join those seceded states, he imposes martial law, orders the arrest of
“anyone who takes up arms—or incites others to take up arms, against
the Federal government,” and orders further that those arrested be held
“indefinitely without ever charging them with any offense.” His justification is reminiscent of the one Burr attributes to Jefferson, who spoke
of “the public preservation.” “[T]he most ancient of all our human characteristics is survival,” Lincoln tells his Secretary of State, William H.
Seward. “In order that this Union survive, I have found it necessary to
suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, but only in the military zone.” As Lincoln sees it, he is merely exercising what he calls the
“inherent powers” of the presidency when he takes actions of this kind.
And, as he tells Seward, “An inherent power […] is just as much a power
as one that has been spelled out.” 103
Lincoln is not narrated in the first person as Burr is. Rather it is
narrated in the third person—not an “omniscient” third person, but one
whose point of view hops around among a short list of important characters: Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay; Secretary of State Seward; Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase; First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; and
David Herold, the pharmacist’s clerk and Southern sympathizer who
102 Ibid., p. 351.
103 Gore Vidal, Lincoln (New York: Random House, 1984), pp. 153, 152.
was later convicted of conspiring successfully with John Wilkes Booth
and others to assassinate Lincoln early in his second term in office.
The Lincoln thus presented might well be expected to resemble the
proverbial elephant as observed by several different blind men. But in
fact Vidal’s Lincoln is much more coherent than that, for his observers
are not blind. They differ widely in their opinions and interpretations
of what they see, but what they see is identifiably the same man. Harold
Bloom looks at Vidal’s Lincoln and sees “[a] minority President, elected
with less than 40 percent of the total vote.”
Though his election committed him only to barring the extension of
slavery to the new states, and though he was a moderate Republican
and not an Abolitionist, Lincoln was violently feared by most of the
South. Vidal’s opening irony, never stated but effectively implied, is
that the South beheld the true Lincoln long before Lincoln’s own
cabinet […] The South feared an American Cromwell, and in Vidal’s
vision, the South actually helped produce an American Bismarck. 104
Vidal’s Lincoln, says Donald E. Pease, is “interested mostly in self-aggrandizement,” though his interest in sex was sufficient in his younger
years that he “contracted syphilis from a prostitute and communicated
this disease to his wife and children.” 105 To Fred Kaplan, Vidal’s Lincoln
is “a pragmatic and manipulative politician with one overriding vision:
to save the Union and by saving it to transform it into a modern, industrialized, national state so powerfully and tightly coherent that nothing
can tear it apart again.” 106
This mania for “saving the Union” cannot be overestimated as a
central factor in the motivations and behavior of Vidal’s Lincoln. As
Bloom notes, Vidal’s Lincoln is “a respecter of neither the states, nor
the Congress, nor the Court, nor the parties, nor even the Constitution itself.” 107 Pease makes the same point when he writes that “Vidal’s
Lincoln is a political heretic who believes in none of the political instruments supportive of union (the Congress, the Courts, the Constitution) except insofar as they can supplement his will to absolute
executive power.” 108
104 Harold Bloom, “The Central Man: On Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” in Gore Vidal:
Writer Against the Grain, ed. Jay Parini (New York: Columbia University Press,
1992), pp. 223-224.
105 Pease, op.cit., pp. 272-273.
106 Kaplan, op.cit., p. 740.
107 Bloom, op.cit., p. 224.
108 Pease, op.cit., p. 272.
Vidal’s Lincoln is also no Great Emancipator. Vidal’s Lincoln, as
Pease points out, “believes the emancipation of slaves entails their exportation to the West Indies or Liberia.” 109 For, as Kaplan notes, though
he is “[o]pposed to slavery, Lincoln does not believe slavery an issue
worth fighting about.” 110 Vidal’s Lincoln tells the assembled delegates
of the Southern Peace Conference that met with him shortly after his
election that “I will do what I can to give assurance and reassurance to
the Southern states that we mean them no harm. It is true that I was
elected to prevent the extension of slavery to the new territories of the
Union. But what is now the status quo in the Southern states is beyond
my power—or desire—ever to alter.” “I have never been an abolitionist,”
he tells his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. To a delegation of black
freemen that comes to meet him at the White House, Vidal’s Lincoln
declares that “your race is suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong
inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves you are
still a long way from being placed on an equality with the white race.”
His secretary, John Hay, sitting in on the meeting, reflects that the
president “was unshaken in his belief that the colored race was inferior
to the white.”
The fact that Lincoln had always found it difficult to accept any sort
of natural equality between the races stemmed, Hay thought, from
his own experience as a man born with no advantage of any kind, who
had then gone to the top of the world. Lincoln had no great sympathy
for those who felt that external circumstances had held them back.
Early in his second term, Vidal’s Lincoln informs Congressman
Elihu Washburne (R-Illinois) of his intention to “reimburse the slaveowners” for their freed slaves. This, he tells Washburne, “will […] be a
quick way of getting money into the South for reconstruction.” In addition to the money he’ll need for that plan, he adds, “we’ll need money to
colonize as many Negroes as we can in Central America.” Washburne is
somewhat astonished that the president still favors such a plan. “When
you get hold of an idea,” he says to Lincoln, “you don’t ever let it go, do
you?” Lincoln replies: “Not until I find a better one. Can you imagine
what life in the South will be like if the Negroes stay?” 111
Vidal’s Lincoln is firm in his belief that slave-owners should be
compensated for their loss and that the freed slaves should be deported.
He is also firm in his belief that both these issues are merely tangential
109 Ibid., p. 272.
110 Kaplan, op.cit., p. 740.
111 Vidal, Lincoln, op.cit., pp. 38, 556, 356, 635.
to the war raging between the United States and the Confederate States.
Late in 1861, when the rogue Union general John C. Frémont declares
martial law in Missouri (a border state) and announces that he will
“confiscate the property of all secessionists, including their slaves, who
were to be freed,” Vidal’s Lincoln declares “with anguish, to Seward,
‘This is a war for a great national idea, the Union, and now Frémont
has tried to drag the Negro into it!’” As Vidal sees it, this understanding of the war was not only Lincoln’s, but also that of other prominent
Americans of the time. Early in 1863, for example, not long after the
president has delivered his annual message to Congress, Vidal’s John
Hay finds himself in conversation with the lawyer, diplomat, and newspaperman Charles Eames (1812-1867), who assures him that “what the
war is about” is “the principle that the Union cannot be dissolved, ever.”
Later that year, when Union forces under General George G. Meade
finally won a decisive victory over Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern
Virginia at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Meade telegraphed the White
House, according to Vidal’s account, that he now looked “to the army
for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of
the invader.” Vidal’s Lincoln does not like Meade’s choice of words. “Of
course, Pennsylvania is our soil,” he tells Hay. “But so is Virginia. So are
the Carolinas. So is Texas. They are forever our soil. That is what the
war is about and these damned fools cannot grasp it; or will not grasp it.
The whole country is our soil. I cannot fathom such men.” 112
Fully in keeping with this understanding of what the war is all
about is Lincoln’s view of how reconstruction should be handled once
the war is won. The Radical Republicans take the formation of the
Confederate States of America at face value: “the states in rebellion
were out of the Union and should be treated as an enemy nation’s conquered provinces.”
But Lincoln’s line was unwavering. The Union was absolutely indivisible. No state could ever leave it; therefore no state had ever left it.
Certain rebellious elements had seen fit to make war against the central government, but when those elements were put down all would
be as it was and the Southern states would send representatives to
Congress, exactly as they had done in the past. 113
But, of course, after the war, nothing was as it was before the
war. Not only had 600,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict,
but another 400,000 were wounded, many of whom were crippled for
112 Ibid., pp. 240, 391-392, 447, 448.
113 Ibid., pp. 430-431.
life. Altogether, nearly 1,000,000 Americans were casualties of the
war, out of a total population of a little more than 31,000,000. If three
percent of the current u.s. population were to be killed or wounded in
a war, we would be looking at nearly 9,000,000 casualties. There was
also extensive property damage, particularly in the South—damage so
extensive it would be many decades before anything resembling a full
economic recovery could be said to have taken place there. Perhaps
most important of all, in Vidal’s version of the years 1861-1865, a series
of precedents was laid down by the Lincoln administration which, in
the years ahead, would justify the steady erosion of individual liberty
in the United States.
For Vidal’s Lincoln does not limit his assault on the Constitution
to the suspension of habeas corpus. He tells Seward not long after his
first inauguration, “Yesterday, at three in the afternoon, I ordered every
u.s. marshal in the country to seize the original of every telegram that
has been sent and a copy of every telegram that has been received in
the last twelve months.” Seward wonders aloud about “[t]he legal basis
for this seizure,” and Lincoln answers, “The broader powers inherent in
the Constitution.” Vidal’s Lincoln censors the press, locking up editors
who oppose his policies. Vidal’s Baron Gerolt, the Prussian minister to
Washington, tells Seward that his own boss, Otto von Bismarck, “very
much admires the way that you arrest editors but he dares not do the
same in Prussia because he says that, unlike you, he is devoted to freedom of speech.” That Vidal’s Lincoln is not in fact devoted to freedom
of speech is made evident by his action against the former Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, who “held that Lincoln’s war measures were illegal and unConstitutional [sic] and so far worse than the
defection of the Southern States.” Vidal’s Lincoln has Vallandigham arrested and forcibly exiled to the Confederacy. Vidal’s Lincoln threatens
to place New York City under martial law to suppress opposition to the
nation’s first military conscription law. Vidal’s Seward reflects in 1864
that there is now “a single-minded dictator in the White House, a Lord
Protector of the Union by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted”
and that “Lincoln had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking,
timid backwoods lawyer.” Charlie Schuyler, the narrator of Burr, reappears briefly in a couple of scenes in Lincoln, and, in the novel’s closing
pages, observes to John Hay that Bismarck “has now done the same
thing to Germany that you tell us Mr. Lincoln did to our country.” 114
114 Ibid., pp. 126, 273, 389, 421, 437-438, 457-458, 459, 656.
1876, Empire, and Hollywood
1876, the third novel in Vidal’s American Chronicle series, is once again
narrated in the first person by Charlie Schuyler (now in his early sixties), who has returned to the United States after spending thirty years
in Europe, first as a member of the diplomatic corps, then as the husband of an independently wealthy member of a noble family. His wife
is now long dead, Charlie’s money has run out, and his wealthy sonin-law’s recent, unexpected departure from this world (followed by the
discovery of his carefully concealed penury), has left him responsible
once more for his accomplished daughter, Emma, whom he had thought
well married and safely provided for. Charlie has continued to dabble
in journalism over the years, has even published a book or two. So he
and Emma come back to the United States in 1875 on a triple errand:
Charlie will attempt to earn a sufficient amount from freelance writing
for newspapers and magazines to support the two of them in decent
style; Charlie will meanwhile do what he can to help New York Governor Samuel Tilden get himself elected president in the upcoming 1876
election (and to persuade Tilden to send Charlie right back to Paris as
u.s. Ambassador to France); and Charlie will also see if he can find another, comparably well fixed husband for his daughter. In the course of
covering both the presidential campaign and the Centennial Exhibition
in Philadelphia, and in the course of marketing his daughter to financially qualified suitors, Charlie meets and profiles numerous luminaries of the period—Tilden, Republican Congressman and presidential
aspirant James G. Blaine, Republican Senator and presidential aspirant
Roscoe Conkling, Chester Alan Arthur (the customs collector of the
port of New York), President U. S. Grant, journalist Charles Nordhoff,
and Mark Twain among them—but the emphasis here is not, as it was
in Burr and Lincoln, on the sayings and doings of these actual historical
figures. Nor does Vidal’s vision of these famous people conflict with the
conventional understanding of them in the way that his vision of Lincoln and the Founding Fathers does. He presents the Grant administration as riddled with corruption, but this is a commonplace. He portrays
Tilden as the legitimate winner of the 1876 election, who was defrauded
of his rightful presidency by the Republican Party and the u.s. Supreme
Court—but this is another commonplace. The emphasis in 1876 is on
the imaginary characters, on Charlie and Emma and on the rich new
husband they find for her, William Sanford.
In terms of historical chronology, Sanford made his first appearance
in the American Chronicle in the pages of Lincoln, where he was seen
as a wealthy young Union captain, an aide to General Irvin McDowell,
who devoted his spare time to romancing Kate Chase, daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. “I plan to leave the army the first of
the year,” Sanford tells Kate late in 1862. “We could go to France. There
is a house there I’ve had my eye on since before the war. At St. Cloud,
near Paris. We could have a wonderful life. I’d study music. You could
be at court, if you wanted that.” 115
Kate doesn’t take Sanford up on his offer. Instead she marries the
equally wealthy, if somewhat drunken, senator from (formerly governor
of) Rhode Island, William Sprague. Sanford moves on, then meets and
marries another woman, who turns up in 1876 as the delightful Denise
Sanford, another of the imaginary characters whose sayings and doings
dominate the pages of this third novel in Vidal’s series. Denise becomes
pregnant, then dies in childbirth; the Sanfords’ infant son Blaise is spared.
Within weeks, Sanford has wooed and wed Emma. Within a year, she
herself is dead in childbirth, leaving behind a daughter, Caroline de
Traxler Sanford, the illegitimate great-granddaughter of Aaron Burr.
As the fourth novel in Vidal’s series, Empire, opens, the year is 1898
and Caroline is twenty. She attends a luncheon party which also includes John Hay, Henry James, and Henry Adams. Hay and Adams are
familiar to us from Lincoln, in which Hay functioned as one of Lincoln’s
two secretaries, and as an important point-of-view character, and in
which Adams functioned as Hay’s young friend, scion of the famous
Adams family but determined to make it on his own as a journalist.
Hay is about to be appointed Secretary of State by Republican President
William McKinley, who has just led the nation to victory against Spain
in the Spanish-American War. We learn that Caroline’s father has just
died and that she and her half-brother Blaise are quarrelling over the
estate. In an effort to gain leverage over her brother, Caroline appropriates some valuable paintings from their family home, sells them, and
uses the proceeds to buy a dying daily, the Washington Tribune, which
she proceeds to transform into a journalistic success story. She does so,
in no small part, by carefully following the lessons never spelled out but
always implied by the successive triumphs of Blaise’s employer, William Randolph Hearst. Thus, though Blaise works as Hearst’s personal
115 Ibid., p. 347.
assistant, and though he lusts to own a paper in his own right, it is his
half-sister who proves to be Hearst’s more talented student.
Caroline runs the Tribune alone for seven years, during which time
she becomes pregnant by a young, married Congressman, James Burden Day, and quickly marries an impecunious cousin to provide her
daughter Emma with an official father and herself with an official
mate, sparing Day a scandal that might ruin his career, settling her
husband’s many troublesome debts, and never revealing, either to her
husband or to her daughter, the identity of Emma’s actual father. After she finally collects her inheritance, Caroline brings Blaise into her
newspaper operation as co-publisher. She decides to invest in real estate
in Georgetown, despite the fact that it is “still mostly Negro,” because
“here and there, eighteenth-century townhouses were being restored by
the canny white rich. Caroline had taken two row houses and knocked
them into one.” 116
It is not long, however, before Caroline is living only part time
in Georgetown. By 1917, as Hollywood, the fifth novel in Vidal’s series, opens, she is adopting a new identity, as silent film actress Emma
Traxler, and a second part-time home, this one in Los Angeles. Blaise,
meanwhile, has also married and produced children, the younger of
whom, Peter Sanford, will follow his father into journalism, except
that he will eschew the world of newspapers for the world of magazines, devoting his career to a journal of analysis and opinion called The
American Idea. In the epilogue of The Golden Age, the sixth and final
volume of Vidal’s American Chronicle, it is the turn of the 21st Century
and the now elderly Peter Sanford is being interviewed, along with his
friend Gore Vidal, at Vidal’s home in Italy for a tv documentary. The
producer-interviewer who is putting the documentary together is Aaron Burr (“A. B.”) Decker, grandson of Caroline’s daughter Emma and
thus great-great-great-great-grandson of the original Aaron Burr, with
whose story the series began.
The last three novels of the series focus more attention on the sayings and doings of the Sanford family, James Burden Day, and other
imaginary figures, and comparatively less on the historical events and
personages of the times in which they take place. The three are, in fact,
all of a piece with respect to this issue. Fred Kaplan tells us that Vidal
had originally planned for the first two of these three novels to be a
single book:
116 Gore Vidal, Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s (New York: Random House,
1990), p. 18.
[T]hrough much of 1985-86 he had worked on Manifest Destiny, the
tentative title of the next novel in his American history series. When
the manuscript became too long, he used much of it under the title
Empire […], published in June 1987 […]. The remainder became the
core of Empire’s successor, Hollywood, which was published in February 1990. 117
Harry Kloman suggests that Empire is overly “concerned with frivolities,
name dropping, and gossipy historical deconstruction,” 118 and Andrew
Sullivan faults The Golden Age in very similar terms:
The characters in the novel—writers, senators, proprietors of political
magazines and their countless relatives—are all so well-heeled that
their conversation […] amounts to little more than chatter. […] At
times the book reads like one of those interminable Vanity Fair pieces
about cocktail parties in the 1950s given by society hostesses no one
but a complete snob would give a hoot about. 119
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that all this frivolous chatter and gossipy name dropping is not entirely irrelevant to
Vidal’s purpose in the American Chronicle series. For a large part of
that purpose is to make certain points about journalism—as a shaper of
the historical record, as an influence on public opinion, and as a center of social power. Journalism is a prominent presence throughout the
American Chronicle, as are individual journalists, both real ones like
William Cullen Bryant, Henry Adams, and William Randolph Hearst
and invented ones like Caroline, Blaise, and Peter Sanford. The sayings
and doings of these journalists do have thematic significance, however
frivolous they may seem at certain times and to certain readers. Indeed,
it might be argued that their very frivolity and superficiality are meant
to tell us something about journalists and journalism in the abstract.
Also, though the last three novels in the series do focus to a greater extent than the first three on the sayings and doings of imaginary
journalists, they are by no means limited entirely to depictions of these
journalists. The politicians who figured large between 1898 and 1954 are
depicted also, and in ways that differ markedly from more conventional
accounts of the period. Secretary of State John Hay, for example, minces
no words in describing the frank racism and imperialism behind the
117 Kaplan, op.cit., p. 766.
118 Kloman, op.cit.
119 Andrew Sullivan, “The Greatest Generation (Revised).” New York
Times 1 October 2000. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/10/01/
foreign policy he recommends to President McKinley, when the latter
seeks his guidance on the matter of the Philippines, newly “liberated”
from Spain. “I have always thought,” Vidal’s Hay says,
“that it was the task of the Anglo-Saxon races, specifically England,
now shrinking, and ourselves expanding, to civilize and to,” Hay took
a deep breath and played his best if most specious card, “Christianize
the less developed races of the world. I know that England is counting on us to continue their historic role, and they believe, as I believe,
that the two of us together can manage the world until Asia wakes up,
long after we’re gone, I pray, but with our help now, a different sort of
Asia, a Christian Asia, civilized by us, and so a reflection of what was
best in our race once history has seen fit to replace us.” 120
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Vidal’s Hay also assures the president that he has mercantilist as well as racist and imperialist reasons for
believing the United States should hold onto the Philippines. “The European powers are getting ready to divide up China,” he tells McKinley.
“We’ll lose valuable markets if they do, but if we are entrenched nearby,
in the Philippines, we could keep the sea lanes open to China, keep the
Germans and the Russians and the Japanese from upsetting the world’s
balance of power.” 121
Hay’s views are shared fully by the bellicose governor of New York,
Theodore Roosevelt, who is destined to become McKinley’s second
vice president a scant two years later, and, after McKinley’s assassination only a few months into his second term, the youngest man ever to
have assumed the American presidency up to that time. “Have you read
Admiral Mahan on sea-power?” Vidal’s Roosevelt demands of Blaise
Sanford during an interview. “Published nine years ago. An eye-opener. I reviewed it in the Atlantic Monthly. We are fast friends. Without
sea-power, no British empire. Without sea-power, no American empire,
though we don’t use the word ‘empire’ because the tender-minded can’t
bear it.” 122 Then the governor really gets going.
Roosevelt was now marching rapidly in a circle at the center of the
room. He had been seized by a speech. As he spoke, he used all the
tricks that he would have used and [sic] had Blaise been ten thousand
people at Madison Square Garden. Arms rose and fell; the head was
thrown back as if it were an exclamation mark; right fist struck left
hand to mark the end of one perfected argument, and the beginning
120 Gore Vidal, Empire (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 73.
121 Ibid., p. 72.
122 Ibid., p. 127.
of the next. “The degeneracy of the Malay race is a fact. We start with
that. We can do them only good. They can do themselves only harm.
When the likes of Carnegie tells us that they are fighting for independence, I say any argument you make for the Filipino you could make
for the Apache. Every word that could be said for Aguinaldo could
be said for Sitting Bull. The Indians could not be civilized any more
than the Filipinos can. They stand in the path of civilization.” 123
“I speak now only of savages,” Vidal’s Roosevelt insists.
“When Mr. Seward acquired Alaska, did we ask for the consent of the
Eskimos? We did not. When the Indian tribes went into rebellion
in Florida, did Andrew Johnson offer them a citizenship for which
they were not prepared? No, he offered them simple justice. Which is
what we shall mete out to our little brown brothers in the Philippines.
Justice and civilization will be theirs if they but seize the opportunity.
We shall keep the islands! ” 124
Later, after he has become president and asked Hay to stay on as Secretary of State, Vidal’s Roosevelt defends the diplomatic and military chicanery by means of which he obtained the right of way through Panama
to build a canal in that Central American country. “The point, John, is
that we have done something useful for our country. Our fleets can go
back and forth, quickly, between Atlantic and Pacific.” Hay is perplexed.
“You see a future so filled with war?” he asks the president. And Vidal’s
Roosevelt replies, “Yes, I do. […] I also see our own mission, which is to
lead where once England led, but on a world scale…” 125
Still later, when President Woodrow Wilson has led the United
States into involvement in World War I, Vidal’s Roosevelt shows up at
the White House to offer to lead a volunteer division in France. While
there, he takes the opportunity to offer the president some advice on his
conduct of the war. He points out to the president that “the Germanlanguage press […] has been, from the beginning, disloyal to this country. I would, as a military necessity, shut all those papers down.” Wilson
is taken somewhat aback. “Isn’t this—arbitrary?” he asks Roosevelt.
“Surely, they are guaranteed the same freedoms –” But Roosevelt cuts
him off. “This is war, Mr. President. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus,
shut down newspapers, and we’ll have to do the same….” Nor is this all
he recommends to the startled president. “Many would-be traitors—
German sympathizers—pretend to be peace-lovers, to be—what’s their
123 Ibid., p. 129.
124 Ibid., p. 130.
125 Ibid., pp. 373-374.
phrase?—‘conscientious objectors.’ Well, I would treat them conscientiously! I would deny them the vote. If they are of military age and refuse
to fight for their country, then they must forgo their citizenship.” 126
Vidal’s Wilson, for his part, a “professional historian, who preferred
the British parliamentary system to the American executive system,”
is not at all averse to the idea of helping the British with just about
anything they might want to undertake. Once he decides to intervene
in World War I to aid the British, he follows Roosevelt’s advice and
harshly censors the press. But he finds to his sorrow that, even with
his critics silenced, there is insufficient public support for his war. As
a result, there are “too few volunteers.” He has a solution, though: “We
must conscript the young men. Draft them. Find a new word for draft,
if necessary, but no matter what the word, there is so little time to do
so much in.” Accordingly, Vidal’s Wilson wastes no time in making
sure that “[c]onscription was […] swift and absolute and under another
name. On June 5, ten million men between twenty-one and thirty had
been registered under the National Defense Act for ‘selective service’
in the armed services, which sounded rather better than, say, cannon
fodder in France.” 127
Hollywood and The Golden Age
Wilson’s successors in the White House, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover, are both much more wary of foreign entanglements. (Vidal
pays short shrift to Calvin Coolidge, who served between Harding and
Hoover, perhaps because Coolidge merely carried out Harding’s foreign
policies.) Blaise Sanford looks at Harding and muses that
[t]he fact that Harding’s career had been one of astonishing success
could not be ascribed solely to brute luck or animal charm. Without
luck and charm, Harding would probably not have had a political
career. But he had had the luck and the charm and something else as
well, hard to define because he was so insistently modest. 128
126 Vidal, Hollywood, op.cit., p. 70-71.
127 Ibid., pp. 33, 69, 82.
128 Ibid., p. 376.
So modest is Vidal’s Harding that he publicly gives all credit for his administration’s triumph at the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference in 1921 to his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes. In fact, as
Vidal tells it, all Hughes had done was “read off the particulars of Harding’s secret plan,” under which “the United States was willing to scrap
thirty capital ships” and “Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy were
invited to rid themselves of close to two million tons of war-ships.” 129
Harding had figured that if any word of his plan were to leak to the
press, military expansionists everywhere would have time to rally
public opinion against disarmament. Hence the thunderbolt, hurled
by Hughes in the presence of the benign presidential author. It was
Harding’s theory that once world opinion was appealed to, there
would be no way for the various governments to back down.
Harding’s theory proved correct. His “gamble paid off. The world was
enthralled, and in the course of a single morning Harding became the
central figure on the world’s stage, and the most beloved.” 130
Herbert Hoover, who entered the White House as president six
years after Harding’s sudden death, attempted to continue his predecessor’s peace-loving foreign policy, only to be brought up short by the
machinations of his own Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson. Stimson, according to Vidal’s Hoover,
“wanted to make all Asia our responsibility. That means if the Japanese would not let go of Manchuria, we would go to war with them.
When I realized what he was up to, I called a Cabinet meeting and
read Henry the riot act. I agreed that although Japanese behavior on
the mainland of Asia was deplorable, we were in no way threatened,
economically or morally.” 131
Making war under such circumstances is repugnant to Vidal’s Hoover.
“I would never sacrifice any American life anywhere,” he states forthrightly, “unless we ourselves were directly threatened.” “People forget,”
Vidal’s Hoover complains, “that when I was elected president we were
occupying most of Central America and the Caribbean. I pulled the
Marines out of Haiti, out of Nicaragua, and then when our war lovers
insisted that we invade Cuba and Panama and Honduras, I said no.” 132
After 1932, Hoover is helpless to prevent war so easily, for he has
been voted out of office and replaced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a
Ibid., p. 366.
Ibid., p. 367.
Gore Vidal, The Golden Age (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 166.
Ibid., pp.166-167.
distant cousin of the earlier, Republican Roosevelt, who had been so
bellicose and eager for hostilities. The new, Democratic Roosevelt “goes
on and on about how he hates war because he has seen war,” Vidal’s
Hoover declares with evident contempt. “As usual, he lies. He toured a
battlefield or two after Germany had surrendered. And that was that.
He saw no war. Does he hate what he has never experienced? Who
knows? But I had to feed the victims of that war and I don’t want anything like that to happen ever again. But Stimson does. Roosevelt does.
I find them unfathomable.” 133
By the time Vidal’s Hoover utters these remarks the two unfathomable creatures at whose motives he so marvels are busily working
together, for Roosevelt names Stimson his Secretary of War just after
winning an unprecedented third term in the White House in November
1940. And thereafter, Vidal’s Stimson and Vidal’s fdr conspire to turn
American public opinion around 180 degrees so that it will favor the
course they themselves fervently advocate: u.s. intervention in the European war that began in 1939. Another of their co-conspirators is Harry
Hopkins, the former social worker turned presidential confidante and
adviser. “A principal architect of the New Deal, as the President’s largely unsuccessful plan to end the Depression was called, Hopkins was
the man in the shadows, forever whispering into the President’s ear, as
they experimented with programs and secretly manipulated friends and
enemies.” 134 And, as luck would have it, Hopkins also becomes a close
friend of Caroline Sanford, who returns to Washington in 1939, at the
beginning of The Golden Age. She is sixty and has spent the last decade
in Europe, but is now bent on playing an active part once again in the
daily publication of the Washington Tribune. Her friendship with Hopkins makes her privy to much interesting information.
“There is no way,” Hopkins tells Caroline,
“that we—this administration anyway—will let England go down.
We can always handle the isolationists here at home […] [w]ith some
protective camouflage for Churchill, for England. The fact is they
haven’t been a great power since 1914. But we all kept pretending they
were until Hitler came along. Up till then the whole thing has been
a sort of bluff. That’s why we keep going on about a special relationship between the English-speaking nations, […] [d]isguising the fact
that we are the world empire now and they are simply a client state. A
bunch of offshore islands. Certainly they are close to us in many ways,
133 Ibid., p. 167.
134 Ibid., p. 56.
but they aren’t necessary to us. To be blunt, we can survive—even
thrive—without them, which is the wicked wisdom of the intelligent
isolationists who are not just for America First, as they like to say in
their speeches, but for Amerika über Alles.” 135
The question is how the president is going to involve the United
States in the European war, coming to the aid of the British, when most
Americans clearly oppose such an intervention. Former u.s. Senator
Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, the blind politician turned out of office in 1936 by his constituents (perhaps for his outspoken criticism of the
popular, if “largely unsuccessful,” New Deal), remains in Washington,
where he has spent so much of his career, practicing law, talking politics
with his numerous friends in and around the District, and relying on his
grandson, Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr. (who will later become famous as the
novelist, playwright, and essayist Gore Vidal), as an assistant and guide
around the Capitol. In a conversation with the fictitious Senator James
Burden Day, Vidal’s Gore declares unequivocally that “the President has
a plan, even some sort of timetable,” and that he is “provoking Japan into
attacking us so he can live up to his campaign promise that, if elected,
no sons of yours will ever fight in a foreign war—unless, of course, we
are attacked.” In that event, if the attacker were Japan, not only would
“the nation […] be willing to enter the war,” but the United States would
also be involved in the European conflict, “because Germany and Italy
would have to honor their military treaty with Japan.” 136
“It’s a very clever game.” Gore’s one glass eye had strayed northward,
while the blind eye was half shut. “Eighty percent of our people don’t
want us to go back to Europe for a second world war and nothing will
ever persuade them, no matter how many of our ships the Germans
sink. So we at least learned that lesson from last time. But to get the
Japanese to strike first is true genius—wicked genius.” 137
Hopkins instructs Caroline on the wisdom of this plan. “[I]t is wisest for the President to let them make the first move. We think they’ll
attack Manila, and if by some miracle they should manage to blow up
that horse’s ass MacArthur, our cup will truly runneth over.” Even if
they don’t blow up MacArthur, however, “there’s no going to war unless all your people are united behind you. Well, they are nowhere near
united even though we keep losing ship after ship to the Nazis and no
one blinks an eye. So we must take one great blow and then…”
135 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
136 Ibid., p. 172.
137 Ibid., p. 173.
Hopkins pauses and Caroline prompts him by asking, “Then what?”
“Then we go for it,” Hopkins replies. “All of it. And get it.”
“What is it?” Caroline demands, frustrated.
“The world,” Hopkins tells her. “What else is there for us to have?” 138
Vidal’s Roosevelt succeeds in provoking the Japanese into an attack
on Pearl Harbor. He succeeds too in concealing his foreknowledge of
this event from the naval command in Hawaii, thereby insuring that
the “one great blow” his nation must take is a great one indeed—great
enough, devastating enough, to bring about the complete turnaround
in public opinion that is necessary for the president to take the nation
into a foreign war without committing political suicide in the process.
However, fdr does not live to see the end of the war he leads his nation into. That pleasure falls to his successor, the unassuming Missouri
haberdasher Harry S. Truman. And Truman minces no words in making it clear that he favors precisely the sort of u.s.-dominated world
envisioned by Roosevelt and Hopkins. When Blaise Sanford’s son Peter
covers one of Truman’s early speeches on foreign policy for his magazine
The American Idea, he finds that
[t]he President not only briskly assumed for the United States global
primacy but made it clear that from this moment forward the United
States could and would interfere in the political arrangements of any
nation on earth because “I believe that it must be the policy of the
United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted
subjugation by outside pressure.” 139
On the other hand, this is not to say that everything in President
Truman’s foreign policy would have met with the approval of either
Roosevelt or Hopkins. On the contrary. As Hopkins puts it to Caroline,
“Henry Wallace says Harry will agree with you before you’ve actually said what you mean. Then he’ll go around telling everyone he
gave you hell. Now it looks like he wants to give Stalin hell. That’s
bad news. The Boss was always willing to treat Stalin in a normal
way. As the head of the other great world power. That’s why Stalin trusted him, to the extent Russians ever trust anybody. Then
Harry goes off to Potsdam and starts to renege on every agreement
we made at Yalta. All because he’s got the atomic bomb and they
don’t. So we’re going to have a very expensive arms race and trouble
everywhere.” 140
138 Ibid., p. 195.
139 Ibid., p. 307.
140 Ibid., p. 262.
In summary, then, Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle novels tell a
tale of American history that would seem passing strange to anyone
whose understanding of the subject is confined to what has long been
conventionally taught in American public schools and colleges. In Vidal’s American history, the Founding Fathers are not graven saints, but
fallible mortals driven as often by vanity, greed, and lust (whether for
power or for the flesh of attractive slave girls) as by any belief in the
nobility of their cause, and more often bent on benefiting themselves
and the members of their social class than on benefiting Americans
in general. In Vidal’s American history, Abraham Lincoln preserved
the Union at the cost of destroying everything about it that had made
it worth preserving—the protections supposedly afforded by the Constitution to the inalienable individual rights of American citizens. In
Vidal’s American history, a cabal of racist imperialists had seized control
of the federal government within scarcely more than a hundred years of
the Constitution’s ratification, and sent its young men on a rampage of
international meddling and mass murder that culminated in the total
destruction of two Japanese cities. In Vidal’s American history, it was
the United States, not the Soviet Union, which launched and then prolonged the Cold War.
The Birth of American Revisionism and
the Rise of Harry Elmer Barnes
THE question is, is Vidal’s version of American history the truth? Is it
merely a fictional creation by a writer who has long devoted part of his
professional career to political polemics—a fictional creation designed
to justify the criticisms of u.s. policy, especially u.s. foreign policy, so
frequently contained in those polemics? Or could one, if one chose to
look, find published, credentialed historians whose work lends credibility to Vidal’s vision? In a word, does Vidal’s vision of American history
rest on a solid foundation in historical scholarship? Or doesn’t it?
The short answer to this question is that, yes, Vidal’s vision of
American history does rest on a solid foundation in historical scholarship. But there is also a long answer to the question, and it runs
as follows: the historical scholarship that verifies Vidal’s account of
American history is scattered throughout the historical record of the
last century and a half, but most of it is the product of one or more
of the three closely interrelated “revisionist” movements that emerged
in American historiography during those years. These three movements are the “ New History,” whose leading practitioners later came
to be called “the Progressive historians”; the rebellion of the “ New Left
Historians” that began creating consternation within the historical
profession during the 1960s and ’70s; and the closely related revisionist movement established in the 1960s by a new group of libertarian
historians—a movement which only now, nearly half a century later, is
at last gaining the adherents and generating the excitement that have
long eluded it.
Before describing these three “revisionist” movements in more detail,
it would perhaps be advisable to define the term revisionism as it applies
to the study of history. “Revisionism,” according to Joseph R. Stromberg, “refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or
interpretation.” 141 “The readjustment of historical writing to historical
facts” is the succinct definition offered in 1953 by one of revisionism’s
most notorious practitioners, Harry Elmer Barnes. 142 Thirteen years
later, he offered a slightly longer and more thoughtful definition: “the
effort to revise the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more
objective attitude.” 143 Even in his slightly longer and more thoughtful
formulation, however, it is noteworthy that Barnes places great emphasis on the facts of the case. We need to revise the historical record when
we have new facts.
Yet, as William Appleman Williams argued in 1973, “it is only rarely
that the belated discovery of new documents revolutionizes some part
of history.” Accordingly, for Williams, “[t]he revisionist is one who sees
basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships.” 144
In 1967, Warren I. Cohen had seen the issue similarly, and had written,
in the Preface to his book The American Revisionists that “the revisionist
revises an existing interpretation of an event in history.” On the other
hand, Cohen had wondered aloud, later on in the selfsame sentence,
whether the designation revisionist was really of any value to the student,
“who realizes that every generation of historians tends to give new interpretations to the past.” 145 Richard Hofstadter, a year later, echoed this
theme in his book The Progressive Historians, writing of “that perennial
battle we wage with our elders.” As Hofstadter saw it, “If we are to have
any new thoughts, if we are to have an intellectual identity of our own,
141 Joseph R. Stromberg, “ Harry Elmer Barnes (1889-1968): Progressive and Revisionist.” 7 February 2000. Online at http://www.antiwar.com/stromberg/
142 Harry Elmer Barnes, “Revisionism and the Historical Blackout” in Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin
Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, ed. Harry Elmer Barnes (Caldwell, id: Caxton, 1953), p. 7.
143 Harry Elmer Barnes, “Revisionism: A Key to Peace” in Revisionism: A Key to Peace
and Other Essays, ed. James J. Martin (San Francisco: Cato Institute, 1980), p. 1.
144 William Appleman Williams, “Confessions of an Intransigent Revisionist” in A
William Appleman Williams Reader: Selections from his Major Historical Writings, ed.
Henry W. Berger (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), p. 338. [emphasis in original]
145 Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World
War I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. vii. [emphasis added]
we must make the effort to distinguish ourselves from those who preceded us, and perhaps pre-eminently from those to whom we once had
the greatest indebtedness.” 146
Perhaps this is the reason Harry Elmer Barnes was able to report,
when he sat down in the last decade of his life to write “Revisionism: A
Key to Peace,” that “revisionism dates from the beginnings of historical
writing” and that “the first true historian” in Ancient Greece (Hecataeus of Miletus) “is known chiefly as a revisionist of traditional Greek
tales about Hellenic origins.” Barnes also noted that
[r]evisionism has been most frequently and effectively applied to correcting the historical record relative to wars because truth is always
the first war casualty, the emotional disturbances and distortions in
historical writing are greatest in wartime, and both the need and the
material for correcting historical myths are most evident and profuse
in connection with wars.
According to Barnes, writing in 1966, “[r]evisionism was applied to the
American Revolution many years ago,” and has been applied to every
other war in which the u.s. government had been involved since. 147
Barnes, as has been seen, placed great emphasis on the importance
of newly discovered facts as a justification for the revisionist’s work. On
occasion, however, he too stressed the importance of re-interpreting
long-known facts. “By the close of the nineteenth century,” he wrote in
1937 in his History of Historical Writing,
the student of history was in a condition not unlike that in which the
physicist, chemist, or biologist would find himself if supplied with a
vast number of notebooks containing carefully set down records of
countless experiments and observations, but without any real attempt
to interpret the significance of this mass of material or to derive from
it scientific laws of general applicability. 148
Such interpretation was necessary, Barnes believed, because without it
history could never be useful. “The great majority of historical works
down to the present time,” he wrote in 1926,
have been filled with a mass of meaningless details with respect to
the origins, succession, and changes of dynasties, or have dealt almost
exclusively with battles, diplomatic intrigues, and personal anecdotes
and episodes which have little or no significance in explaining how
146 Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New
York: Knopf, 1969), p. xiv.
