Thomas Woods and His Critics:
A Review Essay
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Washington: Regnery, 2004. xvi + 270 pp.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Department of Economics, San Jose State University.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr.'s, Politically Incorrect Guide to American History not only became a New York Times bestseller but also raised an amazing amount of furor, to a certain extent among the left leaning, who are the book's bête noire and would be expected to take offense, but especially in conservative and libertarian circles, among the book's presumed friends. Woods's survey of U.S. history from the colonial period through President Clinton has been condemned so far by Reason magazine contributing editor Cathy Young, both in the Boston Globe and on the pages Reason, by John B. Kienker in the Claremont Review of Books, by Max Boot in the Weekly Standard, and in assorted blogs, most notably by historians Ronald Radosh and David Greenberg, and by law professors Eric Muller and Glenn Reynolds.
Some of the critics have laced their denunciations with ad hominem attacks on Woods. Going beyond his book's content, they have dredged up what they consider either guilty associations with the League of the South or unconscionable past writings in The Southern Partisan. The most egregious offender is Eric Muller. Although Muller in no way qualifies as either a libertarian or conservative, his venomous assaults, descending to the low of Klan baiting, have been frequently referenced by other critics of the book.
For all of this, Woods and his editors must share partial responsibility. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (or PIG as it unabashedly fashions itself) is written and packaged in a breezy, sensationalist, and deliberately provocative style, with all the popular trappings of The Complete Idiot's Guide series or those assorted books . . . for Dummies. Throughout its pages are sidebars calling attention to “A Book You're Not Supposed to Read” with a cute drawing of a pig reading a book, or to “A Quotation the Textbooks Leave Out,” next to a cartoon podium with a sign hanging on the front labeled “PIG.” There are boxes exposing “PC Today,” and each chapter starts out in the right-hand margin with a starred list of supposedly astonishing revelations under the headline “Guess What?”
On the front cover we confront Mort Künstler's portrait of Confederate General James Longstreet (“Old Pete”) next to the caption “You think you know American history. But did you know: . . . ” followed by another starred list. The back cover informs the reader: “Everything (well, almost everything) you know about American history is wrong because most textbooks and popular history books are written by left-wing academic historians who treat their biases as fact. But fear not: Professor Thomas Woods refutes the popular myths . . . . Professor Woods reveals facts that you won't be—or never were—taught in school . . .” Blurbs announce that the book “heroically rescues real history from the politically correct memory hole” (Ron Paul) and that it “refutes the misinterpretations of American history that have misinformed generations” (Paul Craig Roberts).
Despite coming to 270 pages, the book has nice big type with lots of white space, making it in reality a slim volume. As a result, its coverage of U.S. history is far from comprehensive. Nothing at all is said about the Louisiana Purchase, President Andrew Jackson's destruction of the Second U.S. Bank, civil service reform, the Spanish-American War, Japanese-American internment during World War II, Nixon's wage and price controls, and other staples of standard texts. Even the topics included may be touched on spottily, often reducing The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History to nearly an insubstantial series of bullet points. This obviously leaves scant room for complexity or nuance, and when you couple that with Woods's journalistic selectivity and self-assured dismissal of dissenting views, it is no wonder that readers unsympathetic to any of his strong opinions are put off.
Although Woods likely could not control everything his publisher, Regnery, did to promote the book, I find it hard to sympathize with the tone of surprised martyrdom he takes in online replies to critics. He is clever enough to have known what was coming, given the way he pitched his text. Indeed, I suspect that truth be told, he actually enjoys stirring up the controversy, as he and his critics happily hurl charges of conscious ideological distortion back and forth at each other across the web.
The book's stylistic features provoke more than mere aesthetic annoyance at what purports to be an honest work of history being marketed like the latest potboiler from Danielle Steele and with all the huckstering pizzazz of P. T. Barnum. PIG's marketing and packaging is, to be blunt, misleading. Libertarian (or conservative) objections to mainstream history, as it is currently written by academics and taught in colleges, rarely hinge on outright errors, dishonest research, or disputes about hard facts. Cases of a Michael Bellesiles, who actually fabricate evidence in furtherance of political conclusions, are fortunately few and far between. Because professional historians tend to be concrete-bound, with almost undue reverence for facts over theory, factual details are not usually what gives rise to discordant interpretations. What differs is either the causal analysis or the ethical evaluation attached to those facts. This of course is a compelling implication of Ludwig von Mises's woefully neglected Theory and History.
