American History for Ideologues
The opening two paragraphs of Thomas Woods’ The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History are astonishing. Chapter 1 on ‘The Colonial Origins of American Liberty’ begins:
“First basic fact: the colonists were not paragons of ‘diversity.’ They came from one part of Europe. They spoke a common language. They worshipped the same God.”
From 1629 to 1775 there were four waves of migration from four geographical regions of England…”
Then Woods provides a specious list of four migration waves, all from the British Isles and all Protestant. And so, in this exercise in what used to be called Anglo-Saxonism, major streams of migration from elsewhere simply disappear. The Dutch immigrants of Woods’ own New York disappear; the Germans of the mid-Atlantic colonies, almost as numerous as the Scots-Irish, disappear; the Catholics of Maryland disappear (not to mention the Catholics of Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico and elsewhere, in communities established long before the original thirteen colonies); and, most tellingly, the entire African diaspora in North America and the Caribbean disappears. Even the settlement dates provided for Virginia and Massachusetts are plain wrong.
This is not simply bad history; it is excruciatingly incompetent history. It’s also the best-selling general history text in the United States today, one that is in the top ten of the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. The author has a doctorate in history from Columbia University, where his doctoral examination committee should be walking on campus with paper bags on their heads.
The volume’s front cover gives fair warning of its contents, with a Confederate soldier – the true hero of Woods’ version of American history – scowling over boldface subtitles such as “The American ‘revolutionaries’ were actually conservatives,” “The Puritans didn’t steal Indian lands,” “The War on Poverty made poverty worse,” and “Hundreds of American liberals had secret ties to the Soviets.” The book design, which features large fonts and pull-quote boxes, uses the devices of subject guides like the Dummies series. It is this combination of antagonistic far-right counter-message, mass market design, and dumbed-down simplification that has made the book so popular.In terms of historical narrative, Woods provides a version of US history based on a set of rants that is highly selective in terms of the history it is willing to admit happened. Don’t look here for any treatment of Native America beyond the Pequot-Puritan conflict and Cherokee endorsement of the Confederacy. This is a history that uses only the evidence – or non-evidence - that fits its author’s prejudices, which can be fairly described as those of a states rights advocate, a neo-Confederate and white supremacist. Although the book takes the form of a John Winthrop to Bill Clinton survey of American history, Woods tries to immunize himself against criticism of his omissions by stating in the preface that the book “is not, and is not intended to be, a complete overview of American history.” That could be written off as hilarious understatement, were it not for the sober point that this is pseudo-history written precisely through its omissions. The genocidal Middle Passage, for example, has been omitted entirely as apparent argumentative inconvenience. Concealment and perpetuation of ignorance, not exploration and open discussion, can be the only purposes of this ommission.
Which is not to say that Woods ignores slavery; indeed, the forces generated by the institution of slavery preoccupy Woods, who essentially re-states a couple long-discredited arguments of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips and the school of Southern nationalist historiography. These include assertions that the antecedents of the Civil War lay entirely in the North’s attempts to assert political and economic dominance over the South, and to deprive it of sovereignty; that slavery had little or nothing to do with the origins of the war; that Lincoln started the war by mobilizing troops; and that the South was fully justified in resisting an unconstitutional assertion of federal authority, in seceding from the Union, and resisting Northern aggression.
In fact, as will state any honest scholar immersed in antebellum primary sources such as journalistic accounts, political rhetoric, sermon literature, or secession convention minutes, slavery was undeniably central as a cause of the Civil War. This causation filtered through many other social discourses, including party politics, law, economics, religion, and culture, but the recurring root cause is always the huge, immoveable question of African American slavery. Many citizens of northern and western states, including Lincoln, whose opinions were most commonly inflected with anti-black racism, initially preferred to believe that the only cause of war was disunion and its treason. The exigencies of the Civil War, with its massive sacrifices, required Lincoln and Union opinion to confront slavery as the root cause of the war and a moral cause in its own right. Southern nationalist historiography, perhaps represented most influentially by Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902) and culturally by Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (1905), produced the controlling readings of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras for the first half of the twentieth century. These readings denigrated or dismissed both slavery as a moving force in US history, and the centrality of African American contributions to the nation’s political, legal and cultural history. In the twenty-first century, with the benefit of generations of scholarship required to challenge and overcome such racist historiography, to pretend otherwise is American history’s equivalent of Holocaust revisionism or denial. In this sense, Thomas Woods, Jr.'s historicization is a cheap, venal version of Ernst Nolte's relativistic soft-pedaling during the 1980s of World War II atrocities, or the more recent version voiced by Holger Apfel, leader of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party in Germany. Woods' Civil War history that presents Southern whites as the victims closely resembles Apfel's calls for Germany to recognize its victimization and shed its "guilt culture."
