Another problem with history textbooks, Loewen says, is that they leave out ideas. American history is, in many ways, a history of the conflict between ideas: democracy versus monarchy; white supremacy versus egalitarianism; federalism versus states’ rights. Textbooks underplay the importance of ideas, instead emphasizing specific dates and people.
The history of the United States may be more idea-centered than that of other countries: the people who made the choice to travel across the Atlantic Ocean often had strong ideological reasons for doing so, and the Founding Fathers had strong ideological motives for building a country.
For a good example of how textbooks omit ideas from of history, consider the life of the abolitionist John Brown. In different textbooks, Brown has been described as insane, perfectly sane, and everything in between. All history textbooks agree that Brown and his followers, who included white and black people, organized a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the goal of arming slaves and starting an uprising. Textbooks sometimes criticize John Brown for being overly militant, and some treat him neutrally, but none depict him as a hero.
The depiction of John Brown found in most history textbooks stands out from depictions of other notable historical figures. Unlike, for example, Christopher Columbus or Woodrow Wilson, John Brown is never seen as an heroic figure—despite the fact that, in many ways, he was more overtly heroic than either Columbus or Wilson. Loewen will spend the first half of the chapter trying to understand why Brown is never heroified.
Was John Brown mentally ill? It’s true that, after Brown was arrested, some of Brown’s lawyers tried to plead insanity as a way of sparing his life. However, there’s little evidence that Brown displayed insane behavior, and many regarded him as a clear-headed, rational man. Textbooks often presume Brown’s madness, based on the far-fetched, even suicidal quality of his plan to raid Harpers Ferry. But based on the eloquent speech he delivered at his own trial, it seems that Brown was willing to sacrifice his own life for his abolitionist beliefs, and may have wanted to be executed to set an example for the abolitionist cause. In short, because textbooks don’t make any effort to understand John Brown’s beliefs, they assume that he must have been insane. As one writer put it, people refuse to accept that “a white person did not have to be crazy to die for black equality.”
History textbooks often depict John Brown as a madman, Loewen theorizes, because they make no effort to understand his ideological motivations. Brown probably had a strong set of abolitionist beliefs that led him to lay down his life for the abolitionist cause; however, history textbooks focus on Brown’s actions (his raid on Harpers Ferry), neglecting the motives for his actions. Loewen even suggests the possibility that textbooks characterize Brown as a madman because of a racist bias against black equality, though Loewen doesn’t necessarily agree with such a possibility.
For many decades after his hanging, John Brown was treated as a hero. But following the failure of Reconstruction and the overall degradation of African American life at the end of the 19th century, historians began to depict Brown as a madman. Brown was, undeniably, a murderer: he killed several people at Harpers Ferry. But it’s odd that textbooks don’t glorify the murderous legacy of John Brown, considering that they do glorify the genocide of Christopher Columbus.
Loewen shows how perceptions of John Brown changed greatly in the years following his execution. Surely it’s no coincidence that textbooks began to portray Brown as insane at the same time when life for African Americans was approaching its low point: in part because American society as a whole was disrespectful of black lives, history textbooks began demeaning an important hero to the black community.
Sometimes, contemporary textbooks portray Brown as a religious fanatic, who thought of himself as God’s puppet—in other words, they suggest that Brown believed that God “ordered him” to raid Harpers Ferry. Brown was deeply religious, but it seems that he was also a deeply thoughtful person, who chose to raid Harpers Ferry because of his deep conviction, not simply because “God ordered it.” In general, textbooks rarely treat religious belief as a legitimate motive for a historical figure’s actions. Instead, textbooks either downplay the role of religion (for example, in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or imply that historical figures were insane religious fanatics (as in the case of John Brown).
To the extent that history textbooks do discuss John Brown’s ideas, they offer the most simplistic interpretation of his motives: namely, that he was a religious fanatic. But religious fanaticism doesn’t do justice to the nuance and complexity of Brown’s beliefs. Perhaps textbooks omit discussions of religious motivation from history because they’re afraid of offending some readers (or, more likely, the readers’ parents).
Loewen now switches from John Brown—one of the most controversial figures in American history—to Abraham Lincoln—one of the most beloved. As with Brown, textbooks downplay the role of ideology in Lincoln’s life; they talk about what Lincoln did, but not what he believed. Lincoln, for much of his life, seems to have believed that whites were superior to blacks. Textbooks often argue that he supported the ending of slavery as a “strategy” for winning the Civil War. In this way, textbooks paint a picture of Lincoln as a pragmatic politician, not a committed abolitionist. However, there is considerable evidence that Lincoln strongly believed in the basic humanity of black people, and struggled with his own racist feelings. In his early days as a senator, Lincoln was one of the only politicians to oppose a bill condemning abolitionists, and when he ran for president, he was praised for his “rock-solid anti-slavery beliefs.” Textbooks give little of Lincoln as a controversial, conflicted thinker, and suggest that his sole priority was preserving the Union.
