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Monday, July 26, 2010

American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never Made It Into the Textbooks by Seymour Morris, Jr.

Written like a textbook with double columns, American History Revised is intended to be a supplement to the history your high school textbook ignored or glossed over. This is a fine goal because almost every history textbook is a dry, tedious tome that bores its readers to sleep before they can learn any history.

"American History Revised" approaches this challenge with a scatter-gun style of random facts that are very loosely grouped into categories like "Forgotten by History", "In Pursuit of Riches" and "Simple Mathematics, My Dear Watson." I can only imagine that those who are not already well-acquainted with history would find this jumping back and forth style quite confusing.

But, that is not the reason for my concern.

I am concerned because there are blatant untruths throughout the text. "Facts" that are not facts. Please note that I an reviewing an uncorrected proof and maybe, just maybe these items have been addressed in the text (I tried to use the Amazon peek inside feature to verify but this book does not have it enabled). But, I can tell you that when one of the reviewers who wrote a blurb in the product description above notes that "the book does more than revise American history, it reinvents it" - he was not kidding. History is reinvented with misinterpretation and misinformation.

Some examples (Note: I would normally include the page numbers but publishers don't like reviewers to do that with uncorrected proofs because those page numbers are likely to change):

He claims that Amerigo Vespucci worked for Columbus when, at most, there is plenty of evidence that Columbus and Vespucci may have only met, at most, only a few times. But, the blurb in the book was about how America got its name and the story is better if the employee steals his boss's thunder.

He claims that the United States had the world's first census. An ironic claim since he laments about our ignorance of history in the preface. Perhaps Morris is unaware of the Christmas story and the trip to Bethlehem to be counted in the census ("In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." Luke 2:1). Or, maybe he was unaware that one of the jobs of the Roman Empire's censor (censura) was to keep up with the census - note the shared root of the words. Or, maybe he's never heard of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book - the 1086 census of his conquered territory in England - one of the foundational documents of English history and perhaps all of Western history. Ancient China and the Incas also kept census records. Ancient Egypt may have as well.

He claims the 3/5 clause of the Constitution was designed to label African Americans as less than human - 3/5 of a human being, to be exact. This is a common claim by those who have not studied the clause carefully. The clause reads, in its entirety: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

Clearly, free African Americans were counted as whole people so Morris's premise is incorrect from the start. But, if you look at the debates, the compromise was designed to limit the number of Congressmen and electoral college votes that slave states would have. You see, slave owners wanted to count the slaves as whole people when it came to handing out proportional representation but still treat them as property. The compromise gave Southern states more representation than if they had only counted free people, but not as much as they would have had if slaves would have completely have counted towards Congressional representation and electoral votes.

Morris claims it was a case of censorship when Gore Vidal could not get a book of commentary on the War on Terror published in the United States after he'd made controversial comments about the war in Iraq. This is not a case of the government banning his book, or even of crowds threatening to burn it. It is a case of several book and magazine publishers judging the public sentiment about a known public figure and determining that the book would not make money. Or, perhaps book publishers are supposed to subsidize established authors and ignore their bottom lines?

There are plenty of nicely told nuggets of history in this book but, unless the reader knows what he or she is reading, the need to actively separate the truth from the fiction in the text makes it an undependable source at best and a source that needs independent fact-checking before being cited (which is not a bad idea anyway).

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5 and it can be found in multiple formats on Amazon.com here: American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never Made It Into the Textbooks.

Reviewed May 26, 2010.

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