147 Barnes, “Revisionism: A Key to Peace,” op.cit., pp. 1-2.
148 Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, op.cit., p. 355.
our present institutions and culture came about, in indicating their
excellence and defects, or in aiding us to plan a better and more effective future. 149
As an example of what he meant, Barnes turned to the history of his
own nation. “The vast majority of the writing on American history,” he
wrote, “has been concerned with its political and legal phases.” And this,
he argued, had been a mistake. For
[u]ntil one understands that, however important Washington, Hamilton, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Andrew Jackson, William
Henry Harrison, Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Grant,
James G. Blaine, Elihu Root, or Theodore Roosevelt may have been
in American history, they have done less to shape its chief tendencies
than such men as Franklin, Eli Whitney, Fulton, Morse, McCormick, Kelley, Field, Bell, J. J. Hill, Edison, Goodyear and Henry
Ford, there will be little hope of any serious approach to a vital grasp
of the nature of the development of American society. 150
Barnes’s list of the true shapers of American society implies a certain
interest in the economy and in the influence of technology on economic progress. And this interest seems only fitting when we recall that
Barnes had done his graduate work in history “at the prewar Columbia
of Robinson and Beard.” 151
The “Robinson” to whom Peter Novick refers here is James Harvey
Robinson (1863-1936), who taught at Columbia University from 1895 to
1919 and during those years founded, with Charles Austin Beard (18741948), what came to be known as the New History. Robinson was adamant that history should be of real utility to the living. “Our books,” he
wrote, “are like very bad memories which insist upon recalling facts that
have no assignable relation to our needs, and this is the reason why the
practical value of history has so long been obscured.” 152 To remedy this
situation, Robinson proposed that historians make more extensive use
of the social sciences, particularly economics, sociology, and psychology,
in their efforts to understand the past. Beard illustrated this approach
to history in his scandalously successful 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in which he defended the
thesis that
149 Harry Elmer Barnes, History and Social Intelligence (New York: Revisionist Press,
1972 [1926]), p. 271.
150 Ibid., pp. 294, 293.
151 Peter Novick, op.cit., p. 178.
152 Ibid., p. 98.
the Framers had pursued their task less under the spell of the high
ideals of 1776 than with their eyes trained on the main chance. Encouraging commerce and manufactures, protecting private property,
establishing financial instruments essential for economic development—these were the issues that preoccupied those participating in
the secret deliberations in Philadelphia—issues in which they themselves had a large personal stake. 153
Barnes had a background in sociology as well as economics. Born in
1889 “on a farm near Auburn, in the Finger Lake district of central New
York State,” he “entered Syracuse University in the fall of 1909,” equipped
“with the aim of preparing himself to be a high-school history teacher.”
When he graduated from Syracuse in 1913, he achieved all of the academic honors available for a history major: graduation summa cum
laude at the top of his class, not only in Liberal Arts but in the University as a whole, first honors in history, and the annual Historical
Essay Prize for his essay on Alexander Hamilton. After graduation
he remained at Syracuse for two years as an instructor in sociology
and economics.
Sociology and economics were, of course, disciplines that could introduce “new facts” into the historical record and thereby create a need for
revisionism. In 1915, Barnes applied for admission to graduate study at
Columbia. William Harrison Mace, the chairman of the history department at Syracuse, wrote to the Columbia Graduate Faculty that “Harry
Elmer Barnes is probably the ablest student and most tireless worker the
Department of History has ever graduated.” 154
In 1918, after three years immersion in the New History of Robinson and Beard (an outlook that his earlier interest in economics and
sociology suggests came naturally to him), Barnes submitted his dissertation and was awarded his Ph.D. He was thus a member of what Peter
Novick calls “the second-generation New Historians,” but he was destined to become, along with Beard, one of the two best known members
of the movement. Preserved Smith of the Cornell University history
department called Barnes’s History of Western Civilization (2 vols., 1935)
“incontestably the masterpiece of the New History.” 155 As late as 1968,
153 Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities & Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 13.
154 Marguerite J. Fisher, “Harry Elmer Barnes: An Overall Preview” in Harry Elmer
Barnes, Learned Crusader: The New History in Action, ed. Arthur Goddard (Colorado Springs, co: Ralph Myles, 1968), pp. 1, 3, 4.
155 See Harry Elmer Barnes, ed. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, op.cit., p. 2.
the year of Barnes’s death, when a group of his former students, former
colleagues, and fellow scholars contributed to a festschrift in his honor,
the resulting volume was entitled Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader:
The New History in Action.
Barnes “spent 1919-1920 as one of the original staff of the New School
for Social Research,” and spent a few years thereafter at Clark University
in Worcester, Massachusetts, first as an associate professor of European
history, then as Professor of the History of Thought and Culture. Later,
“[i]n 1923, Barnes left Clark to go to Smith College, in Northampton,
Massachusetts as Professor of Historical Sociology. In addition to his
regular position at Smith, he taught at Amherst for two years at the request of Dwight Morrow, who asked him to teach an introductory social
science course known as ‘Social and Economic Institutions.’” 156
Meanwhile, he was writing voluminously on a freelance basis for
both the scholarly and the popular press—for the American Journal of
Sociology, the Political Science Quarterly, and the American Historical Review; for The Nation, the New Republic, and the American Mercury. And
sometime in 1921, he found the subject for which he would ultimately
become most famous: the origins and significance of World War I. During that war, as a graduate student in history at Columbia and a budding
part-time journalist and polemicist, he had been loud in his support of
u.s. involvement in the conflict. As William L. Neumann notes,
Like many young men of his time he was a partisan of Woodrow
Wilson. Like many of his older Columbia colleagues, notably […]
Charles A. Beard, he favored American entry into the European war
before April of 1917. For his hometown New York newspaper, the Port
Byron Chronicle, he wrote a long pro-intervention article in the winter
of 1916-1917 which he later recalled as being “as ferocious in content,
policy, and language as anything contributed by any sane person at
the time.” He also contributed to the pamphleteering work of the
National Security League, the National Board for Historical Service,
the American Defence Society, and several other propaganda agencies favorable to American entry into the European War. 157
Then, in 1920 and 1921, Barnes read a series of articles in the American Historical Review by Sidney B. Fay of Smith College entitled “New
Light on the Origins of the World War.” Only a short time before, as
Warren I. Cohen describes it,
156 Fisher, op.cit., p. 15
157 William L. Neumann, “Harry Elmer Barnes as World War I Revisionist” in
Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader op.cit., p. 262.
the opening of the Russian archives was followed by the opening of
the archives of the defeated Central Powers. Numerous historians
sat down to years of laborious research. The publicists and historians
of lesser patience took a quick look and began writing. Almost all
concluded what every intelligent American had known all along: that
the Germans had not been one hundred per cent “evil,” nor France
and her allies one hundred per cent “good.” But the “revisionist” interpretation often went further, to the extent of shifting primary responsibility for the origins of the war from the Central to the Allied
Powers—and, ultimately, condemning American intervention. 158
Fay was one of the less patient historians; he had taken a quick look
and had begun writing. Barnes took a somewhat slower look at the new
evidence, but within three years he was not only a convert to Fay’s revisionism but also its chief apologist in the popular press. An article under
Barnes’s byline on “Assessing the Blame for the World War” appeared
in the May 1924 issue of Current History. It was followed a year later by a
series of twelve shorter articles on the same subject in the Christian Century. The last of these Christian Century pieces had no sooner appeared
(in the issue for December 17, 1925) than Barnes was busily at work revising and expanding the series for publication as a book: “[B]y June of
1926, the first edition of The Genesis of the World War was in the hands of
reviewers, seven hundred and fifty pages long and selling for four dollars.” Two years later, in 1928, Barnes “collected many of the controversial
reviews of the first edition of the Genesis, his own rejoinders, some of his
earlier articles, and an American Mercury article by C. Hartley Grattan”
into a second book on World War I, In Quest of Truth and Justice. 159
If Barnes took a slower and closer look than Sidney Fay at the
new evidence about the war that became available after the Armistice,
Charles Beard, Barnes’s old professor at Columbia, took an even longer
time than Barnes did to change his view of the Wilson administration’s “war to end war.” But change it he did, in the end. By 1930 Beard
had become firmly convinced “that u.s. entry into the war had been a
mistake and that Wilson’s peddling of the elixir of internationalism had
been tantamount to fraud.” He had, moreover, become convinced that
u.s. wartime policies had been
self-serving, reflecting an eagerness to cash in on Europe’s misfortune. A phony neutrality permitted a massive trade in arms with the
Allies, propped up by American loans. The result at home was large
158 Cohen, op.cit., p. 2.
159 Neumann, op.cit., pp. 266, 268-269, 270, 272, 279.
profits for bankers and arms merchants and a general economic boom,
sustainable only so long as the slaughter on the western front continued. By 1917 those policies culminated in intervention at the behest of
Wall Street tycoons who would face ruin if Great Britain and France
lost the war.
Now Beard enthusiastically joined his former student in attempting
to sell World War I revisionism to the American public. As Andrew
Bacevich notes, “Beard could wield his pen as ‘either shillelagh or stiletto’ and was equally adept at writing for academics, policy professionals or the general public.” And now that his mind was made up, he
held nothing back. “Throughout the 1930s Beard devoted his formidable talents to averting” a recurrence of the disaster he now believed
had taken place in 1917 and 1918. “In a torrent of books, pamphlets,
and articles, he warned against being dragged into problems that were
Asia’s or Europe’s, but not America’s. He labored furiously to alert his
fellow citizens to the folly—and the danger—of reviving Woodrow
Wilson’s project.” 160
Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams:
From Progressivism to the New Left
Beard was a fearsome talent to be deployed on behalf of the revisionist
cause. A native of Indiana, Beard had studied at DePauw University,
Oxford University, and Columbia. He had taught at Columbia for thirteen years, then resigned to become “an independent scholar and commentator on events of the day.”
Over the course of his career, Beard published forty-two volumes of
history and political science and coauthored another thirty-five. His
masterful overview of u.s. history, The Rise of American Civilization,
written with his wife, Mary R. Beard, became a bestseller and Bookof-the-Month Club selection. His histories alone sold 11.3 million
copies during his lifetime. Beard’s articles and reviews—numbering
in the hundreds—appeared in virtually all the leading scholarly and
general-circulation journals of his day.
160 Bacevich, op.cit., pp. 14-15, 11, 16.
Altogether, “[t]hrough the first half of the twentieth century, Charles
A. Beard […] was by common agreement the most influential historian
in America.” 161
With such intellectual firepower as Beard could muster, combined
with that of his precocious and fabulously productive former student
Barnes, anyone would expect that their case for World War I revisionism would have resoundingly carried the day. And, indeed, according
to some accounts, it did. James J. Martin writes, for example, that the
revisionist campaign “during the two decades prior to the outbreak of
the Second World War” was “a success by almost any standard.” For
“in the main, the field was carried by Revisionism, its position being
adopted generally throughout the country by the majority of the nation’s most influential journalists and publicists. A very large part of
the academic world as well accepted its general conclusions of divided
war responsibility.” Moreover, “the stubborn unwillingness shown by
an immense majority of Americans to become totally immersed in the
[following] war until the Japanese attack on Hawaii on December 7,
1941, was due in large part to popularized revisionist lessons, disseminated between 1924 and 1937.” 162 Similarly, Cohen refers to the revisionists’ battle for the minds and hearts of the American people during the
interwar years as “[t]he battle won in the 1920’s and 1930’s by men like
Harry Elmer Barnes, Charles Beard, C. Hartley Grattan, Walter Millis, and Charles Tansill.” 163
Barnes himself was never so certain that the battle had been won.
“At the outset,” he wrote,
American revisionist writing was somewhat precarious. Professor
Fay was not in peril, personally, for he wrote in a scholarly journal
which the public missed or ignored. But when I began to deal with
the subject in media read by at least the upper intellectual level of the
“men on the street,” it was a different matter. I recall giving a lecture
in Trenton, New Jersey, in the early days of revisionism and being
threatened bodily by fanatics who were present.
“Gradually,” Barnes acknowledged, “the temper of the country changed,
but at first it was caused more by resentment against our former allies
than by the impact of revisionist writings.” 164
161 Ibid., p. 11.
162 James J. Martin, “History and Social Intelligence” in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned
Crusader, op.cit., pp. 241, 246.
163 Cohen, op.cit., p. ix.
164 Barnes, “Revisionism: A Key to Peace,” op.cit., pp. 10, 11.
Like Beard, Barnes put much energy during the 1930s into an attempt to persuade the American public of the dangerous folly (as he
saw it) of becoming involved in yet another world war. When, late in
the ’20s, Barnes was given an opportunity to place this message before
a much larger audience than he could ever command from the front of
a college classroom or the pages of an intellectual weekly, he jumped
at it. As Marguerite Fisher tells the story, “In 1929, during a sabbatical
leave of absence” from his job at Smith, “Barnes went to New York to
experiment for a year as an editorial writer, columnist, and book reviewer with the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain […] then a powerful
and liberal newspaper chain.” The experiment was deemed a success, by
both Barnes and his new employer, and was continued for another four
years. In 1934, “he left the general organization of Scripps-Howard” and
“was then taken on as a columnist, editorial writer and book reviewer for
the World-Telegram, the New York City Scripps-Howard newspaper and
the most important one in the chain. […] Barnes finally left the World
Telegram in May, 1940,” determined to do as Beard had done and carve
out a career for himself as a freelance intellectual—writing books, contributing to magazines and newspapers, and taking the occasional appointment as a visiting lecturer at such colleges or universities as might
be interested in his services.165
“His departure” from the World-Telegram, according to Fisher, “was
hastened by the controversy aroused by his anti-interventionist editorials, columns, and book reviews.” 166 It was perhaps inevitable, then, that
he would next turn his revisionist attention to the very Second World
War that he had tried so valiantly but failed so miserably to keep the
United States out of. After all, that was what his old professor, Charles
Beard, had done. As Bacevich puts it, Beard
closed out his career by denouncing as fraudulent the text most crucial to sustaining the myth of the reluctant superpower: the orthodox
account of u.s. entry into World War II. In two scathing volumes—
American Foreign Policy in the Making (1946) and President Roosevelt
and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948)—Beard accused Franklin
Roosevelt of outright deception in his conduct of foreign affairs.
For, according to Beard, “even as he was promising to keep the country
out of the war, Roosevelt was conniving to maneuver the United States
into it.” 167
165 Fisher, op.cit., pp. 17, 21.
166 Ibid., p. 21.
167 Bacevich, op.cit., p. 12.
Barnes agreed entirely with Beard’s analysis. And “[j]ust as in
March, 1922, Barnes had demanded that the current interpretations of
the causes of World War I be revised, so now, at the end of 1947, he
made a similar demand with regard to World War II, only to find that
the difficulties in the way of getting any truth published about the responsibility for World War II were all but insuperable.” Still, by 1953
Barnes was able to find a publisher for his most ambitious revisionist
project on the second great war. This was a nearly seven-hundred-page
collection of essays by diverse hands, “dedicated to the late Charles Austin Beard who had suggested its title, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.
The specific content of the book was then illuminated by its subtitle, A
Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
and Its Aftermath.” 168
Barnes continued to work out the details of his revisionist account
of World War II for the rest of his life. But he knew by 1953, even in
the hour of his greatest triumph (successfully getting Perpetual War for
Perpetual Peace into print), that his cause was a lost one. He wrote, from
that time on, in the interest of recording the truth, as he saw it, as an
end in itself. He held out no hope for the sort of victory in the court of
public opinion that his earlier World War I revisionism had enjoyed.
“However much we may recoil from the prospect,” he wrote in 1953 in
the opening chapter of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,
there seems a strong probability that we are now entering the twilight of historical science. […] History has been an intellectual casualty in both World Wars, and there is much doubt that it can be
rehabilitated during the second half of the century. Indeed, there is
every prospect that it will become more and more an instrument and
adjunct of official propaganda—a supine instrument of our “Ministry of Truth.” 169
Little did Barnes realize—little could he have realized—that all
was not lost. For only a year before, the seed of an entirely new revisionist movement had been planted by a much younger but comparably
prolific and polemical historian named William Appleman Williams,
a movement that would shortly enjoy the kind of currency and influence which Barnes’s own early works had enjoyed back in the 1920s
and ’30s. Williams (1921-1990) grew up in a small town in Iowa, won
an appointment to the u.s. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland,
168 Henry M. Adams, “ World War II Revisionist” in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned
Crusader, op.cit., pp. 295, 303.
169 Harry Elmer Barnes, “Revisionism and the Historical Blackout,” op.cit., p. 58.
and served aboard a u.s. Navy ship during the last year of the great
war that was to bring Harry Elmer Barnes so much sorrow. “In 1947,”
Andrew J. Bacevich notes, “Williams left the Navy to study history
at the University of Wisconsin, an institution famous, among other
things, for its ‘notorious loyalty’ to the teachings of Charles Beard.” 170
Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin, from whom Bacevich drew
the phrase “notorious loyalty” in the passage just quoted, go even farther in their 1995 biography of Williams, paraphrasing an unnamed
“graduate alumnus” as saying that in those days “[a]ll a Wisconsin history student had to do for preliminary examinations […] was to read
Beard carefully.” 171 Peter Novick writes of the University of Wisconsin
history department that it “was dedicated to the defense of Beard’s
reputation, and, with some qualifications, of his teachings.” 172 At
Madison “Williams earned a doctorate in u.s. diplomatic history. His
first book, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947, published in 1952,
implicitly questioned orthodox views of the Cold War’s origins, much
as Beard had questioned the conventional wisdom about American
entry into World War II.” 173
But Williams’s questioning of the conventional wisdom would not
remain implicit for long. By 1959, when the first edition of his most
influential book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, appeared, he was
clearly articulating, with considerable polemical vigor, the views that
would characterize the rest of his long career. American foreign policy
in the 20th Century, according to Williams, had been based on the
Open Door Policy first enunciated by John Hay, secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State to Presidents William
McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The problem, Williams argued,
was that the Open Door Policy had evolved “from a utopian idea into
an ideology,” and the gist of that ideology was “the firm conviction,
even dogmatic belief, that America’s domestic well-being depends upon
[…] sustained, ever-increasing overseas economic expansion.” 174 This
expansion could only be assured if the United States could be assured
that the doors of all nations would be open to her goods, her culture,
her social and political ideals, even her military. In Williams’s view,
170 Bacevich, op.cit., p. 23.
171 Paul M. Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin, William Appleman Williams: The
Tragedy of Empire (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 37.
172 Novick, op.cit., p. 346.
173 Bacevich, op.cit., p. 23.
174 William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York:
Dell, 1972 [1959]), pp. 206, 15.
“[o]f all the twentieth-century American presidents, only Franklin D.
Roosevelt recognized the dangers inherent in such an approach.” 175 But
Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, Harry S. Truman, “was
[…] an enthusiastic and militant advocate of America’s supremacy in
the world. He seemed, indeed, to react, think, and act as an almost
classic personification of the entire Open Door Policy.” 176 Unsurprisingly, Truman “and his advisors pursued ends that made the Cold War
inevitable.” 177
“After a series of short teaching appointments elsewhere,” Bacevich
writes, “Williams returned to Wisconsin in 1957 and quickly established himself in the front rank of American historians.” Over the next
eleven years he also “became the founding father and abiding inspiration of the ‘Wisconsin School’ of revisionist history that examined the
underside of u.s. foreign policy and found there an American variant of
imperialism.” 178 This Wisconsin School of revisionist history also came
to be known by another name, because so many of its leading figures
were perceived as members of the New Left. As Novick puts it,
The new, left-oriented historians who became visible within the profession during the 1960s came to be capitalized, reified, and often tacitly homogenized as “New Left historians.” This was a largely empty
and misleading designation, lumping together individuals of the most
diverse orientation, and often, innocently or maliciously, associating
them with the most extreme wing of the student movement. […] In
fact, although there were some dissident historians who had ties to
the student and youth insurgency which was labeled “New Left,” at
least as many either had no connection with the movement, or viewed
it with a jaundiced eye. 179
One of those who might well be counted as viewing the New Left
movement “with a jaundiced eye,” in fact, was Williams himself. As
Joseph R. Stromberg writes, “Even in the turbulent ‘sixties,’” Williams
“was critical of New Left excesses. He would have hated the present university climate of political correctness.” 180 This assertion is echoed by
175 Robert James Maddox, The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (Princeton,
nj: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 15.
176 Williams, Tragedy of American Diplomacy, op.cit., p. 239.
177 Maddox, op.cit., p. 16.
178 Bacevich, op.cit., p. 24.
179 Novick, op.cit., p. 418.
180 Joseph R. Stromberg, “ William Appleman Williams: Premier New Left Revisionist.” 16 November 1999. Online at http://www.antiwar.com/stromberg/
Henry W. Berger in his “Introduction” to A William Appleman Williams
Reader. Berger writes:
Late in the 1960s, in the midst of frustrated opposition to the Vietnam War and increased domestic upheavals, Williams became disenchanted with many in the New Left, protesting a number of their
actions which he believed contradicted and damaged efforts to change
American society and the nature of United States relations with the
world. He especially deplored “random nonsocial violence” as selfdefeating and was disturbed when members of the New Left “tried to
impose [their] consciousness on the rest of society through what [they]
considered ‘vanguard’ actions in a crisis situation.” 181
According to Bacevich, Williams’s disenchantment with the New Left
began even earlier. “Though an avowed man of the left,” Bacevich
writes, “by the mid-1960s Williams found himself increasingly out of
sympathy with the political views of the Vietnam-era student radicals,
among whom he had achieved the status of icon. He considered the
antics of the counterculture to be childish and self-indulgent. He found
the sexual revolution to be repugnant.” 182
Nonetheless, for better or for worse, the revisionist historians of
the 1960s and ’70s who were followers of William Appleman Williams have come to be called the New Left Historians. And there
can be no doubt that it was Williams to whom they looked as the
creator and leader of their movement. Several of the most prominent
among them—Walter LaFeber, Gabriel Kolko, Ronald Radosh—did
their graduate work in history under Williams at Wisconsin. Others,
like Gar Alperovitz, earned their undergraduate degrees in history at
Wisconsin during Williams’s time there. As Robert James Maddox
has written,
[b]y far the most influential American revisionist interpreter of the
origins of the Cold War has been William Appleman Williams. […]
It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that much of the existing revisionist, or “New Left,” literature on the subject amounts to little
more than extended footnotes on interpretations Williams first put
forward. 183
181 Henry W. Berger, “Introduction” in A William Appleman Williams Reader, op.cit.,
p. 28-29.
182 Bacevich, op.cit., p. 24.
183 Maddox, op.cit., p. 13.
Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin:
From Progressivism to Libertarianism
Williams, as has been seen, was a follower of Charles Beard. And at
about the same time in the late 1940s when Williams entered the University of Wisconsin and began undergoing rigorous graduate training
in history as that subject was understood by Charles Beard, another
young historian, James J. Martin (1916-2004), was making the acquaintance of Beard’s former student and fellow World War I and World War
II revisionist, Harry Elmer Barnes. Martin was uncertain at this time
whether he wanted to pursue a career as a revisionist historian, despite
the fact that what might be called the seeds of revisionism had been
sown in his mind and temperament early on. Even as late as 2002, when
he was eighty-six years old and his career was long behind him, he told
me, near the beginning of our first telephone conversation, that he didn’t
really regard himself as a revisionist. He was, he said, an “additionist”—
the fellow who comes along after the historical accounts have been written and adds what’s been (inadvertently or deliberately) left out. It was
a good line—and quite accurate, too—but it seems likely to have been
one of those clever lines that come to us sometimes like a bolt from the
blue, ornamenting the conversation or the manuscript at hand but having no lasting life, no lasting influence. For, in all our subsequent conversations, Martin never repeated it or referred to it in any way. In those
later talks, he always referred to himself and his intellectual comrades at
arms as “revisionists,” and never as anything else.
He himself had first been drawn to revisionism, he told me in March
2003 in a face-to-face conversation that took place over the course of an
unsettled, forboding afternoon, while in his last year as an undergraduate history major at the University of New Hampshire. It was the weather that was unsettled and forboding that afternoon: the sky was the blue/
grey of slate and the weatherman was forecasting a blizzard (by the time
it hit, my wife and I had driven up the road a piece, as far as Denver, so
it was there that we got snowed in for three days). But inside Martin’s
unpretentious suburban-style home the atmosphere was very different—
warm, hospitable, with a bottomless pot of spaghetti and much good
company. He had been born in 1916 (September 18, to be exact), he told
me, “in New Brunswick, Canada. My father was an unschooled, Irish
immigrant laborer, and my mother was a Maine school teacher. I don’t
know how those two ever hooked up. Looking back on it, I couldn’t
imagine two persons less likely to have hit it off—in terms of background, that is. I couldn’t see how they ever made any sense out of it.”
They didn’t, for long. “Eventually, my father sold what he had going
there in Canada and bought a farm in New Hampshire, just about in
time to experience the total collapse of the agricultural price scene in
1921.” At about that same time, Martin’s mother took ill and died. He
was five years old. For the next several years, he “ended up being passed
around from one housekeeper to another”—and also, more importantly,
from one Catholic school to another. “I spent eight years in Catholic
schools. My father was not known to have ever been in a church of any
kind. He despised all churches. But he thought that Catholic schools
were better, so he put me in them.” Then “I went to a Catholic high
school in the ’30s—two of them, in fact: one taught by Christian Brothers and the other taught by nuns. Looking back, I can see they weren’t
easy. They hit you with a lot of stuff. I had five years of Latin. Today,
you prescribe Latin, you’d probably be shot in your tracks.”
Rigorous though the educational program might have been, however, Martin was not inspired by it to pursue a life of scholarship. “I was
a football player. I wasn’t interested in books. I was a football player, and
I had a high school reputation in New Hampshire.” That high school
reputation won him a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire,
where he was no more scholarly than he’d ever been up to this time in
his life. Then he got sick. “In June of ’39 during the final exams, I came
down with pneumonia. I was the only sick kid out of two thousand students. I was in the school hospital, Hood House, donated by a big dairy
producer in Boston, H. P. Hood. I was the only patient in it. I kept the
whole place open for weeks. I was on what they called the ‘danger list.’
That meant you weren’t expected to live the rest of the week. I was on
that list for seven weeks. Eventually they shipped me in an ambulance
to the nearby city of Dover, which had a much bigger hospital, and I
eventually got well there.”
By the time it ended, however, the illness had taken a fearsome toll.
“I lost 50 pounds. I lost all my hair. I had to go to bed at six o’clock every
night for a year and a half.” And even after he had got well, he wasn’t
really that well. “They couldn’t use me in the war, you know. I remember one recruiting officer looked at my x-rays, and he said, ‘Go home.’
He said, ‘If we’re invaded, we’ll call you.’ That’s how bad they thought I
looked. I wasn’t declared fit again until 1947.”
There was, as a result, a sort of silver lining in that long period of
convalescence. “I had been in an rotc regiment at the University of
New Hampshire which was in the advance wave of the invasion of Casablanca in November 1942, and I would have been in that for damned
sure, and the beach was littered with guys who got killed that I played
football with. I told myself, ‘Well, you lucky bastard, you lost your football career, but you survived the war.’” The loss of the football career
was, nevertheless, a difficult cross for Martin to bear. “I was a psychological wreck. Everything I had lived for I couldn’t do anymore.” Then,
“to do something, I learned all about books, and then started reading,
and became a historian.”
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Up to the time of his illness,
Martin had changed majors frequently; his focus wasn’t on graduating,
but on taking classes that interested him and playing football. Now “I
looked back on it. I said, ‘Well, you’re going to be here forever if you
don’t figure out what the hell you’re going to major in. You’re going to
be here that long just to get enough credits to graduate.’ So I looked
over my record, and I had more good credits in history than anything,
so that’s the direction I went.” He had the credits in history because
“I liked history, and I was good at it, and I got good grades. I could
remember. I had a good memory.” So he majored in history. And by
the time he was in his long-postponed senior year and getting ready to
graduate, he had begun to notice that “people were neglecting this, and
that, and the other thing. The establishment was ignoring things. That
had something to do with my getting into revisionism.”
For example, “I remember running across the first American-Korean War. It wasn’t in 1950. It was in June 1871. The Far East American
fleet of five ships landed four hundred marines, who tackled a whole
bunch of Koreans in a fortress at the mouth of the Han River and killed
six hundred of them in one day. There were a lot of big battles that
didn’t have six hundred dead in them. Yet I had never heard a word
about it.”
“I remember the first time I ran across the big story about all the
Americans that deserted the trenches in World War I. A whole bunch of
them just walked off. There were so many, the military police cooperated with the French to create two big camps to put them in when they
rounded them up. They were never tried. They were never shot. I first
read about it going through The New York Times in microfilm looking
for something else, and there was a big spread on this story over a period
of about four months. There was a congressional investigation planned
but it was abandoned, and I gather these guys figured, ‘Look, this will
cause more trouble than it will solve. Let’s just forget about it.’ And as a
result, this episode has disappeared from the history books.”
Nor was this all. There was more. “I didn’t know the United States
had a poison gas factory in World War I, an immense factory in Aberdeen, Maryland. It’s northeast of Baltimore. It outproduced Germany,
Russia, Italy, France, and Austria combined—and England, too.”
By now, Martin was in Tucson, doing graduate work at the University of Arizona. “How I happened to go to Arizona from New Hampshire? The main reason was they had a summer semester in Tucson. You
could get a whole semester’s work in one summer. Usually you could
only get half that, and that was the main reason I went there. Also, just
to get a change of climate.”
The experience proved frustrating, however, because of what Martin called “the deportation of the young teachers. The young professors were taking commissions in the Navy to escape getting drafted
into the Army, and I exhausted their resources in one semester. The
courses I needed for my master’s degree were taught by men who weren’t
there anymore. They were on leave. And no school fired anybody who
took a Navy commission like that. They all returned there as a rule.”
So Martin dropped out. “I came back home and took a job teaching
at a New Hampshire high school, and then started fishing around for
another school, and wrote letters to various places. And I got a favorable response from Michigan after they saw my grades from Arizona. I
transferred some of them and went there three summers to get a master’s degree.”
By now Martin had come upon a few more of those inconvenient
facts that tended to be neglected or ignored by most historians.
“One subject I got interested in that I was going to write about, and
I took a lot of notes on, was how much of the Civil War was fought
by boys, twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds. I
found a piece by a nurse. She was so shaken by what had happened
to her that she couldn’t write about it for thirty-five years. She was
on a floor where every kid died of gangrene after having an arm or a
leg lopped off—twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-yearolds. The Union Army was loaded with children. I’m sure the same
was true in the South too. Big farm kids who passed themselves off
as two, three years older. A lot of this we know because, after the
war, when Congress passed the pension bill, I think in 1882, covering
the Union veterans, they had to verify the birth dates of the surviv-
ing veterans to qualify them. And there was a whole operation run
by a general, a Union general, that verified these birth dates and as
a result of that, we know a great deal about the extreme youth of a
whole bunch of people who qualified for pensions though they were
just boys during their term of service. Gettysburg was fought mainly
by boys. Now it’s reenacted by forty-year-old drunks.”
Martin had also come upon interesting evidence of “who made the
big bucks out of ” the u.s. Civil War.
“And boy, there were immense fortunes made out of that. There was
an economist named White who used to write about this in the immediate years right after the war, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69. He wrote a series of
articles dealing with some of the people who made big dough. You
know, the stock markets got so busy they had to have two sessions.
They had to have both a downtown and an uptown stock market—
the New York Stock Exchange. And of course, the people who sold
gold to the government made a real killing. There were a number of
multi-millionaires and billionaires. All the post-Civil War fortunes
had their origins in supplying the Northern armies. Actually there’s a
succession of economists, historical economists, in the post-Civil War
period who keep bringing this subject up all the way down into the
administration of Benjamin Harrison. They were still confronting the
people who made the money. But by that time, everybody had decided
to forget all about that. We were all heroes. We were all giants.”
Then there was the inconvenient information Martin had turned
up regarding
“how eager the young men of the nation were to join the army in 1917.
Over a million young men dodged the draft. The army never found
a one of them. Of course, they didn’t have any machinery to look for
them. The majority took isolated work on farms, other places where
they weren’t concentrated, and the army authorities never found a
damned one of them, as near as I can figure out. And the gang they
did round up—God, horrible pieces, terrible examples, of humanity.
The intelligence tests they administered, in particular. I think the
whole bunch combined, Black and White together, ranked moron. A
lot of soldiers made money in the first war if they could write. The
great majority could not write a letter home, so a lot of guys made
a few bucks on the side writing letters home for a, b, c, d, and e,
whoever couldn’t write. They charged them a small sum, but they had
so much business that they didn’t have to charge them much. A great
many letters written home were not by the writers, were not by the
authors. Somebody else wrote for them.”
Perhaps most fascinating of all there was the vast treasure trove
of neglected lore Martin had begun unearthing about an amazing human dynamo named Benjamin R. Tucker (1854-1939)—journalist, editor,
printer, publisher, and bookseller. The progeny of Quakers, Unitarians,
and Abolitionists, Tucker was suckled on radicalism and deflowered
while still a youth by early feminist radical Victoria Woodhull. An ardent exponent of freedom in all its forms—free love, freethought, and, of
course, the political freedom of the individual—Tucker sought to eliminate marriage, God, and the State. He founded and edited Liberty, in its
day (1881-1908) the largest-circulation anarchist periodical in the world.
He gathered around him an extraordinary group of writers and intellectuals and became the spearhead for what probably should be regarded,
from our vantage in time, as the first, almost entirely forgotten, libertarian movement. Tucker commissioned and published (and, in some cases,
personally created) the original English translations of Proudhon’s What
Is Property?, Bakunin’s God and the State, Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be
Done?, Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, and Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own.
He brought out American editions of works by Oscar Wilde, Herbert
Spencer, Emile Zola, John Henry Mackay, and many others. He studied and helped to popularize the work of earlier American individualists
who had come to reject the State—Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Lysander Spooner—thereby establishing the first serious claim
to a genuinely libertarian tradition in American intellectual history. And
all of this had been neglected, ignored, utterly forgotten. Martin decided to go for a Ph.D. and do his dissertation in one of the “neglected”
fields once vigorously championed by James Harvey Robinson: intellectual history. Published as a book in 1953 under the title Men Against
the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827-1908,
Martin’s dissertation galvanized scholarly interest in uniquely American
libertarian traditions and remains today, more than half a century after
its original publication, a standard work in the field. 184
It was while he was finishing up his work on this dissertation that
Martin received a mailing from the noted historian and polemicist Harry Elmer Barnes. Barnes had written to graduate students and faculty
in history departments all over the United States, advertising a new
pamphlet he had just written and self-published: Revisionism and the
184 See, for example, William O. Reichert, Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American
Anarchism (Bowling Green, oh: Bowling Green State University Popular Press,
1976), pp. viii-ix. See also David DeLeon, The American As Anarchist : Reflections
on Indigenous Radicalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 173.
Historical Blackout. Martin ordered a copy and, once he’d read it, wrote
to Barnes commenting on it. Barnes wrote back. Before long, the two
men were corresponding regularly, sometimes as often as four times a
week, and Martin had become a frequent guest in Barnes’s home, first
in Cooperstown, New York, then in Malibu, California.
Reading Revisionism and the Historical Blackout that fateful year in
the late 1940s seems to have had a powerful effect on James J. Martin.
His dissertation on the American individualist anarchists was the last
book he ever wrote on intellectual history. After reading Barnes, making his acquaintance, and becoming his close friend and protégé, he
turned his attention instead to what had long preoccupied Barnes: the
two major wars of the first half of the 20th Century. Martin’s second
book, published in 1963, was a mammoth two-volume study of American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931-1941: Liberalism’s Press and Spokesmen on the Road Back to War Between Mukden and Pearl Harbor. His
third, Revisionist Viewpoints: Essays in a Dissident Historical Tradition
(1971), focused entirely on issues relating to the two world wars. His
fourth, The Saga of Hog Island and Other Essays in Inconvenient History
(1977), did the same. His fifth, Beyond Pearl Harbor: Essays on Some Historical Consequences of the Crisis in the Pacific in 1941 (1981), bears a title
that speaks for itself. So does 1984’s The Man Who Invented “Genocide”:
The Public Career and Consequences of Raphael Lemkin, the 20th Century
Polish academic and bureaucrat who coined the term that has become
so ubiquitous in the years since. And so does An American Adventure in
Bookburning: In the Style of 1918 (1988).
In short, the influence of Barnes seems to have transformed an intellectual historian interested in 19th Century America into a World War
I and World War II revisionist on the pattern of Barnes himself. There
was one important difference, however. Barnes was an early 20th Century “progressive.” He believed that government had a positive, valuable
role to play in “correcting” the “market failures” and other “deficiencies” of “capitalism.” He supported the domestic programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, objecting only to his foreign policy. Martin,
by contrast, was a libertarian—an individualist anarchist whose most
important intellectual influences where political philosophy was concerned were Benjamin R. Tucker and Max Stirner (1806-1856), the German philosopher whose magnum opus, Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum
(1845), Tucker had published in its first English-language edition (The
Ego and Its Own) in 1907. Barnes practiced revisionism in order to advance his views on war and peace, in order to make the world a better,
safer place to live in. Martin, on the other hand, was never much of a
do-gooder, much less a world-saver. As he explained to a panel of interviewers from Reason magazine late in 1975, “my interest in [revisionism]
is not necessarily activated by ideological considerations. It’s more of a
technical interest in getting the record straight.” He had never, he said
at that time, been much concerned with
doing good or bringing about a set of better social conditions, an
improvement in the race or any long-range programs of that sort. My
friend Harry Elmer Barnes was very much so motivated. But I was
nowhere nearly as involved in his objectives as I was in his work. We
often worked for totally different reasons at the same thing. I have no
compulsions to save the world or save the human race. 185
Still, it seems evident that if Martin ever harbored any hopes about
the effect his writings might have on his readers, what he hoped for
was very different from what Barnes hoped for. Barnes wanted to steer
American government away from what he regarded as wasteful and destructive policies. Martin, if he wanted anything other than just to get
the record straight, wanted to steer American society away from government. Barnes sought to publicize the truth about the world wars in
order to convince his fellow Americans that their government should
use the resources it was wasting on unnecessary and destructive foreign
conflicts to make improvements at home, improvements like ending
poverty and stamping out crime. Martin sought to publicize the truth
about the world wars in order to get the record straight—and perhaps to
convince his fellow Americans that it was dangerous and foolhardy to
trust any group of men, even if they called themselves “the government,”
with the kind of power you need to commit destruction and carnage on
that sort of worldwide scale.
Martin was awarded his Ph.D. by the University of Michigan in
1949. He began writing his books and embarked on a series of teaching
assignments. Northern Illinois University was on his itinerary, as were
San Francisco State College and Deep Springs College in the Southern California desert, the school Newsweek once described as “the most
isolated, obscure, and selective college in the entire u.s.” 186 He ended
up in Larkspur, Colorado at Rampart College, an institution founded
and run by the legendary libertarian journalist, broadcaster, author, editor, and teacher Robert LeFevre (1911-1986). LeFevre had founded what
185 “Introducing Revisionism: An Interview with James J. Martin.” Reason January
1976, pp. 14-15.
