[Recently by John Zmirak: Learning To Love The West]
[VDARE.COM note: This article is updated from a review commissioned by the American Spectator, but not published.]
Valuable books, like valuable men, can be identified by the enemies they attract. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, published last December and a New York Times best-seller for many weeks, attracted all the right ones.
The book is a breezy, fact-laden and idea-rich sequential review of America's past from a classical liberal perspective. Author Thomas Woods, a frequent contributor to LewRockwell.com and author of several compelling historical polemics, knows how to hold his readers.
Woods does not directly address the immigration issue, although the debate that led to the cut-off of the 1880-1920 Great Wave could certainly do with his revisionist approach. But in his opening chapters he makes the crucial point: a chief element in the initial success of the infant United States was their relative cultural homogeneity.
In his chapter on the American founding, Woods echoes the position of John Jay, who thanked divine Providence for providing the new nation with a culturally almost uniform population. This was one of the late Sam Francis' favorite passages in The Federalist Papers. (Samuel Huntington, interestingly, notes in Who Are We? that slaves also partook in this homogeneity, absorbing their language, religion, and worldview from their owners.)
Woods also cites Alexander Hamilton, who wrote that a republic depended for success
"essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family."
Because of this, Hamilton warned against "the influx of foreigners."
If Hamilton were proposed as Secretary of the Treasury today, he couldn't be confirmed. And it would be certain "conservative" pundits who would most be for blocking him!
The chief villains of American history, for Woods, are power-hungry centralists and the Supreme Court justices who heed them. As an historian with four Ivy League degrees, Woods demonstrates that the creators of our Republic were not engaged in a quest for universal equality, distributive justice, or even an "ownership society," but rather for a limited, decentralized government meddling as little as possible with the lives of individual families. Having seen what tyrannical governments could do, the Founders tried to tie Leviathan down—like Gulliver—with thousands of constitutional strings that would prevent the growth of tyranny.
The story Woods tells in his book is focused on the severing, one by one, of these protective strings by American politicians—always in the name of some high ideal, usually under the pretext of crisis or war. (In a way, Woods has written a popular version of Robert Higgs' classic Crisis and Leviathan.)
This piecemeal betrayal of our founding principles has transformed the United States into something very like…Canada. You know, the other North American colony—which didn't have a revolution, and today in many ways is shockingly unfree. There is one country which still hews to the federalist, libertarian principles of America's Founders. Sadly, that country is Switzerland.
Woods rejects the programs of so-called "Big Government" conservatives as well as of liberals, and questions the accepted view of the "robber barons," anti-trust regulations, the New Deal and the Great Society. He argues most of the ham-handed interventions made in our economy have done more harm than good—for instance, prolonging unemployment and worsening hunger during the Great Depression, undermining poor families through the Great Society, and devastating public schools through forced integration. (His account of the faked sociological studies which were cited by the authors of the decision Brown v. Board of Education is eye-opening.)
Aware that our Founders did not aspire to a world empire, but a serene republic, Woods also excoriates military adventurism, whether pursued for the sake of crude national benefit —or in pursuit of utopian phantoms.
Woods accepts the original sovereignty of the individual states, and challenges the pious view that Abraham Lincoln was a Christ-figure who died that our nation might live. He argues that Lincoln and his Radical Republican successors effectively founded a new national government on profoundly different principles from the old.
And no, Lincoln did not invade the South to end slavery. Woods cites the constitutional amendment Lincoln supported, which would have enshrined slavery in America permanently, along with a choice set of shockingly racist statements by Lincoln himself and many of his supporters—who sought to keep the new states of the West all-free and all-white.
The book is laced with these tidbits—for instance, did you know that General Robert E. Lee owned not a single slave, while Ulysses S. Grant did, and refused to free them until forced by the 13th Amendment? That our country was the only one of many slave-owning ones which needed to resort to a civil war to abolish slavery?
This kind of thing is handy to know.
