33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed To Ask

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Today is the official release date for my new book, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, from Random House/Crown Forum.

These are questions that receive incomplete, misleading, or absolutely false answers in the standard treatment of American history. Most are simply never raised in the first place, since they might give rise to forbidden thoughts that run counter to established opinion.

A few of the questions:

  • Were the American Indians really environmentalists?
  • Is the U.S. government too stingy with foreign aid — or not stingy enough?
  • Was the U.S. Constitution meant to be a "living, breathing" document that changes with the times?
  • What really happened in the Whiskey Rebellion, and why will neither your textbook nor George Washington tell you?
  • What made American wages rise? (Hint: it wasn’t unions or the government.)
  • Did the Iroquois Indians influence the United States Constitution?
  • Did school desegregation narrow the black-white achievement gap?
  • Did the Founding Fathers support immigration?
  • What was "the biggest unknown scandal of the Clinton years"?
  • The three constitutional clauses that have caused the most mischief — what are they, and what were they really supposed to mean?
  • Did capitalism cause the Great Depression? If not, what did?
  • Does the Constitution really contain an "elastic clause"?
  • Did the Founding Fathers believe in jury nullification — that juries could refuse to enforce unjust laws?
  • Was George Washington Carver (who supposedly developed 300 products out of the peanut) really one of America’s greatest scientific geniuses, as Henry Ford claimed?

In this book I’m able to cover all kinds of topics I couldn’t get to in The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, and in those few cases of overlap I include brand new information about them in 33 Questions.

Let me elaborate on just one of the questions, chosen more or less at random: How wild was the "wild" West?

The standard story there, seared into the American consciousness and folklore by motion pictures and other tall tales, is one of constant chaos and peril. But historians have been rejecting that old view for some time. In fact, implausible as this may sound, what is most impressive about the old West was how peaceful and cooperative it was. Although you’d never know it, scholars have repeatedly shown that the old West was actually safer than most American cities today.

In the absence of formal government, voluntary institutions emerged that defined and enforced property rights and adjudicated disputes. Far from a land of lawlessness and violence, a myth spun from tales designed to sell dime novels, the old West actually constitutes a fascinating case study of the ability of market institutions, even in apparently impossible conditions, to facilitate peaceful interaction and to carry out functions we normally associate with government.

The story is all the more impressive when we recall the inauspicious circumstances in which these events occurred. The settlers were men of vastly different backgrounds. They had no intention of putting down permanent roots; they intended to make their fortune and return back home. They were complete strangers with no pre-existing community camaraderie on which to build. And yet, according to Andrew Morriss of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, "This amazing polyglot of men seeking rapid wealth, and with virtually no intention of building a lasting society, created a set of customary legal institutions which not only flourished in California but successfully adapted to conditions across the West."

33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask also covers forgotten history about presidential war-making, labor unions, Martin Luther King, Jr., Social Security, the "imperial presidency," discrimination, and a great deal more.

This was very, very satisfying to write.

As I’ve said before, media outlets like the New York Times have as their goal the suppression of fundamental questions. We may debate questions like whether the top income tax rate should be 34.7 percent or 35.6 percent. The Times is perfectly comfortable with debates like that. We may not ask whether the income tax should be altogether abolished (and replaced by nothing). We may ask whether the Department of Education’s budget should increase by five percent or six percent. We may not ask whether a federal Department of Education is necessary, desirable, or constitutional in the first place.

You get the idea.

Certain issues, in other words, are simply not meant to be discussed. The point of my book is to blow the lid off the whole racket.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author, most recently, of 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. His other books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

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