Posted: May 11, 2005
ith its large print and simple phrasing, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (or PIG as it cheerfully calls itself) is a fiery polemic aimed at students besieged by the "stale and predictable platitudes of mainstream texts." It is not a comprehensive history of America, but a kind of thematic one; a lot of liberal icons and shibboleths take a beating, and rightly so in many cases. Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations was an unrealistic scheme. Franklin Roosevelt's rhetoric was filled with dangerous "anti-business zealotry." Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was a failure with terrible consequences.
Much of the book, however, is simply over the top. Bill Clinton, we're told, "abetted Islamists." PIG also throws in an embarrassing detail whenever it can, glibly noting the extramarital affairs of presidents Clinton, Johnson, and John F. Kennedy. (Strangely, that ripest of targets, Jimmy Carter's presidency, is passed over entirely in this book— perhaps because he only lusted in his heart.)
And then there's the book's simpleminded obsession with lower taxes and isolationism. Ronald Reagan is defended only for "his belief in the moral superiority of the free market"—as if that's all he stood for. The Truman Doctrine is derided as "utopian." Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson are all criticized for going to war—and not for rejecting the limits of constitutional government at home.
When PIG does stumble across first principles, it doesn't know what to make of them. Early in the book, for instance, it claims that "[t]he American Revolution was not a 'revolution' at all." Instead, "[t]he colonists wanted to maintain the rights they enjoyed from tradition and custom." Really? Then why did they justify their independence by the laws of nature rather than the laws of England, declare their country a "new order of the ages," and abolish such British customs as primogeniture and entail... oh yes, and monarchy?
Thanks to heavy promotion from many outlets on the Right, including its being named a "Main Selection of the Conservative Book Club," the Politically Incorrect Guide has been enjoying strong sales, especially on college campuses. So much so, that the PIG has landed on the New York Times bestseller list, prompting one Times editor to describe it as a "neocon retelling of this nation's back story," and another to dismiss it as "a checklist of arch-conservative talking points" rather than genuine history. The term these poor editors are fumbling for is "paleocon."
At its core, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is just more wheezy propaganda from the Old Confederacy (the book's cover features a scowling Dixie general). "Thomas E. Woods, Ph.D.," as he refers to himself, a professor of history at the Suffolk County Community College in New York, rehearses all the familiar fictions: the "States had the right to secede," the so-called Civil War was really a "War of Northern Aggression," Abraham Lincoln was probably a racist and only "fought to 'save the Union and consolidate its power."
Granted, Abraham Lincoln wanted to save the Union, the Union that the American Founders had established, dedicated to the proposition of human equality and constitutional majority rule. When he was elected president, a minority of citizens refused to abide the results of his legitimate election. But they were in a bind. They hadn't suffered a long train of abuses as their founding forefathers had, and what's more, they couldn't invoke the laws of nature and of nature's God because they were seeking to strengthen and perpetuate a slave system that made a mockery of natural rights.
And so they denounced the central principle of the American Founding as a "self-evident lie" and invented a supposedly lawful "right" to secession— a constitutional right to overthrow the Constitution! This is absurd on its face. But not to Thomas E. Woods, Ph.D. He says that states like Virginia and Rhode Island actually reserved the right of secession when they ratified the U.S. Constitution. Though he admits that "[s]ome scholars have tried to argue that Virginia was simply setting forth the right to start a revolution," he finds this interpretation "untenable." Of course, the ratifying documents of those states make no mention of secession but do speak of "certain natural rights." The Constitution itself never condones secession, though it does insist that "No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation," and "No State shall, without the Consent of Congress...enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State."
Unable to distinguish between secession and the right of revolution, Woods blithely reproduces quotes from Thomas Jefferson and even Abraham Lincoln that refer to the latter, not the former. In discussing the nullification crisis that was the dress rehearsal for Southern secession, Woods claims that "nullification isn't as crazy as it sounds." James Madison was still alive at that time, and publicly affirmed that the Constitution "was formed, not by the Governments of the component States" and "cannot be altered or annulled at the will of the States individually." Woods suggests Madison's thought lacked "coherency." But then Madison wasn't a Ph.D. like Woods.
It's no surprise to learn that Woods is a founding member of the League of the South, which officially declares: "The people of the South must come to understand that they indeed are a 'nation,'" and may resort to secession if their demands are not met.
Though debunking him is fun, what's really at stake is the conservative movement's respectability and honor. As conservatives, we embarrass ourselves when we promote sloppy scholarship. We disgrace ourselves when we promote books, like PIG and others, that seek to discredit the principles of the American Founding.