Hooray for Tom Woods

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

In a deservedly positive review on this website, Jeff Tucker sings the praises of Tom Woods’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Woods combines clear, forceful writing with the valorous attempt to clean up the fabrications about the American past that have come from professional historians. He dissects their concoctions, about Wilson’s "crusade for democracy," the "New Deal" saving American constitutional government, and the Constitution’s being intended as a "living document." What makes Woods’s reexamination of the liberal historical consensus all the more useful is the moderate tone in which it is presented. Woods mounts an attack on the now conventional views about American history without departing from the Socratic principle, "Nothing in excess." He makes judicious use of statistics, which are also found in Murray Rothbard, Thomas DiLorenzo, and Robert Higgs, cited, about how little the New Deal achieved in lowering unemployment, despite its assaults on dual sovereignty and its irreversible creation of federal bureaucracy. Whether pointing to the original meanings of constitutional provisions, the fiction that labor unions caused a dramatic rise in the living standard, or the presidential deceits that pushed the US into various wars, Woods makes unerring judgments about the facts that prove his case best.

About twenty-five years ago, I took on this encrusted mountain of untruth but gave up in the end. Having written on the subject as editor of the historical journal, Continuity, I came to the view that there might be too much invented history here for any one practicing historian to refute. Alas the fictions kept building up, as American politics continued to move leftward and as those who approved of this tendency looked for a meaningful past to justify changes that were then underway. To give one relevant example: if one could make most people believe that Reconstruction, if persistently pursued, would have led to a more democratic society, then one could easily argue for "overdue" reforms, as the completion of a worthy but unfinished historical project. The past is to be consulted as an object lesson, for its sins of prejudice and for its failure to achieve more fully what the Left is focusing on. Although Woods does not defend legal segregation, he does provide an explanation for its development that I too learned from reading among others Forrest McDonald. Southerners in the post war era were taking legal action against the alarmingly high rate of violence engendered by Freedmen, many of whom were vagrants. Northern cities in the 1840s and 1850s had already introduced segregation to deal with Negro vagrancy and Negro crime. Woods makes no attempt to defend the political enforcement of such separation but notes that it resulted from real social problems as opposed to the racist character of Euro-Americans. He also makes clear how the Freedmen’s Bureau, which is usually presented as an admirable instrument of black uplift, was basic to a Radical Republican power grab. In 1866 President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill to establish this bureau as "an extraconstitutional system of police and judicature."

Woods resourcefully resurrects understandings of American historical developments that have fallen into oblivion or disrepute not because they are false but because they no longer serve current political agendas. And he keeps pointing out all the departures from plain historical facts that have taken place because of present reformist interests and programs. His treatment of the American Civil War as a "repressible conflict" that resulted in a prolonged slaughter because of fanatics on both sides is not a new idea. It is the argument of the great American historian Avery Craven, whose work I studied in college, back in 1961. Craven’s well-documented argument, as Woods knows, was never factually discredited but rather declared to be racially insensitive. One of Craven’s successors at Chicago, the black historian John Hope Franklin, railed against the previous generation of scholars who had left behind socially reactionary historiography. Apparently we should be rejoicing at the cathartic sanguinary war that was fought among Americans because it ended slavery at once, instead of allowing the issue to be resolved over a longer time, perhaps more peacefully. What Woods might have added is that absent the racial issue, it is hard to find 10 people anywhere in the West who would care about who secedes from whom. No one to my knowledge regretted the lack of force used to keep Slovakia in a once unified Czechoslovakia or would call for military measures to prevent Quebec from leaving the rest of Canada. It is the question of black slaves being put under white masters that is paramount for journalists and academics looking at the War Between the States. This circumstance requires "nice people" to express their unconditional support for the Union side, together with an endorsement of the subsequent Reconstruction, which, we are routinely told, did not go far enough to reconstruct a racist society.

Woods has done exactly and succinctly what neoconservatives warn against, opening historical questions that wise elites, which do not include us lesser breeds, have already decided. Tom has pushed into delicate areas that professional historians, almost invariably of the socialist, multicultural Left, have tried to place beyond discussion. Given this achievement, my young friend, who is teaching in a community college on Long Island, can no longer count on moving up into the academic big league. But he might take comfort from two things. Were he in Europe, and not an American, the situation might be worse. He might be forced to stand trial for criticizing received historical narratives. Oriana Fallaci faced this danger in 2001, for the French translation of The Pride and the Rage, which relates facts about the Muslim past that could not be printed in France without committing a "crime of opinion." Fallaci had the nerve to bring up the bloodbath unleashed by the Moors when they took over Christian Spain. These included the crucifixion of priests and the wholesale rape of Christian women. Only a criminal, we are supposed to assume, would make Islamicists feel bad by dwelling on these fine points. These outrages should be imputed only to white Christians, unless the imputers are willing to pay heavy fines and/or land up in jail. Tom should be mindful of a second temporal comfort. He might reflect on what John Lukacs has told me about "something having to be gravely wrong with us if we were teaching history at Harvard." Like John Lukacs and me, Tom will not have to face any painful question of moral self-identity.

December 7, 2004

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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