What history books should American school children read?
Most recently, the history darling-in-chief among many conservatives has been Wallbuilders’ David Barton. Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, and other conservative politicians have praised Barton’s vision of American history.
For those who haven’t followed the story lately, here’s a brief synopsis: Barton claims to be the best historian around, the only one honest and dedicated enough to discover the real Christian intention of most of the Founding Fathers. His latest book, The Jefferson Lies, came under brutal attack for its historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations. The accusations came not only from partisan leftists, but also from conservative Christian critics. As a result, the original publisher pulled the book from store shelves. Glenn Beck’s publishing arm quickly picked up the title.
In the research for my current book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across an eerily similar story from the 1920s. In that decade, the American Legion resolved to sponsor a two-volume school history. Too many of the books on the market, the Legion concluded in 1922, “contain misrepresentation of American history.” Legion leaders contacted Charles F. Horne, a professor of English at City College of New York. Horne agreed to author the books, to be called The Story of Our American People.
This textbook, the Legion’s special committee in charge of the textbook project declared in 1925, would build “character.” Too often, the Legion leaders lamented, young people “grow up ignorant or anarchistic or otherwise ‘destructive.’” There was no chance, the Legion wrote, that such youth, taught that their government deserved nothing but contempt, could mature into healthy, productive citizens. Most commercial history textbooks only tore down young people’s confidence in their society and government. A good history textbook could fix this. The proper teaching of history, the Legion argued, must teach, despite “occasional mistakes,” that American history has been “so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism.”
When a preliminary draft emerged in 1925, it earned some instant praise from conservatives who had long fretted about the deplorable state of most history textbooks. Walter M. Pierce, for example, in 1926 the Klan-backed governor of Oregon, dashed off a letter to Professor Horne. The new volumes, Governor Pierce gushed, represented “the finest history of early America that we have ever had.”
But other early readers took a different view. Writing in the pages of Harper’s Magazine, historian Harold Underwood Faulkner blasted Horne’s books as “perverted American history.” No professional historian, Faulkner sniffed, would have produced such drivel. The books represented nothing more than a “bombastic eulogy of all things American.” (Harold Underwood Faulkner, “Perverted American History,” Harper’s, Feb. 1926, pp. 337-346. [Subscription only.]) They could not even be criticized on historical grounds, Faulkner claimed, since the books did not really constitute a history. Worse, the books were intended to “produce a bigoted and stereotyped nationalism . . . a deplorable subservience to the rule of ignorance.”
Such criticism from snobby historians might not have doomed Horne’s books. But an internal committee of the American Legion itself also found the books “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements.” Instead of inspiring American youth to embrace a patriotic vision of America’s past, the Legion investigators concluded, such shoddy history could only mislead youth and heap ridicule on the American Legion.
The Legion abrogated its contract with Horne. They agreed not to receive any revenue from the book project and withdrew their endorsement.
As a result, the books never made the impact on schools Legion activists had hoped for. Even among Legionnaires, the 1920s textbook project quickly became a politely forgotten story. In 1949, for example, one Legionnaire wrote in the pages of The American Legion Magazine that the Legion ought to sponsor its own patriotic textbooks. Such a textbook series, this writer insisted—apparently utterly innocent of the history of the Horne histories—could replace the overabundance of boring pink textbooks with “the rich and meaty story of American history.” [See John Dixon, “What’s Wrong with American History?” The American Legion Magazine (May, 1949): 40.]
So get in line, Mr. Barton. You are far from the first to attempt to impose sectarian history on America. Just as the fiercest and most effective critics of the Horne books were the Legion investigators themselves, so the conservative Christian criticism of Barton’s books helped isolate and neutralize Barton’s influence.