June 21, 2005
The Politically Incorrect Guide To American
By John Zmirak
by John Zmirak:
Learning To Love The West]
This article is updated from a review commissioned by
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
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,
worldview from their owners.)
Woods also cites Alexander
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
Like his associates on the antiwar
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Any other vision of America—either
religious—must be rejected, demonized, and
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:
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
About those who would suppress
discussion of America's immigration dilemma by hurling
moral opprobrium Woods says:
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
national integrity—then you're in for the ride of
him] is author of the
The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living
(Crossroad Publishing, N.Y.,