Sunday, June 11, 2006


Last week's Washington Post has a review by Alan Wolfe of Bill Bennett's new American history text. To say I'm no fan of Wolfe's would vastly understate things. But Wolfe's review still amazed me, particularly this section:

Depending on the circumstances in which they lived, some of our leaders believed in a strong national government and equal citizenship for all, while others pledged their allegiance to state and local authority and were quite content to live in a society in which inequalities of birth were reinforced by existing institutions and practices. Bennett nearly always takes the side of the former against the latter.

Nowhere are Bennett's sympathies more strongly pronounced than in his discussion of the ideas and events leading up to the Civil War. American conservatism has long had a tendency to romanticize the Old South as a land of virtue and courage. Bennett will have none of it. Not a trace of sympathy for slavery and slave-owners appears in his book. He castigates John C. Calhoun, slavery's most brilliant defender, for bringing on the conflict. He denounces the Dred Scott decision as "inimical to the Founders' vision." He has nothing but praise for Frederick Douglass and his campaign for equal rights. Bennett is a Lincoln man, pure and simple.

I don't know if Wolfe is serious or this is brilliant satire. Praising Bennett for opposing slavery and the Dredd Scott decision is akin to praising a toddler for pointing out that the sky is blue ("Good boy, Bill! Yes, slavery is bad. Abraham Lincoln is good. Good boy!") I'm sure when Bennett's next volume comes out, Wolfe will take great pains to praise Bennett's courageous defense of the Allies in World War II. I'd be much more interested in finding out where Bennett thinks it was OK that "inequalities of birth were reinforced by existing institutions and practices."

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