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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in American history

History of a Free Nation
1996. 1,118 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-823776-5.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Brainless, Twisted "History"
and Ridiculous Ignorance

Angelo M. Codevilla

Glencoe's book History of a Free Nation is like a narrative of the growth of a human -- from the union of egg and sperm through adulthood -- written to account for the development of bones and muscles while saying nothing of nerves, mind, soul or human nature. Compared with most other high-school history books, this one does a better job of conveying what happened when and where. But because Glencoe's writers so thoroughly exclude the consideration of ideas, their attempts to explain things (and even their attempts to indoctrinate students) are incomprehensible, boring or both.

Unit One of History of a Free Nation is titled "A New World." The writers start out glorifying Amerindians. Then, turning their attention to the Old World, they note that the final disintegration of the western Roman Empire occurred in the 6th century. There follows a catalogue of some major events of the Middle Ages, including the Crusades, the Mongol conquest of China, and the travels of Marco Polo. All of this somehow engenders references to the Renaissance, as well as to the great voyages of Da Gama, Columbus, Vespucci and others, but the writers do not explain how these events may be related to our nation, much less to our freedom.

Apparently, the writers are trying to instill the politically correct notion that the United States is not just a descendant of Europe but has originated from the blending of many culturally diverse strains -- yet their account is devoid of cultural content. They mention, for example, that Muslims were trying to spread the teachings of Muhammad (page 20), but there is no description of those teachings and no suggestion of how they influenced life in Muslim lands. The mistreatment of Christianity is even worse. The name "Jesus Christ" appears only once in the book, in a quotation on page 50 -- without any explanation of who this "Jesus Christ" was. The word Christian appears here and there, but without any account of any Christian teachings, or of how Christianity came to be the dominant religion in Europe, or of what difference this made in the founding and shaping of the United States.

Instead, Glencoe's book offers shallow mentionings and quasicultural kitsch -- e.g., the article (on page 25) that is devoted to a myth about domestic relations among the Sun, the Moon and water. The myth is attributed to "the Ibibio people of Nigeria." The myth's meaning, if any, is not apparent, and the book doesn't tell anything else about the Ibibio, but Glencoe proceeds to ask the student: "Do the events [in the myth] help you understand the historical setting, circumstances, or specific culture? Explain."

It would be nice if students could turn the tables and put some questions to Glencoe's writers. For example: Why was it that Europeans of Renaissance times commanded disproportionately large shares of the world's stocks of technology, scientific knowledge, and the capacity to generate wealth?

History of a Free Nation does not even suggest that such a question exists.

Unit Two is called "Creating a Nation," so we expect it to answer a central question: What led the American colonies to fight for independence? The "answer" suggested in History of a Free Nation is inadequate and misleading -- and here again, we see a refusal to consider ideas. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, Glencoe's writers say, the colonists no longer needed Britain's protection, and they resented the increasingly burdensome mercantilist regulations that Britain tried to impose. That is correct. The writers also inform us that Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense attacked the authority of the king, and that Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence reflected some propositions put forth by John Locke. These facts are insufficient, however, for they leave the impression that the colonists were only seeking to protect their material interests, and that they grabbed the nearest intellectual rationalization for what they wanted. That is false.

Nowhere does the book describe the medieval tradition of natural law, canon law and common law which the British had codified in Magna Carta, and which the colonists constantly cited on their own behalf. (Curiously, a page at the back of the book gives some excerpts from Magna Carta, but Magna Carta is not mentioned in the main text or in the book's index.) Nor does the book explain that Thomas Paine's arguments against the king were based almost entirely on references to the Holy Bible: "Where is America's King?" wrote Paine. "I tell you, he reigns in Heaven."

One may dismiss Paine's words as the vulgar rhetoric of a rabble-rouser, but the sentiment that he expressed was not confined to the rabble. It was pervasive among the Founding Fathers and their entire generation, at all levels. Consider the speech that Justice James Wilson delivered in 1790 in Philadelphia, at the opening of the first American school of law. Wilson spoke to an elite audience, which included Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, and his theme was the principle that a government is worthy of respect only if it is righteous. The grand difference between British and American conceptions of righteousness, Wilson said, was that the British envisioned righteousness as something which flowed from the sovereign, but Americans held that it flowed directly from what the Declaration of Independence called "the laws of nature and of nature's God."

To understand this distinction, recall that in Britain, after the Glorious Revolution, the sovereign's power to create laws had been transferred to the Parliament -- but the Parliament was deemed to be acting on the sovereign's behalf, and the British thus kept the principle that laws were valid only if they were imbued with the sovereign's divinely granted authority. That is exactly what American law denied.

