Textbooks as Ideological Weapons

If you wanted to write a book on what ideas shaped the thinking of the mass of Americans after 1850, the first place to begin would be textbooks used in public schools. You would probably begin with the McGuffey advanced readers and about 70 other books in the Eclectic Education Series. A friend of mine once located 50 titles and put them on a CD-ROM, but then he decided not to publish it. Except for McGuffey readers and Joseph Ray’s arithmetic books, they are forgotten.

It is extremely difficult to locate textbooks. College libraries rarely collect them, because they take up space and go out of print every four years. A handful of educational research libraries keep college-level textbooks as reference works. Columbia University does. High school textbooks are even more scarce.

Frances Fitzgerald’s book, America Revisited, surveys twentieth-century public school high school textbooks in history and the social sciences. I know of no other similar attempt. Her book shows how the ideological wheels came off after 1965, when the New Left and new everything else began to undermine the accepted truths and platitudes of the public school textbooks.

She devotes considerable space to David Saville Muzzey. His was never a household name. Yet it would not be far from the truth to say that he, more than anyone else, shaped the thinking of most Americans regarding the history of America. From the first edition of his textbook in 1911 until the final edition in 1961, Muzzey’s book was the most widely used American history textbook. In some years, it outsold all others combined. After his death in 1965, there was a revised edition, co-authored by Arthur S. Link, one of the premier Establishment historians, who was the editor of Woodrow Wilson’s papers (Princeton University Press) and Wilson’s chief hagiographer in the mid-twentieth century.


Who has ever heard of Muzzey? Only specialists in public school education. I remembered him only because I read his textbook in 1958 and recalled his name. I recently bought copy of the 1922 edition, a transaction made possible by the Web. It is 800 pages long. Its text is as detailed as any lower-division college-level American history textbook. To compare this book — its vocabulary, its absence of pictures, its high concentration of names and events and statistics per page — with a high school textbook today is itself educational.

Muzzey was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary of New York, which was the most liberal independent seminary in mainline Protestant America in 1910. He was a leader in Ethical Culture, a self-consciously agnostic religion, which published his book, Ethics as a Religion. He was a professor at Columbia University, which decades later would absorb the financially ailing Union Seminary. Nearby, Columbia Teacher’s College was at the cutting edge of progressive education in the United States.

His book is typical of public school textbooks around the world after 1850: an intellectual defense of nationalism. Throughout the West after the rise of Napoleon, nationalism became the State’s substitute for organized religion. The public schools universally inculcated some form of State-deifying nationalism.

Muzzey’s book begins with a chapter on “The Colonial Background.” It is 54 pages long. It moves to “The American Revolution,” which is almost 50 pages long. It then becomes a history of America written in terms of Presidential administrations: “Washington and Adams,” “The Jeffersonian Policies,” “The New Nationalism,” and “The Reign of Andrew Jackson.”

The book’s structure was no different in my era. For half a century, Muzzey’s textbook was the primary tool that taught tens of millions of American teenagers to view the history of America as the evolution of Presidential politics. This was the tax-funded substitute for the earlier tradition of writing history as the reign of kings and the exploits of generals. The focus was still the same: political power. But, after 1787, as it had been before 325, political power was seen as redemptive. Messianic politics steadily replaced kingly politics. It was not accidental that after the kings finally departed from Continental Europe in 1917—18, they were soon replaced by Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler.

The American Revolution was the premier event in the evolution of messianic politics within the right wing Enlightenment, while the French Revolution was the premier event in the evolution of messianic politics within the left wing Enlightenment.

This is not how the two events are taught in the textbooks.


To run a quick litmus test for the ideology any textbook on American history, survey the accounts of two events: (1) the debates between the Federalists and anti-Federalists; (2) the Lincoln administration and the outcome of the war. If the bias is pro-Federalist and pro-Union, then the textbook is a tool of indoctrination for the centralized nation-state. It is also an example of what in business is called bait and switch.

Muzzey’s 1922 textbook is typical. First the bait: 1788.

The Constitution is brief, clear, and simple. Its unique value from the point of view of political science is the device by which it secured supremacy of the new federal government without destroying or absorbing the state governments. (p. 145)

Then the switch: 1861—65.

