THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY
by Thomas Woods
(Regnery: Washington DC, 2004)
March 20, 2005
It would be possible to write a history of America focusing on the cruelty of the Indians towards European settlers and their descendants, citing broken treaties, kidnappings, and assorted massacres of white women and children. Such a book would be factually correct but would miss the forest for the trees--since the wide angle view cannot avoid the genocidal upheavals visited upon the Indians, intentionally and unintentionally, by whites. On the outskirts of the political left, Howard Zinn is notable for an overriding forest-trees problem; his determination to highlight every instance of ethnic minorities and working poor being exploited by wealthy capitalists blinds him to the long-term trend in American history towards greater social justice.
Thomas Woods should be understood as the far right’s answer to Howard Zinn. The first chapter of Woods’s new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History sets the tone. While he doesn’t deny the “injustice and maltreatment” of Indians throughout American history, he notes that during the colonial period Harvard College admitted Indian students, that colonists “could and did receive the death penalty for murdering Indians” and that Indian converts to Christianity “enjoyed considerable autonomy.” The qualifier “considerable” is telling; Woods is cherry picking facts. It’s true, as he asserts, that Indians were quite cognizant of land ownership; for millennia, they’d fought tribal wars over disputed territories, so they knew what selling their land to whites meant. But Woods skirts the fact that such sales were often made under duress. If relations between the groups were hunky-dory, then why, in 1643, did whites form the Confederation of New England “in case of conflict with the Indians”?
Woods’s take on the forty year run up to the Civil War has the southern states essentially minding their own business, enduring multiple provocations from the North, until finally they felt compelled to secede. Well, maybe, but the business they were minding was slaveholding. That’s the forest. The trees are that the motives for North’s actions were not altogether altruistic, that John Brown might’ve received financial support from New England abolitionists, and that the southern states had a plausible constitutional right to secede. Woods misses the idea that wars of narrow self-interest occasionally morph into grand moral causes--as is happening, even now, in the Middle East. If you overlook the moral component of the Civil War, you might as well argue that the U.S. had no quarrel with the Nazis because Germany had been screwed by the Treaty of Versailles after World War One.
Sorry, that’s Chapter Thirteen.
This isn’t to say that Woods has written a worthless book. His analysis of the dubious benefits of antitrust legislation is strong, as is his take on the financial policies leading to the Depression; he does a good job rehabilitating Presidents Harding and Coolidge and taking FDR down a peg. Woods is generally on more solid ground talking about economics than about ethics. Indeed, he never comes to grips with the notion that history and morality are bound together, and that winding up on the side of the angels--the side of Jefferson’s self-evident truths--counts.