School Book Nation

4th June 2004 at 01:00
School Book Nation: conflicts over American history textbooks from the Civil War to the present By Joseph Moreau University of Michigan Press, (Plymbridge) pound;22

Joseph Moreau's book is a fine example of the intellectual category defined by Mark Twain's quip: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."

Unlike in England, where the Whig and Great Man theories of history, with all the intendant memorising of royal dates, prevailed for generations, US history textbooks have been serving up a consensus for less than a generation after the Second World War. For most of the United States'

history, pressure groups fought a battle over what would be taught.

In an effort to differentiate the young republic from England, America's earliest histories focused on battles and held up the Founding Fathers as models of virtue. Soon, however, tensions over slavery in the land of the free caused textbook writers to adopt one of two strategies. Some all but ignored it, stressing instead the country's religious tolerance. Others focused on tolerance of slavery and anti-slavery views.

After the Civil War, Southern history writers laid the blame with Northern fanatics, admitting no tactical or strategic mistakes. Robert E Lee replaced George Washington and, Moreau shows, most importantly, Southern texts laid the foundation for the Black Codes that forced blacks into neo-slavery after reconstruction ended. Northern texts underlined the fact that the South was fighting to protect slavery. In the northern historians'

triumphant stories about battles and generals, Moreau writes, "colored troops" were actors in the drama of their own liberation - and thus worthy holders of political rights. Over the last decades of the 1800s, Moreau charts two different trajectories. The first, supported by American nationalists, was the merging of the two Civil War narratives - with the South's viewpoint coming out slightly on top. Even as most texts condemned slavery, they clothed it in images later made famous in the 1939 film of Gone With the Wind.

The second, perhaps of more interest to English readers who are familiar with how Ireland has been imagined in English histories, is the rise of a Catholic American history written for independent Catholic schools. As late as the mid-1870s, common school theorists argued that Catholic schools taught "Popery", blind obedience to a "foreign potentate". Catholic histories responded by noting it was the Puritans in Salem who burned witches and that it was the Catholic colony of Maryland which had harmonious relations with native Americans.

English readers will be amused by the chapter "Anglo-Saxonism and the revolt against the professors". In it, Moreau charts how, from the late 1880s, American historians who had been trained at Oxford and Cambridge returned home and rewrote the nation's early history, presenting the revolutionary war as a "family quarrel" rather than a break with tyranny; the Founding Fathers were simply asserting their "rights as Englishmen".

Not surprisingly, Italian, German and Irish ethnic organisations objected.

After the First World War, cities with large ethnic populations put supposedly "pro-British" texts on trial, with critics claiming they were propagandising for the re-integration of the US into the British Empire.

Anglo-Saxonism won, though with marketing being the better part of valour, textbook publishers ensured that future editions would include a representative sample of ethnic heroes.

Nathan M Greenfield teaches at Algonquin College, Ottawa, Canada

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