Our country was first welded into a true Union in the fierce fires of that ordeal. The national state replaced the federation of states. The war was not only the triumph of the North over the South, of freedom over slavery — it was also the triumph of nationalism over states’ rights, of Webster over Calhoun (p. 613).

This exposition in fact reflects the results of what was the supreme bait and switch in American history: 1787—88. The problem with Muzzey’s textbook is not that it defends this bait and switch process. The problem is that it does not identify bait and switch as bait and switch.

The Federalists were successful in their coup dtat, which is what it was, and what anyone reading Muzzey’s textbook account of the process can reasonably conclude that it was. But Muzzey refused to label it properly.

His book was published by a major public school textbook publishing firm, Ginn & Co. In 1893, Ginn published Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law, vol. 1, Sovereignty and Liberty, by Columbia University’s Constitutional historian, John W. Burgess. He had been forthright about the activities of Madison and the framers in 1787.

The natural leaders of the American people were at last assembled for the purpose of deliberating upon the whole question of the American state. They closed the doors upon the idle curiosity and the crude criticism of the multitude, adopted the rule of the majority in their acts, and proceeded to reorganize the American state and frame for it an entirely new central government. . . . This was the transcendent result of their labors. It certainly was not understood by the Confederate Congress, or by the legislatures of the commonwealths, or by the public generally, that they were to undertake any such problem. It was generally supposed that they were there for the purpose simply of improving the machinery of the Confederate government and increasing somewhat its powers. There was, also, but one legal way for them to proceed in reorganizing the American state as the original basis of the constitution which they were about to propose, viz.; they must send the plan therefore, as a preliminary proposition, to the Confederate Congress, procure its adoption by that body and its recommendation by that body to the legislatures of the commonwealths, and finally secure its approval by the legislature of every commonwealth. The new sovereignty, thus legally established, might then be legally and constitutionally appealed to for the adoption of any plan of government which the convention might choose to propose. The convention did not, however, proceed in any such manner. What they actually did, stripped of all fiction and verbiage, was to assume constituent powers, ordain a constitution of government and of liberty, and demand the plebiscite thereon, over the heads of all existing legally organized powers. Had Julius or Napoleon committed these acts they would have been pronounced coup d’etat [sic]. Looked at from the side of the people exercising the plebiscite, we term the movement revolution. The convention clothed its acts and assumptions in more moderate language than I have used, and professed to follow a more legal course than I have indicated. . . . Of course the mass of the people were not at all able to analyze the real character of this procedure. It is probable that many of the members of the convention itself did not fully comprehend just what they were doing. . . . Really, however, it deprived the Congress and the legislatures of all freedom of action by invoking the plebiscite. It thus placed those bodies under the necessity of affronting the source of their own existence unless they yielded unconditionally to the demands of the convention (pp. 104—6).

Textbooks are less forthright than monographs aimed at scholars, who presumably are ready for more unpalatable truths.

The Civil War was the culmination of the coup of 1787—88. It made clear what had been deliberately obscured by the Federalists in 1787: The Constitution was a stepping-stone to national political centralization.

The anti-Federalists had recognized this and warned against it. Patrick Henry was the most prominent of them. But history books are written by the victors. The anti-Federalists have been dismissed as either cranks or “men of little faith” (Adrienne Koch) ever since 1788. Even the deaths of 600,000 troops (1861—65) did not validate the warnings of the anti-Federalists in the minds of the spiritual heirs of 1788. The winners also wrote the post-1865 history textbooks.


In a recent article, I mentioned what should be obvious to every tuition-paying parent, but in fact is ignored by almost all of them. The high school American history textbooks and civics textbooks used in the Christian schools are baptized versions of the public school textbooks. I wrote: “If you think I’m wrong, see what they say about the anti-Federalists of 1787, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, World War I, World War II, and the other great crusades of the modern messianic American State.”

The larger problem is simple to state: These parents were the targets of a program of political and religious propaganda that extends back for at least 150 years. They long ago adopted most of the ideology of the public school history textbooks. They still sing the old songs that they were taught as children and then practiced all the way through college. The victims are blissfully unaware that they are victims. They do not understand that this process of oppression began early: where Chapter 2 of Muzzey’s textbook began. He dismissed the colonial period as an ineffective era, an era of disunity and regional tyranny from which the Framers delivered America.

