Reconfiguring American History

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Fifty years of struggling, reading, teaching, and writing about American history throws me back to the task of once again trying to refigure what has happened through the few centuries of American experiences with government and society.

I suppose that non-history students and possibly those who simply enjoy the stories history contains assume that history is history. By that I mean that they think that history is simply recitations of facts. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and other such agreed upon factual details are the full story of history. The better histories are those that add more enjoyable details and anecdotes. The more dreaded ones are mere dates and dead people, to use Stephen Mansfield’s title phrase.

Even I thought of history this way when I first began my college studies. I wanted to know more facts. I wanted the little side-notes and stories, the funny or sad incidents, and some degree of mental chronology so that I could keep kings, popes, and presidents straight in my mind.

There is nothing wrong with an approach to history that results in lots of joy and curiosity in reading, watching, and learning. The history documentary that results in the watcher then reading a book and later going to a historical site is a boon to the profession and a benefit to the watcher, reader, attender. Biographies and war stories, in particular, often make for great reading. They are admittedly a higher form of entertainment than video games or Netflix dramas (which can be quite good as well).

History is built on the foundation of historiography. That is, history is not what happened in the past, but the written accounts of what happened in the past. I walked into my classroom a week ago and said, “It is cold in here,” to which one of my students said, “No it’s not.” And in that and a million other events, we can begin discovering the depths to which historical studies can reach.

I am going to briefly survey five books on American history that are on my “currently reading/soon to be reading/recently read” stack. I could easily add several dozen more to the “soon to be read” category and a few more to the “recently read” category. What all of these books have in common is that they are dealing with American history and are offering a variation on the way that history is interpreted. Interpretation and choice of angles are both essential and inescapable in historical studies.

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Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea by Bradley C. S. Watson is published by Notre Dame Press.

Very rarely do standard classroom history texts announce a viewpoint of the authors in the introduction. Howard Zinn’s histories, for whatever disagreement we would have, are honestly bold on a liberal, populist approach. Paul Johnson, Wilfred McClay, and a few others make clear that they have conservative approaches to history.

Ayn Rand would often, upon meeting someone, ask, “What are your premises?” (Goddess of the Markey: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.) We should ask that question of anyone who is presenting a history topic. But, it is somewhat superfluous for most of the histories we have had for some years in the American experience an undercurrent of the progressive doctrines.

On the one hand, one might ask, “Who can be against progress?” The term itself is almost inescapably good, with the opposite being bad. But the philosophical and political premises of Progressivism are of a different nature. Typically, the “feeling” derived from American history is as the government intervenes to correct societal ills and as the franchise and voice of the people is expanded, progress is being made. Also, progress involves a trading in of views and attitudes of the past with those of the new. So, a pastor clinging to old Calvinistic doctrines falls before the more progressive theologian who has found liberation in an amalgamation of Darwinian scientific discoveries enriched by Higher Critical theology.

This is not an easy, breezy book. After several slow and sputtering attempts, I am now into reading it. It is, primarily, about historiography and how history has been interpreted, rather than reinterpreting the events. It is a vital work for the historian. I would, at this preliminary stage, rank it alongside of Michael Douma’s The Liberal Approach to the Past as a useful and challenging study on how history is to be studied and learnt.

Update: I am now 50 pages into this book and am finding it to be really useful in understanding the Progressives and the Social Gospel and how views of the government and the Constitution changed during the Progressive Era.

Cronyism: Liberty and Power in America, 1607–1849 by Patrick Newman is published by The Mises Institute.

I was, in my college days, fortified against the more liberal and progressive ideas due to my having undergone a Calvinistic Worldview makeover during my freshman and sophomore years of college. But I never felt that subsequent history studies did enough to broaden my horizontal understanding of schools of history and historical interpretation.

At best, certain ideas are put out on the table for students to sample, but some of the outliers are not even considered. It would have been unusual, in my college years, to find the history course where the writings of R. J. Rushdoony and Gregg Singer were even noticed. And has there ever been a secular college course on colonial American history that has included a look at Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics ? And while Gary North’s historiographical adventures can be quirky, his books Policial Polytheism and Crossed Fingers deserve at least a footnote here and there. Time doesn’t permit me to delve into Christopher Dawson’s monumental works.

Among those neglected outliers was Murray Rothbard. Call him unconventional, out of the mainstream, one who marched to a different drummer, quirky, odd, weird, dogmatic, or whatever else you wish, but he was a serious and brilliant scholar. His books don’t just veer off a bit from the mainstream interpretations or edge over into conservative thought; rather, they provide a 180 degree difference in perspective.

Rothbard wrote a number of books, most of which related to the free market economics related to Ludwig Von Mises. (Not many economics departments will be highlighting Von Mises and his followers either.) But Rothbard wrote several historical studies. His main work was a four volume set called Conceived in Liberty. Years ago, these books were available through the Conservative Book Club and a few other outlets.

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But there was…somewhere out there… a fifth volume….or so we thought. Book hunter-gatherers like me could not figure where it was or whether it truly existed.

Enter the young economic scholar and historian Patrick Newman, While some learned languages ancient and modern and translated obscure manuscripts, Dr. Newman took the handwritten pages of undecipherable writing from the now deceased Dr. Rothbard and midwifed the missing fifth volume.

Conceived in Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard

This book, which I reviewed on this blog a year or so ago, is a detailed study of the ratification of the Constitution. Going state by state, Rothbard explains the background to the votes that led to ratifying the Constitution. The standard line is that ratification was a good and necessary event, but not so to Rothbard. He believed that the Articles of Confederation provided a better standard for the young nation than the much more centralized Constitution. Do I agree? No, I don’t think so, but I do find the study both useful and challenging. It is this kind of historical revisionism that I really makes me careful and curious about history.

