Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism

by Jeff Riggenbach by Jeff Riggenbach

ALSO BY JEFF RIGGENBACH: In Praise of Decadence

All rights reserved. Written permission must be secured from the publisher to use or reproduce any part of this book, except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles. For information write: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 518 West Magnolia Avenue, Auburn, Alabama 36832;

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1906)

This book is for Suzanne, who made it possible.


Portions of Chapter Three and Chapter Five appeared earlier, in somewhat different form, in Liberty magazine, on, and on David J. Theroux of the Independent Institute, Andrea Millen Rich of the Center for Independent Thought, and Alexia Gilmore of the Randolph Bourne Institute were generous with their assistance during the researching and writing stages of this project. Ellen Stuttle was her usual indispensable self. And, of course, responsibility for any errors of fact, usage, or judgment in these pages is entirely my own.




I. Objectivity in History

II. History and Fiction

III. The Historical Fiction of Kenneth Roberts

IV. The Historical Fiction of John Dos Passos


I. Burr and Lincoln

II. 1876, Empire, and Hollywood

III. Hollywood and The Golden Age


I. The Birth of American Revisionism and the Rise of Harry Elmer Barnes

II. Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams: From Progressivism to the New Left

III. Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin: From Progressivism to Libertarianism

IV. James J. Martin: Historian and Pamphleteer

V. The Libertarian Historians and Their Colleagues on the New Left


I. The U.S. Civil War – the Revisionist View

II. America in the World Wars – A Revisionist Perspective

III. A Revisionist Look at America in the Cold War


I. u201CLeftu201D and u201CRight,u201D u201CConservativeu201D and u201CLiberal,u201D Differentiated Historically

II. The Decline of American Liberalism – the Early Years

III. Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats in 19th Century America

IV. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the Triumph of Conservatism

V. Herbert Hoover's New Deal

VI. The Myth of the u201COld Rightu201D

VII. The Goldwater Anomaly

VIII. The Reagan Fraud – and After


I. Why Textbooks Matter

II. The Breakdown of the Consensus – the Case of Howard Zinn

III. American History According to Eric Foner

IV. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. vs. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen

V. History, Fiction, and Objectivity – Some Concluding Observations


u201CNow there are some who would like to rewrite history – revisionist historians is what I like to call them.u201D – George W. Bush, June 16, 2003


Americans have been warring with each other for more than a century over the contents of the American history textbooks used in the nation's high schools and colleges. Nor is the reason far to seek. If, as seems to be the case, these textbooks encompass one hundred percent of the information that most high school and college graduates in this country will ever encounter on the subject of American history, the American history wars would appear to be well worth fighting. For what Americans know and understand about the history of the society in which they live will determine the degree of their willingness to honor and preserve its ideals and traditions. More than that: it will determine what they regard as the ideals and traditions of their society. It will determine nothing less than the kind of society they will seek to strengthen and perpetuate.

Until very recently, however, the range of the conflict over American history textbooks was narrow indeed. All sides tacitly agreed that the story of the United States was the triumphant tale of a people fervently devoted to peace, prosperity, and individual liberty; a people left utterly untempted by opportunities of the kind that had led so many other nations down the ignoble road of empire; a people who went to war only as a last resort and only when both individual liberty and Western Civilization itself were imperiled and at stake. There had been injustices along the way, of course – the Native Americans had been grossly mistreated, as had the African Americans. Women had been denied the vote and even the right to own property. Yet these injustices had been corrected in time, and the formerly mistreated groups had been integrated into full citizenship and full participation in the liberty, prosperity, and peace that were the birthright of every American – the very same liberty, prosperity, and peace that had made America itself a beacon of hope to the entire world.

So the consensus view of American history has long had it, at any rate. And so almost all the textbooks involved in the American history wars waged before the 1980s had it, too. The only question at issue back then, really, was whether any given textbook gave one or another of the various formerly aggrieved groups what was felt to be its proper due. Was the suffering of the Native Americans (or the African Americans or the women) detailed at sufficient length? The many contributions the African Americans (or the women or the Native Americans) had made to American culture – contributions without which American culture would simply not be the same – were these detailed sufficiently? The nobility of the female (or the Native American or the African American) leaders who helped bring about recognition of their people's rights – was this sufficiently stressed?

