Half Told History

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

High school and college students are still expected to learn American history from a half- century-old book by an author who has been dead for 34 years. The age of the book and untimely demise of the author would not be a problem if the book itself gave an accurate accounting of America’s past.

The American Political Tradition And The Men Who Made It by Richard Hofstadter is in its fourth edition and attempts to trace the history of the United States from its founding to the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To give just one example of how misleadingly selective the book is in its use of quotes and facts: Hofstadter gives us a 44-page chapter on Abraham Lincoln that does not mention the Gettysburg Address.

Most deceptive of all is his treatment of the Founding Fathers. Economic determinism forms the skeleton of his analysis of their achievements. Taking their statements on the importance of property alone, Hofstadter offers a skewed portrait of the genesis of America’s system of government.

“The liberties that the constitutionalists hoped to gain were chiefly negative,” Hofstadter writes. “They wanted freedom from fiscal uncertainty and irregularities in the currency, from trade wars among the states, from economic discrimination by more powerful governments, from attacks on the creditor class or on property, from popular insurrection.”

One page later, Hofstadter writes, “The Fathers probably would have accepted the argument that all men are created equal,’ but only as a legal, not as a political or psychological proposition.”

Actually, the Founders were not really opaque about their intentions, as we can see from just the first paragraph of the constitution. Here it is, again:

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But how does Hofstadter read the Founders? How about this: “They were impelled by class motives more than pietistic writers like to admit.” What they were impelled by was documented to a fare-thee-well in a much more valuable text published a decade ago.

In The Theme Is Freedom: The Religious Roots of American Liberty, author M. Stanton Evans shows chapter and verse how religion guided the founders in their efforts. The Theme Is Freedom, for example, is about the only text that shows us the origin of something almost as old as this country—the origin of the holiday we know as Thanksgiving. Even Thomas Jefferson, who most historians paint as the most secular of the founders, was a man of deep religious convictions.

These convictions were so deep that even historians who recount his life in all other aspects can’t ignore his spiritual animus. This is true of Hofstadter as well.

Hofstadter quotes a revealing letter that Jefferson wrote to Adams towards the end of the Virginian’s life. “I am happy in what is around me, yet I assure you I am ripe for leaving all, this year, this day, this hour,” Jefferson wrote. “Nothing proves more than this that the Being who presides over the world is essentially benevolent.”