Such respect for simple accuracy applies as much to Thomas Woods himself as to other professional historians. He is a competent disciple of Clio who makes very few outright factual mistakes—certainly no more than inevitably yet inadvertently sneak into any history dealing with so broad a span of time. For instance, my copy states on page 187 that Winston Churchill gave his famous 1946 “iron curtain” speech in Michigan, although an Amazon.com reviewer reports that the location has been corrected to Missouri by the third printing. Thus, while The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History insinuates that it will expose myths and reveal hidden truths, the actual text delivers far less than the popular packaging promises. The efforts of Woods's harsher critics to impugn his motives and accuse him of deliberate falsehoods turn out to have as little substance as Woods's impugning of and accusations against left-wing historians.
This is not to deny that Woods's interpretations are widely at variance with mainstream history. But that variance, for the most part, arises from differing theories and values—not from different facts. I therefore propose to focus exclusively on the book itself (ignoring Woods's past associations and other writings) and evaluate its historical interpretations on the basis of libertarian theory and values (this after all being a libertarian journal). How congenial with libertarianism is The Politically Correct Guide to American History? It turns out only about half the time.
Woods's book consists of eighteen chapters of varying length. Ten cover twentieth-century America, giving more recent events heavier weight. Even Woods's more measured critics, Cathy Young and John Kienker, concede that The Politically Correct Guide to American History has its strong sections, although they probably would not agree with me as to which those are. I found that the best chapters tend to focus on economic history: particularly Chapter 8 on the rise of big business, Chapter 10 on the 1920s, and Chapter 11 on the Great Depression. I would also include among the book's highlights Chapter 13 on how the U.S. got involved in World War II. The most dissatisfying chapters tend to come earlier: Chapter 1 on the colonial period, Chapter 2 on the American Revolution, Chapter 3 on the Constitution, and by far worst of all, Chapter 7 on Reconstruction.
Chapter 1, “The Colonial Origins of American Liberty,” starts out with a curious omission. Following David Hackett Fischer's well-known social history, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Woods lists four major groups of immigrants to the American colonies. But whereas Fischer makes clear that he is confining himself to English speaking immigrants, Woods leaves the impression that these four groups comprised the bulk of the colonists, who all “came from one part of Europe” and “spoke a common language” (p. 1). Being a descendant myself of the Dutch settlers of New Netherland, I could take umbrage. Yet as some reviewers have observed, Woods ignores a still larger group: involuntary immigrants from Africa, and their descendents, nearly all slaves. By 1770 blacks constituted more than one-fifth the total population of those British colonies that would become the United States, the highest proportion relative to population blacks would attain throughout all U.S. history.
Woods becomes still more selective when he takes on the treatment of American natives. In crediting the Puritans of New England with primarily voluntary negotiations and purchases in their acquisition of Indian land, he skips over the far less noble record of white Virginians and Carolinians. Within New England itself, there were complex variations. PIG, for instance, implies that Roger Williams of Rhode Island was somehow representative, when one of the several reasons the Massachusetts magistrates expelled Williams from their colony was his advanced respect for the rights of Amerindians.
What really were the relations between the Puritans and the Native Americans?
Nor should a libertarian take comfort from the fact that the Puritan consensus was “that the king's charter conferred political and not property rights to the land” (p. 8). The New Englanders' haughty and galling assumption of political sovereignty over native Americans was one root cause of such conflicts as the Pequot War. White treatment of the Indians in North America was generally characterized by the practice of collective guilt, in which punishment for crimes was extended to innocent members of the guilty party's tribe or sometimes to other tribes, as Murray Rothbard has emphasized in his four-volume history, Conceived in Liberty. That may not qualify as true racism in Woods's eyes, but is it any more justifiable? Although Woods is technically correct about the failure of the New Englanders to fully exterminate the Pequots, Alden Vaughan's New England Frontier, a pro-Puritan study that Woods references, admits that the Puritans indeed tried to. In the Mystic Fort massacre of 1637, they exhibited a brutality against women and children that horrified even the colonists' Indian allies.
In Chapter 2, “America's Conservative Revolution,” Woods contends that the “American Revolution was not a ‘revolution' at all” (p. 11). This conservative interpretation, in which the American colonists were merely resisting the innovative encroachments of the British Empire, has a hallowed tradition in American historiography and came close to dominating the profession during the early Cold War. That so much recent scholarship demonstrates the Revolution's radicalism does not necessarily prove this conservative interpretation wrong. A lot depends on how one defines a true “revolution.” The American variant witnessed all the following alterations in the internal status quo: eventual abolition of slavery in the northern states with even some inroads in the South; the separation of church and State in the southern states; the rooting out everywhere of such vestigial feudal privileges as primogeniture, entail, and quitrents; and the adoption of new republican state constitutions containing written bills of rights that severely hemmed in government power. Woods may simply choose to consider these changes insufficiently radical.