Like his associates on the antiwar Right, Lew Rockwell, Justin Raimondo and Pat Buchanan, Woods is a radical thinker. His analysis is radical in the truest sense—it drags us, willing or not, to consider the roots (radix) of our nation's philosophy of governance, and shows how one core principle after another has been betrayed by America's political leaders.
So it is no surprise that this book has offended the guardians of reflexive orthodoxy on the Left and the squishy Center. Many have done their damnedest to kill or demonize this book.
But it has been the ferocious hostility of the neoconservatives which has been most illuminating—especially as the ideas the book advances on economics are to a large degree common ground.
The neocon Claremont Review trashed the book as anti-American—because it dissents from their peculiar treatment of the Declaration of Independence. The dominating force at Claremont, political philosopher Harry Jaffa, has spread far and wide throughout the Right the notion that The Declaration of Independence is virtually Sacred Scripture, the nation's first binding law, which may never be revised, and every tenet of which—as interpreted by him—must guide our judgment of the subsequent Constitution.
(As a Catholic, I certainly hope that isn't true: one of the grievances which Jefferson introduced into the Declaration was that King George tolerated my Church in Quebec. If Jaffa prevails, I suppose we Catholics will all have to move there!)
Woods subscribes to the more rational view that the Declaration is more a work of inspiring Enlightenment rhetoric, laying out basic principles for governance in a general way.
Of course, Jaffa and the neoconservatives have an ulterior motive: they seek to transform the American quest for small government and domestic liberty into an armed revolutionary ideology. Claes Ryn of Catholic University has aptly called the partisans of this view "the New Jacobins." It parallels that dark Enlightenment doctrine which took power in post 1789 France, and sought to impose itself on as much of the world as it could conquer.
The harshest words about the book came from the neocon vehicle The Weekly Standard, [Incorrect History] in a review by Max Boot—the Russian immigrant who famously complained that not enough American lives were at risk in Afghanistan.
Boot was infuriated by Woods' distaste for foreign wars. He descended to personal attacks upon the author, and even on his publisher—calling Regnery Books "once-respectable," as if it had begun to publish pornography. No doubt Boot would in fact prefer pornography to books that dissent from the neoconservative line.
Boot's goal was not so much refutation as anathematization. Boot has famously bragged that neocons were the type of conservative whom liberals will feel comfortable inviting to cocktail parties. And the rest of us on the Right, lingering outside the K-Street cocktail scene? One does not refute such people, Boot seems to say. One merely declares them taboo.
Woods has told me in an interview that he believes another reason neoconservatives have gone after the book is the implicit support it provides for immigration control. However nationalistic and jingoistic neoconservatives may purport to be in foreign affairs, the only definition of American identity which they will tolerate is the faintest one possible—a set of Enlightenment ideological slogans, and a commitment to consumerist capitalism. (Elsewhere I have written about this, calling it "America the Abstraction.)
Any other vision of America—either ethnic, cultural, or religious—must be rejected, demonized, and suppressed.
Woods is unwilling to be suppressed. He has written elsewhere that the growing diversity of American society, with the ever-expanding social challenges and value conflicts it generates, facilitates the growth of big government—as a useful arbiter in the cultural melee which it has (by failing to guard the borders) created.
As he has put it to me:
"The whole leftist establishment encourages immigration…for electoral purposes, to build bureaucratic empires catering to them. Multiculturalism benefits them, as does anything which disrupts American society. … I don't think it's too much to say that some of these people are building a PC police state."
About those who would suppress discussion of America's immigration dilemma by hurling moral opprobrium Woods says:
"These people seem not to realize that every time we do polls, 70 percent of Americans feel there's too much immigration. So if you call this position racist, hateful or evil, what are you saying about the majority of your own countrymen?"
Good question. Woods' book is full of such questions.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is not for conformists. It will merely make them frightened.
But if you value the principles upon which our Founders thought (and said, and wrote) they were basing our system of limited government and liberty—and national integrity—then you're in for the ride of your life.
John Zmirak [email him] is author of the upcoming The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living (Crossroad Publishing, N.Y., Fall 2005).