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Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism
by Jeff Riggenbach (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009), 210 pages.
Historical revisionism often gets a bad rap. The term is typically used derisively to attack historical accounts that are unconventional, usually with the implication that they are false. But that is a grave misunderstanding of revisionism and the study of history in general. Indeed, it is ideal for historians constantly to revise the dominant interpretation of history by looking at new data or at previously established facts in a new critical light.
Discovering revisionist history is akin to finding a whole new world of thought. My own first readings of historical works that might be called revisionist opened my eyes to an exciting new tool of intellectual battle against statism — it was up there with learning about libertarianism for the first time, or realizing that economic science is a great way to reinforce our case for liberty. Indeed, since the implicit case for the statist status quo relies heavily on conventional interpretations of history taught in public schools — that the U.S. government saved the world from communism in the Cold War or brought America out of the Great Depression with the New Deal — the importance of rethinking historical myth is about as important as critically looking at mainstream economics.
But as far as I know, until now no single book has been available to introduce readers to the very concept of historical revisionism, much less to present a narrative of the major players in revisionism and the general ideas often explored in such works. Jeff Riggenbach’s new book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism, fills that void and does a good deal more.
History and the historians
Riggenbach first presents us with a general discussion of the study of history, addressing questions with which most lay readers, even most history buffs, have perhaps never directly wrestled. He dispenses with the false standard of “objectivity,” with which we are confronted in most mainstream discussions of history, as well as journalism. We have all heard people tout what “history tells us” about one thing or another, usually relating to a contemporary controversy. A common assertion might read, “History tells us we must be tough in our diplomacy, for Britain’s passiveness toward Hitler in 1939 emboldened him and ushered in the Second World War.”
But history is no objective oracle. Even when supported by established facts, it is interpreted by historians — people — who must decide which facts to present in the first place. What’s more, “before the historian can select, center, marginalize, or arrange the facts, he or she must first ascertain the facts,” Riggenbach writes. “And this is by no means as unproblematical a matter as at first it might seem.” Those facts are obtained through documentary evidence, which is necessarily imperfect and always incomplete. These documents include
published and unpublished sources. The unpublished sources include the diaries, journals, and letters of individual persons; the records and correspondence of those engaged in business enterprises; and the paperwork generated by government at all its levels. The published sources include flyers, pamphlets, almanacs, catalogues, newspapers, magazines, and books.
The newspaper is especially important to historians, Riggenbach notes, but newspapers themselves are anything but perfect records of history. They capture only whatever the publishers of the time found worthy of documenting, and “journalistic incompetence” complicates the problem further.
In writing history, judgment is unavoidably exercised concerning what is worth including. Cultural and social biases determine the narrative that is widely disseminated, especially in such works as school textbooks. In America, the civic religion that upholds the U.S. government as a “devoted partisan of the same spirit of individual liberty that once moved its founders” tends to constrain the history taught in schools to the point where a lot that would be considered most important, particularly from a libertarian viewpoint, is lost completely, and thus few textbook readers are likely to learn much about
John Adams’s Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s genocidal treatment of the American Indians, Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription (to say nothing of his suspension of habeas corpus and his imprisonment of newspaper editors who dared to disagree with his prosecution of the Civil War), William McKinley’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, [or] Franklin Roosevelt’s order to round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry and imprison them in concentration camps.
Having dispensed with the myth of objective history, Riggenbach ventures to put historical study in the context of the art of fiction. This might at first seem jarring to those who conceive of history as something beyond mere storytelling, but
[it] was the tail end of the 19th Century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted — the historian as dispassionate seeker after truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist or sociologist than a novelist or playwright.
Thus, the next five chapters are devoted to exploring the historical fiction of Kenneth Roberts, John Dos Passos, and Gore Vidal, treating Vidal’s American Chronicles novels to a thorough discussion. The lengthy discussion of those historical novelists, and especially Vidal, is justified, as the reader discovers that Vidal’s work in particular presents a narrative of American history that is both revisionist and unconventional, as well as more exciting and relevant than the boring accounts we get in school. While it might not be advised that one heavily rely on such novels as major sources in any sort of scholarly paper, they are most effective in leading their readers to question the dominant and mythological history celebrated by most people and taught in high schools. Libertarians in particular would find much to appreciate in Vidal’s critical treatment of such sainted American heroes as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, his nonhagiographic descriptions of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal government, his relatively sympathetic portrayal of the often unfairly maligned Warren G. Harding, and his scathing presentation of Anglophile Woodrow Wilson, who got America into war. One comes away from these chapters on Vidal wishing to read the novelist, had he not already, and recognizing the incredible compatibility of Vidal’s narrative with that of today’s libertarian revisionists.
American revisionism as a distinct species of historical scholarship, however, is given plenty of attention by Riggenbach, who tells the very important and yet ignored story of those iconoclastic academics who warred against conventional wisdom and still stand out for their intellectual courage. The biographical and historiographical discussion of Henry Elmer Barnes, Charles Beard, James J. Martin, William Appleman Williams, and many others is alone worth the price of Riggenbach’s book several times over, for the tale of those great historians is crucial to any deep appreciation of American historiography, and indeed, of libertarian scholarship in particular.
