Who needs sources? I’ve got Jason Bourne!
The New York Times boldly proclaimed Howard Zinn’s…. A People’s History should be required reading for all college students. Professors and high school teachers alike have responded by making Zinn’s screed one of the top ten requested academic books. The only justification can be found in celebrity endorsement and the book’s adherence to politically correct platitudes about our past. Zinn egregiously claims:
- Maoist China was “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.”
- Castro and his executioner Che Guevara “had no bloody record of suppression.”
- American actions following 9/11 were morally equivalent to the terror attack “It seemed that the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan.”
- America’s very founding was a fraud “They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
- World War II was never about ridding the world of German Fascism or Japanese Militarism- the war was America’s fault!
“Was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable.”
Where’s the research? Where’s the scholarship? Where’s the objectivity?
Zinn himself, said it best,
“I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle”
As long as young adults seek ways to… “discover themselves” and anger their parents- there will be audience for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History. Parental units are part of the so-called establishment and our farthest reaching right-of-passage in America is fighting the conformity of the “the man.” The biggest error in judgment these young rebels make is seeing the establishment as encompassing every facet of our existence- even our history…. Zinn is where too many young minds are exposed to distorted, often lazy examinations of these crucial moments.
The failure to see our Founders as truly revolutionary… is the most damaging element in Howard Zinn’s rambling. That’s what A People’s History is really, unsubstantiated neo-Marxist rambling. Europeans were murdering oppressors driven by greed; Natives were peaceful environmentalists seeking harmony with nature. The Founding of America was perpetrated by an elite few looking for a more efficient way to accrue wealth. To Zinn and his readers this is all very provocative, but when placed under the scrutiny of peer review it is amateurish.
Maybe there’s hope
Zinn’s work fails on many levels… but contextually he refuses to surrender bias to the complexities of human interaction. The Pequot war was not as simple as “Red Man Good, White Man Bad.” Our Founders were not only motivated by greed- trying explaining that to Robert Morris. To impressionable undergrads, these arguments are their first bites from the apple of nonconformity. To the middling academics who refuse to take Zinn to task, the book is an opportunity to gain some anti-establishment credibility with the youngsters.
At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record. This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history. But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.
Maybe there’s hope
As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare. If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust. Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was? Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom? Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia? All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.” To hell with what came before…
Unite us, David
There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people. Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond. In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors.
Joe Ellis explained the absence of serious Madison biographies… by proclaiming “he’s boring as hell” and that “only lawyers like him.” As previously stated, Ellis’s recent comments on the Framers and Original Intent cast doubt on the rigor of his scholarship- and these nuggets of wisdom only enhance the evidence of his misguided revisionism.
Never far apart
The revision Ellis is peddling holds that Madison and other Framers… rejected the doctrine of Original Intent on its face. The only empirical evidence supporting this notion is Madison’s oft quoted explanation for not publishing his notes on the Constitutional Convention. Once established, the government continued to disappoint Madison, driving him closer to his friend Jefferson. During his presidency, Madison undoubtedly supported Original Intent as he battled John Marshall and Congress for the soul of the Constitution. He feared the elasticity in the Constitution was being abused by ambitious demagogues- Madison wanted the power of government restrained- his original intent.
What have your wrought, Joe?
Crawford, Allen Pell, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, Random House, 2009,
“A remarkably disciplined scholar… Jefferson spent money on books the way less purposeful young men spent it on whisky or women.” Allen Pell Crawford begins his study of Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello by reiterating long-established traits in the Sage of Monticello’s character. Crawford spends the first 50 pages concisely detailing Jefferson’s life through the presidency. No new ground is broken and it is clear that the author included this introduction to fit with the book’s overriding structure, chronology.
Crawford crafts a detailed and …readable account of Jefferson’s retirement following 1809. Ample time is spent exploring the personalities in Jefferson’s extended family including his intricate relationship with his daughter Martha. Family was vital to Jefferson’s being and all the heartbreak he experienced is recounted in painstaking detail. Crawford misses a real opportunity to examine loss, one of the accepted but underdeveloped themes in Jefferson scholarship. Rather, Jefferson’s much maligned finances are retold as Crawford does his best to link them to some character flaw, though he never is able to attribute it to more than carelessness. Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s retirement will read with disillusion of the attempted murder of his beloved grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. More examination of the crucial relationships with Madison and Adams could have brought much-needed depth to Crawford’s analysis of Jefferson’s intellectual character. This remains the book’s weakest element, the examination of Jefferson’s mind.
