Although I am happy to report that the response to my new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, has been quite enthusiastic, I have also taken my share of hits (though, truth be told, not nearly as many as I expected). Thus far, however, hardly any of the serious criticisms of the book have even tried to dispute its facts. For some people name-calling is the weapon of choice, writing reviews of a book they obviously haven’t read works for others, and still others, showing that sense of fair play that the left is known for, have attributed positions to me that are at times exactly the opposite of what I say in the book.
Those Amazon reviewers who actually raise specifics and think they’re nailing me have invariably misstated my argument. With gusto, they then go on to launch a triumphant attack on their own mischaracterization of my position.
I knew that the New York Times review, which I’d heard was coming, would be in a class by itself. But I had no idea that I was such a dangerous person that it would run on the editorial page. I told radio talk show hosts all week that if the Times’ review of my book wasn’t a hatchet job, I’d buy them dinner. Needless to say, and as I fully expected, I’ll be eating at home this week.
As with so many other attacks, though, there is next to no attempt to answer my arguments or show where I am wrong. Instead, reviewer Adam Cohen simply gives us this laundry list of allegedly awful claims I make: "The New Deal public works programs that helped millions survive the Depression were a u2018disaster,’ and Social Security u2018damaged the economy.’ The Marshall Plan, which lifted up devastated European nations after World War II, was a u2018failed giveaway program.’ And the long-discredited theory of u2018nullification,’ which held that states could suspend federal laws, u2018isn’t as crazy as it sounds.’"
It’s funny enough that these eminently defensible positions are presented as if they’re obviously perverse. Readers can judge my lengthy and detailed critique of Franklin Roosevelt for themselves, and I’ll deal with the Marshall Plan point in a separate essay. As for nullification, it was probably just an oversight that Cohen failed to add that that "long-discredited" idea (though exactly when and by whom, he does not trouble to inform us) came from that obscure nobody Thomas Jefferson, and was later used to nullify fugitive-slave laws.
Also, because the Indians suffered a great many injustices — a fact no sane person denies — I am evidently not allowed to mention that at least in the case of the Puritans, specialized modern scholarship (of which Cohen, here and throughout, is almost charmingly ignorant) more and more concludes that their record with regard to the Indians was, on balance, not bad. I wonder if Cohen really wants to take issue with the scholarship of Alden Vaughan, whose book on the subject has been in print for four decades and whose conclusions continue to be vindicated in the periodical literature. If I didn’t already know the answer, I’d also wonder if he’d even heard of Vaughan.
Horror of horrors, my book "contends that federal courts were never given the power to strike down state laws, a pet cause of states’ rights supporters today." What I actually wrote was that at the Constitutional Convention James Madison’s proposal to give the federal government the power to veto state laws went down to overwhelming defeat, and that the fact that perfectly constitutional state laws are now routinely overturned by the federal judiciary shows how far we have strayed from original intent. (Good thing, by the way, that Cohen took that jab at "states’ rights supporters today"; I mean, aren’t you just sick of all the states’ rights talk that’s been going on in American politics? It’s just everywhere!)
Moreover, my book also "maintains that the First Amendment applies only to the federal government." Again, no attempt to answer me. That he even thinks this is a controversial issue borders on hilarious. (And if he’s implicitly arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that, I answer that one in the book too.)
Worse still, my book "makes a perverse, but ideologically loaded, linguistic argument that the American Civil War was not actually a civil war, a point with which dictionaries disagree." Is it really so hard to understand that a civil war involves two or more parties fighting for control of the same government, and that in the case of the American Civil War the South was fighting for the right to withdraw from the United States rather than take it over?
Cohen is equally shocked that I would dare to argue that the Fourteenth Amendment was not constitutionally ratified, even though the evidence is about as ironclad as you could ask for, since this is "an argument the Supreme Court has rejected." Well, that’s that, then! Who you gonna believe, the Supreme Court or your own eyes?
Consider some of the irregularities. In Tennessee, opponents of the amendment simply refused to be present for the vote, with the intention of preventing a quorum and thereby making ratification impossible. To overcome this difficulty, amendment supporters had two Tennessee legislators forcibly seized and held in an anteroom as the vote proceeded. In vain did the speaker attempt to proclaim the two men absent (they refused to answer the roll); the vote in favor of the amendment went ahead anyway.
In Oregon, the vote was taken on the amendment at a time when two of the Republicans’ seats in the legislature were being challenged on legal grounds. Those two Republicans provided the thin margin by which the amendment passed. But those two Republicans were eventually removed from the legislature in that same session when it was determined that they had been illegally elected, and their seats were given to Democrats. Not surprisingly, the legislature at this point voted to rescind its ratification of the amendment. But its rescission was not allowed to stand, and Oregon was counted as having ratified the amendment.
Beyond these and other such examples, there was a logical problem at the heart of the ratification process. On the one hand, after ten of the eleven former Confederate states initially refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment (the exception being Tennessee), Congress declared them to be without legal governments and therefore not entitled to representation or even to self-government. On the other, Congress demanded that these very states, said to be without legal foundation and not entitled to the privileges of statehood (including the right to send representatives and senators to Washington), ratify an amendment to the Constitution in order to resume their proper place in the Union and replace the military rule of Reconstruction with the self-government to which the states were entitled under the Constitution. If a state truly lacks a legal government it would indeed be prohibited from enjoying representation in the U.S. Congress — but, logically, it would also be excluded from the process of amending the Constitution. Thus their votes should not have counted. But without them, the amendment would not have been ratified.
In 1865 Congress had accepted the Southern states’ ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. But in 1867, even though nothing about those Southern state governments had changed in the interim, they were suddenly declared illegal when they initially dared to reject the Fourteenth Amendment. Simple consistency would require Congress to accept both decisions by the Southern states (that is, the decision to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment and the decision to reject the Fourteenth) or to reject both decisions. But consistency was not a conspicuous virtue of Reconstruction. Only later, under the heel of military occupation, did the Southern states vote to ratify.
My book explains all of this very clearly. Let’s see what Adam Cohen has to say about it. "If the 14th Amendment was not properly ratified," he writes, "neither, it would seem, was the 13th, which was adopted under similar circumstances, and slavery should be legal." Congratulations, Mr. Cohen: you’ve attributed to me exactly the opposite argument from the one I advance in the book. The point is that if the Radicals were going to object to the Southern states’ initial rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that those states had no legal governments, then they would be logically compelled to turn down those states’ ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, since nothing about those state governments had changed between those two votes. Thus the only people who might have a logical difficulty in maintaining the legitimacy of the Thirteenth Amendment would be the Radicals themselves, not me.
(Knowing how scrupulous the Times is with facts, I just know they’ll run a correction.)
To say that this "review" came as no surprise to me would be something of an understatement. For longer than most Americans care to recall, the Times has done its best to make sure that no fundamental questions are raised, much less answered, in our public square. It is largely thanks to the Times that our political debate is as narrow and stunted as it is; our betters at Cohen’s paper do their best to ensure that certain perspectives are neither covered nor even acknowledged. No wonder they hate my book.
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is the author of The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia) and the forthcoming The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (Lexington). The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times (and LRC) bestseller, is his most recent book.