The title History of a Free Nation seems to promise an understanding of what has made the American people free, but the book doesn't deliver this. Nowhere will students read that the Founders had absorbed the historical lesson spelled out by Montesquieu: The primary requirement for the life of a republic is virtue. George Washington distilled that lesson in his first inaugural address: "The foundations of our national policy," he said, "will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality . . . the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained." Jefferson, too, held that freedom could come only from the character of the people, and he wrote derisively about how easily our institutions could be corrupted if personal virtue failed -- but History of a Free Nation has no space for such ideas.

I referred earlier to the question of what difference religion made in the shaping of the United States. Students may guess that the force of religion was minor, but Alexis de Tocqueville -- the most famous foreign observer of life in the early republic -- has told us otherwise: "On my arrival [in 1831] . . . the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found that they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country."

Tocqueville then ascribed that surprising situation to the separation of church and state. It would be beneficial for students to read about this, but they won't find it in Glencoe's textbook, which doesn't mention Tocqueville at all.

Nor does this text have much space for Lincoln. On page 403 the writers describe Lincoln's celebrated debates with Stephen Douglas, and they tell us that Lincoln made Douglas clarify his position on the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. They also report that Douglas's answer -- his assertion that the territorial legislatures could forbid slavery if they chose to -- alienated his Southern supporters and split the Democratic party. True. But to leave it at that is to present Lincoln as his opponents depicted him: as a sharpie who stood in the way of what we, today, might call a pro-choice compromise on slavery. It also ignores Lincoln's ideas about what has made the United States a free nation. Lincoln objected to slavery because it rendered all Americans less virtuous. A nation that held political debates about who should be ruled in or out of the human race, Lincoln believed, could not remain free.

But Lincoln also rejected the proposition that the federal government should free the slaves and should try to elevate them to social equality with their former masters. A government that presumed the power to do such things, he said, would also be powerful enough to turn free men into slaves. Glencoe's book fails to explain that point.

On the other hand, this schoolbook has plenty of space for pushing some of the education establishment's favorite political fancies and pet personages:

[Editor's note: Efforts to apotheosize Crispus Attucks sank to a new level of absurdity last year, when the Carol Publishing Group released a book titled The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. Crispus Attucks wasn't a soldier, by any twist of the imagination, and he was killed during a waterfront fracas which had no military purpose or significance.]

The promotion of ridiculous ignorance for the purpose of hewing to pop ideology is manifested further in the writers' efforts to ascribe "contributions" to various ethnic groups, and it is nowhere clearer than in their treatment of Italian immigrants. The writers' knowledge of Italians seems to be limited to words such as manicotti, lasagna and pizza, and nearly half a page is given to an article telling that "Italian dishes became a lasting contribution to American culture." There is even a picture of a pizza, complete with its peppers, mushrooms and olives!

Any competent treatment of Italians in America would give attention to their roles in the building trades and to their work as artists and artisans -- with, perhaps, an article telling about Constantino Brumidi, the painter whose frescoes grace the Capitol. Likewise, any serious treatment of German immigrants would describe their special prominence in the American tool-and-die industry and in various fields of engineering. Any serious treatment of Poles in America would describe their special importance in mining and metallurgy. And so on.

Students would also have profited if the writers had shown how, among the elite, attitudes toward immigration have changed. The American establishment of a century ago insisted that immigrants must melt into our common nationality. Among some members of today's establishment, the very idea of nationality is problematic.

[Editor's note: For an excellent examination of this matter, see Georgie Anne Geyer's book Americans No More: The Death of Citizenship, issued in 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Press (New York City).]

What has made America distinct from all the other nations of the world? Glencoe's writers evidently deny that the answers lie in the character of the American people. Instead, the answer given in History of a Free Nation seems to be: America has become what it is because of the actions of a federal government guided by progressive ideology. Reading this book, one gets the impression that America, for most of its life, has been a land of racial and economic iniquity, ruled by an aggressive, regressive, repressive style of morality. Only in recent times has the federal government, guided by such figures as Martin Luther King, César Chávez and Jesse Jackson, made the country free and livable.

School boards that are tired of books in which leftist indoctrination masquerades as history will not find any relief in History of a Free Nation.

As a college professor, I see that many students are ignorant of American history when they graduate from our high schools. That is bad. I also see that they have a deep contempt for the boring books that they had to use in high school, along with a suspicion that there was much that their books and their teachers did not want to tell them. That is good.


Angelo M. Codevilla is a professor of international relations at Boston University. His research and writing focus on how nations generate and employ international power. He has served as a naval officer, an officer in the United States Foreign Service, and a member of the senior staff of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence. His books include War, Ends and Means (issued in 1989 by Basic Books), Informing Statecraft (1992; The Free Press), The Character of Nations (1997; Basic Books) and a translation of Machiavelli's The Prince (1997; Yale University Press).

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