Good History and Good Citizens: Howard Zinn, Woodrow Wilson, and the Historian’s Purpose [Teaching America Excerpt]
Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, is a collection of 24 original essays from an extraordinary set of leading public officials, educators, and intellectuals on the essential American question: how to sustain our experiment in government of, by, and for the people. Teaching America is edited by David Feith, editor emeritus of The Current. It was published in 2011 by Rowman and Littlefield. Contributors include Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Alan Dershowitz, and Juan Williams. The following are two excerpts from the book. The first is a modified preface to the book by David Feith, outlining the broad goals he envisioned with Teaching America’s publication. Second is an essay by Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent Magazine, analyzing the place of historians in forming civic education.
By Michael Kazin
What kind of historical works might encourage us to become better citizens? There is no single or simple answer. Readers approach studies of the past with different levels of knowledge, sophistication, and interest. And merely being informed does not guarantee that one will put that knowledge to beneficial ends. Hitler and Stalin were both keen students of the past.
Writers and readers of history do share one characteristic: Consciously or not, they all adhere to the maxim that history is what the present wants to know about the past. Contemporaries inevitably view what happened through a lens crafted by the ideologies, events, and institutions of their own times. Thus, all worthwhile history is “revisionist”: The discipline remains fresh only because historians discover something original to say about the past—either based on original research, on a new way of seeing old subjects, or both. Successful teachers, meanwhile, prepare their lessons conscious of the ideas and assumptions that students bring into the classroom. The past may be a foreign country, but when we visit it, we have no alternative but to wear the clothes and speak the language of our contemporary habitat.
After traveling into that vanished world, some historians produce works that increase readers’ appreciation and understanding; others only reinforce what citizens already believe. The first group nudges Americans to empathize with people of previous generations and to debate the choices they made; the second avoids unsettling prejudices or questioning narratives that readers already have in their minds. Wise historians help to further what should be the main purpose of civic education: to revitalize democracy, to give American students a sense that self-government can be intellectually engrossing as well as the best way to serve their interests.
In the 1920s, the philosopher John Dewey and the philosophically minded journalist Walter Lippmann debated a vitally important question: Are ordinary citizens competent to understand the problems of a modern industrial society and to aid politicians in taking responsible steps toward solving them? Lippmann argued that most people thought of public life in terms of stereotypes, which made them easy prey for candidates and office holders who knew how to manipulate clichéd words and images. It would be better, he wrote, to leave governance to trained experts and those politicians willing to take their advice.
Dewey conceded that most people lacked the knowledge required to make good policy in a complex modern society. But he disagreed that decisions pivotal to their future should be made without their participation and assent. What was needed was a style of pedagogy, both in schools and beyond, that encouraged critical thinking and a vigorous debate about alternative choices. Teachers, the press, and public figures should all, wrote Dewey, “cultivate the habit of suspended judgment, of skepticism, of desire for evidence, of appeal to observation rather than sentiment, discussion rather than bias, inquiry rather than conventional idealizations.” In so doing, they could help construct a “Great Community” whose deliberations would lead to better governance and a more dynamic democracy.
Unfortunately, some influential historians have offered versions of the past that contain just those flaws that Dewey warned against. Consider how two enormously popular writers, Woodrow Wilson and Howard Zinn, interpreted the Civil War and Reconstruction, one of the most consequential eras in US history. During the years from 1860 to the mid-1870s, Americans suffered more than a million casualties in battle, abolished slavery, ratified three critical amendments to the Constitution, and sped the industrialization of their society. Everyone who lived through those events died long ago, but they persist in popular memory—as demonstrated by frequent reenactments of battles and ongoing debates about whether to honor the Confederacy, or condemn it.
Wilson’s A History of the American People and Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States have little in common, apart from their similar titles. Wilson’s book was first published in 1892, when the future US president was a professor at Princeton University; the tome by Zinn, the long-time radical activist and professor at Boston University, came out in 1980. But each, in its own way, offered an interpretation that cheered one side in a past conflict while disparaging the other. Each work strengthened the barricades between citizens instead of generating insights that might have helped them understand the roots and implications of their differences.
