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History the right way

Interview | Were the Puritans puritanical? Did the robber barons really rob anyone? What made the Great Depression so great? Historian Larry Schweikart sets the record straight

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

The search for a good one-volume American history that does not reflect liberal biases has gone on for a long time. The best candidate recently has been Paul Johnson's A History of the American People (HarperCollins, 1999), which is good but idiosyncratic. Now we have another entrant, A Patriot's History of the United States (Sentinel, 2005), by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, professors of history at the University of Dayton and the University of Washington, Tacoma, respectively.

WORLD: What are the common misunderstandings about American Puritans?

Schweikart: First, the Puritans were not "stick-in-the-muds" who never had fun. They wore colorful dress and knew how to have a good time-John Winthrop loved his pipe. Their theology, however, required that they keep control of their passions, that they come not to love the world more than the Lord. That, of course, created the "Puritan dilemma," where, if you loved God, you had to love the world He made . . . but not too much!

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Second, they were not monolithic. Their congregational structure meant that there was not a single "Puritan" view on anything.

WORLD: What should Christians who glorify Thomas Jefferson know about his beliefs and inconsistencies?

Schweikart: Jefferson is always portrayed as a Deist-and a loose one at that. His personal philandering was legendary. On the biggest issue, slavery, he admitted "we have the wolf by the ears," and could not let go and could not keep hanging on. He knew slavery was wrong, yet did not free his own slaves. (Many historians ascribe this to his desire to keep Sally Hemmings around as his lover). Ultimately, Jefferson-for all his vision and farsightedness-didn't have an answer for slavery, and like many of the founders, hoped it would somehow go away.

WORLD: Could the Civil War have been avoided-and if so, how?

Schweikart: I don't think so. Lincoln's election revealed how incredibly powerful the federal government had grown under the Democrats, and suddenly the South saw it in the "wrong" hands. The central issue of the war, slavery, was not going away-it was growing, expanding, and finding its way into urban factories and western fields.

WORLD: Why have the great industrialists of the 19th century been called "robber barons"?

Schweikart: This goes back to zero-sum economic thinking, that for "A" to be rich, "B" must be poor, and therefore they "must have" stolen from labor, raped the environment, and so on, to get where they got. There is no question these magnates could play hard ball when necessary, but what has been missed about them was their phenomenal philanthropy, their charity, and their driving desire to meet the needs of consumers.

WORLD: Who is the most underrated president of the late 19th century?

Schweikart: To me, that's easy: Grover Cleveland. He fought against expanding government, even when it cost him politically. He stood firm on the gold standard (or against theft by inflation). He tackled the "Social Security" issue of the day, the veterans' pensions, which had been padded and expanded beyond all reason.

WORLD: Did Woodrow Wilson's beliefs and programs reflect unbiblical understandings?

Schweikart: I think so. His wording suggests that he was a died-in-the-wool "progressive," as defined by someone who thinks heaven can be achieved on earth. We can't blame him for the income tax, because that was in the works before he was elected, but certainly he increased rates at staggering levels, indicating he was comfortable with having government redistribute wealth.

WORLD: Why did the Great Depression begin, and why did it last so long?

Schweikart: There is no quick answer to this one: it was a combination of terrible monetary policy by the Federal Reserve; a crushing tariff that likely triggered the stock market collapse; pitiful government policies by both Hoover and FDR; and a general anti-business, anti-investment climate by the New Dealers. If I had to peg one law or act that prolonged the Depression, I'd probably say that it was the Minimum Wage Act, which, studies show, brought new hiring to a standstill. All hope of getting out of the Depression "naturally" (i.e., through normal business cycles) disappeared when wages were artificially jacked up.

WORLD: Why did the Cold War begin, and how was nuclear disaster averted?

Schweikart: The Cold War began before World War II was over, when the Soviets were already using spies to get our atomic secrets. It certainly was "on" when Stalin blockaded Berlin. We averted a nuclear war by a fairly consistent policy-of both Democrats and Republicans-of standing firm against Soviet expansion around the world, and, most important, by remaining militarily strong enough to back the Soviets down at the appropriate times.

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