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Friday Interview: Unbiased History

Welcome to Carolina Journal Online’s Friday Interview. Today John Locke Foundation President John Hood interviews Dr. Larry Schweikart, Professor of History at the University of Dayton, about his recently released book, A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror. The interview aired on Carolina Journal Radio (click here to find the station near you).

Hood: : Give us a sense of why you and your coauthor decided to write A Patriot’s History of the United States

Schweikart: : Over a number of years, using a number of different textbooks, Mike Allen and I found bias ranging from merely tolerable to exceptionally bad, in almost all of the major textbooks, and we thought we could do a better job.

Hood: : Now when you say you and your coauthor were using textbooks, we should be more specific. You were teaching history, right?

Schweikart: : Right.

Hood: : You were actually looking for books that would be useful in your job of imparting the broad sweep of American history to students?

Schweikart: : Exactly. And what we found was bias in a number of different ways, including coverage — coverage of topics or individuals that would be heavily slanted toward minorities and so forth — not bad in itself, but at the expense of topics and individuals that really deserve serious coverage for any student needing to know America’s past.

Hood: : Give an example.

Schweikart: : Well, in many pages, Harriet Tubman will get more pages than Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln put together.

Hood: : Which is not to argue that Harriet Tubman doesn’t deserve a tremendous amount of coverage in any standard American history text, but just to try to grasp the odd proportion.

Schweikart: : It’s a question of proportion. The other issue of bias has more to do with the slant of the coverage and how one interprets the events, and this is where it gets most obvious to, shall we say, untrained readers — somebody who isn’t just looking for bias. When they cover the New Deal, for example, Franklin Roosevelt is portrayed as this great hero rescuing American capitalism from itself. Herbert Hoover, who was really just Franklin D. Roosevelt writ small, is portrayed as “conservative.”

Hood: : Who did nothing, even though much of what he actually did was harmful, and preceded and created a bit of an analogue to what the New Deal was.

Schweikart: : Much of what Hoover did was New Deal programs prior to Roosevelt that Roosevelt merely expanded upon.

Hood: : A lot of the concerns that one might have about American history involve either a lack of attention to business and economic parts of the story of America, and also when the attention is paid, it’s paid in a biased manner, in a manner that does not even reflect a familiarity with free-market principles, much less an acknowledgement of them.

Schweikart: : I think this stems from a lot of liberal historians’ natural inclinations, which is to view the past in light of: What did government do? What has government done? Not, what did individuals do? What did businessmen and women do? How did they create the economy? So, the concern tends to be what did government regulate, how did they regulate it — as opposed to why was there a need for regulation in the first place? What great industries were these people creating?

Hood: : For example, during the 19th century, the often-told story is, the economy sort of was weak and then government came along and did some things that made it take off — like in the 1830s, 1840s, built roads, built canals — then it was weak again. Then the Civil War came along and it created all these new industries — canning and transportation — and then there was the period of the robber barons when the workers were beaten under the jackboots of the horrible wealthy people, and then government came along in the progressive era and straightened all that out. Then there was a rebirth of robber barons and the government came — this sounds like I’m overselling the point, but it isn’t too far from what I remember reading.

Schweikart: : That’s quite common in almost all history books. Now, you wouldn’t see that in most economic history books unless they’re straight-out Marxist. Most economic historians have a sense of what caused the economy to grow, and it wasn’t government. But to take your example, in the 1830s and ’40s, most early roads, I should say, were built by private industries; they were private roads. Government only took over road-building later.

Hood: : In North Carolina, people might be familiar with, or they should become familiar with, the Plank Road, the famous Plank Road that went from Fayetteville to Salem, now Winston-Salem.

Schweikart: : The problem, as I tell my students, was not that private-sector people would not step in and meet the demand. The problem was, they had no way of recouping their costs because people would cheat. They do what is called “shunpikes.” They would enter the road down the road, and not pay their toll. And we’re seeing this now with Napster and Grokster and these kinds of things, which is going to lead to a problem in the future, which is: What do you do when entrepreneurs and artists cannot recoup their investment?

Hood: : What about politics, the straight-out politics, say in the 20th century. If you’re looking at standard textbooks that are available, how do they treat the party divides during the 20th and 21st centuries?

Schweikart: : Well, you don’t just need to keep it to the 20th century. Generally speaking, the approach of almost any of these books is — liberal good, conservative bad. Calvin Coolidge is portrayed as a boob despite, with him and Harding, about seven or eight years of peace and prosperity. Grover Cleveland — one of our greatest presidents — portrayed as an idiot. Whereas, big-government people like Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson are given very high marks for caring, or for at least attempting to have government do something for people.

Hood: : I’m glad you mentioned those names. I almost feel sort of an oddball when I read treatments of American presidents, and James K. Polk and Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge — who are my favorite presidents — get short shrift.

Schweikart: : Coolidge is probably my top six or seven. Unlike a lot of libertarians, I have Lincoln number two, right behind Washington, for his incredible vision of what the country had to be in his understanding that the Declaration was linked to the Constitution.

Hood: : What’s been the response to A Patriot’s History of the United States?

Schweikart: It has been stunning, to say the least. Mike and I expected to create this and to have to self-publish it. We not only found a publisher, but we’re in our fourth printing, and we expect to go into a fifth printing any day now. We’ve been up to number 35 on Amazon, Rush Limbaugh interviewed me for his Limbaugh Letter; I’ve been on “The Laura Ingraham show,” Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” Powerline Blog, and we’ve gotten great reviews from National Review, from Claremont Review of Books. Even the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have reviewed the book.

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