Teaching American History

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For years,
I have thought about how I would write a textbook history of the
United States. It would begin with the most culturally creative
period of American history: the disunited states.

Most high school
American history textbooks devote one chapter to this period, lasting
from 1609 (in the British colonial version) to 1788. The textbook
model was set by the most widely used American history textbook
in the first half of twentieth century, written by David Saville
Muzzey. That textbook dominated the field from 1911 until 1963.
By 1963, it had been assigned to 30 million students. The 1963 version
was co-authored by Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson’s hagiographer.
(I know of no better single piece of evidence of the decline of
the American public high school than a comparison of the two-volume
1922 edition, more rigorous than a college textbook today, with
the 1963 edition. Yet 1963 was the year of the highest SAT scores;
it was downhill after that.)

Why is there
this short-changing of the colonial era? Because most high schools
are funded by the civil government. Civil government was weak and
decentralized before 1788. Any level of civil government above or
beyond the town council was barely detectable in any colonial citizen’s
life. Therefore, to focus the narrative on the era of American cultural
development in which a true multiculturalism existed — long before
American political sovereignty existed — appalls today’s academic
multiculturalists, who see the United States Government as the only
reliable agency of cultural coordination.

Beginning in
Prussia after Napoleon’s defeat, the teaching of national history
in tax-funded schools was the Prussian government’s means of overcoming
instruction in religion in church-funded schools. Religion was seen
by the king and his court as politically divisive. Nationalism became
the new religion of Western Europe, and tax-funded schools reflected
this new confession of faith.

This same perspective
was adopted by the tax-funded schools in the United States after
1830, as R. J. Rushdoony’s book, The
Messianic Character of American Education
(1963), chronicles
in detail. The nation’s last state-established denomination, the
Congregationalists, lost its tax support in Massachusetts in 1833.
The newly established churches of Massachusetts, the public schools,
replaced them in this same decade.

Muzzey’s textbook
is typical. It emphasizes politics, especially national politics.
This is how American history has been taught for over a century.
The study of kings was replaced by the study of Washington, D.C.

The self-proclaimed
“new historians” of the Progressive era, beginning around 1900,
proclaimed their liberation from the old historiography of kings
and armies. There was a strong emphasis on economic self-interest
in the writing of the new historians, most notably Charles A. Beard.
But this economic self-interest was always seen as a quest for state
funding and privilege. For the new historians, all roads, especially
railroads, led to Washington after 1865. Their focus never left
politics. This has been true of secular historiography ever since
Thucydides wrote his History
of the Peloponnesian War

From 1609 until
the American Revolution, an accurate textbook necessarily would
relegate politics to an also-ran issue. Ahead of statewide politics
would be the following: ecclesiology, family arrangements, education,
land ownership, slavery, transportation, new settlements, taverns,
trade, money and banking, capital markets, local courts, technology,
publishing, immigration, Freemasonry, and Indian affairs. Try to
cover all this for a 150-year period in 54 pages out of 1400, which
was Muzzey’s allocation in his 1922 edition. He did not try. He
discussed three things: British colonial control (inter-colonial
politics), the expulsion of the French (military affairs), and Puritanism,
which as a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, he despised.

In short, because
almost nothing happened politically at the inter-colonial level,
1609—1765, the textbooks ignore the period.

Also, it is
easy to write political history, which leaves paper records of whatever
politicians decide to put on paper.

Robert Nisbet
once remarked that in the year he was born, 1913, most Americans’
only regular contact with the U.S. Government was the Post Office.
In 1750, that was most Americans’ only contact with the British
government, a fact well understood by Benjamin Franklin, the nation’s
deputy postmaster general in 1752. He used this office to establish
an inter-colonial network of personal contacts.


I would deal
with the post-1765 era in two parts: the creation of a national
republic and its evolution into an empire. This of course would
guarantee a commercial failure. The public school establishment
will not consider the word “empire” in relation to the United States,
except as something America battles internationally. The Christian
school establishment agrees entirely with the public school establishment
on this issue.

It is the central
political issue, and both establishments get it wrong. Self-realization
is the most expensive realization of all.

So, being a
marketer, I would follow the example of state-history textbook author
William Marina. I would use the word “centralization” in place of

Back in 1965,
I took a graduate course on the American Revolution from Douglass
Adair, a visiting professor. He was a master teacher and the former
editor of The William and Mary Quarterly, who converted it
from a regional publication of local antiquities into a major professional
journal. He recommended that we teach the American Revolution in
terms of biography, since there were too many grand and conflicting
schemes for explaining it. I think he was correct. This is the way
to teach history at every level: biography as representation.
The trick is to select the representative biographies.

I would write
the history of the post-1788 United States in terms of the legacies
of three men: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Patrick Henry.
This is because I would teach post-Constitution American history
in terms of the overriding concern of the Federalists: how to avoid
a repetition of the transformation of the Roman Republic into the
Roman Empire.

