How Not To Write American History

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This article
is excerpted from a longer report written in 1961 for the Volker
Fund and the National Book Foundation on a two-volume American
history textbook, A History of the American Republic, by
George B. DeHuszar. The full memo will be included in the forthcoming
collection Renaissance Man, edited by David Gordon. Audiobook
recordings of Murray Rothbard’s own narrative history of colonial
America – Conceived
in Liberty
, read by Dr. Floy Lilley – are available for free download.

 

 

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This is, to
put it bluntly, a poor book. Any work on American history, even
an "overview" (to use a favorite and perhaps overused
term of DeHuszar’s), has certain tasks that it must perform and
standards to which it must cleave. In the first place, the factual
material must be rich and not skimpy; the reader must get an idea
of the lavish tapestry of American history, and he must get a full
and comprehensive picture.

Most of the
detailed critique below is devoted to protestations about the great
amount of important material that the author has left out of the
narrative. Just to pick an isolated instance, I do not think much
of a text on American history that does not so much as mention Senator
Thomas Hart ("Old Bullion") Benton
.

This is an
almost extraordinarily skimpy work, a skimpiness that pervades the
book but that reaches embarrassing proportions in the treatment
of the colonial period and of the late-19th-century period. Sometimes
we find almost the only people mentioned in an era are the presidential
candidates. Furthermore, a critical defect is the almost complete
absence of any quantitative or numerical data. It is often difficult
to find the dates at which happenings occur, so vague and imprecise
is the narrative. Apart from a few references to population figures,
there are virtually no statistics of any kind in the work.

Now, I am an
open and long-time condemner
of the overuse of statistics
, and I deplore as much as anyone
the new trend in "scientific" economic history to hurl
vast quantities of processed statistics at the reader, and conclude
that one has captured the "feel" and essence of the past.
But some statistics, surely, are necessary; and it becomes annoying
to read constant references to "increases" in steel production,
or living standards, or whatnot, when not the foggiest quantitative
notion is presented the reader of how large these increases and
movements are. There is also an almost desperate need to present
governmental budget statistics, so that the reader will know how
large government in relation to the private economy
has been
in any given era; but neither in this nor in any other area does
the author give a shred of quantitative data.

The first test
of a historical work then, and one that the author fails, is a richness
of factual material. But the historian is more than a chronicler;
he must also have a command of the significance of events, he must
be able to convey to the reader the meaning and interpretation of
the past. If we would be grandiloquent, we might even use Schumpeter’s
term of "vision"; the historian must have a "vision"
of the meaning, of the significance, of the material he is presenting.
Lamentable as is the skimpiness of the author’s factual material,
it is in this area of meaning in which he fails the most; for the
largest bulk of the narrative, there is no meaning, no interpretation,
no vision presented of the American past: there is just dull, uninspired,
unimaginative chronicle.

What good is
it to have the provisions listed of the Compromise of 1850, or of
the Kansas-Nebraska Act, if there is not the slightest attempt to
explain the causes of the Civil War? There is no need to revert
to the "Paul Revere Ride" school of historical writing
to realize that the American past is filled with high drama, and
it is tragic if this drama is not conveyed to the reader and student.
But to convey it, one must realize it is there, and the author shows
no sign of doing so: there is, for example, the high drama of the
Republican movement, of the great ideological war between the Jeffersonian
Republicans and the Republican idea, and the Federalist-Whig idea.

Not understanding
the connections, the author never presents the meaningful conflict.
From his narrative one would never know, for example, that Van Buren
reconstructed the Republican Party into the Democratic Party because
he was inspired by the Principles of ’98 (the Jeffersonian movement,
the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions) and wanted to cast out the
Federalist taint; one would never realize the continuity of Jeffersonian
and Jacksonian principles, or of Federalism and Whiggery (Federalism’s
mass-based variant).

Never do we
get any insight into the political-philosophic meaning of the Jackson
war against the Bank: a drive for the separation of banking and
the State, as part of a general libertarian drive for separation
of government and the economy, for highly limited government, etc.

Never
do we see the high hopes brought in by the Revolution of 1800, only
to find Federalism returning because of the drive for war in the
War of 1812. Never do we get a sense of the tragic consequences
of the Civil War, or of its permanent fastening of Federalist-Whig
étatism on American life and the tragic wreck of the Democratic
Party. The reader will not realize that it was the Civil War and
its Republican aftermath that fastened upon America excise taxation,
high tariffs, heavy public debt, federal governmental banking, the
draft, the income tax, government intervention in railroads, etc.
Many of these facts are mentioned very briefly, but the meaning
of the change is never brought to the fore.

Note what I
am not asking for here: I am not asking simply that the author present
American history from a libertarian point of view, that he favor
liberty and oppose its restriction. I am asking that he present
a meaningful picture of the American past, and not simply a World
Almanac chronicle of events, which is what most of the book boils
down to.

Not
understanding the import or meaning of political events in
the American past is joined, in this work, with an almost absolute
failure to point out the consequences of various government actions.
This is particularly true and particularly unfortunate in the book’s
economic history. The pitfall that the author falls into is this:
if a history of economic events is simply chronicled, as
is done here, it is inevitable that an inner bias is given in
favor of the event, whatever that event may be – and this
is the reason why so much of American historiography simply celebrates
the events that happened. In economics, this is particularly true;
thus, if the historian records that government subsidized railroads,
if just left as is, it seems like a fine thing that more railroads
were built. But a historian with sound economic knowledge must point
out that such railroads represented "overinvestment" and
malinvestment in railroads, which they did. But the author does
not do this, and as a result, his economic narrative, in addition
to being chronicle rather than meaningful history, is often unwittingly
biased in favor of the government action he records.

This failure
in the economic realm is not chance; for throughout the volume,
the author conveys a lamentable failure to understand even elementary
economic principles; almost all the economics is garbled, even when
well meant, and is generally valueless.

For
the great bulk of his narrative, the author hacks out his report
of dull, uninspired chronicle, bereft of significance or of sound
economics, and with the chronicle extremely skimpy at that. (A World
Almanac that fails even as an almanac!)

We can only
conclude from this "overview" that a good textbook on
American history was almost desperately needed; and, after reading
this manuscript, we can only say that it is still needed, perhaps
even all the more.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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