Also, take note that the older Rothbard volumes, originally published by Arlington House, are available from the Mises Institute in a hefty one volume hardcover edition.

Another hefty book by Rothbard is The Progressive Era, consisting of essays that he wrote over the years that were then posthumously edited and assembled by Patrick Newman. This book contains detailed accounts of the railroad industry, monopolies, the rise of the welfare state, and political events and major figures of the Progressive Era.

With his training and learning from a man he never met, Patrick Newman has now moved from editor and student to a producer of his own book. Cronyism: Liberty Versus Power 1607-1849 deals with a troublesome topic that we would like to blame on our current officials alone. Government power is often, perhaps usually, used to enrich those who are making, guiding, and executing the laws. They have their hands in the till, to use the common phrase.

Newman’s point is that this is the inevitable result of governmental power. We have a big, big government, so it is no surprise that many who, as the saying goes, go into politics to do good, end up doing well. People makes only a few hundred thousand dollars, at most, from government positions and who have lots of expenses, end up with huge amounts of wealth. They didn’t build things or run businesses: They governed…and grew rich.

This book is next on my stack after I finish reading Watson’s Progressivism. I hope that Dr. Newman is working away on a volume will pick up where this one stops. It might take more than one to get through the history of the 20th century.

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Patrick Newman signing copies of Cronyism: Liberty VS Power in America

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders by Dennis C. Rasmussen is published by Princeton University Press.

Out of this selection of books, this is the only one that I have actually finished. It is a saddening book because it dispels the notion that there was a golden age in America’s past. Disillusionment, disgust, and despair over politics is a certainty for anyone involved in the process as a office holder, party participant, mere voter and observer, or teacher.

This book deals with the thoughts of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson concerning the very governing structure they all helped produce. In large measure, it deals with their musings after they were out of office. Their post-political thoughts were not at all uniform, but each one felt a measure of disappointment in the direction that the government was headed. For whatever reason, Rasmussen’s fifth Founder, James Madison continued to be optimistic about the American experiment.

George Washington had the doldrums because of partisanship. He warned against political factions. Ironically, his first cabinet, which was ably manned, contained the two men who would polarize the political process more than any others–Hamilton and Jefferson. It seemed to be a flaw in Washington’s mindset that groups of people could ever work together without coming to odds and forming coalitions that opposed one another. We still bemoan the divisions in our government, all the while electing people from all points on the political spectrum.

Adams was vexed that the nation did not exhibit civic virtue. We would like to think that love of country and patriotism would purify our political souls. Adams may have needed a stronger dose of his Puritan heritage to offset this. His sometimes friend and sometimes enemy, Thomas Jefferson was concerned over the divisions that were becoming more and more evident because of slavery. We can easily criticize the Founders for their foresight on the problems of slavery that lacked action.

Hamilton, certainly to none of his still vocal critics today surprise, felt that the government was too weak. His enemies falsely accused him of being a monarchist. While that was not so, he did want a more vigorous and strong central government. He died long before he could witness the way that this did happen and continues to happen.

This book is a useful primer for understanding politics at any point in time. We continually want a Savior State. We continually want a Utopia. We continually want an Ideal Government. I certainly don’t want cynicism to reign, but we need to be aware that even the best of leaders and the best of programs from the civil government will only deliver limited results. Some of those results may even be good.

We the Fallen People

We The Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie is published by IVP Academic.

I read, review, and enjoy lots of books each year from InterVarsity Press, but I don’t normally think of them as the source for studies on American history. However, in recent months, I have received three books that deal with American history from them.

I don’t like to copy and paste for this book blog, but I have yet to get into this book. I will cite what can be found on the website which is highlighted above:

We the Fallen People presents a close look at the ideas of human nature to be found in the history of American democratic thought, from the nation’s Founders through the Jacksonian Era and Alexis de Tocqueville. McKenzie, following C. S. Lewis, claims there are only two reasons to believe in majority rule: because we have confidence in human nature—or because we don’t. The Founders subscribed to the biblical principle that humans are fallen and their virtue is always doubtful, and they wrote the US Constitution to frame a republic intended to handle our weaknesses. But by the presidency of Andrew Jackson, contrary ideas about humanity’s inherent goodness were already taking deep root among Americans, bearing fruit in such perils as we now face for the future of democracy.

As is continually needed, this book calls attention to current ills and then goes back to our history, ideals, and experiences to shed light on them. I look forward to giving a more personal account of my reading of this book soon.

America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism by Ronald J. Pestritto is published by Encounter Books.

Encounter Books is becoming a favorite publisher of mine. They are producing loads of conservative works. Unlike some of the university presses, their books are affordable.

If there is a more frequent theme to these book selections, it is found in the topic and time of Progressivism. I usually found that time period and the events pertaining to it to be hard to teach to high school students. Timewise, it was located in the textbooks somewhere past the Civil War and the settlement of the wild West and before World War I. It was a lecture-lacuna. I could get all worked up over it and see how the Progressives are central to understanding today’s politics, but no matter how hard I fanned the embers, the fire among the students didn’t start.

Perhaps as a topic of historical and political study, it more often connects at the upper college and graduate levels. Pestritto is a professor of politics at Hillsdale. Although I have never set foot on the campus, I have a love for that institution because of the things I have read by some of its faculty members and because of connections with some of its students. While not perfect, Hillsdale has a very conservative thought base.

I will have to say more after I have read this book.

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