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By Gene Mahoney

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The money spent to wage the Civil War could have purchased the freedom of every single slave and given them all forty acres and a mule.

The Indians didn't save the Pilgrims from starvation by teaching them to grow corn.

Thomas Jefferson thought states’ rights were even more important than the Constitution’s checks and balances.

The "Wild" West didn’t resemble the way it’s been depicted in cowboy movies (it was more peaceful and a lot safer than most modern cities).

The biggest scandal of the Clinton presidency wasn’t an “affair” with an intern, but the bombing of Kosovo.

You’ll find these arguments, and many more, in Thomas E. Wood’s recent book, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask (Crown Forum, 320 pages). I’d love to cover them all, but there’s not enough room (plus you probably wouldn’t bother buying the book). Here are three samples:

Were American Indians really environmentalists?

American schoolchildren are taught that American Indians had a profound spiritual kinship with nature, and were extremely mindful of the environment.

In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore cited a nineteenth-century speech from Chief Seattle, patriarch of the Duwamish and Suquamish Indians of Puget Sound, as evidence of the Indians' concern for nature. “This speech, which speaks of absolutely everything in the natural world, including every last insect and pine needle, as being sacred to Seattle and his people, has been made to bear an unusually heavy share of the burden in depicting the American Indians as the first environmentalists,” Woods writes.

However, the version of the speech Gore cites is a fabrication, written in the early 1970s by screenwriter Ted Perry. (To his credit Perry has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to let people know that he made the speech up.) It was influential enough to become the basis for Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, a best-selling children's book.

"Seattle's speech was made as part of an argument for the right of the Suquamish and Duamish peoples to continue to visit their traditional burial grounds following the sale of that land to white settlers," explains Muhlenburg College's William Abruzzi. "This specific land was sacred to Seattle and his people because his ancestors were buried there, not because land as an abstract concept was sacred to all Indians."

Woods writes that the Indians' real record on the environment was actually mixed, as “they engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture, destroyed forests and grasslands, and wiped out entire animal populations (on the assumption that animals felled in a hunt would be reanimated in even larger numbers).”

“On the other hand, the Indians often succeeded in being good stewards of the environment — but not in the way people generally suppose.”  Woods notes that as land became more scarce, the Indians became more concerned with property rights and discouraged overhunting and overfishing. (Ironically, you won’t find many Indian-worshipping environmentalists espousing property rights.)

Writes Woods: “In other words, the American Indians were human beings who responded to the incentives they faced, not cardboard cutouts to be exploited on behalf of environmentalism or any other political program.”

Did FDR really end the Great Depression?

In school, we learned that the boom times of the “Roaring Twenties” were leading to impending economic disaster due to the "laissez-faire", pro-business policies of three Republican presidents: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, the Great Depression struck, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was voted into office, replacing Herbert Hoover. FDR heroically started a slew of government programs through his “New Deal”, which put America back to work.

According to Woods, it didn’t quite happen that way.

Although Herbert Hoover was a Republican, he effectively started the New Deal. The FDR administration’s own Rexford Tugwell later acknowledged this, saying: “We didn’t admit it at the time, but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.” When the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and the Depression hit, Hoover, in an attempt to “do something”, created the Federal Farm Bureau and Reconstruction Finance Corporation, plus he passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. These were interventions that attacked the free market.

Roosevelt’s policies were even more misguided than Hoover’s (Roosevelt himself said that he never read a book on economics.) One day he raised the gold price by 21 cents. When Henry Morgenthau, who later became Treasury Secretary, asked him why, Roosevelt said that "it's a lucky number, because it's three times seven." Morgenthau wrote later: "If anybody ever knew how we set the gold price through a combination of lucky numbers, etc., I think they would be frightened." (You can read about this in a book titled "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression,” by Amity Shlaes.)

FDR and his advisers believed that falling wages and falling prices weren’t a symptom of the Depression, but the cause of it. FDR’s National Industry Recovery Act  (NRA) created government-sanctioned cartels that set minimum prices, clearly not a consumer-friendly policy. (The Schechter brothers, first-generation Jewish immigrant butchers who paid themselves salaries of $35 per week, were prosecuted under the NRA for engaging in “keen competition”, or giving customers too much choice. They lost their federal court case and were about to serve jail time until the Supreme Court vindicated them. After that rebuke to the NRA, Roosevelt began his controversial, and unpopular, attempt to “pack the courts”.)

The FDR administration also instituted the Agricultural Adjustment Act, ordering six million pigs to be slaughtered and 10 million acres of cotton to be destroyed. All to keep prices up while many people were starving and wearing rags.

Woods correctly challenges the widely taught belief that FDR “ended” the Great Depression, noting that  “under FDR, unemployment averaged a whopping 18 percent from 1933 to 1940.” (FDR’s best year was 1937, when the unemployment rate dropped to 14.3 percent, though in 1938 it shot up again to 19 percent.) Keep in mind; this was in the thirties, when most women didn’t work. Adjusted for today, you could practically double those figures. Also, 12 million men (almost 10% of the US population) were conscripted into military service when America entered World War II, so they weren’t showing up on the unemployment line. On top of that, the Stock Market didn’t average pre-Crash of 1929 levels until 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower was in the Oval Office.

Conversely, Woods notes, the historically maligned Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations were marked by peace and prosperity, with unemployment rates falling to as low as 1 percent, while the nation was still recovering from Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I and also absorbing millions of immigrants. Woods quotes Coolidge as saying: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”

Did American wages rise because of labor unions?

We were taught in school that if it wasn’t for labor unions we’d all be working over 80 hours a week for slave wages. Woods brilliantly exposes this myth in his essay “Forgotten Facts of American Labor History”, pointing out “The empirical evidence simply does not bear out the conventional wisdom regarding unions. If employers were really in a position to impose whatever wage rate they wished, then why in the decades prior to large-scale labor unionism did wages not diminish to near zero?”

Woods writes that if in fact companies were in a position to pay whatever pathetic wage they wanted, why were skilled workers paid more than unskilled workers? Writes Woods: “Labor historians and activists would doubtless be at a loss to explain why, at a time when unionism was numerically negligible (a whopping three percent of the American labor force was unionized by 1900) and federal regulation all but nonexistent, real wages in manufacturing climbed an incredible 50 percent in the United States from 1860-1890, and another 37 percent from 1890-1914, or why American workers were so much better off than their much more heavily unionized counterparts in Europe. Most of them seem to cope with these inconvenient facts by neglecting to mention them at all.”

Woods believes the best way to help workers is to remove taxes on business and capital, which he claims “hamper business investment, which is precisely what raises our standard of living.”

“That would do more for the material well-being of American workers than did all the storied episodes of labor's "struggle" – labor historians' favorite word – put together.”

And if you’re wondering why you were never taught the obvious, Woods notes: “The vast bulk of high school teachers and college professors spend their time condemning the wickedness of businessmen and the wealthy, and describe taxation as a righteous method for redistributing the supposedly ill-gotten gains of the wealthy to the oppressed poor. To put it kindly, such people have not the faintest idea of how wealth is created, and their envy-driven policy proposals inevitably make society poorer than it would otherwise be.”

All contents © 2006 by Gene Mahoney