It’s a credit to book buyers that Thomas Wood’s new work has turned out to be one of the fastest selling titles in the history of the Conservative Book Club. The book in question is The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Regnery, 2004) by this historian at Suffolk Community College and adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.
For many, the title alone works as a sales boost, but the title is also a bit misleading. For that matter, I don’t much like the title, since to be “politically incorrect” has become the slogan of every half-baked College Republican bent on backing Bush against campus detractors. This book has nothing to do with such nonsense.
This is not one of those nose-tweaking marketing ploys you see in the history section of major chains, or Rush-Limbaugh-style radio gab. Nor do I find the thesis or argument particularly “conservative,” if by that you mean Bush-style nationalism and cultural agitprop.
On the contrary, this is an amazing piece of scholarship — compressed scholarship, to be sure — that reflects vast reading in the best libertarian and Austrian scholarship available, a wonderful short history of the United States, revisionist in all the best ways, that integrates history, politics, and economics (the author is well schooled in the Austrian tradition).
He begins in the Colonial period to give an account of David Hacket Fischer’s thesis about the four tribes that settled the Americas. The subject headings give the thesis and each is followed by a fast and energetic argument. So it goes throughout the book: the Constitution, the roots of big government, the Civil War, reconstruction, the robber barons, World War I and II, Hoover, the Great Depression, all the way up through the Clinton years, and all in 245 pages. In each section he chooses the best of the modern up-to-date information about each period.
The pace is remarkable. He shows that the Constitution was never understood to be a permanent union, that big government caused the North-South conflict, that Alexander Hamilton’s friends were racketeers, that the US didn’t have to enter WW I, that Hoover was a big government conservative, that FDR made the Depression worse, that there really were Communists in government, that FDR made WW II inevitable, that the Marshall Plan was a flop, that the Civil Rights movement increased social conflict and made everyone worse off, that unions made workers poorer, that the 80s weren’t really the decade of greed, that Clinton’s wars were aggressive and avoidable, and that his personal issues were a major distraction from the real problems of the 1990s.
Several factors are responsible for this book’s high energy.
First, the author is thrilled about the chance to tell you what he has learned from his mainstream history education (Harvard, Columbia) as versus his side reading among the truly informed. Even from the first pages, when Woods is describing the religious and ideological demographics of the Colonial Period, the reader is aware that he is being taught by a master who loves his subject. He prose burns with a passion to tell the next thing. Rarely do two or three sentences pass when he is not surprising you with a new insight. He is glad he has your attention and does not intend to let it go. So long as you are reading, Woods is going to make sure you get his point and come to believe it.
How many academics can write like this? Not many.
Second, the thesis of the book completely brushes off the nave and ridiculous mainstream view of the main theme of American history that it is the story of one long, unrelentingly glorious march of the state from “people’s revolution” of 1776 through the ratification of the Constitution through the latest war on terror. Woods will have none of this prattle. He lays out the libertarian foundations of 1776, treats us to a very revealing discussion of the conditions on which the states signed the Constitution, and then turns to a tell-all history of the mercantilists/inflationist faction of the US establishment. The catastrophic results of 20th century wars are brilliantly exposed.
Rather than going through the whole book — he covers all the calamities that have built the state and diminished liberty — let me just assure you no matter how much you think you know about the history of American liberty vs. the American government, you will learn from him. He knows his opponents very well indeed, and relishes the chance to expose their interventionist biases, and he does so precisely and fairly. Part of the reason, I’m convinced, is his age: only very recently did he suffer under the regime of conventional wisdom in grad school, but all the while he was reading in libertarian literature and finding libertarian themes in the best of detailed studies many historians don’t even bother to read.
Third, Woods does not see his book as the first and last statement on American history but rather as a summary that pleads with the reader to read more deeply. He never misses a chance to pass on a book title, draw attention to other resources, and inspire interest in a particular area in which he doesn’t have the space to discuss. He provides concise summary of Armentano on Monopoly, Halbook on guns, Rothbard on Hoover and the Great Depression, Vedder and Gallaway on the wartime economy, Reynolds on labor, Nisbet on Stalin, Flynn on Roosevelt, Sowell on civil rights, and so much more. It is packed with great quotations from all the people he discusses.
This is a rare position of humility for an emerging “celebrity intellectual” to take. From his point of view, it is not about him but the ideas, the literature, and the truth, and he works very hard to draw our attention to vast research that is too often ignored. The format seems to be designed for a high school student, and certainly the prose is pristine enough to be read by anyone. And yet I’m betting that even specialists will learn so much from this book. The author’s capacity for reading, processing, and conveying information is a marvel; his first book designed for a mass audience (it is his second in so many months) is even more so.
A final note on the “conservative” nature of this book: readers are going to walk away from this book finding themselves drawn to some pretty radical ideas about freedom and its place in American history. It is a book that will produce not conservatives but just the kind of radicals we need.