The difficulties faced by modern revisionists — particularly Charles Beard, who fell from grace as the most celebrated of American historians to a fringe thinker banished from the halls of scholarly respectability for his courageous criticisms of Roosevelt and his foreign policy — are similar to the travails endured by the early Austrian economists, men such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard who most libertarians might say never got the mainstream recognition they deserved. But the connection between historical revisionism and academic libertarian dissidents hardly ends there.
Many libertarians are accustomed to see the Progressive Era and its intellectuals as the source of all modern political evil. There is some truth to that generalization. But, ironic as it may be, it was also from the intellectual atmosphere of Progressivism that some of the most anti-establishment and even libertarian historical scholarship was born. The Progressive tradition in history is associated with such men as Charles Beard, whose disciple James J. Martin became not just one of the greatest of all libertarian historians, but one of the greatest American historians of niche libertarian interest: his work on the individualist anarchists of the 19th century forever shook the understanding of that intellectual movement, and later proved important in the development of modern libertarian thought.
Meanwhile, as Riggenbach explains, the lineage of Henry Elmer Barnes, Progressive historian, through William Appleman Williams, New Left historian and respected contemporary of Murray Rothbard, encapsulated a development in the intellectual transformation of the Old Left into the 1960s New Left, a philosophical movement not without some substantial affinity to and overlap with libertarianism. Never before, to my knowledge, has the story of American revisionism itself been so cleanly and compellingly told, and never before has the relationship between the New Left and modern libertarian intellectual movements been so clearly conveyed.
It is from that perspective that Riggenbach shows the compatibility of New Left critiques of power, of centralism, of corporate statism, of the war machine, with those of libertarians. That compatibility is most apparent in the question of war, which Riggenbach addresses quite nicely in part four of his book, dissecting the Civil War, the world wars, and the Cold War from both a revisionist and a libertarian standpoint.
Left, Right, and libertarianism
Following that, Riggenbach treats the reader to a retelling of American political movements throughout the history of the republic. He begins his discussion with a reorientation of the political spectrum. Libertarians who think of themselves as creatures of the Right will be challenged by Riggenbach’s own dose of revisionism:
[A] brief look at the history of the relevant political terms — Left and Right, liberal and conservative — will persuade us that libertarianism has absolutely nothing in common with anything on the Right. For it is as the anarchist Murray Bookchin said back in 1978: “People who resist authority, who defend the rights of the individual, who try in a period of increasing totalitarianism and centralization to reclaim these rights — this is the true left in the United States. Whether they are anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, or libertarians who believe in free enterprise, I regard theirs as the real legacy of the left — this is the true left in the United States.”
Riggenbach here echoes Rothbard’s interpretation of the political spectrum, as put forth in the latter’s seminal essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” published in 1965. Before dismissing this formulation out of hand, it is worth looking at how it would color our interpretation of our own history as Americans and our legacy as anti-statists. It sits comfortably with our common understanding of true liberalism as the movement of individual liberty, and it also adds logical context to the word “conservative” — for, throughout most of history, champions of liberty did not seek to conserve the status quo, so typically plagued by statism, militarism, mercantilism, and power politics, but to uproot such ghastly traditions, to revolutionize society, to move toward an ideal that never fully existed. Liberalism was corrupted by the early 1900s, however, as statist progressivism and state socialism came to displace the libertarians on the Left. Drawing on such works as Arthur Ekirch’s Decline of American Liberalism, Riggenbach tells the story of how that corruption took place.
Riggenbach’s Left-Right spectrum inspires his reconsideration of political dynamics throughout U.S. history. “If the Federalists were the first American conservatives, the Jeffersonians were the first American liberals.” The Whiskey Rebellion, squashed by President Washington and despised by the conservative Federalists, was a libertarian rebellion, while John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts were thoroughly conservative in nature. “To impose criminal penalties for speech against government policies was to return to the oppressive practices of the ancien rgime against which the liberals had led a rebellion only a few years before.”
After 40 years out of power, the Federalist Party died and was “replaced by the Whigs, a new conservative party that began life as a faction within the Democratic-Republicans.” The Whigs were in turn “replaced by the Republicans, who fielded their first candidate for the presidency in 1856 and won their first presidential election with their second candidate, Abraham Lincoln,” who went on to implement the conservative Hamiltonian program of internal improvements — corporate welfare — consolidation of national power, and war to conserve the union. In the late 19th century, the Democrats were still, overall, the party of liberty and liberalism. Democratic president Grover Cleveland “had made his reputation as an opponent of government corruption and special favors to big businesses, including tariffs” and was, in office, one of the most libertarian presidents the United States has ever had.