186 Ibid., p. 14.
he originally called the Freedom School in 1957, building the campus
part time with a crew of volunteers and a few paid workers while he
labored full time as the editorial page editor of the daily Gazette-Telegraph in nearby Colorado Springs. At first, once the physical plant was
ready for use, he conducted only summer sessions, employing a roster
of part-time lecturers that included such prominent libertarian intellectuals as “Rose Wilder Lane, Milton Friedman, F. A. Harper, Frank
Chodorov, Leonard Read, Gordon Tullock, G. Warren Nutter, Bruno
Leoni, James J. Martin, and even Ludwig von Mises.” 187 But the Freedom School prospered, attracting new funding and a steady stream of
students. LeFevre decided it might be possible to quit his full-time job
and devote his entire energy to this educational project. In 1965, he renamed the school Rampart College, launched a quarterly journal, and
began hiring full-time faculty for his planned expansion into a regular,
four-year, degree-granting liberal arts college.
James J. Martin: Historian and Pamphleteer
One of his first hires was James J. Martin, whom he lured away from
Deep Springs by offering the chairmanship of the Rampart history department. Martin quit his job and moved to Colorado, only to discover
that LeFevre’s plans had been bigger than his resources and Rampart
College was not going to become a full-fledged college after all. In 1968,
three years after his arrival, the former Freedom School folded for good.
As LeFevre tells the story in his autobiography, he first discussed the
situation with the chairman of his economics department, W. H. Hutt,
and released him from his contract. Then he called Martin “into my
office and released him from his contract, too.”
Martin stalked from the office. A day later, I received a letter in which
he informed me that he was prepared to hire legal representation and
that no matter how hard I tried, he was going to hold me to the contract. […] I had four more years in which I would pay his full salary
plus provide him with housing. Any failure on my part and he’d see
187 Llewellen H. Rockwell, Jr., “The Wisdom of LeFevre.” July 2001. Online at
me in court! Martin had been among those most ardent in insisting
that government was totally unnecessary. But not if he needed it in
dealing with me. 188
As might be imagined, Martin’s version of the debacle is a little
different. “I had read so much stuff by LeFevre over the years,” he told
me that afternoon in Colorado Springs, “all the bawling about the sacredness of contracts, that I said to myself, ‘Well, for once I’m going to
hold him to one and see what he does.’ And I think he began to realize
the absurdity of his situation—spending years saying all these kinds of
things about contracts, and then trying to run out on one. He could easily have done it. I didn’t have the resources to chase him. And he knew
it. I didn’t threaten to sue him. I didn’t. I expected him to just walk away.
But he had the backing of two, three, four millionaires […] and sixtythousand dollars was no money to them. Hell, they spent that maybe at
the casinos on weekends.”
So Martin got his sixty thousand. And he decided to stay on in
“I just got tired of running. I ran back and forth across this country from coast to coast, including both coasts, and I said to myself,
‘What’s the point of all this? Aren’t you tired of it?’ And I said,
‘Yeah, I am.’ I had no dependents. So I said, ‘I’ll just stay here and
revert back to my old way of living.’ I put myself through three university degrees by living like a concentration camp rat, and I said,
‘Well, I’ll just go back to that again. Cut down on this, cut down
on that, live within my means, bank interest, whatever.’ And here I
am. I’ve survived thirty-five years living like that. I’ve stayed off the
labor market, felt pretty good, wrote a lot of books. I’ve published
over two million words.”
He also published at least a dozen books by other writers in that
thirty-five-year span, most of them in the first decade after his departure from Rampart College. For Martin put only a portion of his sixtythousand-dollar windfall into an account, in order to earn the “bank
interest” he referred to. The rest of it he invested in an enterprise that
never earned him very much, if anything, unless perhaps it was the title
of most influential libertarian book publisher since Benjamin R. Tucker—an accolade I fancy he would have liked. Rampart College, as has
been noted, shut down in 1968. Harry Elmer Barnes died that same year,
aged seventy-nine. And later in 1968, Ralph Myles, Publisher of Colo188 Robert LeFevre, A Way to Be Free: The Autobiography of Robert LeFevre, Vol. 2.
(Culver City, ca: Pulpless.com, 1999), p. 475.
rado Springs, Colorado issued its debut volume, a festschrift in Barnes’s
honor, featuring essays by former students, former colleagues, and fellow scholars. Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader: The New History
in Action was followed in short order by reprints of various revisionist
works Martin felt were neglected or ignored: Barnes’s In Quest of Truth
and Justice, William Henry Chamberlain’s America’s Second Crusade,
Arthur Ekirch’s seminal The Civilian and the Military: A History of the
American Antimilitarist Tradition. In 1970, Martin issued a revised and
enlarged edition, the first edition in paperback, of his own Men Against
the State. In 1975, he teamed up with the younger libertarian historian
Leonard P. Liggio to edit together a book from the texts of a series of
papers presented at a “conference held in 1971 at Gibson Island under
the chairmanship of Dr. Felix Morley and sponsored by the Institute for
Humane Studies.” The resulting volume, Watershed of Empire: Essays on
New Deal Foreign Policy, was published by Ralph Myles in 1976.
As Martin recalled it that afternoon in Colorado Springs, “I began Ralph Myles to print just one thing”—the Barnes festschrift—“and
then it just ballooned, and I found myself saying, ‘Well, I’ve got to get
this out, I’ve got to get that out, this hasn’t been done for years.’ And I
ended up with a string of titles. We went in two directions. Originally
I was going to deal mainly with what you might call revisionism and
then I got into—I had already been involved for years with—libertarianism.” In addition to his own Men Against the State, Ralph Myles reissued Benjamin R. Tucker’s “State Socialism and Anarchism” and Other
Essays, Lysander Spooner’s No Treason, Etienne de la Boetie’s The Will
to Bondage, and numerous other volumes of immense interest to anyone
concerned with the libertarian intellectual tradition, both in this country and in Europe. Each of these titles was graced by a James J. Martin
introduction, and each of those introductions was a small marvel of
esoteric information and sound scholarship. It is difficult to imagine
what the would-be historian of libertarian thought would be up against
if James J. Martin had never written Men Against the State and had never
founded Ralph Myles, Publisher. All those who care about such matters
owe him a profound debt of gratitude.
I found Jim Martin cheerful, if more than a bit cynical, when I
visited him that unsettled afternoon a little more than a year before
his death. I also found him still mentally sharp as ever, that amazing
memory seemingly unimpaired, engaged as ever with the issues and
events of the day. ““What Barnes and I liked to think,” he told me that
afternoon in Colorado Springs,
“we didn’t say, we never got into it to any degree, but I believe, essentially, we thought we were the supporters of the Republic. Like Gore
Vidal does now. Gore Vidal sounds just like we did. I have both of
his last two books here. He’s not a scholar, but he’s such a good writer
that, in each case, I just sat and read right through the whole book.
I didn’t put it down. He understands history as well as anybody I’ve
ever known, Ph.D. or no degrees at all; it’s irrelevant for our purposes to know that he didn’t go through the rat race that we did.”
“Anyway, the attitude Barnes and I generally had was that we were
just like Vidal thinks of himself now—a bulwark of the Republic. We
were supporting George Washington’s foreign policy—stay home, keep
the hell out of other people’s affairs, no alliances with anybody, improve
your own country, and so on. You see? The opposition to us captured
the country in 1917 and they’ve had it ever since.”
The Libertarian Historians and
Their Colleagues on the New Left
As Martin saw it, he and Barnes “were fighting a rear-guard action
against a crowd of imperialists and world meddlers.” And they’d lost
that rear-guard action. But Martin’s lead as a revisionist was taken up by
several younger men who shared both his individualistic and anarchistic views and his admiration for Barnes and Beard. Chief among these
was Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), an economist who had earned
his Ph.D. at Columbia and nursed a strong secondary interest in history (strong enough to carry him through a number of purely historical
works, including a four-volume narrative of America from colonization
in the 17 th Century to the end of the revolution in 1784). There were
also Leonard P. Liggio, Ralph Raico, and Ronald Hamowy, all born in
the early-to-mid 1930s and destined to pursue academic careers in history; and four members of the Baby Boom generation—Robert Higgs
(a borderline boomer, born in 1944), Joseph Stromberg, Jeffrey Rogers
Hummel, and Thomas J. DiLorenzo.
Since both the New Left historians and the libertarian historians
derived from Beard and Barnes, it might be expected that their schol96
arly and polemical paths would cross—that they would know of each
other and, perhaps, even collaborate on projects of mutual interest and
benefit. And so, in fact, it was. Referring to Williams’s pioneering Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), Buhle and Rice-Maximin note that
“[t]he year of the publication of Tragedy saw the appearance of Studies on
the Left, the first of the u.s. ‘new left’ publications, engineered principally by Williams devotees.” 189 Novick calls Studies on the Left “the first,
and in many ways the most important, organized vehicle for the new
historiographical left.” 190 In the summer of 1966, Rothbard contributed
a review of The Poverty of Abundance by A. U. Romasco to Studies on the
Left. A few years later, he was invited by Studies on the Left editors James
Weinstein and David Eakins to revise and expand his review for inclusion in an anthology they were putting together. “The Hoover Myth”
duly appeared in a volume entitled For a New America: Essays in History
and Politics from Studies on the Left, 1959-1967, edited by Weinstein and
Eakins, which was published in 1970 by Random House.
Meanwhile, Ronald Radosh had contributed an article on “America’s Entry into World War II” to Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought, which was edited by Rothbard. He also collaborated with
Leonard Liggio on an article on “Henry A. Wallace and the Open Door,”
which appeared in 1971 in an anthology called Cold War Critics. The following year, in 1972, Radosh and Rothbard co-edited a book, A New
History of Leviathan, which included an Introduction by William Appleman Williams and an essay on “American Foreign Policy and NationalSecurity Management” by Leonard Liggio. In 1975, Radosh published
Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism,
including essays on Senator Robert A. Taft, John T. Flynn, Oswald Garrison Villard, Lawrence Dennis, and Charles A. Beard. Since Radosh
acknowledges that “Beard was part of the old Progressive tradition,” that
he “believed that the Depression would continue and worsen” because
the Democrats “would not deal effectively with it by radical measures,
such as nationalization of the banks.” and that the status Beard desired
for the United States was that of (quoting fellow historian Samuel Eliot
Morison) “a socialized, collectivist state in isolation,” it may seem somewhat difficult to make out in just what sense Radosh believes Beard can
be reasonably described as a “conservative.” 191 (This is an issue to which
189 Buhle and Rice-Maximin, op.cit., p. 117.
190 Novick, op.cit., p. 420.
191 Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American
Globalism (New York: Free Life Editions, 1978 [1975]), pp. 11, 25. 40.
I will return in Chapter Five.) But no matter. Prophets on the Right is
dedicated to William Appleman Williams, and its Acknowledgments
section begins with the following sentence: “I am particularly indebted
to those two stalwarts of the libertarian Old Right, Leonard P. Liggio
and Murray N. Rothbard.” Three years later, in the summer of 1978,
Eric Foner, whom Novick describes as “[p]rominent in the second wave”
of New Left Historians (just as he describes Barnes as a “second-generation New Historian”), contributed the lead bibliographic essay to the
then-current issue of Literature of Liberty, a scholarly journal edited by
Liggio: a discussion of “Radical Individualism in America: Revolution
to Civil War.” 192
Though the lessons they drew from history differed, as did their policy prescriptions, the New Left Historians, the Libertarian Historians,
and the New Historians (or Progressive Historians) all agreed fundamentally on what it was that had actually happened in those periods of
American history to which they had all devoted study—and, moreover,
about which aspects of what had happened were significant. Charles
Beard argued, for example, that large corporations worked for a system
of centralized federal regulation of their own businesses, late in the 19th
Century, because they considered such a system preferable to the existing “anarchy” of different state regulations. 193 In 1963, in The Triumph of
Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Gabriel
Kolko, one of the most prolific and influential of the many protégés of
William Appleman Williams, argued that, “contrary to the consensus of
historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal
government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.” According to
Kolko, “many key businessmen” at the turn of the 20th Century “articulated a conscious policy favoring the intervention of the national government into the economy,” in an effort to put their smaller competitors out
of business and create a monopoly-like power for themselves. 194 Or, as
libertarian journalist and editor Roy A. Childs, Jr. put it in 1971 in his essay “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” a “trend in the last
three decades of the nineteenth century […] towards growing competition in the United States” led “various big businessmen in different fields”
to lobby “the state to regulate the economy on their behalf.” 195
192 Novick, op.cit., pp. 420, 179.
193 Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, A Basic History of the United States (New
York: Doubleday, Doran, 1944), pp. 316-319.
194 Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (New York: Free Press, 1963), p. 5.
195 Childs, op.cit., pp. 30-31.
In fact, one can assemble the revisionist works of the New Historians, the New Left Historians, and the Libertarian Historians into a
coherent narrative of American history from the Revolution through
the early days of the Cold War. In effect, this is precisely what Gore
Vidal has done, in his American Chronicle novels. This is not to say
that Vidal has been directly influenced by all the historians mentioned
in this chapter—though he definitely has been directly influenced by
some of them. In a January 1998 interview with the online magazine
Salon, for example, he called William Appleman Williams “our greatest
historian.” 196 He wrote in the Afterword to The Golden Age of “our preeminent historian, Charles A. Beard” and of “furtive signs of a revival
among younger academics of the realist historians—anti-ideologues
like Richard Hofstadter and William Appleman Williams.” 197 In his
short essay “Japanese Intentions in the Second World War” (originally
written as a pair of letters to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement
in December 2000), Vidal recommends “the latest, if not last, word on
the subject” of Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on
Japan: “The Decision to Use the Bomb and the Architecture of an American
Myth by Gar Alperovitz.” 198 And the title Vidal chose for the small paperback compilation of topical essays he published in 2002, Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace—a phrase taken from Charles Beard which had
been used previously as the title for another collection of essays on u.s.
foreign policy edited by Harry Elmer Barnes—may perhaps be said to
speak for itself. “One of the interesting things about Vidal’s little book,
Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,” James J. Martin told me that winter
afternoon in Colorado Springs, “is that he didn’t realize that the revisionists had used the same title fifty years before he did.” But, like the
revisionists, he saw its appropriateness. 199
In the chapter that follows, I discuss three representative cases in
which Vidal’s version of American history differs from the version most
Americans encounter in school, comparing Vidal’s version with the writings of the American revisionist historians whose research bears it out.
196 Chris Haines, “Gore’s Wars.” Salon 14 January 1998. Online at http://www.salon.
197 Vidal, The Golden Age, op.cit., pp. 466, 467.
198 Gore Vidal, “Japanese Intentions in the Second World War” in The Last Empire:
Essays, 1992-2000 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 462.
199 At least one other author also saw its appropriateness between Barnes and Vidal.
This is longtime University of Texas historian Robert A. Divine, whose Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace was published in 2000 by Texas A&M University Press. I
am indebted to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel for information about this volume.
The U.S. Civil War—the Revisionist View
A S Gore Vidal presents it in Lincoln, the u.s. Civil War was caused,
not by slavery, but by the intransigence of President Lincoln, who
insisted adamantly that no state could legitimately secede from the
Union and that the Union could never be broken up. In Vidal’s account, Lincoln cared nothing for the plight of the slaves. Nor did he
care about the u.s. Constitution’s guarantees of individual liberty: he
shut down newspapers that opposed the war, imprisoning their editors; he held prisoners indefinitely, flouting habeas corpus; he imposed
the first military draft in the nation’s history, then used troops to crush
the riots that resulted; he financed his war by imposing and collecting
the nation’s first tax on incomes, despite the lack of any constitutional
basis for such a levy.
Vidal might well have found inspiration for such a view of the war in
the writings of Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams. For, as
Beard wrote in 1927 in Volume II of The Rise of American Civilization,
Since […] the abolition of slavery never appeared in the platform
of any great political party, since the only appeal ever made to the
electorate on that issue was scornfully repulsed, since the spokesman of the Republicans emphatically declared that his party never
intended to interfere with slavery in the states in any shape or form,
it seems reasonable to assume that the institution of slavery was not
the fundamental issue during the epoch preceding the bombardment of Fort Sumter. 200
200 Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New
York: Macmillan, 1930), Vol. II, pp. 39-40.
Williams agreed. In his Contours of American History (1961), he wrote
that “neither Lincoln nor the majority of northerners entered the war in
an abolitionist frame of mind or entertaining abolitionist objectives.” 201
Williams is even more explicit in his 1976 book America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976. “Put simply,” he writes, “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.” And this was rank hypocrisy on Lincoln’s part, according to
Williams, for on January 12, 1848, the Great Emancipator had intoned:
Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the
right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a
new one that suits them better. […] Nor is this right confined to cases
in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to
exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize,
and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit. 202
Joseph R. Stromberg, the historian who touched off the current wave
of serious revisionist investigation of the u.s. Civil War among libertarian scholars, had read both Beard and Williams. And in his influential
essay, “The War for Southern Independence: A Radical Libertarian
Perspective,” published in 1979, while he was still a Ph.D. candidate
at the University of Florida, he staked out a position even more radical
than anything either Beard or Williams had ever proposed—something
very like the vision of the war laid out in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Stromberg didn’t go into a lot of detail in presenting his take on the war, but
two other Libertarian historians have done so. These are Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (1996), and
Thomas J. DiLorenzo, in The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham
Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2002).
Hummel’s view of the Civil War is remarkably like Vidal’s. “Historians and buffs debate the fundamental causes of the American Civil
War almost as hotly today as the combatants did then,” he writes. “We
can simplify our understanding of the Civil War’s causes, however, if we
follow the advice of one eminent historian, Eric Foner, and ask two separate questions. Why did the southern states want to leave the Union?
And why did the northern states refuse to let them go?” These are two
separate questions, Hummel insists, because “[e]ven if slavery explains
201 William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (Cleveland, oh:
World, 1961), p..299.
202 William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976
(New York: William Morrow, 1976), pp. 113, 111.
why the southern states left the Union, it does not necessarily either
explain or justify the national government’s refusal to recognize their
independence.” In fact, he maintains, “[n]ot only does slavery fail to explain why the northern states resorted to coercion, but letting the lower
South go in peace was a viable, untried antislavery option. As the most
militant abolitionists themselves demonstrated, there was no contradiction between condemning slavery and advocating secession.” 203
In fact, as Hummel points out, one of the most prominent leaders
of the abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the
weekly abolitionist paper The Liberator and one of the organizers of the
leading abolitionist organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society,
was an enthusiastic proponent of secession—for the North. Garrison
and his followers “felt that this best hastened the destruction of slavery
by allowing the free states to get out from under the Constitution’s fugitive slave provision.” The seceded North, in Garrison’s vision, would
have “become a haven for runaway slaves.” 204
Why did President Lincoln choose another path—the use of military force against the seceded Southern states? In August of 1862, according to Hummel, Lincoln answered this question. “My paramount
object in this struggle,” the president said,
is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If
I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and
if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could
save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe
it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do
not believe it would help save the Union. 205
In effect, Lincoln refused to allow, first the lower South, then the entire
Confederacy, to go in peace because he was committed to a conception
of the United States as a perpetual nation, with whose central government the component states had no right to end their association—he
was committed, not to a voluntary Union, but to a compulsory one.
In defense of this compulsory Union, according to DiLorenzo,
Lincoln implemented a series of unconstitutional acts, including
launching an invasion of the South without consulting Congress, as
required by the Constitution; declaring martial law; blockading the
203 Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the
American Civil War (Chicago, Open Court, 1996), pp. 3, 8.
204 Ibid., pp. 351, 21.
205 Ibid., p. 208.
Southern ports; suspending the right of habeas corpus for the duration
of his administration; imprisoning without trial thousands of Northern
citizens; arresting and imprisoning newspaper publishers who were
critical of him; censoring all telegraph communication; nationalizing the railroads; creating several new states without the consent of
the citizens of those states; ordering Federal troops to interfere with
elections in the North by intimidating Democratic voters; deporting
a member of Congress, Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, for criticizing the administration’s income tax proposal at a Democratic Party
rally; confiscating private property; confiscating firearms in violation
of the Second Amendment; and effectively gutting the Ninth and
Tenth amendments to the Constitution, among other things. 206
“One victim of Lincoln’s suppression of Northern newspapers,” DiLorenzo writes, “was Francis Key Howard of Baltimore, the grandson of
Francis Scott Key.” Howard spent “nearly two years in a military prison
without being charged and without a trial of any kind.” “Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor,” he notes, “came to be known as the ‘American Bastille’ because it housed so many political prisoners during the
Lincoln administration.” At one point, “Fort Lafayette was filled with
newspaper editors from all over the country who had questioned the
wisdom of Lincoln’s military invasion and his war of conquest.” 207
DiLorenzo quotes Clinton Rossiter in support of his contention that
Lincoln’s war policies were widely regarded as unconstitutional even at
the time of their original enactment: “This amazing disregard for the…
Constitution was considered by nobody as legal.” That being the case,
however, one must wonder how Lincoln explained his policies to the
people around him at the time. According to DiLorenzo, the president
“justified” his unconstitutional power grab by “discovering” presidential powers in the Constitution that no previous president, or, indeed, anyone at all, had ever noticed. Specifically, he claimed that
the commander-in-chief clause of the Constitution, when combined
with the duty of the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully
executed,” gave him carte blanche in ignoring any and all laws, and
the Constitution itself, in the name of presidential “war powers.” 208
It will be noted that DiLorenzo indulges a marked taste for the
polemical and tends toward more than a bit of hyperbole in his writing.
Lincoln does not seem really to have believed that he had “carte blanche
206 Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His
Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Prima, 2002), pp. 131-132.
207 Ibid., pp. 133-134, 140, 147.
208 Ibid., pp. 132, 134.
in ignoring any and all laws,” for example; he does seem, however, to
have believed that he had carte blanche to ignore those laws he felt were
in conflict with what he saw as his duty—to save the Union, price no
object. DiLorenzo has also been accused, by more than one reviewer,
of “careless errors of fact, misuse of sources, and faulty documentation.”
Richard M. Gamble details these technical criticisms of DiLorenzo’s
book at some length in the Spring 2003 issue of The Independent Review,
and regards them as evidence of a serious problem with DiLorenzo’s
scholarship. But even he concedes that “individually these flaws may
seem trivial and inconsequential.” 209 And so they do: a quotation cited
as being on page 60 is in fact on page 61; information attributed to
page 316 of a work by a noted Lincoln scholar is instead to be found on
the same page of another work by the same scholar; an article cited as
having been published in 1988 was in fact published in 1998. Not only
are errors of this type (unfortunate though they are) both trivial and inconsequential, but also not a few of them would appear to have resulted
from proofreading errors, which can hardly be blamed on the author.
In any case, as Peter Novick notes, “when citations […] are illustrative
of a synthetic interpretation arrived at through ‘deep immersion,’ even
the demonstration that several citations are faulty is far from constituting a refutation of the thesis they underpin.” 210 And as Gamble himself
acknowledges, DiLorenzo’s book “is essentially correct in every charge
it makes against Lincoln,” and is, apart from its too numerous technical
errors, “a sobering study in power and corruption.” 211
America in the World Wars—A Revisionist Perspective
As Gore Vidal presents it in Hollywood, American intervention in
World War I was engineered by the United States’ Anglophile president,
Woodrow Wilson, who was always eager to help the British out of any
209 Richard M. Gamble, Review of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln,
His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War by Thomas J. DiLorenzo. The Independent
Review Vol. 7, No. 4: Spring 2003, p. 613.
210 Novick, op.cit., p. 220.
211 Gamble, op.cit., pp. 614, 612.
pickle they might have got themselves into. Even after creating a special
office of wartime propaganda to “sell” the war to the American public,
however—and after following the lead of Lincoln and forcibly silencing those publishers who dared disagree with his policies—Wilson still
found it necessary to force young American men into the u.s. army
through a revival of the military draft; too few of them were volunteering to come to England’s aid.
When Vidal researched the war, he could well have found all the
intellectual ammunition he needed to defend such a view in the works
of the Progressive historians, especially Harry Elmer Barnes. Barnes
has been discussed as a “second-generation” practitioner of the “New
History” pioneered by James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard.
But, as Novick points out,
“New Historians” is a designation generally given to the Columbia group around Robinson and Beard, and one which emphasizes
methodology; “Progressive Historians” describes a descent from
[Frederick Jackson] Turner and Beard, and emphasizes substantive
interpretations of American history. The usage employed in the historiographical literature generally depends on the subject under discussion. Because Turner prefigured many New Historical themes, and
Robinson, though a Europeanist, was the ultimate Progressive, all
three of these men—plus [Carl] Becker, the student of both Turner
and Robinson, and an “associate member” of both groups—are here
treated as both New and Progressive historians. 212
I follow Novick’s lead in this matter, reasoning that, since both Beard and
his protégé Barnes were consistent advocates of Progressive reform, as well
as advocates of the use of the social sciences to inform historical scholarship, they may be treated as both New and Progressive Historians.
Beard, writing in 1930 in The Rise of American Civilization, characterized the “official thesis” as to the origins of World War I in the
following way:
Germany and Austria, under autocratic war lords, had long been
plotting and preparing for the day when they could overwhelm
their neighbors and make themselves masters of the world. England,
France, and Russia, on the other hand, all unsuspecting, had pursued
ways of innocence, had sincerely desired peace, and made no adequate preparations for a great cataclysm. When England and France
were trying to preserve equal rights for all in Morocco, Germany had
rattled the sword and now, taking advantage of the controversy over
212 Novick, op.cit., p. 92.
the assassination of the Austrian archduke, the Central Powers had
leaped like tigers upon their guileless victims. 213
Earlier, in a 1926 article for Current History, Beard had been even more
sardonic: the conventional view of the war’s origins, he wrote, amounted to the claim that “three pure and innocent boys—Russia, France and
England—without military guile in their hearts, were suddenly assailed
while on the way to Sunday school by two deep-dyed villains—Germany and Austria—who had long been plotting cruel deeds in the dark.” 214
By 1926, Barnes had long since recognized this story as so much twaddle,
and by 1930 his old mentor had come entirely over to his side of the
And Barnes’s side of the question was rather different. He wrote in
1926 in The Genesis of the World War, that
the only direct and immediate responsibility for the World War falls
upon France and Russia, with the guilt about equally distributed.
Next in order—far below France and Russia—would come Austria,
though she never desired a general European war. Finally, we should
place Germany and England as tied for last place, both being opposed
to war in the 1914 crisis. Probably the German public was somewhat
more favorable to military activities than the English people, but […]
the Kaiser made much more strenuous efforts to preserve the peace of
Europe in 1914 than did Sir Edward Grey. 215
As for u.s. intervention in the war, the reasons for it, Barnes wrote
in 1928 in In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War-Guilt Myth,
were “many and complex.” One factor was “the pro-British sources of
most of our news concerning Germany in the decade prior to 1914.” Another was the “enormous sums” lent to Allied governments by American
bankers. Another was the simple fact that President “ Wilson was […]
very pro-British in his cultural sympathies. […] He did not desire to
have the United States enter the war if England seemed likely to win
without our aid, but as soon as this appeared doubtful he was convinced
that we should enter as early as he could persuade Congress and the
country to follow him.” “Later,” Barnes added, “Mr. Wilson added to
his pro-British reasons for desiring to enter the War the conception
that unless he was at the Peace Conference he could not act decisively
in bringing about a peace of justice and permanence.” Unfortunately,
213 Beard and Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, op.cit., Vol. II, p. 617.
214 Novick, op.cit., p. 207.
215 Harry Elmer Barnes, The Genesis of the World War (New York: Knopf, 1926),
pp. 658-659.
“[t]here can be little doubt that the entry of the United States into the
World War was an unmitigated disaster for all concerned. It made it
possible for one set of combatants to win a crushing victory, whereas, as
Mr. Wilson once wisely said, the only enduring peace would have to be
a peace without victory.” 216
Earlier, in The Genesis of the World War, Barnes had seen another
motive, something different from the desire to build a “peace of justice
and permanence,” behind Wilson’s change of heart on u.s. participation
in the war. He saw lust for power. He suggested that “Wilson’s decision
was affected by the conviction that he could assume world leadership
only if he led the United States into the war.” 217 In 1948, looking back,
Charles Beard saw a closely related sort of megalomania lurking behind
Wilson’s benign, professorial visage—the delusion “that the President of
the United States has the constitutional and moral right to proclaim noble sentiments of politics, economics, and peace for the whole world and
commit the United States to these sentiments by making speeches and
signing pieces of paper on his own motion.” 218 In 1939, Beard recalled the
violence Wilson had done to the Constitution in the service of his megalomaniacal vision: “I saw the freedom of the press trampled by gangs of
spies, public and private.” 219 Thirteen years earlier, in 1926, in History
and Social Intelligence, Barnes, too, had noted the domestic consequences
of Wilson’s commitment of u.s. troops to the European war—the fact
that, in prosecuting his war, the president had “sanctioned […] the most
serious inroads upon democratic practice and human liberty in the history of our country, wiping out in three years most of the solid gains of a
century and a half of struggle against arbitrary power.” 220
In Barnes’s view, the Versailles Treaty that ended the war, based as
it was on the very “charge of German war guilt” that had since been exposed as arrant nonsense, was so grossly unfair to Germany as almost to
guarantee a resumption of hostilities within a few years at best. 221 And,
of course, hostilities did resume in the 1930s. When they did, both Beard
216 Harry Elmer Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War-Guilt Myth
(Colorado Springs, co: Ralph Myles, 1972 [1928]), pp. 98, 101, 102, 105.
217 Cohen, op.cit., p. 77.
218 Charles A. Beard, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (New Haven,
ct: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 593.
219 George R. Leighton, “Beard and Foreign Policy” in Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal,
ed. Howard K. Beale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976 [1954]), p. 168.
220 Barnes, History and Social Intelligence, op.cit., p. 514.
221 Novick, op.cit., p. 215. See also Harry Elmer Barnes, “Revisionism and the Historical Blackout,” op.cit., p. 10.
and Barnes were wary of any analysis of current events that appeared to
see merit in another u.s. intervention. Had nothing been learned from
the experience of World War I?, they wondered.
Gore Vidal must have wondered much the same thing. As he depicts it in The Golden Age, American intervention in the new European
War began as a move to protect and advance the interests of England,
this time with a fully conscious and deliberate eye on the main chance
of replacing England as the leading world power. Specifically, Vidal depicts u.s. intervention in the new war as the result of a plot by President
Roosevelt to provoke the Japanese into attacking u.s. territory, thereby
justifying the president’s pre-existing intention to break his campaign
promise not to send American boys to die in any foreign war. Again,
Vidal would have needed to look no farther than the works of Beard
and Barnes to draw such conclusions. In 1939, in an article in Harper’s
magazine, Beard argued that
[t]he era of universal American jitters over foreign affairs of no vital
interest to the United States was opened in full blast about 1890 by four
of the most powerful agitators that ever afflicted any nation: Alfred
Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and Albert
J. Beveridge. These were the chief manufacturers of the new doctrine
correctly characterized as “imperialism for America” […] the policy of
running out and telling the whole world just the right thing to do. 222
President Franklin Roosevelt now appeared to be falling for the lure of
this policy, Beard reported in February 1941, when he testified before
the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations against the Lend-Lease
Bill, calling it
an Act to place all the wealth and all the men and women of the
United States at the free disposal of the President, to permit him to
transfer or carry goods to any foreign government he may be pleased
to designate, anywhere in the world, to authorize him to wage undeclared wars for anybody, anywhere in the world, until the affairs of the
world are ordered to suit his policies, and for any other purpose he may
have in mind now or at any time in the future, which may be remotely
related to the contingencies contemplated in the title of this Act.
Beard proposed “that Congress reject this bill with such force that no
President of the United States will ever dare again, in all our history, to
ask it to suspend the Constitution and the laws of this land and to confer
upon him limitless dictatorial powers over life and death.” 223
222 Leighton, op.cit., pp. 166-167.
223 Ibid., p. 182.
It was in the service of this imperialistic conception of the u.s. role
in world affairs, Beard thundered in that 1939 Harper’s article, that
“President Roosevelt […] was maneuvering his country into the war.”
Convinced that fdr had set up the defenders of Pearl Harbor for a
Japanese attack he had deliberately provoked, while making sure that no
one in Hawaii knew of it in advance as he himself did, Beard “followed
the course of the congressional investigation of Pearl Harbor with an
almost microscopic scrutiny. To what the investigation brought forth he
added more that he gathered himself,” publishing his final statement on
the matter in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948),
only a few months before his death. This book, according to George R.
Leighton, Beard’s editor at Harper’s, “was a ponderous volume in which,
with detail and fact piled upon detail and fact until the weight is almost
crushing, Beard sought to nail down the proof of Roosevelt’s deception
so firmly that it could not be got loose.” 224
Five years later, in 1953, Beard’s longtime protégé Harry Elmer
Barnes published Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath,
dedicated “to the memory of Charles Austin Beard.” In this volume,
Barnes wrote that “American policy toward Japan in the decade preceding Pearl Harbor […] was the same hostile policy developed by Stimson
during the latter part of the Hoover Administration. It was rejected by
President Hoover but was adopted and continued by Roosevelt.” According to Barnes, fdr “discussed war with Japan in his earliest cabinet
meetings,” immediately commenced “an unprecedented peacetime expansion of our naval forces,” “laid plans for a naval blockade of Japan in
1937,” and relentlessly pursued a “program for the economic strangulation
of Japan” that “was generally recognized by Washington authorities” at
the time as likely to lead to war. “Roosevelt was personally responsible,”
Barnes wrote, “for the location of our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, in
which move he disregarded the advice of Admirals Richardson and
Stark. The State Department backed Roosevelt and Richardson was
relieved of his command.” 225
“Japan veritably crawled on its diplomatic belly,” Barnes wrote, “from
the end of August, 1941, until after the middle of November of that year
in an attempt to reach some workable understanding with the United
States. The effort met with cold and hostile rebuffs.” Finally,
224 Ibid., pp. 180, 183.
225 Harry Elmer Barnes, “Summary and Conclusions” in Perpetual War for Perpetual
Peace, op.cit., pp. 636, 637.
Secretary Hull dispatched an ultimatum to Japan on November 26
which, he fully recognized, decisively closed the door to peace. He
himself said that it took the Japanese situation out of diplomacy and
handed it over to the Army and Navy. From this time onward it was
only a question of when and where the Japanese would attack.
“The decoded Japanese messages between November 26 and December 7 indicated, with relative certainty, when the attack would be made,
and they also revealed the strong probability that it would be aimed at
Pearl Harbor.” Yet “nothing was done to warn General Short or Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor.” 226
The president, Barnes wrote
expressed himself as greatly “surprised” at both the time and place of
the attack, and his apologists have accepted these words at their face
value. Neither the President nor his apologists have ever given any
satisfactory explanation of why he could have been surprised. […] If
they had any reason at all to be surprised, it was only over the extent
of the damage inflicted by the Japanese. But there was little reason
even for this, in the light of Roosevelt’s personal order to keep the
fleet bottled up like a flock of wooden ducks, of the order that no
decoding machine should be sent to Pearl Harbor, and of the fact that
Washington had deliberately failed to pass on to Short and Kimmel
any of the alarming information intercepted during the three days
before the attack. December 7 may have been a “day of infamy,” but
the infamy was not all that of Japan. 227
A Revisionist Look at America in the Cold War
As Gore Vidal depicts it in The Golden Age, the Cold War was started by
the United States, by a Truman administration determined to show Joe
Stalin who was boss of the postwar world. When Vidal researched the
Cold War, he could, once again, have found much intellectual ammunition in the work of Harry Elmer Barnes. The conventional historical
account of the origins of the Cold War places much emphasis on the
warlike and imperialistic intentions of the Soviet Union, to which the
226 Ibid., pp. 642, 643, 645.
227 Ibid., pp. 645-646.
United States was forced, reluctantly, to respond. Barnes would have
none of this. In 1953, in his essay “How Nineteen Eighty-four Trends
Threaten American Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity,” he wrote that
the Russia which is now portrayed as about to spring at the world
and devour it is the same Russia that Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and
other administration leaders presented to the American public as our
most potent and suitable ally in the global struggle to suppress totalitarianism, assure democracy, promote liberty, and make peace secure
throughout the world. There is very little today in Russian policy,
domestic or foreign, which any informed person did not know about
back in 1941. In fact, nothing which Russia has done since 1945 has
been as aggressive and brutal as the invasion of Poland in the autumn
of 1939, the later mass murders of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest
in 1940, or the mass murders and deportations of Baltic peoples during the war.
Barnes considered the likelihood of the Soviet Union making war
against the United States to be extremely remote. “Even leading Russophobes like Eugene Lyons,” he wrote, “frankly admit that there is every
reason to expect that Russia will not start a war.” Moreover, he pointed
out, when General Alfred M. Gruenther, General Eisenhower’s chief of
staff, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March
25, 1952, he too “conceded that he did not believe the Russians will start
a war, now or at any time.” 228
But if it was not Soviet agression that launched the Cold War, what
did launch it? “Barnes concluded that it was initiated by Truman and
Churchill, largely for domestic politicial reasons, and since then has
been used by each of the various governments to cement its rule over its
subjects.” 229 What Barnes seems to have regarded as the first official act
of the Cold War, Truman’s decision to drop the newly developed atomic
bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is depicted
in conventional accounts of American history as primarily a military
decision—an attempt to force Japanese surrender without the necessity
of an invasion of the islands and a prolonged land war on Japanese soil,
with its attendant American casualties, possibly numbering in the millions. Again, Barnes would have none of this. In May 1958, he published
228 Harry Elmer Barnes, “How ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ Trends Threaten American
Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity” in Revisionism: A Key to Peace and Other Essays,
op.cit., pp. 148-149, 154.
229 Murray N. Rothbard, “Revisionist of the Cold War” in Harry Elmer Barnes,
Learned Crusader, op.cit., p. 324.
an article in National Review called “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten
Foe,” in which he pointed to
the highly significant MacArthur memorandum to F.D.R. of January
20, 1945. This forty-page memorandum explicitly set forth the terms
of an authentic Japanese peace offer which were virtually identical
with the final surrender terms that we accepted from the Japanese
seven months later—at the cost of countless needlessly expended
lives, Japanese and American alike.
In the same article, “Barnes also disclosed, for the first time, the personal testimony of Herbert Hoover that President Truman, by early
May, 1945, informed him that he knew of the extensive Japanese peace
offers and admitted then that further fighting with the Japanese was
really unnecessary.” Barnes concluded “that the major reason for dropping the bomb […] was a sabre-rattling gesture to the Russians against
whom we were already preparing the Cold War.” 230
A very similar view of the Cold War had already been articulated
by this time by William Appleman Williams. In 1952, in his first book,
American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947,
[c]ontradicting the prevailing notion that the Cold War had come
about through the actions of an aggressive and expansionist Soviet
Union, Williams argued that the United States itself bore the primary responsibility. Even before Pearl Harbor, he wrote, American
policymakers had committed themselves to achieving a postwar
world dominated by an alliance between Great Britain and the United States. By attempting to force upon Russia this Anglo-American
world order without regard to her minimum security needs, American leaders forced an essentially conservative Soviet Union into acting
unilaterally in her own defense.