For Wilson, the Civil War was a colossal misunderstanding. In his view, before 1860, most Southerners had no desire to break up the Union, and hardly any Northerners supported abolition. But Abraham Lincoln’s “narrow victory” in the four-way election of that year brought to power the Republicans, a party that all of Dixie believed was “bent upon the destruction of the southern system and the defeat of southern interests, even to the point of countenancing and assisting servile insurrection.” That was not Lincoln’s intention, but such powerful radicals as Secretary of State William Seward refused to entertain any compromise. Then, the attack on Fort Sumter “aroused” both sides to mobilize for war.
Wilson’s explanation of what caused the war—hotheads on both sides had gotten their way—aligned with the prevailing wisdom of his time. Slavery, it was thought, had been no reason for Americans to kill one another. Professors from the best colleges, politicians from the major parties, and editors of the leading magazines and newspapers all agreed that most planters had treated their slaves benignly and that regional antagonisms should never have led to bloodshed.
Undergirding these views was the assumption that whites were the superior race. Wilson agreed with the influential Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz that black people were “in natural propensities and mental abilities . . . indolent, playful, sensual, imitative, subservient, good-natured, versatile, unsteady in their purpose, devoted and affectionate” and with the popular historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, who wrote that slaves were “as credulous as children, which in intellect they in many ways resembled.” Such statements, which we now consider crudely racist, essentially absolved slave owners of any blame for the conflict despite Lincoln’s statement, in his Second Inaugural, that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war.”
For Wilson, the Reconstruction process that followed the Confederate defeat was an even greater outrage than the war itself (which, for all its gore, had at least been an occasion for men to achieve glory by sacrificing their lives for their homelands and their compatriots). In his view, the radical Republicans in Congress and their white henchmen down South manipulated “the easy faith, the simplicity, the idle hopes” of newly liberated blacks to gain power and ill-gotten wealth for themselves. The keystone of their plan was the granting of suffrage to the freedmen while denying it to “the more capable white men.” No wonder those white men, “aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation,” joined groups like the Ku Klux Klan “to protect the southern country from some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution.” Wilson did not praise the Klan’s “lawless work,” but neither did he condemn it.
There was nothing particularly original in Wilson’s best-selling work, which suggests how pervasive its opinions were at the time. Deeming the Civil War and its violent aftermath avoidable helped comfort white citizens who cared a great deal about reconciling with one another and hardly at all about racial injustice. “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s cinematically innovative and luridly racist 1915 film about the war and Reconstruction, quoted from Wilson’s book. Soon after its release, then president Wilson invited his cabinet officers and their wives to attend a special screening of the film in the White House. Complaints by activists from the recently established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People went unanswered. “I’m Southern but I have very little ease with coloured people or they with me,” mused Wilson. “Why is it? For I care enormously about them.” On the subject of race, a highly intelligent writer and skillful politician turned into an ignorant fool.
Unlike Wilson, Howard Zinn had no intention of writing a balanced study. Every work of history, he believed, is a political document. He titled his thick survey A People’s History so that no reader would wonder about his point of view: “With all its limitations,” Zinn wrote of the book, “it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.”
That judgment, Zinn announced, set his book apart from nearly every other account that Americans were likely to read. “The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”
His message has certainly been heard. A People’s History is the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. Thirty years after its first publication, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college and high school courses, sold close to two million copies, and made the author a celebrity whose obituary ran in newspapers all over the United States and Western Europe.
But Zinn’s vision of the Civil War era is as myopic as Wilson’s, albeit with a left-wing populist mote in his eye instead of a racist one. Wilson apologized for the slave owners and sympathized with those Southerners—like his father, a Presbyterian minister—who believed that black soldiers and voters imperiled the civilized order. Zinn, a secular Jew and radical activist, viewed the war and Reconstruction almost solely through the eyes of slaves and freed people. His heroes were black abolitionists like David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, and white radicals like John Brown, who died in a failed attempt to inspire a grand slave revolt.