The Progressive movement, far from pushing a leftist agenda, was pushing a conservative one. Drawing on such authorities as New Left historian Gabriel Kolko, author of The Triumph of Conservatism, Riggenbach shows how the early 20th-century administrations of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and William McKinley all represented the conservative projects of shoring up big business, protecting its market share, expanding the police state to enforce traditional morality, and waging imperialist wars. Now both parties were both conservative and progressive.
By the turn of the 20th Century, liberals were no longer in control of the Democratic party. And to the extent that certain liberals did still wield significant influence within the party, they tended to be “liberals of a more conservative persuasion,” which is to say, liberals who believed liberal goals could be attained through conservative means.
The confusion has continued to this day. Herbert Hoover, far from being a do-nothing conservative president, was an activist conservative president who started the New Deal, and whose policies of easy credit had in fact been “inherited from his immediate [Republican] predecessors in the White House.” As for the “Old Right” that formed in resistance to Roosevelt’s welfare-warfare state,
[They] were extending the doctrine of liberalism…. The writers and intellectuals who made up the most visible contingent of the “Old Right” were in no meaningful sense on the Right at all. They were on the Left, where they had always been. They were liberals.
Riggenbach also has an answer to two most celebrated examples of supposed pro-freedom Republican politicians of the post-war era, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. New Left radical Karl Hess, speechwriter for Goldwater, had, in Riggenbach’s words, seen “Goldwater as a liberal, a man of the Left, incongruously attached to a political party with which, ideologically, he had nothing in common.” He was an anomaly, which might explain why the GOP and most conservatives failed to come through for him. Reagan, on the other hand, was indeed a conservative, one who expanded California’s government in all directions as governor and who, as president, “increased federal spending by fifty-three percent, added a quarter of a million new civilian government employees, escalated the War on Drugs, created the ‘drug czar’s office,’ and lowered the value of your 1980 dollar to seventy-three cents.”
After putting forth his somewhat unconventional way of looking at liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism, Riggenbach returns to the study of history as a discipline, examining a handful of modern books on American history and determining that, once again, libertarian historians have more in common with their leftist colleagues than their conservative ones. He finds a number of similarities between popular leftist historian Howard Zinn’s narrative and that of the revisionists of the last century: “Like Vidal and the revisionists, Zinn regards Lincoln as having been something of a tyrant … sees Woodrow Wilson as having led the United States into another useless, destructive war”; questions the common narrative of World War II; and “looks upon Harry Truman’s decision to drop the new atomic bomb on a pair of Japanese cities in 1945 as both unnecessary and inexcusable.”
Riggenbach then shows how much Tom Woods, author of the supposedly conservative blockbuster The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, has in common with the leftist interpretations of Zinn, the revisionists, and Gore Vidal. As with all of them, Woods “is convinced that the United States had no business involving itself in” World War I, and has similarly critical things to say about Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s wars as well. Riggenbach concludes that Woods’s work, “in light of our discussion of Left and Right in the preceding chapter” is obviously “not ‘conservative’ in any meaningful sense at all…. Woods’s positions are solidly liberal.” This is in contrast to the true conservatives Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, whose book on American history is filled with apologia for America’s past wars, only lamenting, for example, that “Woodrow Wilson was too slow to involve the United States” in World War I.
Riggenbach’s own revisionist take on Left and Right is important even if one is inclined to disagree, and the rest of his book — discussing the meaning of history, the essence of revisionism, the neglected story of the American revisionists, the relationships between these different scholars, the history of American wars and statism — has plenty in it to make the book worth reading regardless of what one thinks of his conclusions in the second half and final chapters.
Personally, if I were to nitpick the book, I would say the discussion of Left and Right perhaps glosses over a few important nuances in the possible differences between two forms of statism, in order to maintain a linear political spectrum that might not be worth maintaining. For example, Riggenbach is clear about the failures of the Jeffersonians to adhere to liberalism consistently, but he perhaps neglects the ways that the very leftist nature of the Jeffersonians encouraged a different kind of statism than that of the Hamiltonians — a statism that was decisively more mild in some areas, but worse in others. Brian Patrick Mitchell’s Eight Ways to Run the Country, which uses a two-dimensional model, is still my favorite book on the political spectrum.
However, that nitpick is not meant to detract from my hearty and enthusiastic endorsement of this book. In fact, such criticisms, far from dismissing the essence of what Riggenbach teaches us, are in the same spirit. Just as Riggenbach, a hardcore Rothbardian, is willing to critique his hero Rothbard — often from a standpoint he might have inherited from Rothbard to begin with — I believe Riggenbach has given us a valuable intellectual framework, has thrown down the gauntlet, and has provided a standard by which to look at scholarship critically. This is an Introduction, after all, and of Revisionism to boot. I find my only criticisms of his book are in the spirit of free intellectual inquiry and revisionism — the very Beardian-Rothbardian-Riggenbachian tradition that this book has served to establish. It is about time a book like this has come to exist, and I am most grateful Riggenbach has written it.
Reprinted from The Future of Freedom Foundation.