Among the methods Williams claimed American leaders had used in
pressuring the Soviets was “brandishing atomic weapons.” 231
Williams’s student, Gar Alperovitz, who earned his B.S. in History
at the University of Wisconsin in 1959, took his old teacher’s argument
and ran with it, devoting two entire books to presenting the relevant
details and working out their implications. The first of these books,
Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, the Use of the Atomic Bomb and
the American Confrontation with Soviet Power, was published in 1965; the
second, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an
230 Ibid., pp. 327, 328.
231 Maddox, op.cit., p. 14.
American Myth, appeared thirty years later, in 1995. According to Robert
James Maddox, Atomic Diplomacy
is devoted to showing that from the time Harry S. Truman assumed
the presidency he undertook to reverse Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union, thereby precipitating the
Cold War. In direct violation of wartime agreements, some explicit
and some understood, Truman sought to construct an Americandominated world order (particularly in Eastern Europe and the Far
East) at the end of World War II. When economic coercion failed to
achieve this goal, Alperovitz claimed, Truman bided his time until
the United States acquired the atomic bomb, with which he meant
to cow the Russians into submission. The use of nuclear weapons
against an already defeated Japan, according to this view, amounted
to a diplomatic rather than a military act. The evidence “strongly
suggests,” he wrote, that the bombs were used primarily to demonstrate to the Russians the enormous power America would have in
its possession during subsequent negotiations. As a lesser factor, he
cited the wish to end the war quickly before they [the Soviets] could
establish a strong position in the Far East. 232
To quote Alperovitz himself, from one of his Cold War Essays (1970),
“the over-riding reason for the use of the bomb was that (implicitly or
explicitly) it was judged necessary to strengthen the United States’s hand
against Russia.” Commenting in the same essay on Herbert Feis’s then
newly published book, The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II (1966),
Alperovitz stresses the author’s establishment credentials—“special consultant to three Secretaries of War,” “comes close to being our official
diplomatic historian”—and judges the volume under consideration, predictably, as the work of a man perhaps overly interested in “avoiding serious
criticism of the eminent officials he has known.” He comments further:
One […] would also like to believe that the sole motive of the eminent men he knew was to save lives. It is not pleasant to think that
they were so fascinated by their new “master card” of diplomacy that
they scarcely considered the moral implications of their act when
they used it. That, however, is precisely what the evidence available
strongly suggests. 233
232 Ibid., pp. 64-65.
233 Gar Alperovitz, Cold War Essays (Cambridge, ma: Schenkman, 1970), pp. 72, 51, 73.
“Left” and “Right,” “Conservative” and “Liberal,”
Differentiated Historically
A S has been noted, each of the three waves of revisionism that swept
through the American history profession during the 20th Century had
a particular political ideology behind it. The revisionists led by Charles
Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes were known as the “Progressive Historians.” Those galvanized and influenced by William Appleman Williams
were known as the “New Left Historians.” And those who followed
the lead of James J. Martin and Murray N. Rothbard have come to be
known as the “Libertarian Historians.”
At first glance, these three political ideologies may seem quite
distinct. The Progressives at the turn of the 20th Century, Eric Foner
reminds us, advocated new laws that would “combat the power of the
giant corporation,” a monster that had come into existence only in
the previous few decades. They also argued for new laws that would
“protect consumers, civilize the marketplace, or guarantee industrial
freedom at the workplace”—laws “banning child labor and limiting
the working hours of women,” laws imposing “the taxation of corporate wealth […] and state regulation of railroads and public utilities,”
laws providing for “old age pensions, minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and the regulation of workplace safety.” The
Progressives sought further to “reinvigorate democracy by restoring
political power to the citizenry.” They backed measures like initiative and referendum, the election of judges, the direct election of u.s.
Senators, and the extension of the franchise to women. They endeavored to “improve public transportation,” and they “raised property
taxes in order to spend more money on schools, parks, and other
public facilities.” 234
Progressive foreign policy tended to be aggressive, if not positively
belligerent. “[T]he expansion of government power” during World War
I “struck most Progressives as a golden opportunity. To them, the war
offered the possibility of reforming American society along scientific
lines, instilling a sense of national unity and self-sacrifice, and expanding social justice. That American power could now disseminate Progressive values around the globe heightened the war’s appeal.” 235
The majority of the New Left acquiesced to most of the Progressive
program, accepting the idea of minimum wage laws, old age pensions,
workplace safety regulation, and the like, and lending its support to the
Progressive goals of expanding democracy, improving public schools,
and safeguarding nature. Still, as Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau pointed
out in 1971, the New Left
is not a movement easily categorized politically, nor is it defined by politics alone. Some Movement people are Socialists, others are anarchists.
Some believe in nonviolence, others are willing to use guns and bombs
to attack the oppressors and exploiters. Some are committed only to
black liberation, some largely to women’s liberation, and others are
dedicated to world revolution. Some focus on altering men’s lifestyles,
others are concerned primarily with issues of power and wealth. 236
Writing a few years later, Carl Oglesby—who presided during 1965
and 1966 over Students for a Democratic Society (sds), the dominant
New Left student group—described the original New Left as an alliance of “true progressives, classical liberals, humanistic revolutionaries,
and libertarians.” 237
Clearly the libertarians and classical liberals in the coalition would
not have accepted the Progressive prescriptions for regulating the domestic economy. Neither would they be likely to accept the Progressives’ determination to build and improve public schools and parks. Nor
could the anarchists buy into any of these proposals. But three matters
at least these three groups could agree on wholeheartedly with their
234 Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (New York: Norton, 2005), pp.
235 Ibid., p. 733.
236 Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, “The Movement’s Themes; the Movement’s Origins” in Beyond Liberalism: The New Left Views American History, ed. Irwin Unger
(Waltham, ma: Ginn & Co., 1971), p. 334.
237 Carl Oglesby, “The World Before Watergate,” Inquiry (May 29, 1978): 14. See also
Jeff Riggenbach, In Praise of Decadence (Amherst, ny: Prometheus, 1998), p. 49.
neo-progressive colleagues: racial justice, the various injustices wrought
(with government complicity) by large corporations, and the need to
rein in the rampantly imperialist foreign policy of the u.s. government.
And so it was that these three issues came to be the defining issues of
the New Left coalition.
Within only a short time—before the end of the ’60s—the libertarians were purged from that coalition, and most of the classical liberals and
many of the anarchists followed both them and the libertarians purged at
about the same time from the conservative student group, Young Americans for Freedom (yaf), into a newly separate libertarian movement. 238
The political platform of this new movement was simplicity itself, but
it was neither Progressive nor New Leftist. The libertarians didn’t recommend that the State impose minimum wage laws, old age pensions,
or workplace safety regulation; nor did they recommend that the State
work to expand democracy, improve public schools, or safeguard nature.
The libertarians recommended that the State, in effect, off itself. To promote racial justice, it should get out of the way of African Americans. To
right the wrongs it had enabled large corporations to commit, it should
cease to help or hinder business in any way. To end its imperialist foreign
policy, it should get out of the foreign policy business entirely. “[I]f you
wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts,” wrote
Murray Rothbard in 1973, “simply think of the State as a criminal band,
and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.” 239
238 M. Stanton Evans, “who drafted the Sharon Statement,” the founding statement
of Young Americans for Freedom, told interviewer Rebecca E. Klatch in 1983 that
“[t]he impulse behind both organizations [yaf and sds] was common libertarianism: both believed society was too regimented, government too big. There was a
strong impulse toward personal freedom. Many of the sds statements I agreed
with.” Nor was Evans alone among young “conservatives” in feeling this way. u.s.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Southern California (R-Huntington Beach)
was active in yaf in his youth. He told Klatch that “[t]he two things that eventually split the youth of the right wing were the draft and legalization of marijuana.
Those two issues were central issues . . . . Milton Friedman, who was the conservative guru . . . [was] in favor of marijuana being legal and . . . not in favor of the
draft . . . . It’s consistent with his free enterprise philosophy. Well, the libertarians
started evolving into that and pretty soon you got into a situation where on the
fundamental issues of the day . . . the libertarians were more in tune with what
the left was advocating than [with what] . . . the conservatives were advocating.”
Rebecca E. Klatch, A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the
1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 34, 156-157..
239 Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (New York:
Collier, 1978 [1973]), p. 46.
Some libertarians, then as now, did not think of the State as a
criminal band, however. These “minarchists,” or “limited government
libertarians,” believed with Ayn Rand that “[t]he proper functions of a
government fall into three broad categories […]: the police, to protect men
from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—the law courts, to settle disputes among men […]. 240 Clearly, then,
they would have been no more likely than the anarchists to support the
Progressives’ calls for old age pensions or workplace safety regulations or
“improved” schools and parks. Nor would they have been likely to accept
the New Left’s commitment to forced integration of privately owned
businesses. So far as Rand and the other minarchists were concerned, the
only true “crimes” were murder, rape, other types of assault, theft, and
fraud. Refusing to associate with someone, even for a stupid or reprehensible reason, should not, in their eyes, be regarded as a criminal offense.
Still, despite their differences, there is an important common denominator linking these three political ideologies—progressivism, new
leftism, and libertarianism. They are all on the Left.
This claim will seem surprising to many. Most people today, if they
know about libertarianism at all, tend to think of it, along with conservatism, as part of the Right. In the September 2005 issue of Harper’s,
for example, editor Lewis Lapham referred to “the several armies of
the imperial right—conservative and neoconservative, libertarian and
evangelical.” 241 Libertarians themselves tend to see the matter in this
way. Yet a brief look at the history of the relevant political terms—Left
and Right, liberal and conservative—will persuade us that libertarianism
has absolutely nothing in common with anything on the Right. For it
is as the anarchist Murray Bookchin said back in 1978: “People who
resist authority, who defend the rights of the individual, who try in a
period of increasing totalitarianism and centralization to reclaim these
rights—this is the true left in the United States. Whether they are anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, or libertarians who believe in
free enterprise, I regard theirs as the real legacy of the left […].” And
what about the socialists, the Maoists and Trotskyites, and the liberals
of the Democratic party? Bookchin was asked. What about the people most Americans regarded as “the Left”? Those people, Bookchin
replied, were “going toward authoritarianism, toward totalitarianism.”
They were “becoming the real right in the United States.” 242
240 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: World, 1964), p. 151.
241 Lewis H. Lapham, “Civil Obedience.” Harper’s September 2005: 7.
242 Jeff Riggenbach, “Reason Interview: Murray Bookchin.” Reason October 1979, p. 36.
Bookchin was referring here to a conception of Western political
history in which, as Karl Hess had put it a few years earlier, on “the far
right […] we find monarchy, absolute dicatorships, and other forms of
absolutely authoritarian rule,” while the Left “opposes the concentration of power and wealth and, instead, advocates and works toward the
distribution of power into the maximum number of hands.” Just as the
farthest Right you can go is absolute dictatorship, Hess argued, so “[t]he
farthest left you can go, historically at any rate, is anarchism—the total
opposition to any institutionalized power, a state of completely voluntary social organization […].” 243
To understand this perspective on Western politics, we must look
back to the time, more than 250 years ago, when the terms Left and
Right, liberal and conservative, first came into general usage. In the beginning, Murray Rothbard tells us,
there was the old order, the ancien régime, the regime of caste and
frozen status, of exploitation by a despotic ruling class, using the
church to dupe the masses into accepting its rule. This was pure
statism; this was the right wing. Then, in 17th and 18th century western Europe, a liberal and radical opposition movement arose […] a
popular revolutionary movement on behalf of rationalism, individual
liberty, minimal government, free markets, international peace and
separation of church and state, in opposition to throne and altar, to
monarchy, the ruling class, theocracy and war. These [people] were
the left […]. 244
Don Lavoie, writing nearly two decades later, in the mid 1980s, came
to much the same conclusion. He wrote of “numerous popular revolts
against the society of empire, feudalism, mercantilism, and privilege on
behalf of principles of natural law or justice, from which none, not even
kings and popes, are exempt,” and continued:
Some of the earliest to formulate these vague principles into more
specific shape were the Levellers of the English Civil War (16421647), the radical liberals during the French Enlightenment of the
late eighteenth century, and the American revolutionaries. Here
was the original Left, the radicalism that opposed government
power not by merely putting forth a set of reforms for the state to
implement but by insisting on a set of rules—or natural laws, as
they called them—by which all human beings, including those in
243 Karl Hess, Dear America (New York: William Morrow, 1975), pp. 10-11, 12.
244 Murray N. Rothbard, “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal.” Ramparts, VI, 4,
June 15, 1968. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard77.html
positions of power, are to be equally limited in order that they be
equally free. 245
These people, the ones doing all the formulating and insisting, the
ones who made up “the original Left,” were known at the time as “liberals.” Their doctrine, an outgrowth of the 18th Century Enlightenment
(English and Scottish as well as French), was called “liberalism.” “Liberalism,” Rothbard says, was “the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty,
of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was
Conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the
hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the old
order.” It wasn’t long before “[p]olitical ideologies were polarized, with
Liberalism on the extreme ‘Left,’ and Conservatism on the extreme
‘Right,’ of the ideological spectrum.” 246
The liberals (and the proto-liberals who preceded them) managed to
achieve “at least partial victories for individual liberty, laissez-faire, separation of church and state, and international peace,” Rothbard contends,
through “a series of cataclysmic revolutions […] the English Revolutions
of the seventeenth century, the American Revolution, and the French
Revolution […].” 247 The last two of these revolutions, which took place
only about a decade apart, were intimately interrelated. French thinkers,
most notably Montesquieu, had loomed large among the important intellectual influences on the American revolutionaries. A French liberal,
the Marquis de Lafayette, had personally assisted the Americans with
the difficult task of achieving a final military victory over the British.
And once that victory was achieved, yet another French liberal, Alexis
de Toqueville, exclaimed exuberantly that “[t]he Americans seemed
only to be putting into practice ideas which had been sponsored by our
writers, and to be making our dreams their realities.” 248
Having done so, the Americans repaid the favor by cross-fertilizing
the French Revolution a few years later. As Will and Ariel Durant remind us, “[t]he Declaration of Rights issued by the Virginia constitutional convention on June 12, 1776, and the Bill of Rights added to the
American Constitution, became part models for the Declaration of the
245 Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What Is Left? (Cambridge, ma: Ballinger, 1985), p. 215.
246 Murray N. Rothbard, Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty (San Francisco:
Cato Institute, 1979 [1965]), p. 7.
247 Ibid.
248 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Tr. Stuart Gilbert. Gloucester, ma: Peter Smith, 1978 [1856]).
Rights of Man promulgated by the French Constituent Assembly on
August 26, 1789.” 249 Nor was this all: one of the chief American revolutionaries, the pamphleteer Thomas Paine, was also one of the chief
French revolutionaries—and, for a time, a member of one of the several
revolutionary governments.
As professor Owen Connelly of the University of South Carolina
notes, in his widely used textbook French Revolution/Napoleonic Era,
“[t]he Revolution proper (1789-1799) saw an incredible succession of
governments—absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy (in various forms), representative republic, authoritarian republic, bourgeois
republic […].” 250 And it was within one of those revolutionary governments, in the Legislative Assembly in the fall of 1791, that the terms Right
and Left were first used in a political sense. As the Durants tell it, when
the assembly convened, the “substantial minority dedicated to preserving
the monarchy […] occupied the right section of the hall, and thereby gave
a name to conservatives everywhere.” The liberals “sat at the left on an elevated section called the Mountain; soon they were named Montagnards.
In the center sat 355 delegates who refused to be labeled […].” 251
Though the American and French revolutions had much in common, they also differed in important respects. They differed, for example, with regard to the precise character of the liberalism that dominated
each of the two struggles. The famous slogan of the French revolution—Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!—holds the key to this important
difference. The idea of equality figured in the American Revolution as
well, of course—didn’t Thomas Jefferson write in the Declaration of
Independence that “all men are created equal”? But to Jefferson and the
other American liberals, “equality” meant equality of rights, equality
before the law. In France, by contrast, to more than a few of the revolutionaries, it meant much, much more than that. In the eyes of these
French liberals, it was, as Ludwig von Mises summarized their view
more than a hundred years later,
not enough to make men equal before the law. In order to make them
really equal, one must also allot them the same income. It is not
enough to abolish privileges of birth and of rank. One must finish
249 Will Durant and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1967), p. 872.
250 Owen Connelly, French Revolution/Napoleonic Era (Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
1979), p. 2.
251 Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), p. 34.
the job and do away with the greatest and most important privilege
of all, namely, that which is accorded by private property. Only then
will the liberal program be completely realized, and a consistent liberalism thus leads ultimately to socialism, to the abolition of private
ownership of the means of production. 252
According to the Progressive Historian Vernon Louis Parrington,
whose Main Currents in American Thought won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928,
John Adams spoke for many American revolutionary leaders and activists when he criticized French revolutionists for preaching “equality of
persons and property.” 253 For, as Connelly notes, the concepts of liberty and equality, when equality is taken to mean equality of income
or equality of property, are “contradictory.” This kind of equality “had
to be imposed by force by the central government,” and it wasn’t long
before “[t]he advocates of greater equality became the proponents of
greater central power.” 254 Need it be added that “greater central power”
is precisely the opposite of everything the liberals had long been fighting for and eagerly anticipating?
Lavoie tells the instructive story of Henri de Saint-Simon (17601825), a French liberal who came “gradually to reject the ideal of discovering rules for the equal protection of liberty, substituting in the last
eleven years of his life the alternative ideal of setting up an elite for the
rational control of society.” By 1814, Saint-Simon had become a fervent
admirer of feudal and other medieval organizational structures and an
enthusiastic student of the principles of military organization as exemplified by Napoleon Bonaparte. He called for “a hierarchical administration
of the whole of society’s resources under the direction of the ‘captains of
industry,’ among whom bankers are prominently included.” 255 Scientists
and social engineers were also to play a major role in the planning of
Saint-Simon’s utopian dream.
According to Lavoie, “Saint-Simon was not a democrat” in his later
years; in fact, he “had little but contempt for ‘the masses’ and explicitly
recommended that those who refused to cooperate with the visions of
the ruling intelligentsia be ‘treated like cattle’ […].” All in all, Lavoie
concludes, Saint-Simon had “definite authoritarian leanings.” But this is
252 Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition (San Francisco: Cobden
Press, 1985), p. 29.
253 Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation
of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920 (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
1930), p. 324
254 Connelly, op.cit., p. 3.
255 Lavoie, op.cit., pp. 16, 17.
putting it mildly. For not only did Saint-Simon advocate what amounted
to a return to the despotism of pre-liberal times, he also advocated what
amounted to a return to the essentially mercantilist economic policies of
pre-liberal States. Mercantilism, according to political scientist David
Osterfeld, is “a system in which the operation of the market is impeded by extensive government restrictions for the benefit of the ruling
group.” 256 Another name for this kind of arrangement is state capitalism.
Yet another is corporatism (or, alternatively, corporativism). Still another,
if a fervent nationalism is added to the mixture, is fascism. How could
people who thought of themselves as liberals, men (and women) of the
Left, embrace such heresy?
According to Lavoie, the answer is to be found in an understanding
of the role played in the liberal movement late in the 18th Century and
early in the 19th Century by the ideal of equality. Under the influence of
apostates like Saint-Simon, a good many liberals came to believe “that a
planning bureau could rationally and democratically control the cultural
and economic development of society for the benefit of all”; as a result,
“the ambition of the Left came to be not just the complete equality of
rights, as important as that was still thought to be, but the more grandiose ideal of equality of wealth.” 257
The liberals who became ensnared by this vision of a totally egalitarian society adopted socialism as their new ideal. It is customary today
to regard socialism as the polar opposite of the doctrine of individual
liberty and free trade, but in fact, as Rothbard notes, this is not the case.
It is “conservatism,” he writes, that
was always the polar opposite of classical liberalism. Socialism, in
contrast, was not the polar opposite of either, but rather, in my view,
a muddled and irrationally contradictory mixture of both liberalism
and conservatism. For socialism was essentially a movement to come
to terms with the industrial revolution, to try to achieve liberal ends by
the use of collectivistic, conservative means. 258
In a later essay, Rothbard expanded upon this insight. “Socialism,” he wrote,
like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial
system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress,
256 David Osterfeld, ““ Marxism, Capitalism and Mercantilism.” (1991) Review of
Austrian Economics, 5(1) pp. 107-116. Online at http://www.mises.org/journals/rae/
257 Lavoie, op.cit., p. 218.
258 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Transformation of the American Right.” 1964. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard13.html
higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and
war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible,
Conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism,
etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning
two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing,
authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of
Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand,
exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of
liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of
the exploitation of man by man.” 259
The Decline of American Liberalism—the Early Years
The socialist apostasy, however partial, proved more popular in Europe
than in America—at first. At first, American liberals hewed closely
enough to their individualist values to shake off any temptation they
might have felt to adopt the socialist line. Still, as the late Arthur Ekirch
contends in his classic work The Decline of American Liberalism,
[s]ince the time of the American Revolution, the major trend in our
history has been in the direction of an ever-greater centralization and
concentration of control—politically, economically, and socially. As a
part of this drift toward “state capitalism” or “socialism,” the liberal
values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and
especially that of individual freedom—have slowly lost their primary
importance in American life and thought.
“The American Revolution was liberal,” Ekirch maintains, though this
claim, even on his own terms, is debatable. As he himself notes, later
in the same book, “any war, even one fought over some great moral
principle, involves the use of methods essentially illiberal; […] the very
substance of liberalism […] is bound to suffer in wartime.” And “this in259 Rothbard, Left and Right, op. cit.. p. 11.
compatibility of war and liberalism” was certainly on display during the
American Revolution, most notably in the treatment peaceable loyalists
received at the hands of the revolutionaries and their supporters. 260
Consider Kenneth Roberts’s portrayal of the loyalist plight, in his
1940 novel of the revolution, Oliver Wiswell: “They had been harried,
spied on, lied about, informed against, robbed and insulted; and they
longed achingly for [British General William] Howe and his army, so
that they might be freed from the oppressions and the restrictions of
Congress, mobs, and committees.” One Long Island loyalist tells Roberts’s title character:
“This island is three-quarters Loyalist; but we can’t do the things the
rebels do. They send in militia from other colonies, or bring their
mobs from New York. They have no homes here; no families; no
belongings except what they have on their backs. We have! If we
fight ’em, they seize our cattle, burn our barns and houses, and drive
our families across the Sound. I can name hundreds of people, right
in this neighborhood, who’ve been up to their necks in misery and
ruin for over a year, just because they were known to be against rebellion.” 261
It would appear, then, that at least some of the “liberals” involved in the
American Revolution were themselves disinclined to respect the natural
rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of those who disagreed with the aims of the revolution. Nevertheless, as Ekirch notes,
the revolutionaries’ ideological leaders apparently “were not prepared for
the conservative countermovement and nationalistic consolidation that
followed the war.” 262
Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed, with virtually all liberals,
that “[e]conomic paternalism in behalf of certain privileged groups was
[…] the main source of the tyranny and political corruption that he saw
in Europe. It was such a set of evils that American liberals desired, at
all costs, to avoid.” And yet, “the war itself had helped to breed a new
aristocracy of talents and wealth eager to avail itself of the privileges lost
by the departing loyalist upper class.” The exigencies of “army contracting and supply” during the war assured that “[m]anufacturing increased”
and that “business […] began to look to the government for economic
260 Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., The Decline of American Liberalism (New York: Longmans,
1955), pp. ix, 33, 116.
261 Kenneth Roberts, The Kenneth Roberts Reader (New York: Doubleday, Doran,
1945), pp. 182-183, 185.
262 Ekirch, op.cit., p. 36.
support.” Little wonder, then, that “[a]fter the return of peace […] the
new generation of businessmen should strive to enlist the aid of the
government in preserving and increasing their wartime gains.” Unfortunately, from their point of view, “the government” under the Articles
of Confederation was a relatively feeble thing, not even empowered to
“levy uniform tariffs” to prop up the profits and the competitive position
of the firms founded and run by these new businessmen. 263
And so it was that in May of 1787, “fifty-five […] men of considerable and varied property holdings, ranging from the possession of slaves
and lands to investments in government securities and far-flung business enterprises” met in Philadelphia and “resolved to disregard the announced plan of submitting amendments” to strengthen the Articles of
Confederation; instead, they decided “to prepare […] an entirely new
frame of government.” Unsurprisingly, this “new frame,” the u.s. Constitution of 1787, gave a new central government
broad and far-reaching powers over the economic life of the nation.
[…] Congress was given exclusive authority to coin money and to
regulate both foreign and interstate commerce. Thus the stage was set
for the abandonment of laissez-faire liberalism and the substitution
of a policy of economic nationalism or government paternalism.
At another point, Ekirch makes the same argument in a somewhat more
measured way, contending that the Constitution provided, not an actual
policy of paternalism, but merely “a skeleton for the further development of a strong paternalistic state.” Still, the very first political party
to control the machinery of government in the United States under
the new Constitution, the Federalist party, was only too happy to do
whatever it could to make such a paternalistic state a reality. Alexander
Hamilton, whom Ekirch calls “easily the most significant” of the Federalist leaders and a firm believer “in the virtues of a strong rather than a
weak government,” was “[u]nhampered by intellectual loyalty to radical
or Revolutionary principles,” and was bent on seeing “his program of
economic nationalism” imposed on the new nation. 264
Hamilton’s program called for a national bank which, after having “received a monopoly of government business,” would “provide
new capital for the business expansion that Hamilton deemed vital
to United States prosperity,” that business expansion to be protected
from foreign competition by a high tariff wall. Hamilton—need it
be said?—was the first great conservative in American politics. His
263 Ibid., pp. 39, 40, 40-41.
264 Ibid., pp. 42-43, 44, 45-46.
party, the Federalist party, was the first conservative party, the first
Right-wing party, in American political history. As Ekirch reminds us,
“the Federalists […] pursued a constantly illiberal course during their
twelve years of power.” 265
They were not without opposition, of course. As Ekirch notes, even
before that twelve-year period began, “conservatives were everywhere
taking fright over the possibility of a resurgence of the old Revolutionary spirit of radicalism among the lower classes. Debtor farmers, propertyless mechanics, and discontented ex-soldiers […] were beginning to
unite in their opposition to strong government and higher taxes.” 266 In
1786, as Gore Vidal tells the tale—not in one of his novels, but in an essay on American history in the New York Review of Books—a number of
“Massachusetts veterans of the revolution [had] joined Captain Daniel
Shays in his resistance to the landed gentry’s” new “tax-levying central
government,” namely, the post-war governnent of Massachusetts. “The
veterans thought that they had been fighting a war for true independence,” says Vidal. “They did not want London to be replaced by New
York,” as more than a few of the conservatives in Boston had begun to
propose be done, in order to safeguard against exactly such insurrections as Shays’s rebellion.
“Their rebellion was promptly put down,” Vidal writes.
But so shaken was the elite by the experience that their most important (and wealthiest) figure grimly emerged from private life with a
letter to Harry Lee. “You talk of employing influence,” wrote George
Washington, “to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I
know not where that influence is to be found, or if attainable, that
it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will
be secured or let us know the worst at once.” So was born […] the
Constitution of the United States. 267
Once that constitution was in place, however, with Washington duly
installed in the presidency and Hamilton duly installed in the Treasury
Department, the protests continued. The cost of imposing Hamilton’s
“program of economic nationalism” on the new nation “required a revenue beyond the amount that could be collected from the moderate tariff
duties approved by the First Congress,” Arthur Ekirch explains.
265 Ibid., pp. 46-47, 53.
266 Ibid., p. 41.
267 Gore Vidal, “Homage to Daniel Shays,” in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972 (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 443.
The Secretary of the Treasury therefore suggested that Congress place
an excise tax on whisky. Such a tax would hit the small farmers of
the back country who had opposed the adoption of the Constitution
and who remained dubious of the Federalist program, but it would
avoid giving offense to the men of wealth and property whose support Hamilton deemed necessary to the success of the new national
government. Distilling in the 1790s was a small-scale enterprise carried on chiefly by Westerners who were thereby able to change their
bulky grain products into a form more easily transportable across the
mountains to eastern markets. The tax, though small in monetary
value—originally from nine to twenty-five cents a gallon—struck at
the heart of the prosperity and manner of living of the frontier farmers and resulted finally in the summer of 1794 in full-scale, violent
resistance in the western counties of Pennsylvania. 268
This state of affairs was unacceptable to the Federalists, to say the
very least. “For Washington,” writes Vidal, in his recent book Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, “this Whiskey Rebellion was
Shays’s rebellion all over again. He must now, like Hotspur, summon
his troops.” 269 Accordingly,
[t]he father of his nation drew his sword, ascended the throne and
commanded the nation to forthwith provide him with twelve thousand men to put down the rebellion. Americans finally came to their
senses. More than twelve thousand men rallied around Washington,
who, with Hamilton at his side, rode straight to the heart of the rebellion in western Pennsylvania where twenty no doubt deeply embarassed moonshiners surrendered; recanted; and received a presidential
pardon. Hamilton, now a general, headed back to New York to prepare for the election of 1796. 270
Rothbard calls the Whiskey Rebellion “a non-violent, civil disobedient refusal to pay” a “hated tax.” According to Rothbard, “the average
American” of the time considered “the federal government’s assumption
of the power to impose excise taxes” very questionable indeed and “not
[…] very different from the levies of the British crown.” The tax was
also resented, and with special ill will, by small distillers. For “in keeping with Hamilton’s program, the tax bore more heavily on the smaller
distilleries.” In fact, “many large distilleries supported the tax as a means
of crippling their smaller and more numerous competitors.”
268 Ekirch, op.cit., p. 47.
269 Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (New Haven, ct:
Yale University Press, 2003), p. 105.
270 Ibid., p. 106.
And this is only the beginning of Rothbard’s dissent from what he
calls “the Official View” of the Whiskey Rebellion. For
[t]he main distortion of the Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion
was its alleged confinement to four counties of western Pennsylvania.
From recent research, we now know that no one paid the tax on whiskey throughout the American “back-country”: that is, the frontier areas of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and
the entire state of Kentucky.
The fact is, Rothbard claims, that
President Washington and Secretary Hamilton chose to make a fuss
about Western Pennsylvania precisely because in that region there was
cadre of wealthy officials who were willing to collect taxes. Such a cadre
did not even exist in the other areas of the American frontier; there was
no fuss or violence against tax collectors in Kentucky and the rest of the
back-country because there was no one willing to be a tax collector.
In point of fact, according to Rothbard’s account, even if there had been
willing tax collectors, “[n]o local juries could be found to convict tax
delinquents” in almost “[t]he entire American back-country.” 271
Not only did the Federalists work to impose Hamiltonianism to the
best of their ability, “adopting a broad and elastic interpretation of the
Constitution and using expanded powers of government and the vague
concept of the general welfare for the benefit of a particular class—the
commercial, propertied aristocracy,” as Ekirch puts it; they also wrote,
adopted, and enforced the notorious Sedition Act of 1798, which provided that
“if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish” or cause or aid anyone else to write or publish “any false scandalous and malicious writing” against the government, Congress, or President of the United
States “with intent to defame” or “to stir up sedition,” he should be
punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and imprisonment not exceeding two years. 272
So much for the liberal belief (codified in the First Amendment to the
Constitution) in freedom of speech and expression! To impose criminal
penalties for speech against government policies was to return to the
oppressive practices of the ancien régime against which the liberals had
led a rebellion only a few years before.
271 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Whiskey Rebellion.” The Free Market, September
1994. Online at: http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard1.html
272 Ekirch, op.cit., pp. 54, 51.
Conservative Republicans and Liberal
Democrats in 19th Century America
If the Federalists were the first American conservatives, the Jeffersonians
were the first American liberals. 273 As Ekirch observes, “Better than any
other single document, the Declaration of Independence stated the liberal political philosophy on which the ideology of the Revolution was
based.” Thus, as author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had better claim than most other leaders of the rebellion to be considered the ideal American spokesman for liberalism. Of the remaining
Founding Fathers, only Thomas Paine could rival him for that position
of honor. Yet, as Ekirch notes with sorrow, neither the Federalists nor the
Jeffersonians “was able to preserve a consistent liberal approach” to public
policy. On balance, however, he argues, “the Jeffersonian Antifederalists
adhered more closely to traditional liberal tenets.” 274 Vidal dissents from
this view of the situation. “In 1800,” he writes, “the Hamiltonian view
was rejected by the people and their new President Thomas Jefferson.
Four years later, the Hamiltonian view had prevailed and was endorsed
by the reelected Jefferson. ‘We are all Hamiltonians now!’ he might have
exclaimed had he had the grace of the Thirty-Seventh President.” 275
In his first inaugural address, Vidal points out, Jefferson called for
“a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring
one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own
pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth
of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government….”
“In other words,” Vidal says, “no taxes beyond a minimal levy in order
to pay for a few judges, a postal service, small executive and legislative
bodies.” In other words, the policy prescription of a classical liberal.
273 Actually, of course, many of the Federalists were liberals, too. George Washington was a liberal. So was John Adams. They were, however, as Ekirch puts
it, “liberals of a more conservative persuasion,” (p. 27) and they adapted much
too readily to the entirely illiberal—the entirely conservative—ideas of certain of
their fellow Federalists.
274 Ekirch, op.cit., pp. 29, 44.
275 Vidal, “Homage to Daniel Shays,” op.cit., p. 435. The reference to “the ThirtySeventh President” is, of course, a reference to Richard M. Nixon, who famously
justified his adoption of wage and price controls by declaring that “We are all
Keynesians now.”
In his second inaugural address, as Vidal tells the story, Jefferson
changed his tune considerably. Now he called for federal expenditures
for “rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great
objects within each State.” Very Hamiltonian, no? And where Hamilton had advocated creation of a u.s. “military force capable of making
itself felt in world politics,” the Jefferson of the second inaugural address
acknowledged that “injustice, by ourselves or others, must sometimes
produce war.” As Vidal comments,
[t]he idea of the rich empty continent best exploited by men unbugged
by a central government had now been succeeded by the notion that
government ought to pitch in and help with those roads and schools,
but of course that’s going to take money, so taxes must be raised to
pay for these good things which benefit us all equally, don’t they?” 276
The twelve years of Federalist rule—the Washington and Adams
administrations—were followed by forty years of rule by Jefferson’s party,
the Democratic-Republicans, later the Democrats. Not a few were born,
grew to maturity, and produced children of their own without ever knowing of a president or vice president who represented a different party. By
the time the Democrats finally fell from power in the election of 1840,
their opposition, the Federalists, had long since withered away and died.
They were replaced by the Whigs, a new conservative party that
began life as a faction within the Democratic-Republicans. The Whigs
were “liberals of a more conservative persuasion” with a vengeance;
they favored what their most influential man on Capitol Hill, Henry
Clay, called, with rare prescience, the “American system”—a package
of policies that included “a national bank, protective tariff, internal improvements, and generous land policy,” an updated version, according
to Ekirch, of “the old Hamiltonian economic program in order to give
it a greater mass appeal.” 277 The Whigs managed to win the elections
of 1840 and 1848, but both presidents they elected died within their first
year in office, and their terms were filled out by their lesser-known
and generally undistinguished vice presidents. By 1856, the Whigs had
ceased to exist, following the Federalists into oblivion.
They were replaced by the Republicans, who fielded their first candidate for the presidency in 1856 and won their first presidential election
with their second candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. As the Whigs
were merely the Federalists dressed up in more modern clothing, so the
Republicans were merely the Whigs with an anti-slavery veneer. Meet
276 Ibid., p.436.
277 Ekirch, op.cit., p. 71.
the new opposition party, same as the old opposition party. As University of South Carolina historian Clyde Wilson puts it,
Apparently millions continue to harbor the strange delusion that the
Republican party is the party of free enterprise […]. In fact, the party
is and always has been the party of state capitalism. That, along with
the powers and perks it provides its leaders, is the whole reason for its
creation and continued existence. By state capitalism I mean a regime
of highly concentrated private ownership, subsidized and protected
by government. The Republican party has never, ever opposed any
government interference in the free market or any government expenditure except those that might favour labour unions or threaten
Big Business.
As Wilson tells it, “[t]he very name of the Republican party is a
lie. The name was chosen when the party formed in the 1850s to suggest a likeness to the Jeffersonian Republicans of earlier history. This
had a very slender plausibility.” The first problem was that “the Northern Republicans were totally committed to a mercantilist agenda, every
plank of which Jeffersonians had defined themselves by being against.
The Republicans of the 1850s exactly represented those parts of the
country and those interests that had been the most rabid opponents
of Jefferson and his Republicans.” What the new Northern Republicans were offering was really nothing more than a repeat of “the Whig
program—raising the tariff up again, re-establishing the national bank,
and distributing lavishly from the treasury to companies that promised
to build infrastructure.” And
[a]s for the glory of emancipation that so long lent righteousness to
their war, as Frederick Douglas pointed out, Lincoln’s party was preeminently the party of white men. Before, during, and after the war
the Republicans never did anything with a primary motive of the
welfare of the black people. The black people were for use for higher
purposes, for keeping down the South and keeping the Republicans
in power. Most importantly, they were to stay in the South. Millions
of acres of vacant western land could be given away to corporations
who could provide the representatives of the people with the proper
cash incentives, but there was not a patch for the freedmen. 278
Quite aside from the Republicans’ reasons for prosecuting the war and
freeing the slaves, however, the fact remains that to prosecute the war at
all constituted pursuit of an illiberal policy. For, as Ekirch reminds us,
278 Clyde Wilson, “The Republican Charade: Lincoln and His Party.” 7 September
2005. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/wilson/wilson20.html
any war, even one fought over some great moral principle, involves
the use of methods essentially illiberal; for the very substance of liberalism—its emphasis on reason, on toleration and respect for individual and minority rights, and on progress by evolution instead of
revolution—is bound to suffer in wartime. But this incompatibility
of war and liberalism becomes even more true in the case of a vast
internal conflict such as the American Civil War. 279
The Civil War, Ekirch writes, “resulted in […] widespread violation
of fundamental civil liberties,” for, “although neither Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis aspired to become a dictator in the twentieth-century sense
of the term, before the close of their long struggle the governments of
both the North and the South verged closely upon military despotisms.”
During the war, “[t]he Anglo-Saxon heritage, which emphasized the
rule of law and held the military in strict subserviency to the civil power,
was challenged by the argument that the Constitution no longer operated and that ‘military necessity knows no law.’” Partisans of this latter
“argument”—i.e., the Republicans of the time—authorised “arbitrary
arrests” and had
persons […] seized and confined on the suspicion of disloyalty or of
sympathy with the southern cause. Thus, in the course of the Civil
War, a total of thirteen thousand civilians was estimated to have been
held as political prisoners, often without any sort of trial or after only
cursory hearings before a military tribunal. 280
Nor was this all. “The arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of civilians
by the military and executive departments of the government,” Ekirch
was the chief violation of civil liberties during the Civil War, but the
rights of individuals were also invaded in other ways. In the South,
the Northern Confiscation Acts resulted in the seizure of private
property on the ground that it was being used to aid the cause of the
Confederacy. Thus, for the first time in modern history, war was officially waged against individual citizens, an illiberal tactic destined
to become a commonplace of total warfare.