But, when push came to shove, it was Sherman’s march to the sea that really delivered America, along with the centralized national government that supplied Sherman with men and equipment. Muzzey wrote in 1922: “Besides creating a national currency, a national banking-system, a national army, and national taxes, the war extended and enhanced the power of the central government in a score of ways (p. 613).” And who had made this possible? Why, Father Abraham, the redeemer. Volume 1 of this universally admired high school textbook ended with this poem:

Our children shall behold his fame, The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man, Sagacious, patient, dreading praise not blame, New birth of our new soil, the first American

New birth, indeed! Anyone who does not detect the whiff of incense in this poem suffers from public school-induced hay fever.

Christian parents today shell out thousands of dollars a year per student to enroll their children in Christian high schools. But do they read the textbooks? Are the textbooks only marginally better than Muzzey’s, who wrote the textbook that millions of public school-educated Christian parents accepted as the common wisdom of the ages? Do these Christian school textbooks identify the source of the problem: Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and the other nationalists — misleadingly called Federalists — in 1787?

Baptized nationalism is still nationalism. Baptized statism is still statism. Baptized humanism is still humanism.


For four decades, 1961—2001, R. J. Rushdoony was the best-known Protestant defender of Christian education and the de-funding of all tax-supported public education. There were other defenders of Christian education in the twentieth century, but none equally committed to the complete de-funding of public education. The others were defenders of Christian education as supplementary to public education. His position was hard-core: Take away the public schools’ money.

His position was grounded on a concept of responsibility: Parents, not taxpayers, are responsible for their children’s education. He accepted church-supported schools, but he thought they were generally a mistake. Parents do not pay for 100% of their children’s education, so parents must share responsibility with church members. This leads to division in the churches over how the money should be spent. His ideal was either profit-seeking schools along the lines of Fairfax Christian School in Virginia, or home schooling.

He testified for the defense in a famous trial in Texas in 1987, where his testimony was decisive in the State’s loss of a lawsuit against home schooling parents. This defeat gained greater freedom from interference by the State of Texas, whose Attorney General was active in his opposition to home schoolers.

“Our Schools Are Different!”

Because of his prominence in the Christian school movement, he was forever being told face to face by parents who had sent or were sending their children into the local tax-subsidized public school system that “our schools are different.” These parents were probably suffering the pangs of conscience, so they felt compelled to defend themselves against Rushdoony’s across-the-board condemnation of tax-funded education.

Because he had not made a personal investigation of each of these schools, which supposedly were the institutional equivalent of the immaculate conception, he could not say, “You’re kidding yourself. Your schools are no different.” It would then be his word against theirs, and they were local observers in possession of “the facts.” He had a much more effective answer.

Your local schools, like all public schools, are required by law to assign textbooks that have been approved by a state textbook committee. These textbooks must meet the standards set by the nation’s educational Establishment and also the U.S. Supreme Court’s standards imposing religious neutrality. It doesn’t matter who runs your local schools. It doesn’t matter if half the teachers belong to the First Baptist Church. Your children are being taught what to believe through the textbooks.

This always ended the discussion. The parents of course still would send their kids into the “free” schools. But Rushdoony silenced them by showing that they were terminally nave. They had decided, not based on religious principle, but on pocketbook considerations. Rushdoony fully understood this. He was just closing off the apparent escape hatch of “Our schools are different.” He knew that none of these defenders of public education had ever sat down and read even one textbook assigned to their children. So, they could hardly refute him on this point. None of them ever bothered to try, he told me.


Rushdoony’s answer to the parents who insisted, “Our public school is different,” was on target: Read the textbooks.

My answer to all the parents who have delegated the responsibility over their children’s education to a local Christian school is the same: Read the textbooks.

Home school mothers are forced to read the textbooks — or, better yet, not use textbooks at all. But even these mothers face a problem: They were fed a steady diet of public school historiography in their youth, as were their parents and grandparents. Breaking that teenage addiction, mother to child, will take several generations.

It must begin sometime. I suggest now.

June 17, 2006

Gary 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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