The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
© 2004 Thomas E. Woods
I don’t remember when I first began to break from believing the Standard View of American history, the view promoted in the textbooks paid for by the State and supporting its ambitions perfectly. Perhaps it was stumbling upon Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire. Although I’m now just as dubious about Zinn’s narrative of American history as those printed in DC-approved textbooks, it was useful in breaking ground for me, allowing me to consider views that didn’t have the imperial imprimatur. Woods doesn’t create a libertarian version of A People’s History here; instead, he focuses on controversial aspects in American history, even if other decades are equally target-rich. (Ah, the things that could be said about Nixon’s many economic sins and the oil crisis of the seventies…) Despite being a dissident in good standing for nearly fifteen years, and being a regular listener of Woods’ podcast for the last eight or so*, he still managed to deliver surprises. This is also one of the least abrasive and belligerent Politically Incorrect guides I’ve read, which made it more enjoyable to read, and more likely that I’d pass it on. There appears to be a huge amount of overlap between this and Woods’ 33 Questions about American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, though, so if you’ve read one the other is probably redundant.
The book is strongest in the beginning, because there’s a smooth progression and the chapters are united by a common theme. Woods opens with the colonial period, stressing the distinct characters of the colonial groups (puritans, patricians, and plebes, essentially) and uses this to point out the colonies’ fierce jealousy of one another and their independent natures. This leads naturally into the war for independence, and the struggles following to create a workable constitution that respected both the desires of the States for self-rule, and the need for a larger union to serve the States’ common interests more effectively. Even after the Constitution was adopted, Woods points out, sectional competition still existed, particularly on economic lines. Tariffs that supported the North burdened the South, for instance, and the economic masters of the northeast and south continually competed against one another for political power. This, more than moral ardour or commitment to the American ideal of liberty, motivated the North’s attempt to restrict the expansion of slavery, and economic factors also influenced the North’s refusal to let the Southern states go: if the North insisted on noxious tariffs, the South could turn to Europe as its primary trading partner. David Williams, no libertarian, argued much the same in his People’s History of the Civil War. The grappling between each set of economic masters mattered little to the common soldier, of course most southerners owned no slaves and resisted the bluebellies for the same reason their forefathers fought the redcoats – independence and defense against invasion.
From here, the history is more episodic: Woods examines the push west, for instance, pointing out the inefficiency and corruption that followed when DC began giving railroad companies land grants, and defends Rockefeller and Carnegie against smears that they were robber-barons. The early 20th century offers plenty of grounds for commentary: Wilson’s hypocrisy and malice during the Great War are dealt with extensively: his lying to Americans to push his country into combat, and treating the blockade of Britain as a moral outrage while ignoring Britain’s harsher blockade of Germany, not to mention insisting that American ships should be able to sally through an active war zone without any risk whatsoever, when the Brits were known to fly false flags and use civilian ships like the Lusitania to move munitions. (Howard Zinn, again no libertarian, also points this out in his People’s History of American Empire.) Woods then debunks Hoover’s reputation as someone who “did nothing”: in fact, Hoover began the government intervention in the crisis of 1929 – 1930, expanded and made more malignant by Roosevelt, that made what should have been an ordinary economic hiccough into a prolonged Depression. (It’s not an accident that the first economic disruption after the Federal Reserve was created was also the worst: nothing good happens when self-appointed wannabe technocrats start trying to manage something as organic and complex as an economy.) Roosevelt, as you might imagine, gets a solid thrashing beginning with the New Deal and continuing with his dragging the United States into World War 2 and bullying the opposition by pulling radio licenses and siccing the FBI goon squads on dissenters. (The FBI, minions of empire since their inception!) The post-WW2 period is more scattered: Woods examines the legacy of the Civil Rights period, including the patent racism that affirmative action embodies, attacks Reagan’s reputation as a small-government kind of guy, and points to the disastrous foreign policy escapades of the 1990s, which would inflame anti-American sentiment in the mideast and end in horror in 2001.
All told, this was an entertaining and interesting romp through American history. Aside from the early colonial period, I was familiar with most of the content already. Woods skipped over some potentially interesting bits in American history, like the rise of the labor movement and the aforementioned mistakes of the 1970s, but he was no doubt restricted for space: the Politically Incorrect guides I’ve seen are fairly uniform regarding the size and formatting of the books. I’m most interested in his argument that relations between the early colonists and the native populations were more diverse and peaceful than understood — particularly the claims that some tribes invited European settlement to create buffers and allies between themselves and other tribes, and that the popular story that natives had no conception of selling land is an absolute lie. That merits further digging. In addition to this book being far more professional in tone than many in the PIG series, it has the added attraction of featuring criticism against both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, given Woods’ libertarian sympathies.
* The Tom Woods Show, which is a half-hour daily with subjects spanning history, economics, literature, and progressive rock. The show introduced me to the work of Scott Horton and Brad Birzer, among others. I’ve been listening to it since 2013 or so.