Then there were the “teachers dismissed or […] forced to resign for alleged disloyalty or because of a lack of what was deemed a proper enthusiasm for the northern cause.” There was also “military conscription,
put into practice on a large scale for the first time in American history
during the Civil War.” This disgracefully anti-liberal measure, Ekirch
279 Ekirch, op.cit., p. 116.
280 Ibid., pp. 123-124, 124-125. [emphasis added]
writes, “affected virtually every American household” and was “significant in encouraging the idea that the rights of the individual should be
subordinated to the needs of the state.” 281
Rothbard agrees with Clyde Wilson’s contention that the gop was
never a liberal party. “The classical liberal party throughout the nineteenth century was not the Republican, but the Democratic party,” he
wrote in 1980, “which fought for minimal government, free trade, and
no special privileges for business.” 282 Steven R. Weisman of The New
York Times sees much the same thing when he examines the historical
record for the mid-19th Century. In his 2002 book The Great Tax Wars:
Lincoln to Wilson—The Fierce Battles over Money and Power That Transformed the Nation, Weisman writes that under Lincoln and the Republican party “the North’s economy rested on a kind of state capitalism
of trade barriers, government-sponsored railroads, coddling of trusts,
suppression of labor and public investment in canals, roads and other
infrastructures.” It was “the Democratic Party,” he points out, that rose
“to define itself as the main challenger” to this perpetuation of Clay’s
“American system.” 283
The libertarian historian Thomas J. DiLorenzo, in a recent online discussion of Weisman’s book, commented that Clay was “Abraham Lincoln’s political idol. Lincoln devoted his entire involvement in
politics prior to becoming president to pursuing this agenda first as a
Whig, then as a Republican. He became the Republican Party nominee
precisely because of his long record as a ‘state capitalist’ or mercantilist […].” 284 After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the Republican party
held the White House for almost the entirety of the next half century
and consistently pursued its Hamiltonian, Clayesque economic policies
throughout that period. Republicans were only ousted from the presidency twice between 1865 and 1913, both times—in 1884 and again in
1892—by Democrat Grover Cleveland.
It is instructive to examine those two Cleveland administrations
and contrast Cleveland’s policies with those of his Republican rivals.
The Republican nominee in 1884 was James G. Blaine, a former news281 Ibid., pp. 125-126, 126-127.
282 Murray N. Rothbard, ““Requiem for the Old Right.” Inquiry 27 October 1980:
24-27. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard46.html
283 Steven R. Weisman, The Great Tax Wars: Lincoln to Wilson—The Fierce Battles
over Money and Power That Transformed the Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster,
2002), p. 53.
284 Thomas J. DiLorenzo, “More Trouble for the Lincoln Cartel.” 7 September 2004.
Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo78.html
paperman who had entered Congress during the Civil War and served
as Speaker of the House during the two notoriously corrupt Grant administrations. Blaine was widely suspected of corruption himself; specifically he was suspected of pocketing substantial sums as a direct result
of his highly successful efforts to secure lucrative federal land grants for
various railroads. Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo and governor
of New York, had made his reputation as an opponent of government
corruption and special favors to big businesses, including tariffs. The
electorate responded to his image as a man of “honesty and courage”
and made him the first Democratic president since James Buchanan left
the White House in 1861. Once in office, Cleveland not only worked to
abolish tariffs; also, “[s]eeking to restrain governmental expansion, he
vetoed over two-thirds of the bills passed by Congress, more than all his
predecessors combined.” 285
In 1888, Cleveland narrowly lost his bid for re-election. As Gregory
Dehler notes, “Benjamin Harrison [emerged as the] victor of the 1888
election, although he had a minority in the popular vote […].” Determined not to have to win another election in such fashion, Harrison
worked with Republican Speaker of the House Thomas Reed of
Maine to craft a new majority. Reed adopted strict rules in the
House that earned him the nickname, “the czar” and gave him the
power to get legislation through with lightning speed. The result
was the “Billion Dollar Congress.” Lacking imagination and devoid
of luck, the Republican majority in 1890 simply tried to buy their way
to a new majority. A surplus created by the protectionist policies they
avowed had come to be viewed by the public and pundits alike as a
dangerous hoarding of money in the deflationary economy. Since
the Republicans did not want to lose the protective nature of their
tariff, they turned to the next best way of getting rid of the money;
they spent it.
Dehler presents several examples of the gop-controlled Billion Dollar
Congress’s expenditures. Among them was a nearly fifty percent increase
in federal spending on benefits for veterans of the Civil War. As Dehler
reminds us, this was already the largest category of “social spending” by
the federal government at that time. The big increase in such spending
that the Billion Dollar Congress pushed through was designed
to include parents, widows, and children of veterans as eligible
recipients for pensions. Next they tried to buy off the West and
285 R. Hal Williams, “Grover Cleveland,” in Paul S. Boyer, ed., Oxford Companion to
United States History (Oxford, uk: Oxford up, 2001).
the Mountain states by enacting the Sherman Silver Purchase Act
which required the federal government to purchase almost the entire output of the nation’s silver mines. Reformers were wooed with
the Sherman Anti-Trust Act designed to break up large business
concentrations. 286
But doesn’t this last item in Dehler’s list introduce a kind of flaw
into the larger picture I’ve been trying to coax into emergence? Didn’t
I argue only a few pages ago that the Republican party has always
been a consistent champion of big business? How, then, am I to account for Republican support for antitrust legislation? The New Left
historian Gabriel Kolko posed this question to himself back in the
1960s and published his answer in his remarkable and influential book,
The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History,
1900-1916 (1963).
The Sherman Antitrust Act, Kolko points out, was “vague and subject to broad interpretation.” It never even attempted “a legal definition
of monopoly power,” relying instead on the common law understanding of that concept, “which was as vague and multidimensional as the
last lawyer’s intepretation.” Such a law could be used against virtually
any commercial combination and would thus be most likely to affect
those with the least political power. “Despite Sherman’s disclaimer that
the law would not be applied to trade unions or farmer organizations,”
Kolko writes, “many of his colleagues in the Senate predicted that ‘It
would be a weapon in the hands of the rich against the poor,’ and they
anticipated the law’s subsequent use against unions.” 287
In any case, businessmen, both large and small, were far from averse
to the idea of government regulation of their enterprises. As Kolko puts
it, “the dominant tendency in the American economy at the beginning
of this [the 20th] century was toward growing competition.” Furthermore, “contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence
of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the
economy, but the lack of it.” 288 As Glenn Porter notes, “although big
businesses [late in the 19th Century] were resistant to the effects of competition as it was known in earlier decades, they were not completely
immune” and “if the corporate giants set prices extremely high and
286 Gregory J. Dehler, “Karl Rove’s Inspired by McKinley—But It’s Benjamin Harrison’s Script He’s Following.” History News Network. Online at http://hnn.us/
287 Kolko, op.cit., pp. 61, 62.
288 Ibid., pp. 4, 5.
reaped outrageously excessive profits, there was some chance that others would be tempted to enter the industry and compete.” 289 The experience of the corporate giants in creating cartels and other voluntary
cooperative systems with their competitors was that it was impossible to
establish and sustain a profitable monopoly in the American economy—
unless government could be induced to do it. So they thereupon set
about building popular and political support for government action to
create the monopolies they had sought but had been unable to achieve
without the use of force.
It is worth noting that while most of the corporate giants had been
unable to sustain profitability after growing to mammoth size, many
smaller firms were prospering. According to Roy A. Childs, Jr., “economic forces indicated that centralization was inefficient and unstable.
The push was towards decentralization, and smaller railroads often
found themselves much less threatened by economic turns of events
than the older, more established and larger business concerns.” “Overcentralization,” he notes, “inhibited […] flexibility of action, and hence
[…] ability to respond to changing market conditions.” Inevitably, then,
the world of business came to be sharply divided along political lines.
“The larger capitalists saw regulation as being in their interest, and competition as opposed to it; with the smaller businessmen, the situation
was reversed.” 290
This situation did not last long, however. What a difference twenty
years could make! By the second decade of the 20th Century, the very
same small businessmen who, back in 1890, had righteously expected
their Republican representatives in Congress to rein in the giant industrial combinations they believed were gobbling up the market were
singing a somewhat different tune. Now, Kolko writes, “the average
small businessman wished to mitigate the effects of competition by
what were essentially price, market, or output agreements […]. He was,
for all practical purposes, through with laissez faire, its costs, risks, and
possible gains.” 291
In effect, then, Kolko’s answer to the question, “Why did Republicans support legislation to regulate the big business interests they
supposedly represented?” is twofold. First, at least some of those big
businessmen could see ways in which vaguely worded laws might be
289 Glenn Porter, The Rise of Big Business, 1860-1910 (Arlington Heights, il: Harlan
Davidson, 1973), pp. 96-97.
290 Childs, op.cit., pp. 33, 39-40.
291 Kolko, op.cit., p. 181.
used to their advantage. Second, small businessmen, believing their interests to be different from those of their larger competitors, supported
the adoption of the Sherman Act. By the time they had changed their
minds on this issue, Theodore Roosevelt was president and was happily
engaged in doing the bidding of the newly united business community
by plumping for modifications in the Sherman Act and creation of several new regulatory commissions and agencies to do the work previously
entrusted to antitrust lawsuits.
The law should not be repealed, he declared in December, 1907,
but “it should be so amended as to forbid only the kind of combination which does harm to the general public.” Combinations were “reasonable or unreasonable,” and the way to determine which should be
allowed was to grant supervisory power to the federal government.
Antitrust suits as a means of enforcing the law, Roosevelt declared,
were “irksome” and prolonged affairs. Instead, the government should
have the right to approve “reasonable agreements” between corporations, provided they were submitted for approval to an “appropriate”
body. National incorporation of combinations, with heavy emphasis
of the regular publication of key data and publicity, would allow the
government to regulate the corporate structure to protect both shareholders and the public. Barring this, federal licensing for the same ends
might be tried. And only the national government was capable of effective regulation of this magnitude. Regulation, not repression, was
the theme. On the other hand, if there was any public figure of the
day toward whom Roosevelt felt the greatest possible exasperation, that
figure was “the unscrupulous businessman who did not recognize that
moderate regulation could save him from a more drastic fate at the
hands of the masses.” 292
Before Roosevelt could become president, however, his fellow Republican, William Mc Kinley, would have to serve four and a half years
in the White House. And before that could happen, there would be
another Democratic interlude, in which Grover Cleveland would devote
himself for four more years to the task “of undoing the ill effects of the
Billion Dollar Congress.” Cleveland did manage to reduce the Republican tariffs, but not before they had played a part in plunging the nation
into “the depression of 1893 to 1897, which sunk the Democrats.” 293
292 Ibid., pp. 128, 130.
293 Dehler, op.cit.
Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson,
and the Triumph of Conservatism
Enter William McKinley of Canton, Ohio—Civil War veteran, attorney at law, Congressman from Ohio’s 17 th district for nearly fifteen years,
and two-term governor of his home state. One standard account of his
career notes that “[t]he issue with which McKinley became most closely
identified during his congressional years was the protective tariff, a high
tax on imported goods which served to protect American manufacturers from foreign competition.” And no sooner had McKinley been inaugurated than he “called a special session of Congress to revise customs
duties upward. On July 24 he signed into law the Dingley Tariff, the
highest protective tariff in American history to that time.” 294
From that point forward, most of the new president’s most important
and historic initiatives were undertaken at the behest of his secretary of
state, John Adams’s great-grandson, Brooks Adams, who believed, according to William Appleman Williams, that the United States must “abandon
laissez faire, accept the corporation political economy, organize it rationally and effectively, and expand it by tightening up control of the Western Hemisphere and winning economic dominance of Asia.” 295 It was in
order to implement this profoundly illiberal vision that McKinley and a
handful of his closest advisors decided in 1898 to go to war against Spain.
It was the selfsame handful of Republicans that decided a short time
later to harshly put down the rebellion that arose in the Philippines after
u.s. victory in the war—a rebellion led by local nationalists who had
dared to imagine that the end of Spanish colonial control meant true
independence for their islands. Even men like William Jennings Bryan,
who imagined that they “opposed colonialism,” supported McKinley
and his advisors in this matter. As Williams puts it, Bryan “assumed
that America would crush the Philippine revolt, keep an economic
and naval base in the islands, and go on to economic predominance
in Asia.” 296 And this was the Democratic presidential candidate whom
McKinley had defeated in 1896 and would defeat again in 1900—the
294 “McKinley, William.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Online at: http://www.britannica.
295 Williams, Contours of American History, op.cit., p. 364.
296 Ibid., p. 368.
nominee of the party that, from its beginnings, had upheld the ideals
of liberalism, including the right of national self-determination and the
use of military force only to repel invasion.
Clearly, by the turn of the 20th Century, liberals were no longer in
control of the Democratic party. And to the extent that certain liberals did still wield significant influence within the party, they tended to
be “liberals of a more conservative persuasion,” which is to say, liberals who believed liberal goals could be attained through conservative
means. We have already seen how this error fueled the socialist movement, especially in Europe, beginning in the early 19th Century. Now,
in America, a hundred years later, it fueled a new “reform” movement
called Progressivism. And just as socialism wound up with both a Left
and a Right wing, so did Progressivism. It is useful to recall that, according to Rothbard,
there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon
down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which
was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate
the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and
Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing
of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State”
and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.” 297
Similarly, there were from the beginning two different strands
within Progressivism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand,
best exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt. As Arthur Ekirch writes,
Roosevelt as president exemplified to a superlative degree the nationalistic side of progressivism. An enthusiastic believer in a strong
centralized government, under firm executive leadership, Roosevelt
was a patrician reformer who frankly preferred the principles of Alexander Hamilton to those of Thomas Jefferson. Concern over the
welfare of the common man and an interest in clean government
fitted in with his upper-class belief in the social responsibilities of
the educated and wealthy citizen. At the same time he had only the
greatest scorn for the kind of middle-class individualism and liberalism that emphasized minding one’s own business both at home
and abroad. 298
297 See note 259, above.
298 Ekirch, op.cit., p. 172.
The other strand within Progressivism was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified by the many Progressives working within
the traditionally liberal Democratic party. The most important of these
was the idealistic history professor and university president who became
the first Democrat to win the White House in twenty years—the first
Democratic occupant of that building since the days of Grover Cleveland—Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
John Dos Passos famously sketched Wilson’s career in “Meester
Veelson,” a once notorious chapter of 1919, Dos Passos’s historical novel
of World War I. “Meester Veelson” actually first saw print two months
before the novel’s publication, in January 1932 in The New Republic.
James J. Martin described it thirty years later as having been “about as
fierce a piece on Wilson and the wartime ‘liberalism’ as ever appeared
in any paper in America.” 299 “The year [1856] that Buchanan was elected
president,” Dos Passos wrote,
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born to a presbyterian minister’s
daughter in the manse at Staunton in the valley of Virginia; it was
the old Scotch-Irish stock; the father was a presbyterian minster too
and a teacher of rhetoric in theological seminaries; […] Dr. Wilson
was a man of standing who loved his home and his children and
good books and his wife and correct syntax and talked to God every
day at family prayers; he brought his sons up between the bible and
the dictionary.
The one of his sons who concerns us most here would have taken rather
slowly to either of those guidebooks, however. For, as Dos Passos reminds us, “Tommy was a backward child, didn’t learn his letters till he
was nine, but when he learned to read his favorite reading was Parson
Weems’ Life of Washington.” Still, by the time he was fourteen—that
was the year his father “was called to the Theological Seminary at Columbia, South Carolina”—he’d become bookish enough. He graduated
high school and enrolled in Davidson College, and “then he went to
Princeton and became a debater and editor of the Princetonian. His first
published article in the Nassau Literary Magazine was an appreciation
of Bismarck.” 300
Dos Passos’s later account of Wilson’s early years, in his historical work Mr. Wilson’s War (1962), contains nothing that contradicts his
earlier portrait; the later version does, however, fill in some interesting
details. Wilson’s mother, it turns out, was “the daughter of Thomas
299 Martin, American Liberalism and World Politics, op.cit., p.79.
300 John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (New York: Library of America, 1996), pp. 564-565.
Woodrow, a Scottish minister” who “came of a long line of Presbyterian
divines.” So it was Presbyterian clergy for generations on both sides of
the family. Also, “ Woodrow Wilson was still a babe in arms when his
handsome preacher father, who was becoming famous for the high style
and fine delivery of his sermons, was called to Augusta, Georgia, to
become pastor of the First Presbyterian Church there.” So the future
president grew up, not in his home state of Virginia, but in Georgia,
where, “[t]hough the father and mother were both Ohiobred they absorbed the politics of their parishioners. Dr. Wilson became an ardent
secessionist.” Yet another interesting detail: “For the first ten years of
his life Tommy as he was known was the only boy in a family of girls.
His parents destined him for the ministry as a matter of course.” 301
As things worked out, Dos Passos tells us in his later account, the
Wilsons lived only briefly in Columbia, South Carolina. By the time,
only two years later, when Tommy was ready to enroll at Davidson (near
Charlotte), the family had already moved on to North Carolina, where
Dr. Wilson had “accepted a call to a large church in Wilmington.” It
was the early 1870s. Tommy’s reading had made it clear to him that
he did not wish to pursue a career as a Presbyterian clergyman. In his
father’s copies of “the Edinburgh Review and […] Godkin’s Nation” he
had begun
to read of debates in the British House of Commons. These were
the years of the great liberals. England was in a period of fervid parliamentary activity. The slender shy awkward lad—“an old young
man” the Wilsons’ colored butler called him—began to throw all
his youthful passion into imagining himself a Cobden or a John
Bright thundering from the opposition benches under the hallowed
rafters of St. Stephens. Instead of drawings of fullrigged ships [a
youthful enthusiasm of Tommy’s] a portrait of Gladstone appeared
above his desk. 302
It is noteworthy that Dos Passos should choose Richard Cobden
and his close friend and fellow mp John Bright as representative of the
sort of politician that inspired the young Woodrow Wilson. For Cobden and Bright were among the most radical and most important of
19th Century English liberals. In the late 1970s, Murray Rothbard briefly
surveyed the “classical English liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries,” and singled out for special praise
301 John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War: From the Assassination of McKinley to the Defeat
of the League of Nations (Garden City, ny: Doubleday, 1962), p. 31.
302 Ibid., p. 32.
such laissez-faire “extremists” as Richard Cobden and John Bright of
the “Manchester School.” Cobden and Bright took the lead in vigorously opposing every British war and foreign political intervention of
their era and for his pains Cobden was known not as an “isolationist”
but as the “International Man.” Until the smear campaign of the late
1930s, opponents of war were considered the true “internationalists,”
men who opposed the aggrandizement of the nation-state and favored
peace, free trade, free migration and peaceful cultural exchanges
among peoples of all nations. Foreign intervention is “international” only in the sense that war is international: coercion, whether the
threat of force or the outright movement of troops, will always cross
frontiers between one nation and another.303
As for Gladstone, the Libertarian Historian Jim Powell reports that
“[h]e entered Parliament at age twenty-three, first held a cabinet post
at thirty-four, and delivered his last speech as a member when he was
eighty-four. He served as prime minister four times.” He “dominated
British politics in the heyday of classical liberalism.” He “helped abolish
more than one thousand—about 95 percent—of Britain’s tariffs, and
he cut and abolished other taxes year after year.” He “believed the cost
of war should be a deterrent to militarism and insisted on a policy of
financing war by taxation. He opposed borrowing money for war, because this would make conflict easier and future generations would be
unfairly burdened.” 304 Altogether, at the beginning of his intellectual
odyssey, Woodrow Wilson exhibited what Arthur Ekirch calls “a good
deal of nostalgic sympathy for a Jeffersonian type of liberal society,” as
well as “a deep admiration for the point of view of classic, nineteenthcentury English political and economic liberalism.” 305
After three years at Davidson, Wilson transferred to Princeton,
where he spent most of his time “reading and debating about politics,
statesmanship and constitutional law.” Just as he had in North Carolina,
he “devoured the witty accounts of the debates in British parliament he
found in the library.” Later, he also “founded a new society: The Liberal
Debating Club, modelled on the British parliament, for which he himself furnished the constitution.” Next he moved on to the University of
Virginia, where he earned his law degree. By this time, he had pretty
firmly decided on a career in politics. As he wrote to his fiancée in the
1880s, looking back on his choices of years earlier, “The profession I
303 Rothbard, For a New Liberty, op.cit., pp. 263-264.
304 Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000-Year History, Told Through the Lives of
Freedom’s Greatest Champions (New York: Free Press, 2000), p. 131.
305 Ekirch, op.cit., p. 197.
chose was politics; the profession I entered was the law. I chose the one
because I thought it would lead to the other.” 306
Unfortunately, both the study and the practice of law proved distinctly not to his liking. As the John Dos Passos of 1932 put it, “lawpractice
irked him; he was more at home in the booky air of libraries, lecturerooms, college chapel, it was a relief to leave his lawpractice at Atlanta
and take a Historical Fellowship at Johns Hopkins” in Baltimore, where
he earned his Ph.D. He “moved to a professorship at Wesleyan, wrote
articles, started a History of the United States.” Over the next decade
or so, teaching, writing, travelling the country on the lecture circuit,
Wilson “climbed all the steps of a brilliant university career; in 1901 the
trustees of Princeton offered him the presidency.” 307 He was forty-five
years old. He took the job. And less than a decade later, Thomas Fleming writes, he “had left that presidency in a cloud of acrimony, having
alienated almost everyone on the faculty and the board of trustees.” A
single example may serve to illustrate the perspective of the professors
and trustees in this matter. “The one talent Wilson displayed in complicated disputes about a building for the graduate school and reorganizing
the college around a ‘Quad Plan’ was a gift for denouncing his opponents as traitors to America’s ideals.” 308 Still, in 1910, “the democratic
bosses of New Jersey, hardpressed by muckrakers and reformers, got the
bright idea of offering the nomination for governor to the stainless college president who attracted such large audiences.” 309
Wilson accepted the nomination and won the election “by a huge
plurality” and “left Princeton only half reformed to be Governor of
New Jersey.” Scarcely two years later he accepted the Democratic party’s
nomination for president of the United States, and won the subsequent
election. “[S]o he left the State of New Jersey halfreformed […] and
went to the White House our twentyeighth president.” 310
By this time, his old commitment to liberal ideals had undergone
something of a transformation. For though Ekirch says of Wilson that it
was only “in the later stages of his career, as he turned his attention from
the academic world to the chance of success in politics, that he began to
embrace the nationalistic and progressive currents of his time,” we have
306 Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War, op.cit., pp. 32, 33.
307 Dos Passos, U.S.A., op.cit., p. 565.
308 Thomas Fleming, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (New York: Basic
Books, 2003), p. 3.
309 Dos Passos, U.S.A., op.cit., p. 565.
310 Ibid., p. 566.
already noted, with John Dos Passos, that first published article by the
newly minted Princeton undergraduate, “an appreciation of Bismarck.” 311
“What of the intellectuals of the Progressive period,” Murray Rothbard
wrote in 1965, “damned by the present-day Right as ‘socialistic’? Socialistic in a sense they were, but what kind of ‘socialism’? The conservative
State Socialism of Bismarck’s Germany, the prototype for so much of
modern European—and American—political forms […].” 312
From the beginning, that is, Thomas Woodrow Wilson had admired liberal ideals, but he had also been drawn to conservative methods of attempting to realize those ideals. And his two terms as president
can only be characterized as an orgy of conservative policymaking. His
policies, Ekirch writes, “seemed to vacillate between [those proposed
by] conservative business interests and the demands of the more nationalistic progressives.” 313 With respect to domestic policy, Wilson, the
“liberal,” was scarcely distinguishable from Theodore Roosevelt, the gop
conservative. In foreign affairs, the story was a bit different. As Arthur
S. Link put it in his 1954 study Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era,
1910-1917, “[t]he years from 1913 to 1921 witnessed intervention by the
State Department and the navy on a scale that had never before been
contemplated, even by such alleged imperialists as Theodore Roosevelt
and William Howard Taft.” 314 According to Ekirch, Wilson considered “an expansion of foreign trade vital, not only to the interests of the
United States but also to world peace.” Accordingly,
the Wilson administration agressively pursued American commercial
interests in the Far East and in Latin America, expanded the foreign
trade divisions of the Department of Commerce, and developed the
American merchant marine. Wilson no doubt would have preferred
the growth of United States foreign trade to come about as a result of
free international competition, but he found it easy with his ideas of
moralism and duty to rationalize direct American intervention as a
means of safeguarding the national interest. 315
And then, of course, the Wilson administration led America into
World War I. “Five months after his reelection on the slogan He kept us
out of war,” John Dos Passos wrote in 1932, “Wilson pushed the Armed
Ship Bill through congress and declared that a state of war existed be311
Ekirch, op.cit., p. 197.
Rothbard, Left and Right, op.cit., p. 21.
Ekirch, op.cit., p. 198.
Quoted in Ekirch, op.cit., p. 199.
Ibid., p. 199.
tween the United States and the Central Powers.” Thereupon, “ Wilson became the state (war is the health of the state), Washington his
Versailles […].” 316 Robert Higgs puts the same idea even more plainly.
“More than anything the Progressives had achieved,” he writes,
war undercut American liberties and fed the growth of Big Government. Notwithstanding the accretions of governmental authority
during the Progressive Era, the American economy remained, as late
as 1916, predominantly a market system. The next two years, however,
witnessed an enormous and wholly unprecedented intervention of the
federal government in the nation’s economic affairs. By the time of
the armistice the government had taken over the ocean shipping, railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered hundreds
of manufacturing plants; entered into massive economic enterprises
on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding, wheat
trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend huge sums to
businesses directly or indirectly and to regulate the private issuance
of securities; established official priorities for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many raw materials; fixed the prices of
dozens of important commodities; intervened in hundreds of labor
disputes; and conscripted millions of men for service in the armed
forces. It had, in short, extensively distorted or wholly displaced markets, creating what some contemporaries called “war socialism.” 317
And to say all this is still to say nothing about the Wilson administration’s implacable hostility toward freedom of speech or its sponsorship
of what Eric Foner calls “one of the most sweeping repressions of the
right to dissent in all of American history.” 318
Herbert Hoover’s New Deal
The election of 1920 returned the White House to Republican hands
with the ascendance of Warren G. Harding to the presidency. Harding
served only two years before dying of a heart attack during a political
316 Dos Passos, U.S.A., op.cit., p. 567.
317 Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American
Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 123.
318 Foner, Give Me Liberty!, op.cit., p. 721.
visit to San Francisco. His term was completed by his vice president,
Calvin Coolidge, who was then elected to a four-year term all his own.
Harding, in his inaugural address, “said that the United States was ready
to confer with ‘nations great and small’ to promote disarmament and
any other program that would ‘lessen the probability of war.’” 319 And
his foreign policy, and the foreign policies of his Republican successors,
Coolidge and Hoover, were noticeably less bellicose than the foreign
policy of Woodrow Wilson—or, for that matter, the foreign policy of
the gop’s most recent superstar president, Teddy Roosevelt.
In every other respect, however, the Republican administrations of
the 1920s were perfectly traditional Republican administrations. “The
party now in power in this country,” Calvin Coolidge said in 1922, when
he was vice president of the United States, “through its present declaration of principles, through the traditions which it inherited from its predecessors, the Federalists and Whigs, through their achievements and
its own, is representative of those policies which were adopted under the
lead of Alexander Hamilton.” 320
The Hamiltonian economic program, as we have seen, is based on
tariffs, subsidies to favored businesses, and public works. In 1922, the
Harding administration moved “to enact tariff bills restoring the system of protection for manufacturers,” though it was necessary to accept “high duties on raw materials and agricultural produce” as part
of the price of success in the venture.321 In 1926, according to Murray
Rothbard, Coolidge attempted to prop up the domestic cotton industry
by awarding “grants totaling $10 million […] to government-sponsored
farm organizations to buy cotton at a certain price.” A year earlier, “[a]
ddressing the Associated General Contractors of America (a group that
stood to gain by a government building program), Coolidge had called
for public works planning to stabilize depressions.” 322
What Coolidge called for, Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce
under both Harding and Coolidge, implemented. As Paul Johnson
puts it, “President Hoover, who had risen to worldwide prominence in
the war by managing relief schemes, and had then held high economic
office throughout the twenties before moving into the White House
319 Fleming, Illusion, op.cit., p. 472.
320 Quoted in Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, II, op.cit., p. 699.
321 Ibid., p. 693.
322 Murray N. Rothbard, America’s Great Depression. Fifth Edition. (Auburn, al:
Mises Institute, 2000 [1963]), pp. 225-226, 197.
itself in 1929, was a born planner, meddler, orderer, and exhorter.” Not
Hoover’s was the only department of the u.s. federal government
which had expanded steadily in numbers and power during the 1920s,
and he had constantly urged Presidents Harding and Coolidge to
take a more active role in managing the economy. […] When Hoover
finally took over the White House, he followed his own advice, and
made it an engine of interference, first pumping more credit into an
already overheated economy and, then, when the bubble burst, doing
everything in his power to organize government rescue operations. 323
The policy of “pumping more credit into an already overheated
economy”—the policy which caused the economic downturns that
seemed to cry out for Hoover’s “government rescue operations”—was
one that Hoover had inherited from his immediate predecessors in the
White House. As Rothbard notes, “[a]n inflationary, low-discountrate policy was a prominent and important feature of the Harding and
Coolidge administrations.” 324
And what form did Hoover’s “government rescue operations” take?
According to William Appleman Williams, he
pulled out every antidepression tool the Progressives ever owned. He
first tried, as had Theodore Roosevelt in the Panic of 1907, to coerce
and wheedle financial leaders such as Andrew Mellon and Thomas
Lamont into underwriting the stock market and thereby stopping the
downturn. They lacked both the will and the capital. Hoover then
recommended or approved a wide spectrum of recovery measures.
The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 established the principle of collective bargaining as the law of the land. The Reconstruction Finance
Corporation provided the model as well as one of the key instruments
of most New Deal financing of domestic production and overseas
economic expansion. Hoover asked also for […] a $423 million public
works program, more credit for farmers, new guarantees for bank deposits, more liberal bankruptcy laws, and direct-relief appropriations.
In sum, Williams argues, “The policies that Hoover did finally employ
in his efforts to halt the depression provided the rudiments of [Franklin] Roosevelt’s program.” 325
Rothbard agrees. He wrote in 1963 that
323 Paul Johnson, “Introduction to the Fifth Edition” in Rothbard, America’s Great
Depression, op.cit., p. xv.
324 Rothbard, America’s Great Depression, op.cit., p. 121.
325 Williams, Contours, op.cit., p. 438.
if we define “New Deal” as an antidepression program marked by extensive governmental economic planning and intervention—including bolstering of wage rates and prices, expansion of credit, propping
up of weak firms, and increased government spending (e.g., subsidies
to unemployment and public works)—Herbert Clark Hoover must be
considered the founder of the New Deal in America. Hoover, from
the very start of the depression, set his course unerringly toward the
violation of all the laissez-faire canons. As a consequence, he left office with the economy at the depths of an unprecedented depression,
with no recovery in sight after three and a half years, and with unemployment at the terrible and unprecedented rate of 25 percent of the
labor force.326
The fact is, according to Rothbard, that Hoover was “the founder of
every single one of the features of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.” 327
Benjamin M. Anderson saw things in exactly the same way. Anderson
was a former economics professor at Columbia and Harvard who served
as senior economist for the Chase National Bank of New York City
throughout the ’20s and ’30s, then returned to teaching at ucla for the
last decade of his life. Anderson was at Chase at the time Hoover was
implementing his antidepression program. He watched it take shape,
occupying a front-row seat. And, again according to Rothbard, Anderson’s name for what the president did during the period 1929-1932 was
“the Hoover New Deal.” 328
Of course, all this flies in the face of most people’s understanding of
Herbert Hoover. As Rothbard notes,
[t]he conventional wisdom, of historian and layman alike, pictures
Herbert Hoover as the last stubborn guardian of laissez-faire in
America. The laissez-faire economy, so this wisdom runs, produced
the Great Depression in 1929, and Hoover’s traditional, do-nothing
policies could not stem the tide. Hence, Hoover and his hidebound
policies were swept away, and Franklin Roosevelt entered to bring to
America a New Deal, a new progressive economy of state regulation
and intervention fit for the modern age. 329
On the other hand, as Williams has argued, “[m]ore than any other
20th Century American’s, Hoover’s reputation is the product of mis326 Rothbard, America’s Great Depression, op.cit., p. 186.
327 Murray N. Rothbard, “Herbert Hoover and the Myth of Laissez-Faire” in A . of
Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State, ed. Ronald Radosh
and Murray N. Rothbard (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. 127.
328 Rothbard, America’s Great Depression, op.cit., p. 186.
329 Rothbard, “Herbert Hoover,” op.cit., p. 111.
information and distortion.” 330 The “conventional wisdom” described
above by Rothbard is certainly an example of “misinformation and distortion,” for, as we have seen, the truth of the matter is almost the exact
reverse of this picture.
Consider, then, the situation of a traditional American liberal—an
advocate of individual liberty, free markets, free trade, and international
peace—in late 1932, just after the presidential election. Though the Republican party had held the White House and dominated Congress for
most of a century and had done its absolute damnedest to grow the federal government into the sort of leviathan which would make Alexander
Hamilton proud, still, the federal government of December 1932 was a
tiny, toothless thing by present-day standards. Its capital city of Washington, according to William Manchester, “was a slumbering village in
summer, largely forgotten the rest of the year. In size it ranked fourteenth among American cities,” which made it about as big and important, relatively speaking, as Columbus or Jacksonville in the America of
today. “Most big national problems,” Manchester recalls, “were decided
in New York, where the money was; when federal action was required,
Manhattan’s big corporation lawyers—men like Charles Evans Hughes,
Henry L. Stimson, and Elihu Root—came down to guide their Republican protégés. President Coolidge had usually finished his official day
by lunchtime.” His successor, Herbert Hoover, “created a stir by becoming the the first Chief Executive to have a telephone on his desk. He
also employed five secretaries—no previous President had required more
than one—and summoned them by an elaborate buzzer system.” 331
Still, even the Hoover administration was remarkably compact—
again, by present-day standards. As Manchester notes,
Foggy Bottom, the site of the present State Department Building,
was a Negro slum. The land now occupied by the Pentagon was an
agricultural experimental station and thus typical of Washington’s
outskirts; “large areas very close to the heart of the nation’s lawmaking,” the Saturday Evening Post observed, “are still in farm hands.”
The government employed fewer than two thousand foreign service
officers. It is an astonishing fact that the Secretaries of State, War,
and Navy were all under one mansard roof, across the street from
the White House in that ugly, smug mass of balusters, cupolas, and
pillared porticoes known today as the Executive Office Building. In330 Williams, Contours, op.cit., p. 426.
331 William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America,
1932-1972 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), p. 3.
deed, after a fire gutted the President’s oval office in 1929, he and his
staff had moved in with them and no one had felt crowded.
Moreover, “[t]here was little pomp. […] If you called on the Secretary of
State, he sometimes met you at the door.” 332
In 1932, according to John T. Flynn, there were no federal “subsidies to farmers, […] handouts to the indigent, [or] support [for] schools.”
The federal government did not “build hospitals [or] provide medical
care.” 333 And though it did undertake national defense, it did so much
more cheaply than Americans of today are accustomed to seeing. “The
u.s. had the sixteenth largest army in the world” in 1932, Manchester reports, “putting it behind, among others, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Spain,
Romania, and Poland.” And most of those in uniform “were committed
to desk work, patrolling the Mexican border, and protecting u.s. possessions overseas.” What remained to defend the United States from
anyone other than Mexico was “30,000 troops—fewer than the force
King George sent to tame his rebellious American colonies in 1776.” 334
In constant dollars, this army cost about one-eighth of one percent of
what today’s military costs the u.s. taxpayer. In 1932, the federal government was seizing less than five percent of our national income, so it
had to be a good deal more frugal than the federal government of 2005,
which claimed a fraction more than five times that size.
The Great Depression was underway in 1932, of course—had been
for three and a half years. Around a quarter of the workforce was out of
work, banks were failing, times were hard. And President Hoover had
only made matters worse. Flynn saw the “Hoover New Deal” as an effort to virtually nationalize the u.s. economy, an effort “to organize every
profession, every trade, every craft under [government] supervision and
to deal directly with such details as the volume of production, the prices,
the means and methods of distribution of every conceivable product.” 335
Fortunately, however, from the liberal point of view, President Hoover
had been voted out of office after a single term in the White House. The
American electorate had repudiated his approach to fighting the depression
and had elected the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a
man who stood for small government and fiscal responsibility.
332 Ibid., p. 4.
333 John T. Flynn, The Decline of the American Republic (New York: Devin-Adair,
1955), p. 113.
334 Manchester, op.cit., p. 5.
335 John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth (Garden City, ny: Garden City Publishing,
1949 [1948]), p. 38.
The Myth of the “Old Right”
This was evident from the platform on which Roosevelt had run—a
platform that called for
An immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance, to
accomplish a saving of not less than 25 percent in the cost of
Federal government. . . .
“2. Maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually
balanced . . . .
“3. A sound currency to be maintained at all hazards.”
Nor was this platform meant to be taken as mere empty rhetoric
of the sort people today tend to assume is characteristic of virtually all
public statements by politicians. No. As Garet Garrett of the Saturday
Evening Post pointed out in 1938, “Mr. Roosevelt pledged himself to be
bound by this platform as no President had ever before been bound by
a party document. All during the campaign he supported it with words
that could not possibly be misunderstood.” He said, for example,
“I accuse the present Administration of being the greatest spending
Administration in peace time in all American history—one which
piled bureau on bureau, commission on commission, and has failed
to anticipate the dire needs or reduced earning power of the people.
Bureaus and bureaucrats have been retained at the expense of the
taxpayer. . . . We are spending altogether too much money for government services which are neither practical nor necessary. In addition to
this, we are attempting too many functions and we need a simplification of what the Federal government is giving to the people.” 336
Roosevelt was particularly adamant on the subject of government
Toward the end of the campaign he cried: “Stop the deficits! Stop the
deficits!” Then to impress his listeners with his inflexible purpose to
deal with this prodigal monster, he said: “Before any man enters my
cabinet he must give me a twofold pledge: Absolute loyalty to the
Democratic platform and especially to its economy plank. And com336 Garet Garrett, The People’s Pottage (Caldwell, id: Caxton, 1953), p. 27.
plete cooperation with me in looking to economy and reorganization
in his department.” 337
True, Roosevelt’s political track record was somewhat worrisome,
for “as governor he took New York State from the hands of Al Smith
with a surplus of $15,000,000 and left it with a deficit of $90,000,000.”
Still, “[t]here was nothing revolutionary in” what he was now telling
the voters.
