Teaching American History


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 “empire.”

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 9 (Nov. 21, 1787).

If 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.

It 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).

We 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.

With 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.

What story would you tell?

Set up a website and start telling it.

November 16, 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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