Morally, Zinn’s position was clearly superior to Wilson’s, as he understood that slavery depended upon a regime of brutality and soulless profit making that no historian should excuse. But his analysis of the American past smacked of a conspiracy theory. According to Zinn, “99 percent” of Americans have always shared a “commonality” that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers, and that phenomenon is “exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them—from the Founding Fathers to now—have tried their best to prevent.” History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who kept struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and tolerance, yet somehow were always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles were matched only by their greed. He described the American Revolution, for example, as a clever device to defeat “potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
According to Zinn, the Civil War was just another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by “an aura of moral crusade” against slavery that “worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.’” Soldiers were, in effect, brainwashed into believing that Abraham Lincoln cared deeply about the survival of the Union and the evil of slavery, when the president’s true purpose, along with that of the Republican Congress, was to pass laws (such as the creation of a national bank and the funding of a transcontinental railroad) “for the benefit of the rich.”
Like most propagandists, Zinn measured individuals according to his own rigid standard of how they should have thought and acted. Thus, he depicted John Brown as an unblemished martyr but saw Lincoln as nothing more than a cautious politician who left slavery alone as long as possible. To explain why the latter’s election in 1860 convinced most slave owners to back secession, Zinn fell back on the old saw, beloved by economic determinists like the historian Charles Beard, that the Civil War was “not a clash of peoples . . . but of elites”: Southern planters versus Northern industrialists. Pity the slaves and their abolitionist allies; in their ignorance, they viewed it as a war of liberation and wept when Lincoln was assassinated. Zinn’s book is history as cynicism.
But why has A People’s History attracted so many enthusiastic readers? The unqualified directness of Zinn’s prose clearly appeals to his audience. Unlike scholars who aspire to add one or two new bricks to an edifice that has been under construction for decades or even centuries, he brings verbal dynamite to the job. Frederick Douglass once wrote that “To understand, one must stand under.” Although Zinn doesn’t quote that axiom, the sensibility appears on every page of his book. His fans can supply the corollary themselves: Only the utterly contemptible stand on top.
While Zinn’s populist perspective is valuable in a democracy, it neglects the way historical change actually occurs. Those who “stand under” usually improve their lives only when they find allies among those nearer the top (some of whom began at the bottom themselves). For example, Douglass, who was born into slavery, escaped and made himself into a leading spokesman for the abolitionist cause. During the Civil War, he persuaded Abraham Lincoln to allow black men to fight for the Union. Afterwards, he held federal office under several Republican presidents while continuing to advocate for equal rights and equal opportunity. Students who read Zinn’s book learn only about Douglass as a heroic agitator against bondage. Such romantic simplicity is a form of civic miseducation, the kind of “idealization” which John Dewey abhorred.
Zinn’s popular book does fill an emotional need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good to the American left, a group to which many history teachers, in college and high school, are broadly sympathetic. Three Republicans and two centrist Democrats occupied the White House; conservatives often controlled both houses of Congress; the phantom hope of state socialism vanished almost overnight; and progressive movements spent most of their time struggling to preserve earlier gains instead of daring to envision and fight for new ideas and programs.
In the face of such grimness, A People’s History offers a certain consolation. “The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history,” wrote Zinn. It uses wealth to “turn those in the 99 percent against one another” and employs war, patriotism, and the National Guard to “absorb and divert” the occasional rebellion. “The people,” therefore, cannot win unless and until they make a revolution. But they can comprehend the evil of this four-hundred-year-old order—with Zinn’s help, of course. And that knowledge will, to an extent, set them free.
Woodrow Wilson believed that well-born, prosperous white men were better judges of what black Americans needed than were black Americans themselves. Howard Zinn insisted that anyone who gained power in the United States could not have sincerely desired to improve the lives of his (or her) fellow citizens. Both men failed to recognize that, just as the right of free speech is meaningful only if it protects the expression of disagreeable views, so history is most valuable when it seeks to understand the motives and behavior of those whom the historian may retrospectively deplore.