If his standard for a genuine revolution is nothing short of the terror unleashed during the French episode, then the American experience cannot measure up. But even here, the distinction must not be overdrawn. As the classic work of R. R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolutions, first called to attention, between 60,000 and 80,000 Loyalists fled with British armies during the American Revolution, out of a total colonial population of 2.5 million. Compare that with 129,000 French émigrés during the French Revolution, from a population of 25 million. America produced refugees at five times the rate as France, and while most of the French expatriates returned, very few of the American loyalists did likewise.
Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty celebrates the radicalism of the American Revolution. Although Woods lists these volumes in his bibliography and clearly admires some of Rothbard's other works, he is certainly under no obligation to agree with Rothbard on every count. The American Revolution, like so many great events, was brought off by a disparate coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. At one end of the Revolutionary coalition were the American nationalists—men such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Representing a powerful array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests, the nationalists went along with independence but certainly hoped to keep the Revolution conservative. They sought a strong and effective American central government, which would reproduce many of the hierarchical and mercantilist features of the eighteenth-century British Empire, only without the British. Why Woods would want to identify with these statist elements is difficult to fathom, given his pronounced hostility to government in other chapters, but this is essentially what he does by embracing the conservative take on American independence.
This conservative bias cripples his next chapter on “The Constitution” as well. A libertarian rendition could have absolved the Articles of Confederation of the exaggerated complaints of the nationalists, arguing that the problem with the Articles is not they created a central government that was too weak but rather one that was too strong. The Constitution, rather than representing the culmination of the American Revolution, embodied in fact a reactionary counter-revolution, designed to reverse many of the previous victories of Liberty over Power. But you will find nothing of the sort in The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Instead, Woods ends up wallowing in the constitutional fetishism of conservatives, worshipping the document (correctly interpreted, to be sure) as the sacred text of America's political religion.
The chapter at least hints that the Constitution, without its perspicacious Anti-Federalist opponents, would have contained no Bill of Rights. Woods pays special attention to the First, Second, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments, offering historical interpretations that are quite sound. He is, however, at great pains to remind his readers that the First Amendment only restricted the national and not the state and local governments, a fact that he first brought up back on page 3, when discussing the Puritans. The Constitution chapter, having reiterated this information, does hastily admit, almost as an afterthought, that only through the Fourteenth Amendment (incorrectly interpreted in Woods's opinion) did the First Amendment's separation of Church and State get extended beyond the federal level, after which the chapter promptly returns once again to the Founders' view of the religion clauses.
The American Constitution. A counter-revolutionary document?
This obsessive repetition within such a slim volume that leaves out so much other American history inevitably raises concerns about Woods's own views about government and religion. Why harp on a detail that every competent historian, informed journalist, and educated citizen already knows? No doubt Woods encounters students who have never learned how the Bill of Rights was initially circumscribed in scope. I myself get students who do not even know the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration of the Independence. In fact, some of my foreign-born students are unclear that the American Civil War came after the American Revolution. But I chalk this up to simple ignorance rather than left-wing distortions. The libertarian solution to conflicts over the religious content of education is to abolish all government schools, but reading PIG leaves one with a nagging suspicion that Woods's agenda is to bring religious elements back into government-subsidized curricula.
Chapter 4, “American Government and the ‘Principles of ‘98',” is much better, because Woods at last more closely aligns his text with the radical opponents of State power and makes a partial and brief retreat from his Constitution idolatry. Presenting a capsule history of Thomas Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions and John C. Calhoun's doctrine of nullification, he strives to show how these principles could provide workable limitations on the power of the central government. While Woods does also argue that these principles are constitutionally plausible, he stops short of insisting that they constitute the only proper constitutional interpretation. In other words, the chapter puts the focus where it belongs: on the structural desirability rather than strict legality of states' rights.
In the final analysis, there is no absolutely correct interpretation of the Constitution. From the outset, it was a political document, deliberately ambiguous in some clauses to ease its ratification, and contested right from the Philadelphia starting gate in 1787. Since then, competing theories about applying the Constitution have vied for political supremacy. American politicians have invariably embraced whatever constitutional theory fits their policy predilections. Over the two centuries and more the Constitution has been in force, only a mere handful of intellectually consistent statesmen has ever publicly concluded that government activities they favored for other reasons were proscribed under the Constitution. And I include among politicians all judges, because the courts have always been as politicized as the other branches.
It is vain for hostile critics, such as Max Boot or John Kienker, to ridicule Woods's extreme defense of states' rights. Doing so evades the historical reality of many Northerners as well as Southerners taking such doctrines seriously. That today these ideas are politically moribund has no bearing on their ultimate attractiveness. The current refusal to give states' rights a fair hearing obviously stems from their past and intimate association with the South's defense of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. Hence the importance of PIG's Chapter 4, where Woods chronicles instances of states interposing themselves against clear threats to individual liberty: alien and sedition acts, protective tariffs, and fugitive slave laws.
See Part II of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's review of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.
See Part III of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's review of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.