APUSH Post-Civil War Coverage: History Lite

John C. Chalberg

For most of our history the teaching of history (and everything else) has been a local concern.  That piece of our history might well be drawing to a close.  What’s even more troublesome is the content of a more nationalized curriculum.  Witness the proposed national advanced placement (AP) standards for the teaching of American history.  To be sure, it is important that our students, AP or otherwise, acquire some common knowledge about our past.  But what seems to be at work here is an attempt to put in place a common point of view—and one with a political agenda at that.  This ought to concern parents of all political persuasions.  After all, politicizing a history curriculum in one ideological direction at one historical moment will not prevent re-politicizing it in a different ideological direction at a different historical moment.  

Big Business in Control

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the proposed AP “curriculum framework” for post-Civil War American history.  This was the age of great business growth, including the rise of the corporation and, yes, even of monopolies.  There is nothing wrong with pointing this out.  Business certainly did grow; corporations did rise; and monopolies did monopolize—or at least try to.

But did these enterprises try to “maximize the exploitation of natural resources?”  Maximize?  Really?  In addition, AP students will be told that American business “increasingly look(ed) outside” the United States to establish “control over markets and resources?”  Control?  Really?  Actually, the main market for American manufactured goods was then . . . America.  Not so, say the AP authors who apparently prefer a version of economic imperialism that is essentially what Marxists have longed claimed, namely the last stage of capitalism. 

The proposed standards also call attention to the incredible growth of American cities.  Fair enough.  But then AP teachers have been instructed to instruct that urban America was increasingly home to the “rich and the poor.”  Was there a rising middle class during this time?  Apparently not.

What about rural America?  Farmers, we learn, were also doing poorly.  The reason:  “Corporate control of agricultural markets.”  What else? 

Given all of this, it’s a wonder that anyone migrated here in the first place.  Were the millions who did so during this time sold a bill of goods?  If not, they must have been either desperate or deluded.  To add injury to insult, the new curriculum tells us that the influx of immigrants only made it easier for capitalists to depress wages.

Ideology also worked to benefit those at the top of the economic ladder.  AP students will be taught that this was the era of “Social Darwinism,” or survival of the fittest as applied to the American economy.  Tied to this was the doctrine of “laissez faire,” which held that government should let things be, all the better to insure that the fittest will not just survive and dominate, but be better able to convince themselves and others of the legitimacy of their survival and domination.

What students will not learn is that there might be another side to this coin.  Judges, who were the alleged enforcers of laissez faire, were largely products of colleges that preached “moral realism.”  At its heart was the belief that moral truths existed and could be known.  Such a philosophy had much more to do with religious and ethical principles than with buttressing any particular economic order.  More than that, such thinking was downright hostile to Darwinism, social or otherwise.

If anything, Darwinian ideas of evolution were advanced by progressive reformers who favored a “living (which is to say evolving) constitution.”  In their collective mind there was nothing wrong with business getting bigger and bigger so long as government did the same—and more. 

Good Progressives vs. Bad Tycoons

One might hope that AP students would be introduced to some measure of complexity in studying American history.  But the official story line here is all too simple: bad social Darwinist business types had to be reigned in and regulated by progressive good government types.

If there is any complexity in this story, it is presented as hypocrisy.  Students will learn that those same advocates of laissez faire economics were in league with the federal government to obtain “subsidies,” whether in the form of land grants to railroads or tariffs for manufacturers.  No doubt there is some truth to this.  But it’s also true that Minnesota’s James J. Hill built the Great Northern Railroad without such subsidies—and with the idea of benefiting many more people than himself.  After all, as he put it, “land without people is a wilderness, and people without land is a mob.” 

Once again, real complexity could enter the picture—except that it doesn’t.  What students could also be told is that much progressive reform was itself the result of collusion between big business and progressive proponents of big and ever- bigger government—and often with the aim of squeezing out smaller competitors.  Sound familiar?  It should, because this is the sort of thing that still goes on today—aided and abetted by an ever-evolving “living” Constitution.

Feds to the Rescue

The story that unfolds here would have students believe that American progress was less the result of American inventiveness, creativity, and hard work and more the result of an ever more watchful, benevolent, and powerful federal government.   At the very least there ought to be a debate about such matters.  But in these proposed AP standards there is not even the hint of any potential debate.  Nor is there much diversity, intellectual diversity, that is.  And in a classroom what other type of diversity should outweigh that? 

Instead, students will be fed a simple story line of bad (private sector) folks versus good (public spirited) folks.  Real history is messier, not to mention more accurate—and more fun—than that.




John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.   

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