Fortunately, several historians have recently offered more insightful and responsible interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Their accounts are still, necessarily, subjective. As the historian Allan Nevins observed in 1938, “Facts cannot be selected without some personal conviction as to what is truth . . . and this conviction is a bias.” But these valuable works of history explain without condemning. In so doing, they capture something vital about the past as it was lived by people who were convinced that only mass killing could settle their differences.
In Upon the Altar of the Nation, Yale University historian Harry S. Stout provides a “moral” history of the Civil War that focuses on the human toll exacted by both sides. Never flinching from describing that carnage in all its gory specificity, Stout forces readers to reflect on three moral questions raised by the Civil War and, for that matter, by all wars: Was the war justified? Was it conducted in a just way? Were other means possible to achieve the same ends?
Stout responds ambivalently to the first two questions but gives a strongly positive answer to the third: “I can only conclude,” he writes, “that they [the Union veterans] supported the rightness of the war because at some profound level they believed in Lincoln’s characterization of America as the world’s last best hope.” He adds that “an American civil religion incarnated in the war has continued to sacralize for its citizens the idea of American freedom.” Without what Stout calls “a blood sacrifice,” this would not have occurred. Clear as this argument is, Stout does not frame his book around it. Neither does he, like Wilson and Zinn, ignore or denigrate countervailing evidence. The result is a study whose own moral seriousness matches the wrenching events it describes and analyzes.
In What This Cruel War Was Over, Georgetown University historian Chandra Manning examines what motivated soldiers in the Civil War, both those clad in blue and those in gray. After examining the private correspondence and published reports of thousands of soldiers, she concludes that slavery was the key motivation—on both sides. Few Union soldiers advocated racial equality, but most believed human bondage to be a sin and a threat to a society based on free labor and the promise of economic opportunity. But for Confederate volunteers, explains Manning, the fight to preserve slavery was a fight to preserve “what it meant to be a man”: “A true man protected and controlled dependents, which for white Southerners meant that a man competently exercised mastery over blacks (whether or not he owned any) as well as over women and children.” For most whites who fought for the Union, the war was a war for “freedom”—but not primarily for the slaves. And Southerners did not have to be slaveholders to be willing to die for a way of life anchored by human bondage.
As a liberal historian writing in the twenty-first century, Manning does not need to declare her sympathy for the Union cause. Her task is to illuminate why so many men who either knew no slaves, as in the North, or who owned none, as in Dixie, volunteered to fight for or against “the peculiar institution.” Her work is a model of how to educate a diverse citizenry without playing to the stereotypes offered either by neoabolitionists or by neo-Confederates.
Compared to Wilson and Zinn, Stout and Manning will reach only a small number of readers. But their works—and others, such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a magisterial narrative of the war which has sold over a million copies—combine three qualities essential to any work of history that can further civic education: balanced evidence and argumentation, a passion for making the past come alive, and empathy for actors whose actions we can no longer alter.
Empathy is the key leg on this three-legged stool, the one which makes historical understanding possible. In 1970, the cultural historian Lawrence Levine reflected on the difficulty of grasping the texture and sensibility of a vanished world. He began:
At some point in his studies (for many historians at all points), the historian is faced with a situation where there is little continuity or connection between his own cultural conditioning and expectations and that of his subjects. He is faced with a culture gap that must be bridged both by painstaking historical reconstruction and by a series of imaginative leaps that allow him to perform the central act of empathy—figuratively, to crawl into the skins of his subjects. . . . It is, in fact, the primary function of the historian and gives the study of history much of its excitement and importance.
There is no more useful, humane observation about our craft. Empathy is easy to proclaim but quite difficult to practice. Even with the best intentions, historians find it difficult to avoid slipping in a few paragraphs, sentences, or turns of phrase that put down our subjects for failing to think and act as they should have—for not being as enlightened as we imagine ourselves to be.
But empathy, both past and present, is the intellectual essence of a pluralist democracy. To apply it sincerely in scholarship and public life is to advance the ideals that Americans say they cherish.
MICHAEL KAZIN is professor of history at Georgetown University and co- editor of Dissent magazine. An expert on American politics and social movements, his books include American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011), A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006), and The Populist Persuasion: An American History (1995).