“A Basically Negative Understanding of American History”

Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a recent opinion article in the Wall Street Journal called “Reclaiming History from Howard Zinn.” I’ve never read Howard Zinn, but somehow A People’s History of the United States made my Goodreads reading list, and perhaps I’ll get to it eventually. As a counterpoint to Zinn, Riley describes in detail Wilfred McClay’s new book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, as well as McClay’s approach to American history. Here are a few reflections on Riley on McClay.

So many millennial socialists

Riley thinks that negative accounts of American History, like Zinn’s are an influence on “why so many young people today seem attracted to socialism.” I should say at the outset that I am a millennial and I have almost no attraction to socialism, though I am interested in hearing various policies, right or left, debated on their merits. My interest in this article is as a Christian who is keenly interested in history and historiography, especially American, Christian, and race-related historical issues.

Which side of history?

Apparently Mr. McClay thinks the concept of “who’s on the right or wrong side of history” is “bunk.” This seems to me to be morally flaccid and contradictory to his other explicit aims. It’s weak because it refuses to call evil “evil,” and finds justifications and rationalizations in “the times.” Important work to understand the historical and social context and influences on historical figures needs to be done, certainly. However, a Christian with their Bible should call “right and wrong,” and McClay’s reluctance to do so doesn’t make me much interested in his project. However, his  statement also sounds contradictory, because he does seem to think that certain figures are on the right side, or at least right enough to write a narrative of “hope,” and one that “is conducive to the development of the outlook and skills of a citizen.” So he has made judgments after all, he just doesn’t like Howard Zinn’s, or other historians who tell “a basically negative understanding of American history.”

Lazy Readers?

McClay fears that “the Zinn approach allows them [readers] to be lazy,” not caring what the Wilmot Proviso was or the Compromise of 1850, when you’ve already drawn your conclusion that “we had this original sin of slavery.” I’m not sure who that’s true of, but again, it doesn’t seem to be me. I’m interested to hear Zinn’s interpretation of history, knowing about his biases, and I’m interested to read about those specific events for myself and work toward my own conclusions. This objection from McClay seems like grasping at straws to find something to criticize.

What about those monuments, though?

McClay “decries the impulse to… tear down monuments or withdraw honors from historical figures who offend today’s sensibilities.” Well, I decry previous generations for building some of those monuments in the first place. I firmly believe that each generation needs to decide for themselves who their heroes will be. Will we simply receive unthinkingly the heroes, statues and all, from previous generations? My own answer is “not without an explanation.” I do want to take time to listen to previous generations answer the question: why should I revere Jefferson when I know about his life and character? Give me a good reason, an argument. Persuade me, don’t just use the brute force of tradition. But know that I will take some persuading, and I’m already deeply skeptical of the whitewashed version I’ve previously been given. You’ll have some work to do, and I will very likely not agree with some of your recommendations. I have already begun to revise my list of “heroes,” historically and theologically, and I don’t mind tearing down a few statues in the process.

McClay gives an example of Woodrow Wilson, who has a “bad record on race,” but “proved to be  an excellent wartime leader.” Great — now we can decide whether “wartime leader” is significant enough to be revered and honored and held up to future generations as a hero. Not for me, or at least, I haven’t been persuaded yet. I need to see better formed character, and a better list of accomplishments to make my list. I don’t mind at all if Princeton decides to remove his name if the current generation no longer views “wartime leader” as a quality that outweighs his other significant failings.


I’m glad that in the concluding paragraph McClay acknowledges the “moral clarity” of the civil rights movement. Almost no one did at the time, hence the movement’s necessity, and some of us think that that same “moral clarity” ought to be extended both backward and forward from 1968: back to the slaveholding founders who got us there, and forward to the racial injustices that still plague us today.

McClay’s approach to American history, calling us to tone down the moral analysis so he can tell his narrative of hope, hasn’t captured my interest. The sketch of his historiography presented in this article has too many holes in it for me, and I’ll need much better reasons than this to get on board. 

(Photo by Desmond Hester on Unsplash)

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