Book Review - Why American History Is Not What They Say

Title: Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction To Revisionism
Author: Jeff Riggenbach
Published: 2009
Publisher: Ludwig von Mises Institute
The book may be ordered directly from the publisher.
It is also available as a complete download:
PDF Version
EPub Version
Also available are:
various podcasts by Riggenbach.

First let me begin with the obligatory disclaimer that I am reviewing a book written by a friend. I have known Jeff for many years.

With the disclaimer out of the way let us turn to the work. This work covers a lot of ground touching on the nature of history as a scholarly pursuit, how novels and novelists have addressed historical issues in their fiction and an interesting discussion of the shifting meaning of political labels in the USA.

The book opens with a discussion of history and how it has changed over time from being a "literary" activity to becoming increasing rigorous as it began to conform to the standards of modern scholarship. Some of the events, issues and persons mentioned in the first chapter were familiar to many and some were not. For example I was not aware of Peter Novick and his work on history and now I hopefully recognize the name and the nature of his contribution when I encounter it again. This is one of valuable features of the first chapter that while it covers and attempts to relate many different views it provides enough specific information to assist those who want to follow a specific figure.

The second chapter deals with the historical fiction of Gore Vidal and his "American Chronicle" novels. I must admit that I have not read these novels although they have been on my "to read" list. Unfortunately the list gets new additions at a faster rate that I can read. Fortunately Riggenbach has done a wonderful job of describing Vidal as a novelist and the nature of the novels in the series. If I ever do begin to read the Vidal novels I am sure that having read this chapter.

The third chapter covers the development of American Revisionism in essentially three different waves. I was aware of some of the historians mentioned here such as James J. Martin whose book Men against the State was a fascinating read for me back in the 1970s. Others such as Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes I was more vaguely aware of as scholars but I did not know how they related to each other and historical revisionism. The development and intellectual connections from the "New Historians" such as Barns and Beard to the New Left Historians such as
Gabriel Kolko and William Appleman Williams useful for quick overview for the non-specialist wanted to quickly orient themselves to the figures. The discussion of the career of James J. Martin is a very engaging look a unique individual. I was vaguely familiar with some the aspects of Martin's career and the Riggenbach's discussion of James J. Martin fills in some very interesting details. The chapter ends with a discussion of the "Libertarian" historians such as Martin and "New Left" historians on several issues and set the stage for the following chapter about the wars of the USA.

The fourth chapter covers revisionist viewpoints of the wars of the USA; the Civil War, both World Wars and also the Cold War. This is the chapter with the fewest pages in the book but it is not short on substance. For those raised on the regular high school history class version of the history of the USA this chapter will be an awakening. It is not common for people to be aware of issues related to Lincoln and violations of civil liberties or the issues related to Wilson and the entry of the USA into WWI. This short chapter should quickly alert everyone that the simple narrative stories of one's youth may not be complete or accurate.

The fifth chapter covers politics and the revisions and a general discussion of issues related to the shifting meaning of terms such "Liberal". Understanding these issues helps put Hoover and Roosevelt in a more understandable framework. Others besides Riggenbach have discussed this shift in the meaning of "Liberal" but I find his one of the most concise. Riggenbach provides a very clear and cogent explanation of why the Libertarian movement is not a movement of the Right. All of the misguided people who think that Libertarianism is "Right-wing" should read the clear and well framed discussion.

The final chapter in the book discussed the current state of history and textbooks. Textbooks have long been an area of contention and not just in the area of history. Textbooks in biology and geology have had conflicts over their content. There conflict about history textbooks will likely continue for a while. The recent events in Texas concerning high school history, humanities and social science curriculum will likely not be the last.

This is thought provoking work and I recommend it to anyone interested in history, politics, social sciences and humanities or even historical fiction.

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