Woods’ querulous, tendentiousness revisionism leads him to claim that “it was about slavery, but not really about slavery”; the Dred Scott decision was a charade, and Chief Justice Taney’s statements alleging black racial inferiority have been decontextualized unfairly in American history textbooks; John Brown was an insane murderer; Lincoln began the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ by calling up troops to quash legitimate rebellion against federal authority; and there was no ‘civil war’ per se, since the Southern states had a right to secede and were defending their rightful independence, not contending for national power. There is a particularly egregious mischaracterization of Abraham Lincoln, as Woods prefers to cite only Lincoln’s early racism, one he shared with much of the white population of southern Illinois; he refrains from informing readers of Lincoln’s lifelong abhorrence of slavery and profoundly altered later views acknowledging human equality. Its purpose seems to be to invite readers to share in anti-black prejudice, as purportedly authorized by Lincoln's own words, whereas the real story of Lincoln lies in the transformation of his views. In Woods' distortion mirror of history, created through exceedingly selective citation, Lincoln becomes a nationalist whose sole purpose was to centralize federal power at all costs, an American version of Garibaldi or Bismark, whereas Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are anti-slavery men who oppose secession but have no choice except resist Northern invasion.
After this farrago, it comes as little surprise next to encounter the pet theory of neo-Confederates that the Fourteenth Amendment was illegally ratified because Southern states were forced to ratify it as part of their re-admission to the Union. As Adam Cohen pointed out in the New York Times, however, the logical conclusion of this theory is that the Thirteenth Amendment was not legally ratified either, and thus slavery is still legal in the United States. One could push absurdity even further and claim that it is compensation for the descendents of white slaveholders that should be under discussion, not reparations for slavery. The purpose of this attack on the legitimacy of the Fourteenth Amendment has little to do with nineteenth-century history, and far more to do with that amendment’s guarantees of equal citizenship, due process, and its equal protection clause, all of which are anathema for the right-wing politics offended that US courts have relied on the amendment to invalidate legal discrimination against women, poor people, and immigrants.
Woods takes readers on a traipse through claims that Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller represented the genius of US society and “irrational” anti-trust legislation has suppressed the entrepreneurial initiative of capitalism; Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding were great American presidents because they did so little; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aided by the “Soviet dupe” Henry Wallace, destroyed US agriculture, prolonged the Great Depression, bought votes with make-work WPA jobs, and deceived the American people into joining World War II; Joe McCarthy was a stand-up guy rightly concerned about Red subversion; and Brown v. Board of Education was the judiciary's surrender to left-wing sociology, a decision that hollowed out the Constitution as a guarantor of states rights. By the time a reader finishes the twentieth century with claims that Bill Clinton abetted radical Islamicists and Serbians were not massacring Kosovo Albanians, the misguided trajectory of crank-written history has already been long-established.
The real question is about the popularity of a book like The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Why is a book whose historical narrative so poor, so incorrect (in the sense of fundamentally erroneous, down to basic facts), and so antagonistic towards racial minorities, also so popular?
A significant part of the answer lies in understanding Woods and many others as contemporary anti-federalists for whom American history must be understood as representing a federal government attack of over two centuries’ duration on the privilege of citizens to do as they please with their property, money, and lives. For these right-wing anti-federalists, the US constitution provides guarantees for individual liberty under a loose federation of states that may determine differently the meaning of that constitution. It does not charter a powerful national government that inevitably functions as a tyrant and deprives its citizens of their liberties. Thus Mr. Lincoln’s armies, even if they fought for Union and against slavery, or the New Deal, even if it fought to end starvation and mass unemployment during the Great Depression, were the face of federal tyranny.
The self-conceived moral purpose of Woods’ narrative lies in confronting such excesses by the US federal government and its “imperial judges” in order to rescue liberty from domestic tyranny. Claims of legal and social equality, and social policy that promotes such human rights, are foreign to this concept of American tradition. Rather, this is a radical egocentrism that promotes exclusive private possession, and individual liberty in defense of possession establishes its sacred center. As the Bush administration pursues its concept of an “ownership society,” a text like this one provides readers with a history that attempts to justify contempt for taxation and social legislation as un- and anti-American.
Joe Lockard is an editor in the Bad Subjects Collective and assistant professor of American literature at Arizona State University.
Post-publication note: Professor Woods responded to the above essay with his own comments. Eric Muller, a law professor at University of North Carolina, has also responded, noting Woods' founding membership in the neo-Confederate League of the South. Muller has continued to unearth materials testifying to Woods' advocacy of secession and participation in the white supremacist League of the South, raising the question of why the Fox Network and others have celebrated Woods as a major new intellectual figure?
The following photograph appears on the League of the South website, documenting Woods as a speaker at their 1998 conference.