It was […] actually an old-time Democratic platform based upon fairly well-accepted principles of the traditional Democratic party. That
party had always denounced the tendency to strong central government, the creation of new bureaus. It had always denounced deficit
financing. Its central principle of action was a minimum of government in business. 338
By contrast, since the time of Lincoln, the Republican party had always
stood for strong central government, top-heavy bureaucracy, and hefty
handouts to big business. The fact that the voters had evicted a Republican from the White House and elected a Democrat surely meant that
American public opinion was leaning in a more liberal direction.
But of course Franklin Roosevelt dashed all such liberal hopes within
the first hundred days of his administration. In effect, once elected, he
tossed the Democratic platform of 1932 into the trash can and proceeded
to show the electorate that he could play the conservative game better
than any Republican. First he took Hoover’s Hamiltonian policies and
enormously expanded them; then, astonishingly, he had the effrontery
to describe himself and his stolen program as “liberal.”
John T. Flynn, journalist and commentator and a noted liberal
spokesman since the 1920s, wrote in 1940 that “I see the standard
of liberalism that I have followed all my life flying over a group of
causes which, as a liberal along with all liberals, I have abhorred all
my life.” 339 Nor was Flynn alone in this feeling. A number of prominent liberals, many of them writers and intellectuals, had enthusiastically supported fdr in the 1932 election, believing that he meant
to adhere to the classically liberal Democratic party platform for that
year. In addition to Flynn, these included H. L. Mencken, editor of the
American Mercury; Isabel Paterson, iconoclastic editor and columnist at
the New York Herald Tribune Sunday “Books”section; and Garet Gar337 Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth, op.cit., p. 37.
338 Ibid., pp. 37, 36.
339 Quoted in John E. Moser, Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of
American Liberalism (New York: nyu Press, 2005), p. 3.
rett, chief editorialist at the Saturday Evening Post. They were joined in
their bitter opposition to the Roosevelt New Deal by other writers and
intellectuals who, irrespective of the candidate they had supported in
the 1932 election, were also old-fashioned liberals appalled by what fdr
was doing under the once good liberal name. These included Albert
Jay Nock, former editor of the Freeman and regular contributor to the
American Mercury, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s; Rose Wilder Lane,
prolific freelance journalist and author; Henry Hazlitt, Mencken’s successor as editor of the American Mercury and later writer on economic
issues for The New York Times and Newsweek; and Felix Morley, editor
of the Washington Post from 1933 to 1940 and winner of a Pulitzer Prize
for distinguished editorial writing.
Certain students of American intellectual history—Rothbard is
among them, unfortunately—have dubbed this group of writers and intellectuals, along with the handful of politicians who adopted a similar
hostility toward New Deal domestic and/or foreign policy during the
1930s and early ’40s, the “Old Right.” “The Old Right,” declares Internet
pundit Justin Raimondo in his 1993 book Reclaiming the American Right,
“was that loose grouping of intellectuals, writers, publicists, and politicians who vocally opposed the New Deal and bitterly resisted u.s. entry
into World War II.” 340
“[T]he ‘Old Right’ was born,” writes Jude Blanchette of the Foundation for Economic Education,
in protest to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Its leaders were H. L.
Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, Suzanne
La Follette and Felix Morley. It is notable that what one finds in their
writings one can still find in the work of most libertarians today. In
fact, it could be argued that the modern libertarian movement has
more in common with conservatives of the 30s and 40s than do contemporary conservatives. The ideas of the Old Right conservatives
(skepticism of government planning, isolationist foreign policy and a
general belief in the free market) have taken a back seat to the modern conservative emphasis on domestic pragmatism and international
“The intellectual leaders of this old Right of World War II and the
immediate aftermath,” Rothbard wrote in 1964,
340 Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative
Movement (Burlingame, ca: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993), p. 52.
341 Jude Blanchette, “Libertarianism, Conservatism, and All That.” 16 November
2004. Online at http://www.mises.org/fullstory.aspx?Id=1674
were then and remain today almost unknown among the larger body
of American intellectuals: Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Frank Chodorov, Garet Garrett. It almost takes a great
effort of the will to recall the principles and Objectives of the old
Right, so different is the current Right-wing today. The stress, as we
have noted, was on individual liberty in all its aspects as against state
power: on freedom of speech and action, on economic liberty, on voluntary relations as opposed to coercion, on a peaceful foreign policy.
The great threat to that liberty was state power, in its invasion of
personal freedom and private property and in its burgeoning military
despotism. Philosophically, the major emphasis was on the natural
rights of man, arrived at by an investigation through reason of the
laws of man’s nature. Historically, the intellectual heroes of the old
Right were such libertarians as John Locke, the Levellers, Jefferson,
Paine, Thoreau, Cobden, Spencer, and Bastiat.
“In short,” Rothbard wrote, “this libertarian Right based itself on eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism, and began systematically to
extend that doctrine even further.” 342
But if they were extending the doctrine of liberalism even further,
they must have been liberals, right? They must have been men and
women of the Left, not the Right—right? John Moser reports of John
T. Flynn that “[t]o the end of his life he never referred to himself as anything but a liberal […]. Flynn claimed that it was the American political
climate that changed during his lifetime, not he. Indeed, he believed
that the very term liberal had been hijacked.” 343
Flynn was correct. The writers and intellectuals who made up the
most visible contingent of the “Old Right” were in no meaningful sense
on the Right at all. They were on the Left, where they had always been.
They were liberals. The term liberal had in fact been hijacked. The
“two-party system” in the United States now consisted of two conservative parties and no liberal party. A great many of the liberals who had
been left in the lurch by the Democratic party’s sudden more or less official adoption of conservatism in liberal clothing made the mistake of
joining (or, at any rate, supporting) the Republican party—presumably
in the belief that the opposition party, whatever its fundamental character, was where they now belonged.
As Rothbard acknowledges, the “Old Right” was a coalition, in
which the libertarians and individualists—the True Liberals—were not
dominant. Nevertheless, he writes, they
342 Rothbard, “The Transformation of the American Right,” op.cit.
343 Moser, Right Turn, op.cit., p. 3.
set the tone, since individualist and libertarian rhetoric provided the
only general concepts with which New Deal measures could be opposed. The result, however, was that hack Republican politicians found
themselves mouthing libertarian and antistatist slogans that they did
not really believe—a condition that set the stage for a later “moderation” and abandonment of their seemingly cherished principles. 344
More important, a great many of the liberals who had been driven into
the gop, though “at first properly scornful of their new-found allies,
soon began to accept them and even to don cheerfully the formerly despised label of ‘conservative.’” 345
And so it was that
the libertarians, especially in their sense of where they stood in the
ideological spectrum, fused with the older conservatives who were
forced to adopt libertarian phraseology (but with no real libertarian
content) in opposing a Roosevelt Administration that had become
too collectivistic for them, either in content or in rhetoric. World War
II reinforced and cemented this alliance; for, in contrast to all the
previous American wars of the century, the pro-peace and “isolationist” forces were all identified, by their enemies and subsequently by
themselves, as men of the “right.” By the end of World War II, it was
second nature for libertarians to consider themselves at an “extreme
right-wing” pole with the conservatives immediately to the left of
them; and hence the great error of the spectrum that persists to this
day. In particular, the modern libertarians forgot or never realized
that opposition to war and militarism had always been a “left-wing”
tradition which had included libertarians; and hence when the historical aberration of the New Deal period corrected itself and the “Rightwing” was once again the great partisan of total war, the libertarians
were unprepared to understand what was happening and tailed along
in the wake of their supposed conservative “allies.” The liberals had
completely lost their old ideological markings and guidelines. 346
The irony of all this was that the New Deal, the program of the
fraudulent “liberals” of the Roosevelt administration, was, at heart, a
profoundly conservative program. “Almost everything done during the
Hundred Days,” Robert Higgs reminds us, “relied on the emergency
rationale and the wartime analogy. Many programs employed during
World War I were resurrected.” Moreover, “[t]he administrators of the
344 Murray N. Rothbard, “Life in the Old Right.” August 1994. Online at http://
345 Rothbard, Left and Right, op.cit., p. 23.
346 Ibid., pp. 24-25.
programs came largely from the ranks of the veterans of the wartime
mobilization. The rhetoric and the symbols harkened back to that glorious occasion of extraordinary national solidarity.” 347 In effect, then,
the First New Deal, as fdr’s program during 1933 and 1934 is generally called, was merely a rebirth of the policies of Woodrow Wilson—
policies which were virtually indistinguishable from the Hamiltonian
conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt.
It is sometimes asserted that the so-called Second New Deal, the package of policies fdr pushed during the period from 1935 to 1938, shifted the
federal government’s emphasis away from legislation aimed at “cartelization and other suppressions of market competition” to benefit big business
and big labor and toward legislation aimed at “helping the underdogs and
building the welfare state.” It is further asserted that such welfare state
legislation was opposed by the big business interests that most benefited
from conservative policymaking. But this view of what happened in the
mid to late 1930s is unduly simplistic. Much of the legislation supposedly designed during the Second New Deal to help “underdogs,” like the
National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act
of 1938, was anticipated by one of the First New Deal’s key creations, the
National Recovery Administration (nra), launched in June of 1933. As
Higgs notes, the “minimum wages, maximum hours, and working conditions” stipulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act were “much like those
required under the nra’s codes of fair competition.” On the whole, laws
like the Second New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act should properly be
regarded as the “progeny” or “spawn” of the earlier nra.348
Moreover, the minimum wage, maximum hour, and working conditions provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (nira),
the enabling legislation that created the nra, were neither intended to
benefit the downtrodden, nor imposed on big businessmen against their
will. As Ronald Radosh argued, back when he was a New Left Historian, the provisions in question were actually intended to benefit the
big businessmen, who could use them to increase costs for their smaller
competitors. In the minds of these big businessmen, their smaller competitors were competing “unfairly by cutting costs through wage reductions.” 349 Radosh approvingly quotes John T. Flynn’s 1934 remark that,
when it came to the nra, “[i]ndustry wanted not freedom from regula347 Higgs, op.cit., p. 194.
348 Ibid., p. 191.
349 Ronald Radosh, “The Myth of the New Deal,” in A New History of Leviathan,
op.cit., p. 191.
tion, but the right to enjoy regulation.” And in fact, as Arthur Ekirch
points out, “it was industry itself that had largely prepared the regulations governing prices and production” enforced by the nra.350
Taken as a whole, Radosh maintains, “[t]he New Deal was
conservative. Its special form of conservatism was the development of
reforms that modernized corporate capitalism and brought corporate
law to reflect the system’s changed nature.” 351 Or, as Rothbard puts it,
After a bit of leftish wavering in the middle and late ’thirties, the
Roosevelt Administration re-cemented its alliance with big business
in the national defense and war contract economy that began in 1940.
This was an economy and a polity that has been ruling America ever
since, embodied in the permanent war economy, the full-fledged
State monopoly capitalism and neo-mercantilism, the military-industrial complex of the present era. The essential features of American society have not changed since it was thoroughly militarized
and politicized in World War II—except that the trends intensify,
and even in everyday life men have been increasingly moulded into
conforming Organization Men serving the State and its militaryindustrial complex.” 352
The Libertarian Historian Leonard Liggio takes a similar position,
arguing that
the pre-war New Deal benefited big business through government
privileges and concentration of economic power as much as had
Hoover’s policies, of which the New Deal was basically a continuation. However, the most significant result of the war economy was
the increased concentration of economic power which big business
derived from government contracts, and the establishment of a close
relationship between big business and the military […].353
The New Deal was, as John T. Flynn insisted while it was happening, “a form of conservatism dressed up as liberalism.” 35 4 The “liberals”
who pushed it were actually conservatives. And the members of the
“Old Right” who opposed it were actually liberals. In his brief history
of “the ‘Old Right’ Jeffersonians,” Sheldon Richman acknowledges this.
“That the movement was placed on the right or called ‘conservative’ has
to be regarded a quirk of political semantics,” he writes.
Ekirch, op.cit., p. 276.
Radosh, op.cit., p. 187.
Rothbard, Left and Right, op.cit., p. 22.
Leonard P. Liggio, Why the Futile Crusade? (New York: Center for Libertarian
Studies, 1978), p. 14.
354 Moser, op.cit., p. 113.
In a superficial sense it qualified as right-wing because it seemed
to be defending the status quo from the state-sponsored egalitarian
change of the New Deal. But in a deeper sense, the New Deal actually was a defense of the corporativist status quo threatened by the
Great Depression. Thus the Old Right was not truly right-wing, and
since that is so, it should not be bothersome that some palpable leftwingers, such as Norman Thomas and Robert La Follette, Jr., seemed
at home in the Old Right.35 5
Nor was the opposition to the New Deal primarily a Republican
phenomenon. Rothbard notes that Democratic politicians like Representative Samuel Pettingill of Indiana, “Governor Albert Ritchie of Maryland, who was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination
in 1932, and Senator James A. Reed from Missouri” were prominent in
the movement against the New Deal.356 Ronald Radosh adds the names
of Senators “Burton K. Wheeler (D. Mont.) […] and Hugo Black (D.
Ala.).” 357 Sheldon Richman suggests “Senators Carter Glass of Virginia,
Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma, and Harry Byrd of Virginia,” as well
as such “Cleveland Democrats” as “Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri,
Patrick McCarran of Nevada, and David I. Walsh of Massachusetts.” 358
In fact, it was members of the Democratic party, not the Republican party, who mounted the first organized offensive against the New
Deal, which they regarded as a betrayal of the liberal principles that
had long served as their party’s ideological foundation. The first national organization opposed to the New Deal, the American Liberty
League, was founded in 1934 by a group of prominent Democrats. There
was Jouett Shouse, former Democratic congressman from Kansas, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Wilson administration,
former chairman of the Democratic National Executive Committee,
and former president of the predominantly Democratic Association
Against the Prohibition Amendment. There was John J. Raskob, former Democratic National Committee chairman and executive of the
Du Pont company and General Motors. There was John W. Davis, the
1924 Democratic presidential candidate and a J. P. Morgan & Company
attorney. And there was Al Smith, former governor of New York and
355 Sheldon Richman, “ New Deal Nemesis: The ‘Old Right’ Jeffersonians.” Independent Review Fall 1996, p. 203.
356 Murray N. Rothbard, “Life in the Old Right.” op.cit. See also Murray N. Rothbard, “The Life and Death of the Old Right,” Rothbard-Rockwell Report September 1990. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard25.html
357 Radosh, “The Myth of the New Deal,” op.cit., p. 167.
358 Richman, “ New Deal Nemesis,” op.cit., p. 211.
1928 Democratic presidential candidate. Sheldon Richman reports that
“Raskob, a good friend and fellow Catholic of Al Smith, did the bulk of
the early organizing and thinking about the League.” 359
There were serious opponents of the New Deal in the gop, too, of
course. But, despite Rothbard’s preposterous claim that they were “the
soul of the [Republican] party,” and represented “majority sentiment in
the party,” the fact is far otherwise. Rothbard seems actually to have
believed that the only reason the so-called “Old Right Republicans”
perennially “managed to lose the presidential nomination” is that said
nomination was “perpetually stolen from them by the Eastern Establishment-Big Banker-Rockefeller wing of the party,” which relied on
“media clout, as well as hardball banker threats to call in the delegates’
loans.” He seems actually to have believed that “Senator [Robert A.]
Taft [of Ohio] was robbed of the Republican nomination in 1952” in precisely this way—“by a Rockefeller-Morgan Eastern banker cabal, using
their control of respectable ‘Republican’ media.” 360 But if the “Eastern
Establishment-Big Banker-Rockefeller wing of the party” was so powerful, why was it never able to put its own man, Nelson Rockefeller, in the
White House—or even win him the gop nomination? It’s not as though
he didn’t try for it time and again. The fact is that, as Clyde Wilson puts
it, the “Old Right” members of the Republican party simply “never had
sufficient strength” within the party “to nominate a presidential candidate or prevent very many evils.” 361
The Goldwater Anomaly
The fact is that the coming of the New Deal ended a long era in American political history—an era that had endured for more than a hundred
years, an era in which every national election was a contest between a liberal party and a conservative party, both substantial in size and influence.
359 Sheldon Richman, “A Matter of Degree, Not Principle: The Founding of the
American Liberty League.” Journal of Libertarian Studies Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring
1982), pp. 146-147.
360 Rothbard, “Life in the Old Right,” op.cit.
361 Clyde Wilson, “Save America! Vote Republican!” 30 September 2003. Online at
After the coming of the New Deal, both major parties were conservative
parties. For the New Deal variety of “liberalism” was not liberalism at
all, but conservatism. As Karl Hess explains it, the modern
liberal position has come to be known as a left-wing position. Actually, it lies right alongside the conservative tradition, down toward
the middle of the line, but decidedly, I think, to the right of its center.
Liberals believe in concentrated power—in the hands of liberals, the
supposedly educated and genteel elite. They believe in concentrating
that power as heavily and effectively as possible. They believe in great
size of enterprise, whether corporate or political, and have a great and
profound disdain for the homely and the local. They think nationally
but they also think globally and now even intergalactically. Actually,
because they believe in far more authoritarian rule than a lot of conservatives, it probably would be best to say that [modern] liberals lie
next to but actually to the right of many conservatives.” 362
The gop had always been a conservative party, of course. The traditionally liberal Democratic party was now controlled by conservatives
who falsely called themselves “liberals.” True liberals could find no
proper home in either of these parties. They could either support minor
parties or stay home from the polls altogether. Not surprisingly, a number of liberals chose what appeared to be a promising third alternative—
working for liberal goals and ideals within one or the other of the two
big conservative parties. But their efforts were doomed to failure. As
George Wallace famously observed in 1968 there isn’t “a dime’s worth
of difference” between the two parties.363 Neither of them is genuinely
open to liberal ideas. But at least the liberals who chose to stick with the
Democratic party could point out in defense of their choice that their
party did have a long history of advancing liberal goals and ideals. The
liberals who chose to stick with the gop could offer no such defense, for
the Republican party had never stood for anything but illiberal goals
and ideals—big government and special favors for big business.
The Republican who “robbed” Robert Taft in 1952 and held the
White House for the next eight years was, of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a politically undefeatable war hero and a thoroughly traditional
Republican without a liberal bone in his body. As president, he smilingly accepted the New Deal and cheerfully added to it, increasing
362 Hess, Dear America, op.cit., p. 13.
363 See Richard Pearson, “Former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace Dies.”
Washington Post 14 September 1998. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/
federal spending by thirty percent (though the nation was at peace);
creating the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; expanding the Social Security system to include an additional ten million recipients; and meddling relentlessly in other nations’ affairs. Eisenhower
helped install Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah in Iran and sent the
first American troops to a previously obscure corner of Southeast Asia
known as Vietnam.364
When Eisenhower’s vice president, a conservative lawyer from
Southern California named Richard Milhous Nixon, lost the White
House back to the Democrats in 1960, the political strategists within
the Republican party began casting about for a more attractive candidate for 1964. The man they ultimately settled on, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, persuaded a great many people during 1963 and 1964
that the disaffected liberals who had left the Democratic party in 1932
in protest against the policies of fdr and then stuck with the gop over
the next quarter-century had been right all along. For here, at last, was a
Republican presidential candidate who preached small government and
free trade, a Republican who was eerily reminiscent of Grover Cleveland, a Republican who was eloquent in his espousal of old-time liberal
goals and ideals.
The eloquence was chiefly the doing of Goldwater’s speechwriter
and principal adviser during the 1964 campaign, the journalist and political ghostwriter Karl Hess. As Hess tells it, Senator Goldwater really
was what he seemed to so many—a genuine modern incarnation of the
classical liberal spirit. There was the problem of the war in Vietnam, of
course, but setting that aside for the moment, wasn’t it abundantly clear
that Goldwater was a true individualist and more a man of the Left than
of the Right?
“Goldwater,” Hess recalled in his autobiography, written thirty years
after the Arizona senator’s tragic presidential campaign, “had very little
support from big business.” The problem was that Goldwater’s
insistence on competition as indispensable to a free market had scared
the huge corporations. These giants of free enterprise had become
addicted over the years to collusion with the government and to the
sheltering protection of government regulations which hampered
market entry and produced excessive restrictions against innovative
products. Too many of them were used to government’s helping hand
in what amounted to welfare programs disguised as redundant and
364 See James Ostrowski, “Republicans and Big Government.” 19 February 2002.
Online at http://www.mises.org/story/895
unquestioned defense appropriations. Goldwater was suspicious of all
that. He did not feel that a corporation should be subsidized with
funds coerced from working people—any more than he believed that
an artist or a scholar or a farmer should be. The support of big business flowed naturally to Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to wheel
and deal with corporations that felt they had the right to be treated as
virtually a fourth branch of government.
Goldwater, according to Hess, was a sincere opponent of big government.
“It now is difficult to imagine a president of the United States actually
turning back federal power,” Hess wrote in the early 1990s. “Goldwater,
if elected, would have tried. He wrote to me some years back that ‘I am
more of a Jeffersonian than a Republican or anything else. In fact, I
think he was one of the greatest men who lived in America. If we could
pay more attention to his preachments and his philosophy, I think the
country would be a lot better off.’” 365
Hess reports that Goldwater “never could understand the anti-marijuana law since cowboys in Arizona, before the Harrison Narcotics Act,
smoked it regularly and were never more peaceable than when they were
doing it.” 366 Nor was marijuana the only issue on which the Arizona
senator took the same position as the New Left activists who were making so much noise on college campuses around the country. In 1968, running to regain his old seat in the Senate, Goldwater began a speech at
Arizona State University in Tempe by saying, “I have much in common
with the anarchist wing of Students for a Democratic Society [sds].” 367
By this time, though he still worked part time for Goldwater—
writing a book about the presidential campaign, writing a nationally
syndicated newspaper column that appeared under Goldwater’s name,
and writing speeches for Goldwater’s 1968 Senate campaign—Hess was
having more and more direct contact with sds himself. Very shortly
he would abandon the Republican party altogether and begin publicly
identifying with the New Left. Looking back on that period a few years
later, in 1975, Hess noted that “very many of the young people I have
known on the left got there, as I did, from the Goldwater campaign of
365 Karl Hess, Mostly on the Edge: An Autobiography, ed. Karl Hess, Jr. (Amherst, ny:
Prometheus, 1999), pp. 183-184, 181.
366 There is some historical confusion in this passage, though whether the confusion
was Goldwater’s or Hess’s is hard to say. Marijuana was not forbidden by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. It was not forbidden or even regulated under federal
law (though it was in certain states and municipalities) until nearly twenty-five
years later, with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937.
367 Hess, Mostly on the Edge, op.cit., p. 179.
1964.” Writing nearly a quarter-century before Goldwater’s death in 1998
(he himself died in 1994), Hess opined that “Goldwater […] knows that,
historically, he is not right. He is a man, deep down, of at least a leaning
toward the humanist left.” 368
Nor is Hess the only observer to see Goldwater as a liberal, a man
of the Left, incongruously attached to a political party with which,
ideologically, he had nothing in common. In 2004, six years after
Goldwater’s death at 89, journalist Sidney Blumenthal reflected on
the famous Arizonan’s legacy in a piece for the online magazine Salon.
“In his plainspoken manner,” Blumenthal wrote, “indifferent to what
anyone else thought, he railed against the right’s intolerance, sanctimony and bullying. Mr. Conservative, author of its early seminal
manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, took to calling himself in
public a ‘liberal.’ He spared no words in denouncing the right as the
enemy of liberty.”
Blumenthal found that the people who had been closest to the senator in life were the most likely to agree with his assessment of Goldwater
as a man of the Left.
“Barry was always a social liberal,” Susan Goldwater Levine, his widow, keeper of the flame, told me at her home, high in the hills above
Phoenix, watching a pastel sunset, in 70 degree winter weather. “Barry believed that people should be allowed to do whatever they wanted
in their own homes.” When Goldwater observed the right trying to
use government to enforce private morality, he spoke up for women’s
right to abortion and for gay rights. His wife insisted that his convictions had remained unaltered, but that the movement for which he
was the avatar had become warped. “He hated it that the right-wing
zealots took over the party,” she said. “Barry hated the right wing.” 369
In fact, from the very beginning of his national political career in the
early 1960s, Goldwater enjoyed a certain popularity among elements
within the Democratic party and also among disgruntled Democrats no
longer affiliated with the party. Clyde Wilson believes that so unlikely
a candidate as Goldwater was able to win the gop nomination in the
first place “mainly because of the influx of expelled Democrats,” and he
points out that “the only states he [Goldwater] carried [in the ’64 election] were traditionally Democratic ones.” 370
368 Hess, Dear America, op.cit., pp. 108, 105.
369 Sidney Blumenthal, “Revolt of the Goldwater Conservatives.” Salon 26 February
2004. Online at http://www.salon.com/opinion/blumenthal/2004/02/26/goldwater/
370 Wilson, “Save America! Vote Republican!” op.cit.
There can be no question that Goldwater’s own party, the gop,
abandoned his candidacy. Republicans stayed home from the polls or
defected in droves to support the Johnson campaign. Why would they
support a man like Goldwater? As Republicans, they could hardly be
expected to show much enthusiasm for what was, essentially, a liberal
program. Johnson was much more up their alley, with his long history
as a New Deal “liberal,” i.e., a partisan of the mercantilist, proto-fascist
corporate State.
On the other hand, there was another way of looking at Barry
Goldwater. And Murray Rothbard was far and away the most articulate
champion of this alternative point of view. “Goldwater,” he wrote in
1980, “was—and is—an all-out interventionist in foreign affairs; it is
both symbolic and significant that Goldwater was an Eisenhower, not a
Taft delegate to the 1952 Republican convention.” A mere eight years later,
by the time of “the 1960 gop convention, Barry Goldwater had become
the political leader of the transformed New Right.” This “New Right,”
Rothbard explains, was the brand of conservatism for which William
F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review provided the intellectual leadership, a
brand of conservatism that “combined a traditionalist and theocratic approach to ‘moral values,’ occasional lip service to free-market economics,
and an imperialist and global interventionist foreign policy dedicated
to the glorification of the American state and the extirpation of world
Communism. Classical liberalism remained only as rhetoric, useful in
attracting business support […].” 371
And even Hess acknowledges, albeit grudgingly, the truth of one
part of Rothbard’s complaint against Goldwater—the contention that
the Arizona senator was “an all-out interventionist in foreign affairs.”
In 1975 Hess wrote that
[t]o advocate a strong national-security state, as Goldwater always
did, while at the same time facing the fact that one of its consequences—increased federal power—would accomplish in the long run just
what an enemy invasion would, is to engage in a great contradiction.
I certainly didn’t see it at the time. Goldwater didn’t seem to see it. It
was never discussed. But it was the sort of contradiction which can
haunt you for a long time. It did me—a long time later.
Meanwhile, the weight of this contradiction was making itself felt more
and more with each passing day, because of its relevance to one of the
dominant issues of the day,
371 Rothbard, “Requiem for the Old Right.” op.cit.
the Indo-Chinese war. As it grew and as his support for it grew, it
contrasted sharply with, for instance, his very first 1964 campaign
pledge to repeal and end the draft. He said very often that if there was
a war that people didn’t want to fight, you probably shouldn’t fight it
at all. The Indo-Chinese war, begun as an executive action, expanded
as an executive action, was fought with draftees. It was not a war that
people even knew existed until too late. It was a war that contradicted
every basic principle I had thought Senator Goldwater stood for. 372
In 1968, when the gop finally recaptured the White House, the victorious candidate was the garden variety Republican statist, Richard Nixon.
And over the next eight years, he and his Republican successor, Gerald
R. Ford, provided a steady flow of traditional conservative policymaking. Nixon alone increased federal spending seventy percent. He created
the Environmental Protection Agency (epa), the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (osha), and the Consumer Product Safety
Commission (cpsc), three of the most voracious and meddlesome bureaucracies in the federal government. Nixon started “affirmative action,”
imposed wage and price controls, and proposed a government-guaranteed
and taxpayer-funded minimum personal income. Altogether he managed
to make your 1968 dollar worth just seventy-eight cents by the time he left
office. Ford was in office for a much shorter time than Nixon, but he was
in office long enough to erode the dollar by another eight cents. And he
managed to steadily increase spending throughout his time in office.
Ford lost his bid for re-election in 1976, and another Democrat, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, entered the White House for a
term. Thereafter, from 1980 to 1992, the gop held the presidency: twelve
years—eight of Ronald Reagan, followed by four of his former vice
president, George Herbert Walker Bush.
The Reagan Fraud—and After
Like most Republican politicians since the early 1930s, Reagan always
portrayed himself throughout his political career as a champion of limited government, individual rights, and free enterprise—the classical lib372 Hess, Dear America, op.cit., pp. 68-69.
eral values which, of course, he absurdly described as “conservative.” But,
like almost all Republican politicians since the early 1930s, he seemed
to forget all about these values once he got into office and assumed the
reins of power. Consider, as a case in point, Reagan’s eight years (19661974) as governor of California. As Murray Rothbard noted in 1980,
Despite his bravado about having stopped the growth of state government, the actual story is that the California budget grew by 122
percent during his eight years as governor, not much of an improvement on the growth rate of 130 percent during the preceding two
terms of free-spending liberal Pat Brown. The state bureaucracy increased during Reagan’s administration from 158,000 to 192,000, a
rise of nearly 22 percent—hardly squaring with Reagan’s boast of
having “stopped the bureaucracy cold.”
Nor “is Reagan’s record on taxes any comfort. He started off with a
bang by increasing state taxes nearly $1 billion in his first year in office—
the biggest tax increase in California history. Income, sales, corporate,
bank, liquor, and cigarette taxes were all boosted dramatically.” After
his re-election as governor in 1970, “[t]wo more tax hikes—in 1971 and
1972—raised revenues by another $500 million and $700 million respectively.” Overall, “[b]y the end of Reagan’s eight years, state income taxes
had nearly tripled, from a bite of $7.68 per $1000 of personal income to
$19.48. During his administration, California rose in a ranking of the
states from twentieth to thirteenth in personal income tax collection
per capita, and it rose from fourth to first in per capita revenue from
corporate income taxes.”
During his 1970 campaign for re-election, Reagan assured voters
that his feet were set “in concrete” against adopting payroll withholding
of state income tax in California. Less than a year later he was joking
that “I can hear the concrete cracking around my feet,” as he signed
exactly that provision into law.
According to Rothbard, Reagan “created seventy-three new state
government councils and commissions, with a total budget, in his last
year alone, of $12 million. Included was the California Energy Commission, which put the state hip-deep into the energy business” and created a regulatory climate under which a three-year review process was
required before any new power plant could be constructed in the state..
Reagan always claimed to have “reformed” welfare in California
during his years in the governor’s office. And, as Rothbard noted in
1980, he did remove “more than 510,000 from the welfare rolls by—
among other things—forcing adults to support their welfare parents.”
The problem is that “[h]e then turned around and boosted the amount
of welfare paid to those remaining by 43 percent, so that total welfare
costs to the taxpayer didn’t decline at all.” 373
In 1974, his time in Sacramento at an end, Reagan began running
for president. And by the fall of 1980 he had succeeded in winning both
the Republican nomination and then the election campaign against the
incumbent, Jimmy Carter. In January 1981, he was called upon to deliver
his first inaugural address. “For decades,” he told Americans,
“we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our
children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To
continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural,
political, and economic upheavals. You and I, as individuals, can, by
borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of
time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we
are not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to
preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding—we are
going to begin to act, beginning today.”
“It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment,” Reagan thundered. “It is time to […] get government back within
its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our
first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.”
But in fact both taxes and deficits increased under Reagan. As
Rothbard put it in a 1988 retrospective on Reagan’s years in the White
In the first place, the famous “tax cut” of 1981 did not cut taxes at all.
It’s true that tax rates for higher-income brackets were cut; but for
the average person, taxes rose, rather than declined. The reason is
that, on the whole, the cut in income tax rates was more than offset
by two forms of tax increase. One was “bracket creep,” a term for
inflation quietly but effectively raising one into higher tax brackets,
so that you pay more and proportionately higher taxes even though
the tax rate schedule has officially remained the same. The second
source of higher taxes was Social Security taxation, which kept increasing, and which helped taxes go up overall.
Moreover, in each of the seven years that followed that phony “tax cut,”
taxes increased
with the approval of the Reagan administration. But to save the president’s rhetorical sensibilities, they weren’t called tax increases. Instead,
373 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Two Faces of Ronald Reagan” (1980). Online at http://
ingenious labels were attached to them; raising of “fees,” “plugging
loopholes” (and surely everyone wants loopholes plugged), “tightening irs enforcement,” and even “revenue enhancements.” I am sure
that all good Reaganomists slept soundly at night knowing that even
though government revenue was being “enhanced,” the president had
held the line against tax increases.374
As for deficits, Slate’s Timothy Noah puts the matter succinctly:
“The deficit, which stood at $74 billion in Carter’s final year, ballooned
to $155 billion in Reagan’s final year. In the words of Vice President
Dick Cheney, ‘Reagan taught us deficits don’t matter.’” 375 In the words
of syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, “Ronald Reagan came into office
in 1980 on the mantra that he would rid the nation of Waste, Fraud and
Abuse. He proceeded to raise the national deficit by $2 trillion with
tax cuts and spending on the military in the face of a collapsing Soviet Union.” 376
Then there was Reagan’s policy on international trade. “Our trade
policy,” he stated during his 1980 campaign, “rests firmly on the foundation of free and open markets. I recognize. . . the inescapable conclusion that all of history has taught: the freer the flow of world trade, the
stronger the tides of human progress and peace among nations.” Then,
as president, he acted as though such ideas had never entered his mind.
According to Sheldon Richman, Reagan “imposed a one hundred percent tariff on selected Japanese electronic products,” explaining that he
did so “to enforce the principles of free and fair trade.” As president he
“forced Japan to accept restraints on auto exports”; “tightened considerably the quotas on imported sugar”; “required eighteen countries, including Brazil, Spain, South Korea, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Finland,
Australia, and the European Community, to accept ‘voluntary restraint
agreements’ that reduced their steel imports to the United States”; “imposed a forty-five percent duty on Japanese motorcycles for the benefit
of Harley Davidson, which admitted that superior Japanese management was the cause of its problems”; “pressed Japan to force its automakers to buy more American-made parts”; “demanded that Taiwan, West
Germany, Japan, and Switzerland restrain their exports of machine
tools”; “extended quotas on imported clothes pins”; and “beefed-up the
374 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Myths of Reaganomics” (1988). Online at http://www.
375 Timothy Noah, “Ronald Reagan, Party Animal.” Slate 5 June 2004. Online at
376 Molly Ivins, “Baghdad on the Bayou.” 28 September 2005. Online at http://www.
Export-Import Bank, an institution dedicated to distorting the American economy at the expense of the American people in order to artificially promote exports of eight large corporations.” By the time Reagan
left office, at least twenty-five percent of all imports were restricted, “a
one hundred percent increase over 1980.” As Reagan’s Treasury Secretary, James A. Baker, put it, Reagan “granted more import relief to u.s.
industry than any of his predecessors in more than half a century.” 377
Then there was draft registration. In 1979, Reagan told Human
Events that conscription “rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state. If we buy that assumption then it is for the state—not
for parents, the community, the religious institutions or teachers—to
decide who shall have what values and who shall do what work, when,
where and how in our society. That assumption isn’t a new one. The
Nazis thought it was a great idea.” A year later, he promised voters to
end compulsory draft registration, which had been resurrected by President Jimmy Carter. Yet, as Murray Rothbard noted in a 1984 appraisal of
Reagan’s first term, “compulsory draft registration has been continued,
and young resisters have been thrown into jail.”
“Reagan,” Rothbard wrote, “has been a master at engineering an
enormous gap between his rhetoric and the reality of his actions. All
politicians, of course, have such a gap, but in Reagan it is cosmic, massive, as wide as the Pacific Ocean. His soft-soapy voice appears perfectly
sincere as he spouts the rhetoric which he violates day-by-day.” 378
“Wherever we look,” Rothbard wrote four years later, as Reagan left
office for the last time, “on the budget, in the domestic economy, or in
foreign trade or international monetary relations, we see government
even more on our backs than ever. The burden and the scope of government intervention under Reagan has increased, not decreased. Reagan’s
rhetoric has been calling for reductions of government; his actions have
been precisely the reverse.” 379
During his eight years in office, Ronald Reagan increased federal
spending by fifty-three percent, added a quarter of a million new civilian
government employees, escalated the War on Drugs, created the “drug
czar’s office,” and lowered the value of your 1980 dollar to seventy-three
cents. His Republican successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, further
377 Sheldon Richman, “Ronald Reagan, Protectionist.” Online at http://www.mises.
378 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Reagan Phenomenon” (1984). Online at http://www.
379 Rothbard, “The Myths of Reaganomics,” op.cit.
increased taxes, further increased federal spending and “managed to
knock thirteen cents off the value of your dollar in just four years.”
It will be objected that Democratic presidents like Johnson and
Carter also grew the federal government, that they too increased taxes
and spending and regulations, that they too made government steadily
more intrusive and the individual steadily less free. It will be objected
that the Republican party is here being singled out for undeserved abuse.
But in fact, the situation is far otherwise. As James Ostrowski noted
in 2002, “Over the last one hundred years, of the five presidents who
presided over the largest domestic spending increases, four were Republicans. Include regulations and foreign policy, as well as budgets approved by a Republican Congress, and a picture begins to emerge of the
Republican Party as a reliable engine of government growth.” 380
In fact, despite the liberal apostasy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
and virtually all Democratic politicians since his time, despite their
choice to try to beat the Republicans at their own game, promoting
mercantilism, welfare statism, and war, and calling it “liberalism”—
despite all this, the conservative party, the gop, remains the more devoted to mercantilism, welfare statism, and war of the two major parties.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Republicans depicted the philosophy of
their Democratic opponents as “tax and spend, tax and spend.” But in
fact, it is the Republicans, the conservatives, who are the biggest taxers
and the biggest spenders of all.
The years since George Herbert Walker Bush have seen nothing that might make one wish to revise or soften this statement—for
George H. W. Bush’s son, former Texas governor George W. Bush,
who won the presidency in a hotly contested election in the year 2000
and was reelected in 2004, had spent more federal money by the end of
his third year in office than Bill Clinton, the “tax and spend” Democrat
who preceded him, managed to spend in a full eight years. Nor should
this seem surprising. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz
noted late in 2005 that “many of contemporary conservatism’s central
ideas and slogans renovate old Whig appeals,” and that “the [George
W.] Bush administration’s political and ideological recipe was invented
[…] by a nearly forgotten American institution: the Whig Party of the
1830’s and 40’s.” 381
380 Ostrowski, “Republicans and Big Government,” op.cit.
381 Sean Wilentz, “Reconsideration: Bush’s Ancestors.” New York Times Magazine 16
October 2005. Online at http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=f60e13
Thus, “[d]espite occasional exceptions,” wrote columnist Doug Bandow, fewer than three years into George W. Bush’s first term in office,
the Bush administration, backed by the Republican-controlled Congress, has been promoting larger government at almost every turn.