History textbooks have, in recent years, begun to portray Abraham Lincoln as a pragmatic politician, rather than a racial idealist. In order to make such an interpretation of Lincoln’s life, textbooks must omit analysis of Lincoln’s beliefs on matters of race and racial equality, and focus instead on his actions. Loewen isn’t saying that Lincoln was a committed abolitionist throughout his life; as he suggested in the previous chapter, Lincoln was a deeply conflicted thinker who grappled with his own beliefs and prejudices throughout his life. In short, history textbooks give a simplified, one-dimensional account of Lincoln’s life instead of painting a nuanced, three-dimensional portrait of the man.
Consider how textbooks treat Lincoln’s writings and orations—the best expressions of his ideas. Amazingly, most contemporary history textbooks don’t mention the Gettysburg Address, the most famous speech Lincoln ever gave, and one of his most eloquent arguments for the connection between abolition and American ideals. Although many textbooks quote from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—in which he made it clear that the debate over slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War, and suggested that all Americans, not just Southerners, were complicit in the sins of slavery—none give a sense for the radicalism and originality of Lincoln’s ideas.
It’s remarkable that textbooks have begun omitting any discussion of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in American history. However, Loewen believes that such an omission is symptomatic of textbooks’ unwillingness to grapple with the beliefs and values of historical figures. Thus, instead of giving a sense for the radicalism and controversy of Lincoln’s career (what modern president would dare accuse the entire country of being complicit in sin?), textbooks try to portray him as a moderate.
In order to understand the Civil War in general, Loewen says, we must understand the role of ideas. The Southern states frequently invoked the concept of states’ rights to justify their secession from the Union. And yet, under President Jefferson Davis, the Southern Confederacy also criticized the idea of states’ rights as contradictory and self-destructive. Similarly, in the South it was often argued that slaves enjoyed their slavery. And yet, news of slave revolts and runaway slaves clearly demonstrated that many slaves did not enjoy their slavery. Frustrated with the contradictions of the Southern states’ beliefs, many Southern soldiers joined the Union army. Seen in such terms, the Confederacy lost the Civil War in part because it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions: the Civil War was a war of ideas, and in the end, the Union won because its ideas made more sense. Yet textbooks almost never study the South in ideological terms: instead, they have a tendency to present the Union and the Confederacy as equally idealistic.
Ideas aren’t only a useful tool for studying the lives of notable historical figures; they’re also important for analyzing historical events and processes. To counter the assumption that ideas are somehow irrelevant to “real” history, Loewen shows how, in many ways, the clash of ideas determined the result of the Civil War: the Confederacy had a weaker set of principles and beliefs than the Union, and so it may have failed to motivate its soldiers to fight. One further implication of this passage is that, in order to succeed, a country must construct an ideology that appeals to as many people as possible, without contradiction. A country without a strongly defined set of beliefs will be unable to mobilize its own people.
Textbooks portray Reconstruction as a corrupt process, perpetrated by “radical” politicians in order to control the South. One clear example of the Southern bias in contemporary textbooks is their tendency to use the terms “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” to describe Northerners who came to the South after the war. Though this term was initially an insult, textbooks use it without any discussion of bias, normalizing the idea that Reconstruction was corrupt. In general, textbooks imply that Northern Republicans and blacks held all the power in the South during Reconstruction. Nothing could be further from the truth: it took tremendous courage for a Northerner to travel to the South to support equality between the race, because racist white supremacists exerted a lot of power.
Loewen has already talked about Reconstruction in the previous chapter, but he returns to the subject because it exemplifies the Confederate bias in modern history textbooks. Instead of questioning the propagandistic narrative that Northern politicians were corrupt, black leaders were incompetent, and white Southerners were heroic, textbooks perpetuate such a narrative, reusing biased terms such as “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.”
In sum, history textbooks distort the lives and thoughts of America’s most notable racial idealists: they portray Brown as a fanatic and Lincoln as a pragmatist. Although Brown and Lincoln are still celebrated as idealistic heroes around the world, the people of their own country barely understand what they believed, and thus can’t fully understand what they fought for.
Once again, Loewen shows how, in their effort to make history more palatable, moderate, and optimistic, textbooks deprive American students of real and human heroes, such as John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, who could inspire them to greatness.