Then, a little over a quarter-century ago, the terms of the debate changed – radically. One might say the opening salvo in the new American history wars was fired by Howard Zinn, in the form of a textbook entitledA People's History of the United States. First published in 1980, this volume is still in print, was reissued in a revised, updated, u201C20th Anniversary Editionu201D in the year 2000, and has become one of the most widely influential college level textbooks on American history currently in use in this country. Today, Zinn faces intensified competition, however, not only from peddlers of the traditional, America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace version of our past, but also from a number of other writers who have, in varying degree, adopted the rather different view of American history that Zinn himself promotes.

This alternative vision sees America's past as a series of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, in which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded have been gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores. In effect, say Howard Zinn and a growing chorus of others, we have become the people our founding fathers warned us (and tried to protect us) against. And what may be the most significant fact about this alternative or u201Crevisionistu201D view of American history is the remarkably hospitable reception it has enjoyed both from the general public and from the selfsame educational establishment that only a few short years ago was assiduously teaching students something else entirely.

How can we account for this? Why, suddenly, is there a substantial market for a version of American history quite unlike anything most Americans had ever encountered? Why are the combatants in the current American history wars so different from each other, so different in their fundamental assumptions about America? Why are the current wars so much bloodier (figuratively speaking), so much more intense, than ever before?

It seems to me that the correct answer to this question is complex and multifaceted. It seems to me that several different forces are at work here simultaneously, combining synergistically to produce the u201Csingleu201D effect we call u201Cour current American history wars.u201D One of these forces is generational change. It was in the 1980s that college and university history departments came to be dominated by a new generation of historians – historians who had earned their Ph.D.s in the 1960s and '70s and who had been strongly influenced in their thinking about American history by a group of u201Crevisionistu201D historians, the so-called u201CNew Left Historians,u201D whose books were widely popular and widely controversial at that time. These u201CNew Left Historiansu201D – William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, a number of others – had in turn been strongly influenced by an earlier group of u201Crevisionistsu201D – the so-called u201CNew Historiansu201D or u201CProgressive Historiansu201D – whose most prominent figures included Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes.

Another of the forces involved in the recent heating up of the perennial American history wars was the brilliant critical and popular success, during the 1970s and early 1980s, of the first three books in Gore Vidal's six-volume u201CAmerican Chronicleu201D series of historical novels about the United States. Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Lincoln (1984) were enormous successes. They proved beyond any doubt that the public would not rise up in indignation and smite any author who dared to question the motives and the wisdom of even the most venerated American presidents. They proved that there was, in fact, a substantial market for just such skepticism about the glorious American past.

Partisans of the America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace mythology attacked Vidal's novels, of course, but Vidal made it quite clear in a couple of detailed replies to his critics (first published in the New York Review of Books) that he knew at least as much about the history of the periods he depicted in his novels as any of them did – Ph.D.s and members of the professoriate though they might be. Still, doubts lingered in more than a few minds. First there was the problem of Vidal's well known political views and his high-profile activities as a polemicist and proselytizer for those views. Could a man so opinionated be counted upon to provide an objective account of America's past? Second, there was the problem of historical fiction. Was it really advisable to take any work of fiction seriously as a source of information about history? Fiction was . . . well, you know – fiction. It was u201Cmade up.u201D How could we rely on any information we picked up about the events of the past from reading such a work?

To answer these questions properly, it will be necessary to take a brief but closely focused look at the discipline of history itself. How does an historian go about determining the truth as regards the past? Is the historian's methodology in any way similar to the fiction writer's? Is the work the historian writes in any way similar to a novel? Is it really appropriate to dismiss historical fiction as u201Cmade up,u201D while looking to the writings of historians for an objective assessment of past events?

And so we begin . . . .

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