Its spending policies have been irresponsible, and its trade strategies
have been destructive. The president has been quite willing to sell out
the national interest for perceived political gain, whether the votes
sought are from seniors or farmers. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 encouraged the administration to push into law civil-liberties restrictions that should worry anyone, whether they are wielded by a Bush
or a Clinton administration.382
Journalist Steven Greenhut agreed. “This president,” he wrote, late in
2003, “has not vetoed a single bill, which means he has signed into law
every big-spending project that has come down the pike. Federal spending, even on non-military matters, has soared. His nation-building experiments are downright Wilsonian, a far cry from the ‘humbler’ foreign
policy he promised when he ran for office.”
Greenhut hastened to add, lest anyone get the wrong idea, that
[t]hese are criticisms from the right, so save the “you stinking Democrat-loving pinko” e-mails for someone else. I argued for libertarians
to vote for Bush in a column before the election, believing that his
calls for limited government and restrained foreign policy were far
superior to Al Gore’s quasi-socialism, nutty environmentalism and
love of Clinton-style nation-building. 383
It is clear that Greenhut considers himself a man of the Right. It is
also clear that he considers himself an advocate of smaller government,
a “humbler foreign policy,” and the sort of environmentalism that acknowledges the human animal’s rightful place in nature. Yet these values and goals are liberal values and goals. They are the historic values
and goals of the Left, not the Right.
This is why any libertarians who read Greenhut’s pre-election arguments for Bush would almost certainly have rejected them as unsound.
If they were libertarians—i.e., classical liberals—and if their historical
understanding of American politics went back any more than half a
century, they knew that it was scarcely possible for a libertarian to support a Republican. The Republicans are and have always been the party
of big, mercantilist government and an aggressive, meddlesome foreign
382 Quoted in Steven Greenhut, “Mr. Right?” Orange County (Calif.) Register 7 December 2003. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/ocregister/mr-right.html
383 Ibid.
policy—exactly what liberals (libertarians) have historically opposed.
It is “by focussing on the history of the nineteenth century,” Murray
Rothbard wrote, that “we learn of the true origins of the various ‘isms’
of our day, as well as the illogical and mythical nature of the attempted
‘conservative-libertarian’ fusion.”
How, Rothbard wondered, could a libertarian consider himself a
man or woman of the Right, when “[e]verywhere on the Right the
‘open society’ is condemned, and a coerced morality affirmed. God
is supposed to be put back into government. Free speech is treated
with suspicion and distrust, and the military are hailed as the greatest patriots, and conscription strongly upheld. Western imperialism is
trumpeted as the proper way to deal with backward peoples […].” It is
striking how contemporary this sounds, for a passage that was written
more than forty years ago. It is striking how well the words of conservative leader William F. Buckley, Jr., quoted by Rothbard, still serve
to capture the essence of the American Right wing in our own time:
“Where reconciliation of an individual’s and the government’s interests
cannot be achieved, the interests of the government shall be given exclusive consideration.” 384
The gop is the conservative party in American politics, the party
that since Lincoln (and Henry Clay and Alexander Hamilton before
him) has stood for mercantilism, welfare statism, and war. Libertarians
are not conservatives; they are not on the Right. They are on the Left,
the last remnant of the original liberals. Though some true liberals remain in the Democratic Party of today, almost all of them have made
the error of pursuing liberal goals by conservative means. And the majority in the party has been New Deal liberal—false liberal, conservative
in liberal’s clothing—since the 1930s. In effect, the United States is now
governed by one or the other of two conservative parties.
To understand that this is so, to understand the history that explains why it is so, is to understand that all the historical revisionists
discussed in this book were on the Left, not the Right. The Progressive
Historians, the New Left Historians and the Libertarian Historians
are all growing on branches of the same Leftist tree, for Leftists are
champions of the individual. The liberal Progressives, typified in the
historical profession by revisionist Harry Elmer Barnes, made the error of pursuing liberal goals by conservative means, but they did have
liberal goals; unlike most of their Progressive colleagues, they were men
of the Left. Most of the liberals in the New Left have made the same
384 Rothbard, “The Transformation of the American Right,” op.cit.
error, generally in a quixotic, Saint-Simonian quest for “equality,” but
they too are authentic men of the Left. And, of course, the Libertarians
represent, as Murray Bookchin said, “the real legacy of the left.”
It is this not-always-consistent but ever-present concern for the individual that led all the revisionists discussed in this book to investigate
(their critics would say to fixate upon) the particular issues and events
they investigated. The u.s. Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold
War—liberals hate war because war, especially since the mid-19th Century, has killed millions of innocent civilians and destroyed their hardearned property. Where conservatives see “collateral damage,” liberals
see individuals whose natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness” has been abrogated. Where conservatives see noble crusades
in defense of the True and the Good, liberals more often see brazen
schemes to expand government, reward favored industries (“defense”
contractors), and steadily reduce the ordinary taxpayer’s wealth as well
as his or her sphere of personal liberty. This is the left liberal revisionist
view of American history.
Why Textbooks Matter
IN the American Chronicle novels of Gore Vidal, the left liberal revisionist view of American history has achieved a major breakthrough
into the American cultural mainstream. But this is far from its only
important victory in recent years. It has also made its way into the textbooks that American high school and college students are required to
read when they take courses in American history.
And the importance of this last achievement can scarcely be overestimated. For, as Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser note in a recent report in The Journal of American History, “most teachers of United States
history survey courses assign a textbook as core reading, and many assign only a textbook. […] American history textbooks shape how American college students encounter their nation’s history and their society’s
cultural heritage.” 385 It has long been thus—and not only for college
students. According to Frances FitzGerald,
[i]n the nineteenth century, a heavy reliance on textbooks was the distinguishing mark of American education; it was called “the American system” by Europeans. The texts were substitutes for well-trained
teachers; in some parts of the country, they constituted the whole of
a school’s library and the only books a child would ever read on the
subject of, say, American history.386
385 Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, “‘The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing
but the Truth’: Writing, Producing, and Using College-Level American History
Textbooks.” Journal of American History Vol. 91, No. 4, March 2005, p. 1380.
386 Frances FitzGerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century
(New York: Vintage Books, 1980 [1979]), p. 19.
More than a hundred years later, the story is little changed. As of
2003, according to Diane Ravitch,
[t]extbooks are very important in American schools, especially in history. In most history classes, they are the curriculum. Many teachers are dependent on their textbook because they have not studied
history. Today, most teachers of history in grades 7-12 have neither
a major nor a minor in history. Instead they have a degree in social
studies education, some other branch of pedagogy, a social science, or
a completely unrelated field. 387
Early in 2005, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor and author of the book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural
Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001), reported in the Los
Angeles Times that “[n]early a third of the students who apply to Stanford’s master’s in teaching program to become history teachers have
never taken a single college course in history.” Nor is this at all out
of the ordinary, for “[a]mong high school history teachers across the
country, only 18 have majored (or even minored) in the subject they
now teach.” 388
For most students of history in public secondary schools in this
country, then, the implications seem straightforward: “what they are
taught will be the material in the textbook.” 389 A chance to influence
what appears in that textbook is, accordingly, a prize of great moment
to all those who seek to hale their particular truth before the court of
public opinion. And consequently, the history of American history textbooks in American public schools has been a history of controversy and
struggle for advantage—not from the very beginning, perhaps, but certainly from the time when public secondary schools first became an
important force in American education.
That time was the 1890s. “Before then,” as Frances FitzGerald notes,
“American history was not very widely taught. The public grade schools
had very little history of any kind in their curricula, and the private
academies that prepared students for colleges and universities concentrated on classical studies and European history.” But as the “Gay Nineties” dawned, the “public high schools” for the first time actually “had
387 Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students
Learn (New York: Knopf, 2003), p. 140.
388 Sam Wineburg, “Shouldn’t Teachers of History Have Majored in History?”
Los Angeles Times. 24 February 2005. Online at http://hnn.us/roundup/comments/10444.html [emphasis added]
389 Ravitch, op.cit., p. 140.
more students than the private academies.” 390 And the question of what
was written in the history textbooks used by those public high schools
therefore began to interest a great many people who had heretofore invested little or no thought in such matters.
By 1897, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, the Grand Army of
the Republic, a veterans’ organization for soldiers who had fought in the
Union Army during the u.s. Civil War, had formed a “school history
committee” and had begun issuing calls “for a unified schoolbook that
would bind [all sections of the country] together.” At around the same
time, the history committee of the United Confederate Veterans (ucv)
made a similar demand.
“There shall not be one history for Massachusetts and another for
South Carolina,” declared the Mississippi war hero Stephen D. Lee,
chair of the ucv ’s history committee, “ but Americans everywhere
shall read the same books.” The following year Lee predicted that
the Spanish-American War would link North and South “at home”—
that is, in their textbooks—as well as “on the field of battle.” 391
By the 1920s, these newly interested observers, along with a horde
of others, had begun reaching some tentative conclusions about the
specific textbooks they’d been studying, and they had begun taking
their specific grievances public—with a vengeance. In 1927, Chicago
Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson convened “a dismissal hearing for
Superintendent William McAndrew, whom Thompson accused of imposing ‘treasonous’ and ‘un-American’ texts on the schools.” Thompson
made these history textbooks—“texts by Charles Beard, David Muzzey,
and other leading scholars”—the centerpiece of his public case against
McAndrew. Nor was Chicago the only venue in which protests against
Beard and Muzzey were mounted during the ’20s. They raged nationwide, “from Boston and Baltimore to Seattle and San Francisco.” 392
What the protesters found so objectionable about Beard’s and
Muzzey’s texts was their unduly “pro-English” character. Zimmerman
notes that the movement against these books “drew most of its support
from Irish and German immigrants,” neither of whom would have been
too keen on any book that portrayed the English too favorably. 393 And
there can be little question that this is precisely what many of these books
390 FitzGerald, op.cit., pp. 48, 50.
391 Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 35.
392 Ibid., pp. 18, 1.
393 Ibid., p. 58.
did. David Muzzey was a student of James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, whom we first met in Chapter 2 in his capacity as one
of the founders of the New History, the first revisionist movement in
American historiography. Muzzey took Robinson’s ideas to heart and, under their guidance, created a high school American history textbook, An
American History, which, as Frances FitzGerald points out, “survived for
sixty-five years, selling more copies for much of that time than any of its
competitors—and in certain periods more than all of them combined—
and proving almost as popular in the days of the jet aircraft as in those of
the horse-drawn carriage.” According to FitzGerald, “[f]or nearly half the
[20th] century, a high percentage—perhaps even a majority—of American
schoolchildren learned American history” from Muzzey’s book. 394 And
those who didn’t likely learned it from one of Muzzey’s many imitators.
These texts, FitzGerald argues, placed enormous emphasis on “the
English ancestry of Americans. In their discussions of exploration and
colonization, they gave far greater space and approval to Sir Francis
Drake than to any of the other explorers except Columbus, and they concentrated on the English colonists to the near-exclusion of the French,
the Spanish, and the Dutch.” In general, these books “viewed the Colonies as extensions of England into the New World,” and they ended with
“acclaim” for “the American entry into the First World War on the side of
the British.” 395 Muzzey insisted that there were two sides to the American Revolution. According to Zimmerman, the original edition of An
American History described “Stamp Act demonstrators as a ‘mob’ and […]
the Boston Massacre’s victims as ‘ruffians.’” 396 More important—at least
from the point of view of early-20th Century immigrant Americans from
Ireland, Germany, and Southern and Eastern Europe—Muzzey and his
imitators depicted all these non-English arrivals on our shores “as nothing more than a problem. […] they gave no information about how these
people lived, what they did, or where they came from, much less why
they came.” 397 In a word, the non-English newcomers felt excluded.
Charles Beard’s books were another matter entirely. The unduly
pro-English material in Beard’s books was more subtle, less overt than
in Muzzey. Still, it was there. In his most famous and most successful textbook, The Rise of American Civilization, written in collaboration
with his wife, Mary Beard, and published only a year before its pub394
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 59.
Ibid., p. 77.
Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 19-20.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 78.
lic denunciation by Big Bill Thompson, he wrote that support for the
newly minted u.s. Constitution in the 1780s
ran along economic lines. The merchants, manufacturers, private
creditors, and holders of public securities loomed large among the
advocates of the new system, while the opposition came chiefly from
the small farmers behind the seaboard, especially from the men who,
in earlier years, had demanded paper money and other apparatus for
easing the strain of their debts. 398
But this might put in children’s heads the notion that the Founding
Fathers had masterminded a revolution and created a new government,
not because of the intolerable tyranny of George III and the sanctity
of individual rights, but in order to make a profit. And if the children
somehow got that idea in their heads, it would be a small and easy step
for them to an unduly pro-English attitude.
“It is true,” the Beards wrote in 1927,
that one branch of American mythology represents the second war
with England [the War of 1812] as springing inevitably from her depradations on American trade and her impressment of American seamen, but the evidence in the case does not exactly support that view.
Northern shipowners, upon whom the losses fell with special weight,
did not ask for armed intervention. On the contrary, they took great
pains to prove that the federal government’s report listing thousands
of impressment outrages was false and they were almost unanimous
in their opposition to drawing the sword against England.
Diplomatic efforts might well have done the trick, the Beards argued,
without the necessity for a costly war that included the destruction by
fire of the nation’s new capitol at Washington, D.C. “[I]t must be remembered,” they wrote,
that two days after the United States declared war—before news of
the event reached London—the British government withdrew its
obnoxious Orders in Council, leaving only the impressment issue
unsettled by parleys and diplomacy. If, as had been said, that alone
was sufficient cause for war, the fact remained that the communities
which suffered most from it did not so regard the matter. 399
Perhaps worst of all, from the viewpoint of the protesters, the
Beards questioned the originality of the Founding Fathers, whose “high
doctrines,” they declared,
398 Beard and Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, op.cit., Vol. I, pp. 332-333.
399 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 410.
were essentially English, being derived […] from the writings of
John Locke, the philosopher who supplied the rhetorical defense
mechanism for the Whig revolution of 1688 which ended in the expulsion of James II. In Locke’s hands, the catechism of politics was
short indeed: the aim of government is to protect property and when
any government invades the privileges of property, the people have a
right to alter or abolish the government and establish a new one. The
idea was almost a century old when Jefferson artfully applied it in a
modified form to the exigencies of the American Revolution. 400
The Veterans of Foreign Wars were indignant. “The inspired men,” they
complained, “who startled the world with their new conception of human rights are charged with having plagiarized it all from England.” 401
The protests and official inquiries into the unduly pro-British
textbooks did have impact here and there. The historian Andrew C.
McLaughlin was forced to change a sentence in his account of the battle
of Bunker Hill, for example. His original, unduly pro-British sentence
had read: “Three times the British returned courageously to the attack.”
His new sentence read: “Three times the cowardly British returned to
the attack.” 402 But by and large, the efforts of the reformers were not
repaid with significant success. The first textbook activists to reach that
milestone were to do so nearly twenty years later, during the war years
of the early 1940s.
Back in 1917, a report issued by the National Education Association had suggested that secondary schools then in the habit of teaching “subjects such as history, geography, and economics” might consider
an alternative proposal—“that the various disciplines be replaced by an
integrated system of ‘social studies,’ in which the emphasis would shift
from history to the social sciences and from the past to the present and
the future.” 403 Far and away the most successful of the various writers
and pedagogues who sought to transform this vision into reality was
Harold Rugg, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University,
whose fourteen-volume series, Man and His Changing Society, began appearing in print in 1930. “Throughout the 1930s,” Jonathan Zimmerman
writes, “no American textbooks were more popular than the works of
Harold Rugg.” The publisher of Man and His Changing Society credited
the series with “keeping [us] in the ‘black’ during the depression.” 404
Ibid., Vol. I, p. 240.
Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 58.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 35.
Ibid., p. 169.
Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 66.
Diane Ravitch notes that Rugg’s “textbooks were read by millions of
students in some five thousand schools across the country.” 405
Then the Advertising Federation of America, “which was offended
by Rugg’s disparaging remarks about advertising,” launched a frontal
assault on the series, circulating “brochures against the books” on a national basis. 406 The American Legion soon followed suit, distributing
a million copies of one polemic against Rugg’s texts and “nearly half a
million pamphlets reviling them” a year later. 407
[T]hen the National Association of Manufacturers […] and a columnist for the Hearst press joined in, calling the series Socialist or Communist propaganda. The charges caught on and spread to community
groups across the country. Dr. Rugg went on an extensive lecture tour
to defend the series, during which he announced publicly that he was
neither a Communist nor a Socialist. But in vain. A number of school
boards banned the books, and others simply took them out of circulation. In 1938, the Rugg books sold 289,000 copies; in 1944, they sold
only 21,000 copies; not long afterward, they disappeared from the
market altogether. 408
Twenty more years were to pass before a comparable triumph was
achieved by protesters bent on influencing the textbooks used in public
schools. It was in 1962, Frances FitzGerald tells us, that the Detroit
chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (naacp) petitioned the Detroit Board of Education, asking that
a “history text, published by Laidlaw Brothers, [which] depicted slavery
in a favorable light” be withdrawn “from the city school system.” 409 The
naacp had been protesting textbooks for thirty years at that point, ever
since 1932, the year in which it established its first textbook committee
and “called on local branches to examine their history, literature, and civics textbooks—and to protest the most offensive texts.” 410 As FitzGerald
notes, however, though “[t]he n.a.a.c.p. and other civil-rights organizations had denounced racial prejudice in the textbooks a number of
times in prior years,” they had had “no real effect.” 411
In 1962, the naacp finally prevailed.
Ravitch, op.cit., p. 70.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 37. See also Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 67.
Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 66.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 37.
Ibid., p. 38.
Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 47.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 38.
[T]he Detroit board withdrew the text, and subsequently began to
examine for racial bias all the history texts used in the school system.
The Newark Textbook Council soon followed suit. The movement
then spread to other big-city school systems and was taken up by
organizations representing other racial and ethnic minority groups—
Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, AsianAmericans, Armenian-Americans, and so on—all of whom claimed,
with justice, to have been ignored or abused by the textbooks.
Then the new “movement,” as FitzGerald styles it, mushroomed.
Within a few years, a dozen organizations from the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League to a new Council on Interracial Books, were
studying texts for racial, ethnic, and religious bias and making recommendations for a new generation of texts. What began as a series
of discrete protests against individual books became a general proposition: all texts had treated the United States as a white, middle-class
society when it was in fact multiracial and multicultural.
The Detroit naacp’s modest protest of 1962 had made what seemed like
massive changes in the nation’s history textbooks, and it had wasted no
time in doing so—“by the late sixties,” FitzGerald reminds us, the “general proposition” that “all texts” had shortchanged minorities had “come
to be a truism for the educational establishment.” 412
And so it was that over the next few years “[d]ozens of states passed
laws or resolutions requiring the study of American minorities, including Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans as well as African-Americans.” So it was that textbooks began devoting
far greater attention—and more accurate information—to blacks
and other minorities. As recently as 1966 southern school districts
had balked at the mere appearance of blacks in textbook illustrations. By the early 1980s, however, students across the country read
about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Textbooks also admitted an assortment of other ethnic luminaries,
ranging from Pocahontas and Sacajawea to Roberto Clemente and
Cesar Chavez. 413
The process of implementing these changes was never perfectly
smooth, needless to say. Nor was it without moments of unintended
hilarity. As of 1979, for example, according to Frances FitzGerald, textbook publishers were producing “guidelines for authors and editors on
412 Ibid., p. 39.
413 Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 126.
the treatment of racial and other minorities in the textbooks. These
guidelines […] give instructions on such things as the percentage of
illustrations to be devoted to the various groups, and ways to avoid stereotyping in text or pictures.” For example,
A history book […] would not sell in Texas if it did not have a good
deal of material on Mexican-Americans, and it would not sell anywhere if it had pictures of minority-group members who were not
aspiring people: pictures of black sharecroppers could not be used in
order to illustrate Reconstruction; if blacks were pictured they had to
be, say, technicians in lab coats. 414
Twenty years later, at the dawn of a new millennium, Diane Ravitch
found very similar guidelines still very much in place in the offices of
American textbook publishers. She quotes from a guideline published by
McGraw-Hill advising illustrators researching historical photos to (in
Ravitch’s words) “be on the watch for the following stereotyped images”:
Pioneer women doing domestic chores must be replaced by pioneer
women chopping wood, using a plow, using firearms, and handling
large animals.
Pioneer woman riding in a covered wagon as man walks must be replaced by both man and woman walking or both riding, or woman
walking while man rides.
Women as passengers on a sailboat must be replaced by women hoisting the sails on a boat.
Women depicted as nurses, elementary school teachers, clerks, secretaries, tellers, and librarians must be replaced by women as doctors,
professors, managers, police officers, sports figures, and construction workers, and by men as nurses, secretaries, and elementary
school teachers.
It is useful to remember, at this point, that our only purpose in
following such guidelines as these at all is to remedy the failure of traditional history textbooks to include the true history of women and minorities. For, as Diane Ravitch notes,
[s]ome of these replacements require writers and artists to tell lies
about history. Until the latter decades of the twentieth century, most
women who worked were in fact nurses, teachers, and secretaries;
not many women were doctors, professors, managers, police officers,
sports figures, and construction workers. To pretend otherwise is to
falsify the past. It minimizes the barriers that women faced. It pre414 FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 24.
tends that the gender equality of the late twentieth and early twentyfirst centuries was a customary condition in the past. 415
Then again, truth—fidelity to the past as best we can reconstruct
it—has never been the chief goal of textbook writers. Frances FitzGerald notes that in the 1970s, it was the conventional wisdom among textbook publishers that “the inclusion of nasty information constitutes bias
even if the information is true.” 416 As FitzGerald explains, “[h]istory
textbooks for elementary and secondary schools […] are written not to
explore but to instruct—to tell children what their elders want them to
know about their country. This information is not necessarily what anyone considers the truth of things.” 417 James J. Martin is more blunt: “If
you mistake a zinc rainspout for a hollow tree,” he writes, “and you are
a woodpecker, you have a fundamentally flawed conception of the total
situation. The same thing can be said for those who think that school
history books are primarily intended to assist the young in appreciating
and understanding history.” 418 Public school history textbooks are meant
to inculcate a certain general view of America in their student readers—
a view that can be as well (perhaps better) served by a dose of myth as by
a dose of truth. (Nor is this true only of American history textbooks. As
Zimmerman notes, “All nations—not just the United States—construct
narratives that are partly ‘untrue’ or mythological. But these narratives
provide a common discourse of understanding” for those who read and
study them. 419)
“The idea that the United States was a pure, high-minded nation
and model of virtue”—this is where the general view of America, the
“common discourse of understanding,” promoted by public school history texts in this country begins. 420 From that point, what Jonathan
Zimmerman calls “America’s majestic national narrative” unfolds inexorably—a “triumphal narrative” of the steady evolution toward perfection
of America, land of “liberty, prosperity, and equality” and “beacon of
hope and liberty to the world.” 421
What is perhaps most amazing about the otherwise dramatic changes in textbooks during the 1970s and after, including the systematic in415
Ravitch, op.cit., p. 44.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p.96.
Ibid., p.47.
James J. Martin, “History as Bunk,” The Libertarian Review March 1980, p. 41.
Zimmerman, op.cit., p. 8.
FitzGerald, op.cit., p. 131.
Zimmerman, op.cit., pp. 6, 10.
clusion of more information about the roles of women and minorities
in American history, is the fact that this subtext, this “triumphal” tale
of America’s inexorable march to greatness, has been left substantially
unchanged. As Jonathan Zimmerman argued in 2002, while “[r]eformers did win important victories, forcing text publishers to add minority
achievements and to delete egregiously racist passages,” at the same time
“the traditional themes of American high school history—freedom, progress, and prosperity—remained mostly undisturbed.” While “hundreds
of textbooks that had ignored or denigrated minorities now included
accurate and sympathetic material about them,” this “was not allowed to
alter the old story about peace, justice, and freedom.” In sum,
Our “history wars” have usually surrounded the issue of “inclusion”—
who gets into the national narrative, and who does not—rather than
the structure of the narrative itself: each “race” gets to have its heroes
sung, as the New York Times put it in 1927, but no group may question
the melody of peace, freedom, and economic opportunity that unites
them all. 422
The Breakdown of the Consensus—
the Case of Howard Zinn
Writing only two years later, in 2004, the University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, focusing on college-level American history
textbooks, saw a somewhat different situation. In college classrooms
around the country, according to Hoffer, the big change came in the
1980s, and it was a genuine change, as consensus history—the triumphant story of peace, justice, freedom, and the American Way—gave
way to what he calls “the new history.”
The “new history,” as we have seen, was the name adopted for their
revisionist movement, the first in American historiography, by James
Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard of Columbia University in the
1890s. What set that earlier New History apart from its consensus competitors was the enthusiasm with which the New Historians drew on so422 Ibid., pp. 109, 118, 214.
cial sciences like economics and sociology to revise the historical record
as needed. The new “new history” that arose in the 1960s and began
affecting public school textbooks late in that decade was similarly enthralled by the contributions the social sciences could make to historical
understanding. More importantly, the new “new history” had two distinct “wings” or “branches.” As Hoffer puts it, there were the “historians
who focused on major public events, political and military figures”—the
New Left Historians already familiar to readers of Chapter 3, many of
them products of the Beard-saturated history department of the University of Wisconsin—and there were the historians “who thought that
the everyday life of ordinary people—birth, marriage, child rearing,
and other demographic issues—was more important.”
The latter group, the social historians, enjoyed their first successes
working as consultants to ethnic and racial pressure groups like the
naacp, agitating for the removal of racist passages and the inclusion of
accurate historical accounts of the African-American experience in this
country in public school textbooks—or writing the new textbooks that
would be needed to address the concerns of the pressure groups in question. It wasn’t long before the New Left Historians focused on political,
military, and diplomatic history found that their fellow “new historians”
had begun “radically shifting the angle of repose of all history in the
direction of social and cultural life. The two sides in this debate—the
major-events group and the everyday-life group—began to struggle for
control of the programs at the major conventions, each accusing the
other of intellectual imperialism.” 423
Divided though they were, however, the purveyors of the new “new
history” were able to conquer their opponents, the consensus historians,
with little difficulty. Hoffer reports that “by the middle of the 1980s,”
a number of “major textbook publishers scrambled to assemble groups
of authors who would focus on the new-history perspective—stressing
social as well as political history and inclusiveness and diversity.” And
“[b]y the end of the 1980s, the purveyors of the new history were buoyed
by their apparent triumph in the classroom and the textbooks.” It was,
as Hoffer describes it, a “sweeping victory, in which consensus history
was left to the popular historians (and a few notable academics of the
old school).” 424
On the other hand, the triumphant new historians were visibly
squabbling among themselves even as they emerged victorious in the
423 Hoffer, op.cit., p. 91.
424 Ibid., p. 93.
classrooms and in the college textbooks—which showed that historians
could violently disagree with each other about what should be included in
the national narrative, something consensus historians had never done.
By conducting this squabbling in public as they did, and by explaining
in detail the errors and misdemeanors of the consensus historians who
had preceded them, the new New Historians “required all of us to think
about the way history was constructed. [The new “new history”] fostered critical, and self-critical, thought. But in so doing, it undermined
the intellectual authority that consensus historians had claimed and,
until the rise of the new history, had routinely exercised.” 425
If the consensus historians had really been as full of it as the newly
dominant New Historians claimed, and if the New Historians themselves could not reach agreement about the Truth in at least certain
cases, then why, more and more students and teachers of history began
asking, should we pay any more attention to the pronouncements of the
New Historians than we apparently erroneously paid to the pronouncements of their predecessors? Why not study history on our own and
reach our own conclusions?
And so they did. And so it is that today, for the first time in American history, we see textbook wars in which the competing textbooks do
not all tell the same story—textbook wars in which, for the first time,
there is true diversity of opinion about our nation’s past. It is instructive
to examine a sample of today’s college-level American history textbooks
and reflect on the situation this latest development in left liberal revisionism has brought about.
The Twentieth Anniversary Edition of A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn, published in 1999 by HarperCollins, enjoys a special status among current college-level American
history texts. It was the first text to blend successfully the two strains of
the new “new history”—“the major-events group and the everyday-life
group”—and it was the first such text to enjoy widespread adoption and
use on American college and university campuses. According to Michael Kazin, A People’s History “has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more
than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity.” 426
According to Zinn, whose Ph.D. in history was awarded by the ubiquitous Columbia University, he wrote his People’s History because “the
425 Ibid., p. 232.
426 Michael Kazin, “Howard Zinn’s History Lessons,” Dissent Spring 2004. Online
at http://www.dissentmagazine.org/menutest/articles/wi04/kazin.htm
circumstances of my own life […] demanded of me that I try to fashion
a new kind of history […] a history different from what I had learned in
college and in graduate school and from what I saw in the history texts
given to students all over the country.”
By the “circumstances of [his] own life,” Zinn referred to his “upbringing in a family of working-class immigrants in New York,” his
“three years as a shipyard worker,” his service in the u.s. Air Force “as
a bombardier in the European theater […] in the second World War,”
and his twenty years of experience “teaching history and what is grandiosely called ‘political science’” in American colleges and universities.
These experiences had made it clear to Zinn that “[t]here were themes
of profound importance to me which I found missing in the orthodox
histories that dominated American culture.” One case in point was
the issue of class. It is pretended that, as in the Preamble to the
Constitution, it is “we the people” who wrote that document, rather
than fifty-five privileged white males whose class interest required
a strong central government. The use of government for class purposes, to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful, has continued
throughout American history, down to the present day. It is disguised
by language that suggests all of us—rich and poor and middle class—
have a common interest. 427
Another case in point was the issue of u.s. foreign policy. “My own
war experience,” Zinn wrote,
and the history of all those military interventions in which the United
States was engaged, made me skeptical when I heard people in high
political office invoke “the national interest” or “national security” to
justify their policies. It was with such justifications that Truman initiated a “police action” in Korea that killed several million people,
that Johnson and Nixon carried out a war in Indochina in which perhaps 3 million people died […].
Zinn wonders
how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped
out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and
thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never
drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage
war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars
against children, indeed our children.
427 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 658.
Nor was this all that Zinn found wanting in consensus history. There
was also the issue of “how badly twisted was the teaching and writing of
history by its submersion of nonwhite people”—and, for that matter, of
women and gays. 428 In writing his People’s History, Zinn was not planning to retell the venerable old tale of America’s inexorable evolution
toward greatness as an international beacon of peace, prosperity, and
freedom. Zinn had something very different in mind. “I wanted,” he
says, “to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice,
sexual inequality, and national arrogance.” His vision of the American
past was one of “continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against
those who are different, […] political power in the hands of liars and
murderers […].” 429 Not a pretty picture.
It is instructive to examine Zinn’s treatment, in his People’s History
of the United States, of the three topics in u.s. political, military, and diplomatic history which we have already traced through the pages of Gore
Vidal’s American Chronicle novels and through the works of the revisionist historians—namely, the nature and significance of the u.s. Civil
War, the role of the United States in the two world wars of the first half
of the 20th Century, and the origins and significance of the Cold War.
Like Vidal and the revisionists, Zinn regards the u.s. Civil War as
having been touched off by something other than slavery.
Behind the secession of the South from the Union, after Lincoln was
elected President in the fall of 1860 as candidate of the new Republican party, was a long series of policy clashes between South and
North. The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution—most
northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for
it, certainly not the sacrifice of war.
Among the “policy clashes” Zinn names are “free land” (Southerners
believed public lands being opened to settlement should be sold, not
given away), “a high protective tariff for manufacturers,” and “a bank of
the United States” (both rejected by Southerners as not in their economic interest). He quotes Lincoln’s statement to Horace Greeley that “[m]y
paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either
to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any
slave, I would do it […].” And he comments: “The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but
to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources.” 430
428 Ibid., pp. 659-661.
429 Ibid., p. 660.
430 Ibid., pp. 188-189, 191, 198.
Like Vidal and the revisionists, Zinn regards Lincoln as having
been something of a tyrant. The Civil War, he writes “was a war proclaimed as a war for liberty, but working people would be attacked by
soldiers if they dared to strike, Indians would be massacred in Colorado
by the u.s. army, and those daring to criticize Lincoln’s policies would
be put in jail without trial—perhaps thirty thousand political prisoners.”
Like Vidal and the revisionists, Zinn regards Lincoln’s reputation as the
“Great Emancipator” as something of a joke. He approvingly quotes the
London Spectator: “The principle [behind the Emancipation Proclamation] is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he
cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” 431
Like Vidal and the revisionists, Zinn sees Woodrow Wilson as having led the United States into another useless, destructive war (World
War I), while using his power as chief executive, in defiance of the First
Amendment, to silence all dissent and all criticism of his policies. “Congress passed and Wilson signed, in June of 1917, the Espionage Act,” Zinn
writes, a law that “was used to imprison Americans who spoke or wrote
against the war.” When Charles Schenck was convicted under the law
and sentenced to six months in jail for the “crime” of having “denounced
the draft law and the war,” he appealed his conviction—one of “the shortest sentences given in such cases,” Zinn reminds us—all the way to the
u.s. Supreme Court. There Schenck fell victim to the dubious “justice” of
Oliver Wendell Holmes, who ruled, rather irrelevantly, that “[t]he most
stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely
shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Schenck went to jail. 432
As for World War II, Zinn observes that “if the entrance of the
United States into” that conflict “was (as so many Americans believed
at the time, observing the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of
nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, the nation’s record cast
doubt on its ability to uphold that principle.” After all, Zinn reminds us,
the United States
had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France
at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with
Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help
Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with
a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized
Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate
the Filipinos.
431 Ibid., pp. 233, 192.
432 Ibid., pp. 365-366.
The United States had, moreover,
engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the “independent” state of Panama in order to build and control the Canal. […]
Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened in Cuba four
times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once,
in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty
Latin American states were being directed to some extent by the
United States.
And these interventions sometimes lasted for years, even decades. The
United States, Zinn notes,
sent five thousand Marines to Nicaragua in 1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for seven years. It intervened in the Dominican Republic for the fourth time in 1916 and kept troops there for
eight years. It intervened for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept
troops there for nineteen years. 433
In short, whatever its pretensions, the United States was an imperial
power, and its “main interest” in entering World War II “was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States
[…] Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as
Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority in policy
[…] was not minority rights, but national power.” In fact, as Zinn sees
it, there was precious little evidence of any concern at all for minority
rights on the part of the Roosevelt administration. He particularly takes
the president to task for
calmly sign[ing] Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the
army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to
arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast—110,000 men,
women, and children—to take them from their homes, transport
them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison
conditions. Three-fourths of these were […] American citizens.
They “remained in those camps,” Zinn laments, “for over three years.” 434
Like Vidal and the revisionists, Zinn looks upon Harry Truman’s
decision to drop the new atomic bomb on a pair of Japanese cities in
1945 as both unnecessary and inexcusable. He refers to the bombing of
Hiroshima on August 6 and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later
as “atrocities.” He quotes the United States Strategic Bombing Survey,
which “reported just after the war” that “Japan would have surrendered
433 Ibid., pp. 409, 408.
434 Ibid., pp. 410, 416.
even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped,” and sneers at President Truman’s argument that the only alternative to the bombing—an
invasion of Japan—could cost half a million American lives. “These
estimates of invasion losses,” Zinn writes, “were not realistic and seem
to have been pulled out of the air to justify bombings, which, as their
effects became known, horrified more and more people.” 435
In defense of the United States Bombing Survey’s conclusion that
Japanese surrender was already imminent when President Truman ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Zinn points out that
[t]he Japanese code had been broken, and Japan’s messages were being
intercepted. It was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had begun talking of surrender a year before this, and the
Emperor himself had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives
to fighting to the end be considered. On July 13, Foreign Minister
Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: “Unconditional
surrender is the only obstacle to peace. . . .”
The Truman administration ignored all this, Zinn argues. Instead of
working toward peace through diplomatic channels, the administration
insisted on unconditional surrender, used the Japanese rejection of those
terms as an excuse to murder more than 150,000 Japanese outright (to
say nothing of the “tens of thousands more slowly dying from radiation poisoning”), then turned around and accepted Japanese surrender
with one condition—“that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese,
remain in place […].”
Since this was the only condition the Japanese had requested in the
first place, Zinn contends, it is absurd to believe the Truman administration’s contention that the bombings were necessary to avoid an invasion
the administration already knew full well was utterly unnecessary. Why,
then, did Truman order the bombing? Zinn believes, with the Nobel
Prize-winning British physicist Sir Patrick M. S. Blackett (1887-1974)—
and with Vidal and the revisionists—that Truman “was anxious to drop
the bomb before the Russians entered the War against Japan,” thus insuring that “the Japanese would surrender to the United States, not the
Russians, and the United States would be the occupier of postwar Japan.
In other words, Blackett says, the dropping of the bomb was ‘the first
major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia. . . .’” 436
435 Ibid., p. 422.
436 Ibid., pp. 422-423.
This Cold War is another war Zinn is inclined to think needn’t
have been fought, and here again he is in agreement with Vidal and the
revisionists. “United States foreign policy was not simply based on the
existence of the Soviet Union” during the Cold War years, he writes,
“but was motivated by fear of revolution in various parts of the world.”
He approvingly quotes Noam Chomsky’s declaration that “the appeal
to security” as a rationale for the Cold War “was largely fraudulent, the
Cold War framework having been employed as a device to justify the
suppression of independent nationalism—whether in Europe, Japan, or
the Third World.” And he opines further that what the u.s. government
feared about this “independent nationalism” was its potential to
jeopardize powerful American economic interests. Revolutions in
Nicaragua or Cuba or El Salvador or Chile were threats to United
Fruit, Anaconda Copper, International Telephone and Telegraph,
and others. Thus, foreign interventions presented to the public as
“in the national interest” were really undertaken for special interests,
for which the American people were asked to sacrifice their sons and
their tax dollars. 437
American History According to Eric Foner
Altogether, then, it seems fair to say that Zinn’s very successful People’s
History of the United States conveys much the same vision of American
diplomatic history that one finds in Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle
novels and the works of the revisionist historians. Nor is Zinn’s text the
only current text that does this to one extent or another. Consider, as a
case in point, Give Me Liberty! An American History by Eric Foner, published by W. W. Norton and Company in 2005.
Foner (born 1943) was a classic red diaper baby. “Shortly before I was
born,” he writes, in an autobiographical essay included in his book Who
Owns History?,
my father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S. Foner, both historians
at City College in New York, were among some sixty faculty members dismissed from teaching positions at the City University after
437 Ibid., p. 593.
informers named them as members of the Communist party at hearings of the state legislature’s notorious Rapp-Coudert Committee, a
precursor of McCarthyism.
The Rapp-Coudert Committee had been established a year earlier to
investigate “subversive activities” in New York public schools, colleges,
and universities. On the same day his father and his uncle lost their jobs,
another uncle, Moe Foner, who worked in the ccny registrar’s office,
lost his. Still another uncle, Henry Foner, a New York City high school
teacher, was questioned by the committee but allowed to keep his job.