The Philadelphia
Convention of 1787 brought together men who were willing to consider
the creation of a new national covenant. They all were familiar
with classical history, which meant Roman history. None of them
wanted an empire. They had recently risked their lives to break
free from an empire. Their fear was that a national republic would
follow an evolutionary path into empire, as Rome’s had.

The Anti-Federalists
soon had this same concern, and they concluded that the proposed
Constitution would guarantee a replay of ancient history. The Federalists
had to counter this fear in the debates over ratification in 1787
and 1788.

I would begin
with Alexander Hamilton’s argument that modern political science
has enabled modern men to overcome the weakness of the breakdown
of ancient republics: first into anarchy and then into centralized
despotism. He presented this argument in Federalist
(Nov. 21, 1787).

it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more
perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have
been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government
as indefensible. The science of politics, however, like most other
sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various
principles is now well understood, which were either not known at
all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution
of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative
balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges
holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of
the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election:
these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress
towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful
means, by which the excellences of republican government may be
retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.

Then I would
quote Madison in Federalist 46 (June 29,
1788), in which he assured his readers that the power of the state
governments under the Constitution would prevail over the national
government in most cases. The American republic would remain decentralized.

has been already proved that the members of the federal will be
more dependent on the members of the State governments, than the
latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the prepossessions
of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side
of the State governments, than of the federal government. So far
as the disposition of each towards the other may be influenced by
these causes, the State governments must clearly have the advantage.
But in a distinct and very important point of view, the advantage
will lie on the same side. The prepossessions, which the members
themselves will carry into the federal government, will generally
be favorable to the States; whilst it will rarely happen, that the
members of the State governments will carry into the public councils
a bias in favor of the general government. A local spirit will infallibly
prevail much more in the members of Congress, than a national spirit
will prevail in the legislatures of the particular States.

Then I would
quote from Patrick Henry’s statement at the Virginia ratifying convention (June 5, 1788).

drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit
we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American
spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about
to convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire. If you
make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of
one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not
have sufficient energy to keep them together. Such a government
is incompatible with the genius of republicanism. There will be
no checks, no real balances, in this government. What can avail
your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling,
ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances?

Then I would
show, decade by decade, how Hamilton’s confidence in modern political
science was misplaced. The Framers were no more capable of designing
a Constitution that would prevent centralization and empire than
the classical world was.

I would show,
decade by decade, that the states were unable to resist the lure
of Federal centralization, culminating in a four-year war over this
issue. With the defeat of the Confederacy, the evolution of the
Republic into empire took less than one generation.

I would return,
decade by decade, to Henry’s assessment of the power of paper-based
checks and balances to chain national sovereignty and thereby extend
the blessings of liberty.


More important
by far than the story of the political evolution from republic to
empire is the story of the free society and its ability to overcome
the political events that the apostles of salvation by civil law
believe best represent the evolution of society.

I would show
that the battle for the allegiance of most Americans most of the
time has had less to do with politics than it has had with local
covenants locally arrived at: church, state, and family.

Former Speaker
of the House Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local. His statement
was more correct for republics than for empires. But most citizens
spend far more time and money shopping for goods and services than
for political candidates or political causes to support. It is not
that all politics is local. It is that most politics is secondary.

It is the free
market, not politics, that has transformed the lives of Americans.
Well over a century ago, Henry Adams, descendant of two presidents,
wrote a multi-volume history of the United States. The first six
chapters are still well known: The United States in 1800.
In the opening words of Chapter 1
he made the point that America’s landscape in 1800 was not much
different from what it had been in 1750.

the exception that half a million people had crossed the Alleghenies
and were struggling with difficulties all their own, in an isolation
like that of Jutes or Angles in the fifth century, America, so far
as concerned physical problems, had changed little in fifty years.
The old landmarks remained nearly where they stood before. The same
bad roads and difficult rivers, connecting the same small towns,
stretched into the same forests in 1800 as when the armies of Braddoek
and Amherst pierced the western and northern wilderness, except
that these roads extended a few miles farther from the seacoast.
Nature was rather man’s master than his servant, and the five million
Americans struggling with the untamed continent seemed hardly more
competent to their task than the beavers and buffalo which had for
countless generations made bridges and roads of their own.

The world
in the 1880s, when he began writing his book, was nothing even remotely
like the world of 1800. That transformation was not primarily the
product of politics. It was the product mainly of the ingenuity
of inventors and marketers who were capitalized by investors.

The limited
liability corporation has had more to do with the transformation
of America than the Constitution ever has, except for 1861—65,
when it was abandoned on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line and
never restored to its 1788 condition.

This is the
story that I would tell.

story would you tell?

Set up a website
and start telling it.

16, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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