The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

Article excerpt

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004

It's a strange thing about myths. They define a society's heroes, villains and idealized memories. Scholars love to pierce them, since they are not exactly what one would call "truth." And yet it hardly seems a society can get by without them. They provide the consensus that cements the society into a common polity, affirming the shared premises of a people. Without shared premises, all discussion flounders, dissolving into chaos. Moreover, it is likely that myths are an inescapable part of how people face the world. Symbols that embody simplifications are, for the most part, how we deal with what would otherwise be the overwhelming complexities of social reality. Not only are myths indispensable aids to comprehension; they are also the vessels into which is poured much of the meaning that people assign to their lives. Without unifying conceptions, there would be nothing larger or more meaningful than discrete facts.

Myths are much of what the contending ideologies, social philosophies and religions struggle to create and demolish. The insistence upon "political correctness" in the United States and Europe in recent years can be understood as an attempt by the elite that prevails at virtually all the commanding heights of the society to fashion new myths and destroy old ones. The emphasis on "multiculturalism," with its elevation of Third World immigrants to honorific status and its condemnation of much that governed Euro-American sensibilities before the midtwentieth century, requires the knocking down of old heroes, ideals and archetypes and the substitution of new ones. The process is intolerant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that myth-making is not, by its very nature, something that invites debate. The impulse is to impose a viewpoint by overwhelming consensus, so that it requires a heretic to question it.

During American history the governing myths have varied greatly over time. There were decades during which "Americanism" was the reigning concept, extolling the Constitution as a document that limited government and protected states' rights, revering the Founding Fathers and the intrepid heroes of the frontier, perceiving Americans as fundamentally a "good" people, exalting Lincoln as a sainted figure, and swelling with pride over the American victories in the Spanish-American War, in France during World War I, and (near the end of the period) in World War II. It may now be obvious that this Americanism was something of an incongruous mixture, since idealizing the post-1861 United States (with its deflation of state sovereignty) and especially the post-1898 United States (with its off-and-on, but mostly on, vision of America's role as the world's policeman and social worker) is not exactly the same thing as idealizing the early Republic.

Comes now historian Thomas E. Woods, Jr., with a Politically Incorrect Guide to American History that applies a libertarian perspective to deconstruct several of the myths both of today and yesterday. The early Republic and Founding Fathers weren't all of one piece, of course, with sharp differences, say, between Hamilton and Jefferson over the role of the national government, and later between Webster and Hayne over whether the states had a right to secede. Woods sides with those who wanted a strictly limited federal government and a prominent role for the states as sovereign entities. This puts him in a position to advance several ideas about the first century of American history that are provocatively at odds with impressions Americans have long assumed to be true:

- That actually the "American Revolution" wasn't a "revolution" at all, certainly not in the sense that a total transformation of society was sought. Rather, the conflict, as those who fought on the American side saw it, was to preserve long-established rights that they believed had been trampled upon. …