Review of The Beards’ NEW History of the United States

Publisher: Doubleday, 1944, 1960

Okay, okay, it’s not NEW.  It just says that on the spine, and no doubt it was NEW at the time that spine was made.  But aggressive sales tactics only work for so long, and I doubt you could sell this book now for much more than I paid for it, the enormous sum of 50 cents at the Simi Valley Public Library.

The history is mostly good, inasmuch as there are no overaggressive moral claims as our current crop of historians feel obliged to place in their work.  It is strictly fact based, and it provides a range of facts far exceeding that presented in most works of history, in large part because the Beards were early adherents of the study of the material influences on political and social development.  In that sense it is more comprehensive–and more instructive–than any of the variety of textbooks we now use to teach high school students.

However–while there are no overaggressive moral claims in the work, there are moral claims hidden in the telling, and they are hidden in such a way as to make it easy to overlook their presence.  This I have a problem with, because it is a way of distorting history that is very subtle.  So, for instance, the figure of John C. Calhoun is discussed as a War Hawk senator and later the most aggressive of the Southern congressmen, but in their discussion of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 the Beards never mention his name, and they never mention his work as Vice President, in which office, largely because of the Nullification Crisis, he was one of the three most important occupants in our history, along with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon.  When discussing the literary output of the antebellum period, they give short shrift to the Disquisition on Government, and they do not mention the phrase ‘concurrent majority’ which is Calhoun’s major idea.  Instead it seems they give more credence to advances in surgery at the time, ignoring the fact that this was a period that did not know germ theory and whose advances, in light of the rate of surgical failure during the Civil War, can only be considered as minimal.  In the same vein, the name of Henry David Thoreau does not appear–as though, in the literary advances of the antebellum period, neither Walden nor Civil Disobedience was of any importance.

In essence one has to be very careful reading this book, because the omissions are overwhelming, especially as regards the South.  The name of Stonewall Jackson does not appear, despite the fact that he is one of the greatest of all American generals and his military strategy remains a subject of study.  Regardless of whether you agree with the Confederate ideal, it seems to me almost impossible to discuss the Civil War and not mention Stonewall Jackson, whose death changes the course of it, if not necessarily the outcome.  The same is true of J.E.B. Stuart, one of the great heroes, albeit in a losing cause, of American history.  Ditto for John Randolph of Roanoke, one of the great politicians of the early Republic and an important influence on Southern conservatism, which was then and remains now an enormously influential trend in American politics.

The book takes for granted the role of the federal government and does not present in a serious manner the serious concept of ‘states’ rights’ which Henry Adams, himself no states’ rights proponent, called ‘a sound and true doctrine.’  And this to me is problematic.  It takes the Hobbesian model of a Leviathan, growing at its subjects’ expense, as the model of United States government–and it uses the Constitution as its justification for so doing.  In that sense it parallels Richard Hofstadter’s claim in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It that the Constitution was created with Hobbes and Calvin as its primary intellectual progenitors.

According to Hobbes civil society is an implementation of God’s will and when men join into it, the act of rebellion becomes theologically and morally wrong under any pretexts whatsoever.  And in that line of thinking also comes Calvin, who says that men get the government they deserve, and if they get tyranny they must passively bear with it, as it is God’s preordained wish for them to have it.

On the surface of it the attribution of intellectual debt from the Constitution to Hobbes and Calvin is a contradiction in terms.  Under Hobbes’ philosophical model there is no need for a Constitution, and the very act of writing one is most likely a dangerous evil.  Under Calvin’s model a Constitution is merely a waste of time and energy, since no human construction matters and only the will of God will prevail.

So, long story made long, I recommend this book with extreme caution, as a student both of political theory and of American History.  It is better than much of what has been written, especially in its emphasis on the material foundations of American political and social development, but it is extremely problematic in several respects, all of which deserve to be noticed.

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