“A few years later,” Eric Foner tells us in Who Owns History?, “my mother
was forced to resign from her job as a high school art teacher. During
my childhood and for many years afterward, my parents were blacklisted and unable to teach.” 438
Eric Foner earned both his B.A. and his Ph.D. in history during the
1960s at that hotbead of revisionism, where Charles Beard had taught
and Harry Elmer Barnes had studied, Columbia University. His first
book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican
Party before the Civil War, was published in 1970. He went on to publish
many more books and articles and to hold down the presidencies of both
the Organization of American Historians (1993-1994) and the American
Historical Association (2000). Peter Novick sees Foner as one of the
“New Left historians,” but as part of “the second wave” of that movement. The sensibility of the first wave “had been shaped in the fifties,”
while the second, in which Foner was “prominent,” was characterized
by “a countercultural sensibility.” Moreover, the members of this second
wave “were more likely than those in the previous group to have an
activist orientation.” 439
As we have seen, the New Left Historians of the first wave looked
on the u.s. Civil War as a sectional conflict with principally economic
origins and not as a holy war against the moral evil of slavery. They tended to view Abraham Lincoln as a power-lusting tyrant, bent more on
creating an invincible, centralized American State than on freeing slaves.
Foner begs to differ. “The attack on Fort Sumter,” he writes, “crystalised in Northern minds the direct conflict between freedom and slavery
that abolitionists had insisted upon for decades. The war, as Frederick
Douglass recognized as early as 1862, merged ‘the cause of the slaves
and the cause of the country.’” Nor was Lincoln’s conduct of the war
438 Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New
York: Hill & Wang, 2002), p. 4.
439 Novick, op.cit., pp. 418-420.
overly high-handed. Foner acknowledges that an “intense new nationalism made criticism of the war effort—or of the policies of the Lincoln administration—seem to Republicans equivalent to treason.” He
acknowledges that during the war years “[a]rbitrary arrests numbered
in the thousands. They included opposition newspaper editors, Democratic politicians, individuals who discouraged enlistment in the army,
and ordinary civilians like the Chicago man briefly imprisoned for calling the president a ‘damned fool.’” He acknowledges that Lincoln “twice
suspended the writ [of habeas corpus] throughout the entire Union for
those accused of ‘disloyal activities.’” He acknowledges that Lincoln had
Clement Vallandigham, a Democratic Ohio Congressman “known for
his blistering antiwar speeches,” brought up on charges of treason before
a military court, and, following his “conviction,” had him deported to the
Confederacy. Yet Foner concludes that “Lincoln was not a despot. Most
of those arrested were quickly released, the Democratic press continued
to flourish, and contested elections were held throughout the war.” 440
Somehow all the very same sorts of repressive and unconstitutional
behavior became much more objectionable half a century later, however,
when they were being committed by Democratic politicians in the Wilson administration. “More than any other individual,” Foner reminds
us, “ Woodrow Wilson articulated […] the conviction that […] greater
worldwide freedom would follow inevitably from increased American
investment and trade abroad. Frequently during the twentieth century,
this conviction would serve as a mask for American power and selfinterest.” And the masquerade began early on in the century. “American
involvement in World War I,” Foner writes,
provided the first great test of Wilson’s belief that American power could “make the world safe for democracy.” Most Progressives
embraced the country’s participation in the war, believing that the
United States could help to spread Progressive values throughout the
world. But rather than bringing Progressivism to other peoples, the
war destroyed it at home. The government quickly came to view critics of American involvement not simply as citizens with a different
set of opinions, but as enemies of the very ideas of democracy and
freedom. As a result, the war produced one of the most sweeping
repressions of the right to dissent in all of American history. 441
A few pages on, and the superlatives are applied without further recourse to such sickly, wishy-washy phrases as “one of the most.” A few
440 Foner, Give Me Liberty!, op.cit., pp. 524, 527, 528.
441 Ibid., p. 721.
pages on, and it’s a flat out certainty that “the war inaugurated the most
intense repression of civil liberties the nation has ever known.” Look at
the case of Eugene Debs: sentenced to ten years in prison in 1918 at the age
of 63 for the “crime” of speaking out publicly against the war. Even “[a]fter
the war’s end, Wilson rejected the advice of his attorney general that he
commute Debs’s sentence. […] It was left to Wilson’s successor, [Republican] Warren G. Harding, to release Debs from prison in 1921.” 442
The moral of the story seems clear. It is an intolerable affront to
constitutional principles if a spokesman for a self-evidently righteous
cause like keeping America out of a World War is silenced by government; it is no big deal if a spokesman for a self-evidently evil cause like
protecting slave owners from getting their just desserts is silenced by
government. Eugene V. Debs is a martyr to the cause of American freedom; Clement Vallandigham—well, it’s too bad that he wasn’t among
those who were “quickly released”—most of those who were arrested
were quickly released, you know, and just because one slips through the
net here and there doesn’t make Lincoln a despot. Freedom of speech,
maybe the whole First Amendment, is for the politically correct, not the
politically incorrect.
Still, Foner’s treatment of World War I, for all its apparent hypocrisy, is quite comparable to the treatments of the same subject written
by members of the first wave of New Left historians. “[T]hose who
believed that the United States must prepare for possible entry into the
war,” he writes,
included longtime advocates of a stronger military establishment, like
Theodore Roosevelt, and businessmen with close economic ties to
Britain, the country’s leading trading partner and the recipient of over
2 billion dollars in wartime loans from American banks. Wilson himself had strong pro-British sympathies and viewed Germany as “the
natural foe of liberty.” 443
And, once America was in the war for these less-than-idealistic reasons—a chance to build up national military power, a chance to guarantee the financial gambles various big financiers and big corporations
had made in enabling England’s war effort—it quickly became apparent
that the conflict, bloody and long as it was, would not advance any
worthwhile ideals anywhere else in the world, but would only undermine American freedom here at home. Foner’s treatment of American
involvement in World War I is yet another instance of the historical
442 Ibid., pp. 739, 741.
443 Ibid., p. 729.
vision of Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle novels and the American
revisionist historians making its way into major, mainstream textbooks.
Foner’s treatment of American involvement in World War II, like
his treatment of the u.s. Civil War, is another kettle of fish altogether.
Where Vidal and the revisionists argue that Franklin Roosevelt deliberately maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor so he’d
have a publicly acceptable reason for entering the war—something he’d
been scheming for years to find a way to do—Foner assures his readers that “Pearl Harbor was a complete and devastating surprise” and
that though “conspiracy theories abound suggesting that fdr knew
of the attack and did nothing to prevent it so as to bring the United
States into the war,” the fact is that “[n]o credible evidence supports
this charge.” 444
Vidal and the revisionists are relentless in their condemnation of
President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They portray this decision as having been not only utterly unnecessary to end the war but also
motivated in truth by a desire to impress Joseph Stalin with the reality
of American power. Foner tries to straddle the fence, briefly describing
the arguments for and against Truman’s decision, without taking any
position on the issue himself—and without even mentioning the allimportant Stalin connection.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. vs.
Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen
All things considered, however, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. does at least
as good a job as Eric Foner of incorporating the left liberal vision of
American history propounded by Vidal and the revisionists into a contemporary textbook—in this case, his wildly popular and wildly controversial Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Technically, of
course, the Politically Incorrect Guide is not a textbook at all. As Woods
puts it, “when Regnery Publishing approached me with the idea for this
book, they gave me a strict word limit of 80,000. Any serious historian
444 Ibid., p. 856.
knows how quickly 80,000 words go by. That’s why I point out in my
preface that the book is not intended to be a systematic textbook on
American history. Good heavens, how could it be?” 445
Nevertheless, Woods’s book has been discussed just as though it were
a textbook. During the spring of 2005, when it was fresh off the press
and discussion of it was white hot, two separate articles published by the
online History News Network made a point of comparing and contrasting the Politically Incorrect Guide with current textbooks in American
history. One article, published in May, opened with the observation
that “[d]isputes over history textbooks in the United States have not
sent protesters into the streets (not recently, anyway), as they have
this spring in China. But as readers snap up copies of The Politically
Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas Woods, Jr., the old story
of a fight between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘revisionists’ has returned.” 446
An earlier article discussed Woods’s book along with Howard Zinn’s
People’s History of the United States and Larry Schweikart and Michael
Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, 447 just as though the three
works were all of the same general type—i.e., textbooks.
And to judge from the Politically Incorrect Guide’s popularity among
students, it might as well be a textbook—it seems likely to have the
sort of influence over them that only textbooks ordinarily can claim. It
was published in December 2004. A month later, The New York Times
reported that it was “being snapped up on college campuses and […]
recently soared to No. 8 on the New York Times paperback nonfiction
best-seller list.” 4 48 Come February, and sales were still brisk, especially
to students. The History News Network noted that Woods’s book was
still “selling like hotcakes on college campuses.” 449
The view of the u.s. Civil War that students will find inside Woods’s
Politically Incorrect Guide is strongly reminiscent of both Gore Vidal and
445 Thomas E.Woods, Jr., “Response to My Critics.” 12 April 2005. Online at http://
446 Joseph Moreau, “The American Textbook Wars: The Revised Version.” History
News Network, 23 May 2005. Online at http://hnn.us/articles/11778.html
447 Ronald Radosh, “Why Conservatives Are So Upset with Thomas Woods’s Politically Incorrect History Book.” History News Network, 7 March 2005. Online at
448 Adam Cohen, “Editorial Observer: The Difference Between Politically Incorrect
and Historically Wrong.” New York Times 26 January 2005: A16. Online at http://
449 Eric Muller, “What You Should Know About the Author of the nyt Bestseller,
Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.” History News Network, 7 February
2005. Online at http://hnn.us/articles/10007.html
all three groups of revisionist historians. “No one who has studied the
issue,” Woods writes, “would dispute that for at least the first eighteen
months of the war, the abolition of slavery was not the issue.” “Lincoln fought to ‘save the Union,’” he argues, “and consolidate its power.”
“The question that no textbook bothers to raise,” Woods complains, “is
whether the Southern states possessed the legal right to secede. They
did.” Oddly, though, unlike Vidal and the revisionists, he passes over
Lincoln’s sorry record as a civil libertarian in silence. 450
He is similarly silent about Woodrow Wilson’s sorry record as a civil
libertarian during World War I. But, again in common with Vidal and
the revisionists, he is convinced that the United States had no business
involving itself in that conflict. “No American interest was at stake,”
he writes, “and American security was not threatened in the slightest.”
Wilson dragged the nation into war, Woods contends, in order to win
himself a role in the peace process that would ensue when the war ended. “Progressive” busybody that he was, Wilson was convinced that he
knew better than anyone else how the postwar world should be planned
and administered. But to put that superior understanding into practice
required that he get a seat at the peace table. “And in order to get a seat
at the peace table, Wilson believed that he had to be the head of a nation that had taken part in the war.” In effect, 320,000 young Americans
died to give Woodrow Wilson a chance to prove his greatness as a planner of other people’s destinies. 451
Woods’s opinion of American involvement in World War II is little
better. Like Vidal and the revisionists, he portrays Franklin Roosevelt
as so “desperate to involve the United States in the war” that he “used
deceptive means” to achieve that end. He quotes Secretary of War Henry Stimson on the president’s desire “to maneuver them [the Japanese]
into the position of firing the first shot.” He quotes Herbert Hoover’s
accusation that fdr and his appointees were “doing everything they can
to get us into war through the Japanese back door.” He passes over the
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in silence and makes no reference
at all to the u.s. role in the Cold War, beyond his observation that that
conflict “resulted in trillions of dollars in military spending, large and
small wars across the globe, the deformation of the Constitution, and
the threat of nuclear annihilation.” 452
450 Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington, dc: Regnery, 2004), pp. 65, 67, 62.
451 Ibid., pp. 110, 124.
452 Ibid., pp. 177, 184.
When former New Left historian Ronald Radosh compared
Woods’s Politically Incorrect Guide with Larry Schweikart and Michael
Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States on the History News Network
in March 2005, it was for the purpose of lamentation. Woods, Radosh
felt, was unfairly and unjustly hogging public attention that properly belonged to Schweikart and Allen. Adam Cohen had recently denounced
Woods’s book in The New York Times, calling it “an attempt to push the
[historical] record far to the right.” Radosh lamented:
Tellingly, Cohen does not alert Times readers to the quite different
serious reinterpretation recently published, Larry Schweikart and
Michael Patrick Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. Any
reader of Schweikart and Allen’s book will see immediately that it is
a serious and substantive volume, based on a full recognition of the
important secondary sources written by our major historians. While
one may differ with some of their judgments and conclusions, no one
would accuse them of conscious ideological distortions of the facts.
Rather than let its readers know that conservatives are equipped to
write honest historical interpretations, the Times omits any reference
to this new book and lets Woods’s nuttiness stand as the representative book of conservative thought. 453
In fact, of course, in light of our discussion of Left and Right in
the preceding chapter, it is obvious that Woods’s book is not “conservative” in any meaningful sense at all. Woods the man, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history from Columbia (!), is another story. In his
early 30s at the time his Politically Incorrect Guide was published, he had
been teaching history at a Long Island community college. He told an
interviewer in July 2005 that “I think of myself as antistatist in politics and conservative in most other areas, though I can’t find a term
to describe my outlook that’s totally satisfactory.” 454 Woods’s personal
friend and fellow scholar Paul Gottfried, who also thinks of himself as a
“conservative,” has written of Woods as a man “who wears his Catholic
traditionalism on his sleeve.” 455 One of Woods’s books is entitled How
the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Another is entitled The
Church Confronts Modernity. Still another is entitled The Church and
the Market. So there may well be some legitimate grounds for calling
Woods the man a “conservative.” In his book, however, on the test is453 Radosh, “Why Conservatives Are So Upset.” op.cit.
454 Bernard Chapin, “History and Truth: An Interview with Thomas E. Woods, Jr.”
23 July 2005. Online at http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig5/chapin4.html
455 Paul Gottfried, “Tom and His Predictable Detractor.” 20 April 2005. Online at
sues of the u.s. Civil War, u.s. involvement in the World Wars, and the
origins of the Cold War, Woods’s positions are solidly liberal.
Schweikart and Allen, by contrast, offer a vision of American history that is profoundly conservative. To be exact, it is neoconservative.
The neoconservatives are really the old false liberals of the 1930s, the
New Deal “liberals,” dressed up in new clothing. This time, at least,
their clothing is appropriately chosen. Their political values have not
changed, but they are now calling themselves by their rightful name.
They are indeed conservatives, and the Republican Party is precisely the
right political party for persons of their stripe.
By Schweikart and Allen’s account, the u.s. Civil War was inevitable because “[n]o amount of prosperity, and no level of communication could address, ameliorate, or cover up the problem of slavery.” And
make no mistake about it, they assert: slavery, and not states’ rights,
was the issue. “[W]henever the historical record says ‘states’ rights’ in
the context of sectional debates,” they write, “the phrase ‘rights to own
slaves’ should more correctly be inserted.” “It is not an exaggeration,”
they write, “to say that the Civil War was about slavery and, in the long
run, only about slavery.” 456
As for Vidal’s and the revisionists’ contention that Lincoln was a
tyrant who disregarded the Constitution and created a federal government much stronger and more centralized than anything the Founders
had ever had in mind, Schweikart and Allen patiently explain that “a
small federal government content to leave the states to their own devices”
was “neither desirable nor possible to sustain.” And further, “[t]hat the
Republicans, in their zeal to free slaves, enacted numerous ill-advised
taxes, railroad, and banking laws, is regrettable but, nevertheless, of
minor consequence in the big picture.” 457
Where World War I is concerned, Schweikart and Allen maintain
that Woodrow Wilson was too slow to involve the United States. If only
the United States had entered the war on the Allied side in 1915, they
complain, “it might have shortened the war and short-circuited Russian communism. Certainly Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov Lenin, exiled in
Switzerland when the war started, would have remained an insignificant figure in human history, not the mass murderer who directed the
Red October Revolution in Russia.” But, alas, “Wilson opted for the
456 Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States:
From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror (New York: Sentinel, 2004),
pp. 294, 257, 302.
457 Ibid., pp. 294, 351-352.
safe, and cheap, response.” And once u.s. troops were involved in the
war, the Wilson administration’s crackdown on dissent, like Lincoln’s
wholesale jailing of newspaper editors who disagreed with him, was
entirely acceptable. For “even if somewhat censored, the press continued
to report […] and people still experienced a level of freedom unseen in
most of the world during peacetime.” 458
fdr too was absurdly unwilling to go to war, according to Schweikart
and Allen, of whom it might well be said that they never met a war they
didn’t like. “[A]lthough he clearly (and more than most American political leaders) appreciated the threat posed by Hitler,” they write,
he […] never made a clear case for war with Germany or Italy, having
been lulled into a false sense of security by the Royal Navy’s control
of the Atlantic. When he finally did risk his popularity by taking the
case to the public in early 1940, Congress gave him everything he
asked for and more, giving lie to the position that Congress wouldn’t
have supported him even if he had provided leadership.
In short, though the president “recognized both the moral evil of Hitler
and the near-term threat to American security posed by Nazi Germany…he nevertheless refused to sacrifice his personal popularity to lead
the United States into the war sooner, knowing full well it would come
eventually—and at a higher cost.” 459
As to the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, according to Schweikart and Allen, “fdr had […] no advance warning about Pearl
Harbor.” The revisionists’ claims to the contrary they dismiss as the
deranged “back-door-to-war theories of the Roosevelt haters.” “Pearl
Harbor,” they insist, “was a tragedy, but not a conspiracy.” 460
And the atomic bombing of Japan four years later that marked the
end of u.s. involvement in the conflict? “Recent research in classified
Japanese governmental documents,” Schweikart and Allen tell their
readers, “confirms the wisdom of Truman’s decision” to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In retrospect, three central reasons justified the dropping of the
atomic bombs. First, and most important, the invasion of Japan
would cost more American lives—up to a million, perhaps far more.
The interests of the United States demanded that the government do
everything in its power to see that not one more American soldier or
sailor died than was absolutely necessary, and the atomic bombs en458 Ibid., pp. 512, 515.
459 Ibid., pp. 586-587, 596.
460 Ibid., pp. 588, 593, 595.
sured that result. Second, Japan would not surrender, nor did its leaders give any indication whatsoever that they would surrender short
of annihilation. […] Third, the depredations of the Japanese equaled
those of the Nazis. The Allies, therefore, were justified in nothing
less than unconditional surrender and a complete dismantling of the
samurai Bushido as a requirement for peace. 461
In short, everything the u.s. government has ever told you is the
unvarnished truth. American history really is a triumphal tale of the
inexorable march to greatness of the United States of America, a pure,
high-minded nation and a model of virtue, a land of liberty, prosperity,
and equality, and a beacon of hope and freedom to the world. There is
no need—no need at all—for revisionism in American history.
The problem here is not, mind you, that Schweikart and Allen get
their facts wrong. They don’t. Their facts are all in order, and they’re
all correct. It’s their selection of the facts that is troublesome. To put the
matter in a slightly different way, it’s not so much what they chose to
include that is troublesome; it’s what they chose to leave out. Given the
facts Schweikart and Allen choose to present to their readers (not a few
of whom will assume, erroneously, that these are all the facts that matter), their conclusions—that it was necessary to bomb Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, that the attack on Pearl Harbor came as a complete surprise
to fdr, that Lincoln and Wilson were justified in suspending the u.s.
Constitution—follow, if not inexorably, then at least quite satisfactorily. But the facts Schweikart and Allen chose to leave out, the facts
they regarded as insufficiently important to include in their account
of America’s history, facts like the all-but-prostrate condition of Japan
during the last year of the war, facts like the indirect efforts the Japanese government made through diplomatic channels months before the
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to sue for peace, facts like the
support the Founding Fathers lent to the doctrine of secession and the
all-but-universal esteem in which that doctrine was held, the extent to
which it was viewed as “sacrosanct” by “almost all political theorists […]
before the [Civil] war” 462 —the inclusion of these facts would cast things
in a somewhat different light.
Why were these facts left out? Because Schweikart and Allen’s
“sense of life,” their understanding of “the way things happen” in the
world, their estimate of “the way the world is,” told them these facts
461 Ibid., pp. 628, 630.
462 Anthony Gregory, “Situational Totalitarianism.” 16 August 2005. Online at http://
were, if not unimportant, then at least less important than those they
chose to include. And what sort of sense of life, what sort of understanding of the way things happen, what sort of estimate of the way
the world is, are we talking about here? Essentially, as has been noted,
Schweikart and Allen’s worldview is a profoundly conservative one: The
welfare, and especially the freedom, of any particular individual is of
no importance. What matters is the welfare of the State, of society at
large, of America. What is good for General Motors (and big business
generally) is good for the country. There is no need to dwell on the
abrogated rights of those young Americans forced at gunpoint to kill or
be killed as soldiers in Lincoln’s, Wilson’s, and Roosevelt’s wars. There
is no need to fret over newspaper editors locked in prison cells for criticizing federal policy. Nor is there any need to concern oneself with the
individuals resident in other countries whose lives and property have
been destroyed by American troops and American bombs.
Liberals, men of the Left, men like Gore Vidal, Charles Beard,
Harry Elmer Barnes, James J. Martin, and William Appleman Williams, have been driven to select different facts when assembling their
own accounts of American history. The facts they chose seemed important to them, worth including, because of their liberal values, their belief
in the supreme importance of the individual.
History, Fiction, and Objectivity—
Some Concluding Observations
Nor is it incongruous to include Vidal in such company. Not only does
his vision of American history square with the vision sketched out in
the works of Beard, Barnes, Martin, and Williams, but he is as much
and as legitimately an historian as any of them. The majority of his historical works are novels, which is to say, works of fiction—yes. But as
we have seen, there is much about conventional history that is fictional
or quasi-fictional in character, since to tell stories about the past—to
do, that is, what history does, first and foremost—is to falsify or fictionalize that past.
The fact is, too, that there are historical novels and historical novels.
One sort of historical novel—the more common sort—is a tale of the
invented events that make up the lives of invented characters set against
an historical backdrop: the American Revolution in Kenneth Roberts’s
Rabble in Arms, the French Revolution in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of
Two Cities, the u.s. Civil War in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the
Wind, World War I in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., the Russian Revolution
in Ayn Rand’s We, the Living. The historical backdrop in such novels
can be well or badly rendered, of course. It can be rendered accurately or
inaccurately. It can be detailed and precise or general and vague. But a
backdrop is a backdrop. The focus of such novels is less on history than
on an invented story.
There is another sort of historical novel, however, a sort perhaps best
typified in the present period by certain works of Gore Vidal and William Safire, in which there are few if any fictional characters and few
if any fictional events. Virtually all the dialogue in novels like Vidal’s
Burr and Lincoln and Safire’s Freedom is carefully drawn from the letters
and journals of the historical figures who speak it (and from the reports
of writers who knew them at first hand). In the “Afterword” to Lincoln,
Vidal wrote that “[a]ll of the principal characters” in the novel “really
existed, and they said and did pretty much what I have them saying and
doing […] I have reconstructed them from letters, journals, newspapers,
diaries, etc.”—which is, of course, precisely what an historian does.
In writing his American Chronicle novels, Vidal tells us in a 1988
essay, he attempted to “make the agreed-upon facts as accurate as possible. I always use the phrase ‘agreed upon’ because […] the so-called
facts are often contradicted by other facts. So one must select; and it
is in selection that literature begins. After all, with whose facts do you
agree?” 463 And, as we have seen, this is a problem confronting the conventional historian as well. S/he too must select. S/he too must decide
whose facts comport best with what we know about how things happen
and about the way the world is.
Novels like Vidal’s Burr and Lincoln and Safire’s Freedom are exhaustively researched and painstakingly accurate depictions of actual events.
Such books deserve to be regarded as works of history. Like Beard and
Barnes and Martin and Williams, Vidal made choices, deciding what
to leave in and what to leave out, choosing what he regarded as the important facts and passing over the less important or unimportant ones.
Because he is a liberal, a man of the Left, a man who values individual
463 Gore Vidal, “How I Do What I Do If Not Why” in At Home, op.cit., p. 275.
liberty and free institutions, his choices are not unlike those that lie
behind the works of Beard and Barnes and Martin and Williams—
liberals and men of the Left, every one.
Conservatives have different values and choose different facts when
they set about the task of writing history. But thanks to the true liberals
of our past and present, a fairly vigorous marketplace of ideas exists in
this country, and thanks to the decadence of our culture—which is to
say, thanks to the steady decline of authority in our culture—since the
late 1960s, that marketplace of ideas is now fairly roiling with dozens of
competing American histories reflecting dozens of political views and
senses of life. As readers, we get to pick and choose among them, and
judge for ourselves.
This is the very best situation we could possibly expect, and we
should be happy about it. Peter Novick was right: there is no objectivity
in history—not if by “objectivity” we mean “neutrality,” not if by “objective history” we mean a history untainted by “ideological assumptions
and purposes” and the “distortions” such assumptions and purposes
supposedly introduce into the historical record. 464
If, on the other hand, we mean by “objectivity” something more like
fairness or evenhandedness, then indeed it could be said that objectivity is possible in historical writing, however seldom it may in fact be
achieved. Thomas L. Haskell, who teaches historical method and u.s.
cultural and intellectual history at Rice University, considers it preposterous “to think of truth seeking as a matter of emptying oneself of passion and preconception, so as to become a perfectly passive and receptive
mirror of external reality.” In point of fact, no coherent history could be
produced in any such way. As John Tosh notes, any attempt to simply
read through the available primary sources without presuppositions or
assumptions of any kind leads only to the production of “an incoherent jumble of data.” Haskell invites us to contemplate an historian of a
totally different kind.
Consider an extreme case: a person who, although capable of detachment, suspends his or her own perceptions of the world not in the expectation of gaining a broader perspective, but only in order to learn
how opponents think so as to demolish their arguments more effectively—who is, in short, a polemicist, deeply and fixedly committed as a lifelong project to a particular political or cultural or moral
program. Anyone choosing such a life obviously risks being thought
boorish or provincial, but insofar as such a person successfully enters
464 Novick, op.cit., p. 6.
into the thinking of his or her rivals and produces arguments potentially compelling, not only to those who already share the same
views, but to outsiders as well, I see no reason to withhold the laurel
of objectivity. There is nothing objective about hurling imprecations
at apostates or catechizing the faithful. But as long as the polemicist
truly engages the thinking of the enemy, he or she is being as objective as anyone.
As Haskell sees it, “the most commonly observed fulfillment of the
ideal of objectivity in the historical profession is simply the powerful
argument—the text that reveals by its every twist and turn its respectful appreciation of the alternatives it rejects.” The author of such a text,
Haskell maintains, has “to suspend momentarily his or her own perceptions so as to anticipate and take account of objections and alternative
constructions—not those of some straw man, but those that truly issue
from the rival’s position, understood as sensitively and stated as eloquently as the rival could desire.” 465
This is a tall order, of course, and one not frequently filled. But it is
difficult indeed to imagine why a work of history that did achieve such
fairness, such evenhandedness, should not be described as “objective.” It
is this standard, the one so clearly and persuasively delineated by Thomas
Haskell, that should guide the efforts of historians to be “objective”—
rather than the “essentially confused” ideal of “objectivity” that Peter
Novick argued against two decades ago, the one he found to be based
on “philosophical assumptions” that were (and are) “dubious,” the one
he judged to be “psychologically and sociologically naïve.” 466 Properly
done, history is plenty difficult enough already. To saddle historians
with a standard of objectivity that cannot be met—to make their work,
not merely hard, but actually impossible—profits no one and, by turning historians into producers of incoherent jumbles of data, impoverishes us all.
465 Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 150, 54, 151, 152.
466 Novick, op.cit., p. 6.
Bryant, William Cullen 50, 62
Bryan, William Jennings 138
Buckley, Jr., William F. 164, 172
Burr, Aaron 17, 47, 49-54, 58-61, 204
Bush, George H. W. 165, 169-170
Bush, George W. 170-171
Adams, Henry 60, 62
Adams, John 24, 74, 121, 127, 129, 130, 138
Allen, Michael 196-197, 199, 200-203
Alperovitz, Gar 17, 84, 99, 112-113
Anderson, Benjamin M. 148
Arthur, Chester Alan 59
Articles of Confederation 125
Bacevich, Andrew 75, 78, 80, 82-84
Bakunin, Mikhail 90, 123, 139
Bancroft, George 25-27
Bandow, Doug 171
Barnes, Harry Elmer 17, 20, 23-25, 71-77,
79-82, 85, 90-92, 94-96, 98-99, 105112, 114, 172, 193, 203-205
Beard, Charles A. 17, 73-82, 85, 96-101,
105-109, 114, 146, 176-178, 184-185,
193, 203-205
Beard, Mary R. 78, 98, 100, 106, 146,
Bismarck, Otto von 58, 140, 144
Blackett, Patrick M. S. 191
Blaine, James G. 59, 74, 133-134
Bloom, Harold 55
Blumenthal, Sidney 163
Bonaparte, Napoleon 121
Bookchin, Murray 117-118, 173
Booth, John Wilkes 55
Bourne, Randolph 43
Bright, John 141-142
Capote, Truman 35
Carter, Jimmy 165, 167-170
Chase, Salmon P. 54, 60
Childs, Jr., Roy A. 34, 98, 136
Chomsky, Noam 192
Cicero 41
Clay, Henry 130, 133, 172
Cleveland, Grover 133-134, 137, 140, 161
Clinton, Bill 170-171
Cobden, Richard 141-142, 154
Cohen, Warren I. 72, 76, 79
Cold War 47, 70, 82-84, 97, 99, 110-113,
173, 188, 192, 198, 200
Collingwood, R. G. 29
Conkling, Roscoe 59
Coolidge, Calvin 65, 146-147, 149
Cummings E. E. 42
Debs, Eugene V. 195
Democratic party 39-40, 103, 117, 133,
139-140, 143, 152, 154, 158, 160-161,
163, 172
Democrats 97, 129-130, 137, 158, 161, 163
DiLorenzo, Thomas J. 96, 101-104, 133
Dos Passos, John 36, 41-47, 140-141, 143145, 204
Durant, Ariel 119-120
Durant, Will 119-120
Eisenhower, Dwight D. 111, 160-161, 164
Ekirch, Arthur 95, 123-132, 139, 142-144, 157
Evans, M. Stanton 116
Faulkner, William 20
Fay, Sidney B. 76-77, 79
f iction 17-18, 25, 30-36, 41-42, 46-47,
49, 203
FitzGerald, Frances 174-177, 179-183
Fleming, Thomas 38, 143, 146
Flynn, John T. 97, 150, 152-154, 156-157
Foner, Eric 98, 101, 114-115, 145, 192-196
Foote, Shelby 28
Ford, Gerald R. 165
Frémont, John C. 57
Friedman, Milton 93, 116
Gaddis, John Lewis 35
Garrett, Garet 151-154
Garrison, William Lloyd 102
Gass, William H. 31
Gladstone, William Ewart 141-142
Goldwater, Barry 159, 161-165
Gore, Al 171
Gore, Thomas Pryor 46, 68
Graham, Phillip 29
Grant, U. S. 59, 74, 134
Gray, John 34
Greenhut, Steven 171
Gustavson, Carl 20
Hamilton, Alexander 53, 74-75, 125-130,
139, 146, 149, 172
Hamowy, Ronald 96
Harding, Warren G. 65-66, 145-147, 195
Harrison, Benjamin 89, 134-135
Haskell, Thomas L. 205-206
Hayek, Friedrich 39-40
Hayes, Rutherford B. 49
Hay, John 54, 56-58, 60, 62-64, 82
Hazlitt, Henry 153
Hearst, William Randolph 60, 62
Hemings, Sally 53
Hemingway, Ernest 42
Herold, David 54
Hess, Karl 118, 160-165
Hicks, Granville 43
Higgs, Robert 96, 145, 155-156
Hoffer, Peter Charles 26-27, 184-185
Hofstadter, Richard 72-73, 99
Holmes, Oliver Wendell 189
Hoover, Herbert 65-67, 109, 112, 145-150,
152, 157, 198
Hopkins, Harry 67-69, 111
Hughes, Charles Evans 66, 149
Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers 96, 99, 101-102
Jackson, Andrew 24, 50-51, 74
Jacobs, Paul 115
James, Henry 60
Jefferson, Thomas 51-54, 74, 120, 124, 127,
129-131, 139, 154, 179
Johnson, Andrew 64
Johnson, Lyndon B. 162, 164, 170, 187
Johnson, Paul 146-147
journalism 22, 36, 59, 61-62
journalist(s) 20-22, 29, 39, 47, 50, 59, 60,
62, 76, 79, 90, 92, 98, 152-153, 161,
163, 171
Kazin, Michael 186
Klatch, Rebecca 116
Kloman, Harry 49-50, 62
Kolko, Gabriel 17, 84, 98, 135-136
Landau, Saul 115
Lane, Rose Wilder 93, 153-154
Lapham, Lewis 117
Lavoie, Don 118-119, 121-122
Lee, Robert E. 57
LeFevre, Robert 92-94
Leggett, William 50
Libertarian Historians 71, 96, 98-99, 101,
114, 133, 142, 157, 172
Liggio, Leonard P. 95-98, 157
Lincoln, Abraham 17, 24, 28, 47-50, 54-60,
64, 70, 74, 82, 100-105, 130-133, 152,
172, 188-190, 193-195, 198, 200-204
Lincoln, Mary Todd 54
Link, Arthur S. 144
MacArthur, Douglas 68, 112
Madison, James 53, 74
Manchester, William 149-150
Martin, James J. 39-40, 42-43, 72, 79, 8596, 99, 114, 140, 183, 203-205
Marx, Karl 122-123, 139
McKinley, William 24, 60, 63, 82, 138, 141
Meade, George G. 57
Mencken, H. L. 22, 152, 153
Mises, Ludwig von 35, 93, 120, 121
Morley, Felix 95, 153
Motley, William Lothrop 25-26
Muzzey, David 176-177
New Deal 44, 67-68, 91, 95, 145, 147-148,
150, 153, 155-160, 164, 172, 200
new historians 185
New Historians 17, 75, 98-99, 105, 184, 186
new history 71, 74-76, 95, 97, 105, 148, 156,
177, 184-186
New Left Historians 17, 71, 83-84, 96,
98-99, 114, 135, 156, 172, 185, 193,
195, 199
newspaper(s) 21-24, 41, 43, 59, 61, 64, 76,
80, 100, 103, 162, 194, 201, 203-204
Nixon, Richard M. 129, 161, 165, 187
Noah, Timothy 168
Nock, Albert Jay 153-154
Nordhoff, Charles 59
Novick, Peter 19-20, 23, 25-26, 74-75,
82-83, 97-98, 104-107, 193, 205-206
Oglesby, Carl 115
Paine, Thomas 120, 129, 154
Parkman, Francis 25-26
Parrington, Vernon Louis 73, 121
Paterson, Isabel 152, 154
Pearl Harbor 38-39, 44, 47, 69, 91, 109-110,
112, 196, 201-202
Powell, Jim 142
Prescott, William H. 25
Progressive Historians 17, 71-73, 98, 105,
114, 121, 172
Radosh, Ronald 84, 97, 148, 156-158, 197, 199
Raico, Ralph 96
Raimondo, Justin 153
Ralph Myles, Publisher 75, 94-95, 107
Rand, Ayn 31-35, 117, 204
Ravitch, Diane 175, 180, 182-183
Reagan, Ronald 165-169
Republican party 59, 131, 133, 135, 149, 152,
154, 158-162, 170, 188, 193, 200
Republicans 57, 100, 129, 130-134, 136, 138,
159, 161, 164, 170-171, 194, 200
revisionism 71-73, 75, 77-79, 81, 85, 87,
90-92, 95, 107, 111, 114, 186, 193, 202
revisionist(s) 16-17, 39, 71-74, 76-81, 83-85,
91, 95-96, 99-101, 104, 110-111, 114,
172-174, 177, 184, 188-192, 196-198,
Richman, Sheldon 157-159, 168-169
Roberts, Kenneth 36-37, 41-42, 46-47,
124, 204
Robinson, James Harvey 74-75, 90, 105,
177, 184
Rockefeller, Nelson 159
Rohrabacher, Dana 116
Roosevelt, Franklin 24, 38, 46, 66-67, 69,
72, 80-81, 83, 91, 107-111, 113, 147-148,
150-153, 155, 157, 170, 190, 196, 198, 201
Roosevelt, Theodore 63-65, 74, 82, 108,
137-139, 144, 146-147, 156, 195
Rothbard, Murray N. 96-98, 111, 114, 116,
118-119, 122-123, 127-128, 133, 139, 141142, 144, 146-149, 153-155, 157-159, 164,
166-169, 172
Rugg, Harold 179-180
Wagner, Linda 43, 46
Washington, George 26, 41, 51-53, 58, 74,
96, 126-130, 140
Weems, Mason 26, 140
Weisman, Steven R. 133
Whigs 130, 146
Whiskey Rebellion 127-128
White, Hayden 25, 28-30
Wilentz, Sean 170
Williams, William Appleman 17, 72, 78,
81-85, 97-101, 112, 114, 138, 147-149,
Wilson, Clyde 131, 133, 159, 163
Wilson, Woodrow 38-39, 42-43, 64-65,
76-78, 104-107, 133, 138, 140-142-146,
156, 158, 189, 194-195, 198, 200-203
Wineburg, Sam 175
Woods, Thomas E. 196-200
World War I 36, 38, 42-43, 49, 64-65, 72,
76-79, 81, 85, 87-88, 91, 104-105, 108,
115, 140, 143-144, 155, 189, 194-195, 198,
200, 204
World War II 38, 43-44, 80-82, 85, 91, 97,
113, 153, 155, 157, 189-190, 196, 198
Sacco and Vanzetti 43
Safire, William 204
Saint-Simon, Henri de 121-123, 139, 173
Saltus, Edgar 27-28
Sandburg, Carl 28
Sartre, Jean Paul 31, 33
Schweikart, Larry 196-197, 199, 200-203
Scott, Walter 25
Second World War 47, 68, 79-80, 99, 187
sense of life 32-35, 202-203
Seward, William H. 54, 57-58
Shaw, David 22
Shaw, George Bernard 22
Shays, Daniel 126-127, 129
Smith, Al 152, 158-159
Smith, Preserved 75
Sparks, Jared 26-27
Sprague, William 60
Stalin, Joseph 69, 110, 196
Stanton, Edwin 56
Stimson, Henry L. 66-67, 109, 149, 198
Stirner, Max 90-91
Stromberg, Joseph R. 72, 83, 96, 101
Taft, Robert 97, 159-160, 164
Taft, William Howard 144
Tansill, Charles Callan 37-38, 79
textbook(s) 15-16, 23-24, 120, 174-177, 179186, 196-198
Tilden, Samuel 49, 59
Tocqueville, Alexis de 119
Tosh, John 21, 23-24, 28, 34-35, 205
Truman, Harry S. 69, 83, 99, 110-113, 187,
190-191, 196, 201
Tucker, Benjamin R. 90-91, 94-95
Twain, Mark 59
Zimmerman, Jonathan 176-177, 179-181,
Zinn, Howard 16, 184, 186-192, 197
U.S. Constitution 100, 125, 178, 202
Vallandigham, Clement 58, 103, 194-195
Van Buren, Martin 50
Vidal, Gore 17, 36, 46-51, 54-71, 96, 99-101,
104-105, 108, 110, 126-127, 129-130, 174,
188-192, 196-198, 200, 203-204

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