Jefferson’s mind eludes Crawford… despite his best efforts to explain its inconsistencies. “Jefferson’s view of himself as an empiricist may also suggest how little self-knowledge he possessed…” Crawford’s error is applying traditional analysis to a mind like Jefferson’s. Biographers long ago discovered that Jefferson possessed diametrically opposed psychological features. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussion of Jefferson and slavery. Volumes have been written about Jefferson and the contradiction of his slave owning. Crawford falls prey to the politically correct pseudo-scholarship that dominates current Jefferson discourse. This brand of scholarship deals in absolutes forged in modern racial attitudes leaving no room for nuance or ambiguity. “That Jefferson could not act when urged to do more to end an institution that he acknowledged to be a moral wrong indicates the extent to which he was lacking in moral imagination.” Crawford ignores the clear and well documented evidence to contrary to make the socially acceptable conclusion. The urgency with which Crawford recounts the rumors regarding Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings nearly draws the narrative to the level of tabloid storytelling. Readers familiar with the controversy can’t ignore the fact that Sally stopped having children after Jefferson started residing at Monticello fulltime.
Allen Pell Crawford never actually… decides what kind of book he is writing. At times Twilight at Monticello is a chronological account of Jefferson’s retirement, while also trying to examine complex features of Jefferson’s psychological makeup. The result is a confused narrative filled with interesting tidbits and politically correct platitudes. Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s later years could find some use for Crawford’s study, but students of history won’t find much use for the book off their E-readers.
Peter Charles Hoffer sees nothing worse… than “consensus” historians selling millions of books. In his book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds – American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, And Goodwin, Hoffer rails against the scholarly sins of popular historical writers Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Mistakes in citation now pass for pure plagiarism in academic circles, and Hoffer revels in tearing down the reputations of popular writers more familiar to the American public. He relentlessly assails Goodwin’s defense of her mistakes(she and Ambrose both claimed simple oversight due to volume of writing) – his attacks on Ambrose ring hollow considering the confrontation was posthumous(Ambrose died in 2002.)
No room for popularity
At the heart of Hoffer’s book is a struggle… for the spirit of American history. “Consensus history,” as it was labeled in the 1960’s, was the study of dead white men and their battles– exemplified by George Bancroft and Francis Parkman. Through their glorification of nationalistic images, America’s true history(usually class struggle) is lost. Hoffer judges his forebears “falsified and fabricated by omission and commission, and substituted opinion for scholarship” and equates it to the perceived wrongdoings of current popular history. As a former member of the American Historical Association’s Professional division, Hoffer wants to know why these “frauds” were not punished more harshly. Kearns-Goodwin is again a television pundit, Joe Ellis still writes bestsellers, and Ambrose, well, he’s dead- no fair!
No frauds on television
By the end of his book… Hoffer’s analysis borders on the absurd. He praises the sensationalism(some outlets likened it to a scandal of Nixonian proportion) of the media for ruining the reputations of the writers in question. The book poses the disturbing proposition- history is either going to be popular and unscholarly or erudite and inaccessible. The works of Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough, and Evan Thomas have shown just the opposite. Hoffer’s simplistic attempt to banish popular historians from academic ranks exposes a weakening grip the New Left has on American historiography.
Unite us, David
Toll, Ian, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, Norton Publishing, New York, 2007- ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5
Ian Toll has written that rare book… that provides a fresh look at a little studied historical period, while remaining true to research pioneers in the field. Other studies, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, have examined the history of the fledgling US Navy, but Toll’s work fills the obvious gaps in historiography. Writers such as Roosevelt, Christopher McKee, Henry Adams, and even CS Forester have all studied the characters, battles, and politics of the Age of Sail, Toll’s book serves as an authoritative compendium to the previous histories.
“Joshua Humphreys proposed, in short, to build exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates…” Toll is at his best when describing the intrigue surrounding the formation and construction of our first fleet. The same radicalism that had separated us from European monarchy and aristocracy was driving our chief shipwright to challenge ship building norms. America’s first warships were going to be exceptional- Humphreys is Toll’s unlikely hero. Just as America was designed to be unconventional, so would our Navy. Politics proved ruinous from the start, and Toll does the research required to show how second-guessing and patronage nearly ruined Humphreys’ exceptional fleet. On far too many occasions, the young US government allowed partisanship to risk our national security interests- Toll’s analysis fits into debate over current events as well.
Toll’s ability to focus his writing… on the original six frigates shows commendable restraint and prevents this study from deteriorating into muddled mass of dates, places, and names. Utilizing prior studies, Toll’s historical recounting of the Golden Age of Sail is both gripping and realistic. The narrative effortlessly guides the reader from the Quasi-War in the Caribbean to the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean. Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers figure prominently in Toll’s story, but so do oft overlooked figures like Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, and Jesse Eliot. The founding of the American Navy was a difficult and sometimes bloody affair- Toll astutely points out how dueling nearly brought the officer corps of the Navy to it’s knees by the mid-19th century. And this is the essence of Ian Toll’s study– more than just battles and larger than life heroes– founding the US Navy was about blood, sweat, and good strong oak.