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History's purpose in antebellum textbooks.

Many scholars have argued that history education during the antebellum period in the United States supported conservative values and sought to produce close-minded citizens. History textbooks of that era, they frequently posit, cast Americans as God's chosen people and present the past in a style that reaffirms established social conventions. Ruth Elson, one of the best known advocates of this perspective, argues in Guardians of Tradition (1964) that textbooks used history to teach an "ideologically simple" set of morals in which the United States is the world's most righteous nation (Elson 1964, 339). She also describes most antebellum histories as providential, ascribing God as a major player in the outcome of events, and attributes United States' political and military successes to God's favor (Elson 1964, 60-61). Such histories, Elson contends, featured little which encouraged students to question their country's conventions and political policies.

Elson reaches this interpretation in part because she focuses almost exclusively on United States history textbooks and on readers for young children which did, in fact, try to cultivate nationalism and possessed a Whiggish historical sensibility (Butterfield 1950, 12-13). (1) However, Elson writes nothing on whether schools also used universal and world history textbooks to promote nationalism. In addition, she makes no distinction between the values textbooks taught to primary and secondary school students or the values textbooks taught at the beginning, middle, and end of the nineteenth century.

Despite these shortcomings, contemporary United States historians still echo Elson's conclusions about nineteenth-century textbooks over forty years after she published her book. Frances Fitzgerald (1979) and Eugene Provenzo both highlight nationalistic themes in schoolbooks for young children. Provenzo explains how late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century readers and spellers featured images of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Greek heroes to develop symbols for the new republic. However, he features texts used almost exclusively by very young children (Provenzo 2011, 13-14). Fitzgerald writes that American history textbooks of the antebellum era were primarily "nationalistic histories." Like Elson, to the extent to which she writes about the antebellum period, her study focuses almost exclusively on United States history textbooks (Fitzgerald 1979, 47, 227-228). William Reese writes that textbooks characterized America as "republican, Christian, and the greatest nation on earth" while Carl Kaestle in Pillars of the Republic writes that textbooks "glorified American politics and social relations" (Reese 1995, 118; Kaestle 1983, 137). Thus today's scholars still view antebellum-era history education as promoting a narrative designed to foster nationalism rather than genuinely inspire independent thinking. Much less has been written on whether authors posited another element to history education. Only Nina Baym, who examined women writers with a particular focus on Elizabeth Peabody, indicates that textbook authors expressed a more complex purpose for learning history (Baym 1995, 15-17).

This article reconsiders this position by revisiting the question: What values and ideals did antebellum history textbook authors seek to teach students? I address this question because Elson's conclusions about what history textbooks taught do not completely align with the educational objectives of antebellum secondary schools. Those schools initially sought to cultivate a republican community, in which civic virtue would be a major educational goal. As Kaestle notes, part of this republican education entailed cultivating "the exercise of intelligence" and "independent judgment" as well as respect for laws (Kaestle 1983, 80). David Labaree's study of Central High School in Philadelphia contends that the growth of entrepreneurial capitalism and individualism meant that "a focus on civic virtue and community life needed shoring up" (Labaree 1988, 39). Simply featuring a history education that taught only a celebratory account of America's past could not achieve such goals.

I approach this question of what textbooks taught by analyzing the introductions of world and universal histories by Emma Willard, Elizabeth Peabody, William Sullivan, D. Fraser, Benjamin Tucker, Samuel Goodrich, Marcuis Willson, Royal Robbins, Joseph Worcestor, and William Pinnock. World and universal histories differed from United States histories in that they featured accounts of ancient or medieval civilizations and drew their information of the ancient world from European sources. Samuel Goodrich, William Pinnock, and William Sullivan drew most of their narratives from Oliver Goldsmith's history of Rome. In Goodrich's case, his narrative of Rome matches Goldsmith's text word for word. Barthold Niebuhr, a German historian, heavily influenced Willson, Peabody, and Pinnock's 1835 history. These qualities indicate that schools used universal and world histories for different reasons than those for U.S. history texts.

World and universal history textbooks were often aimed at secondary students. Examining the topics textbooks taught to older students is important for several reasons. The content of secondary schools had an important impact on what students learned. According to Reese, antebellum high schools built their curricula around textbooks (Reese 1995, 104). Textbook authors' made statements about the purpose of history education in their introduction and preface to influence teachers in antebellum America. Many school teachers relied on textbooks for advice on how to present history to students. In addition, growing numbers of Americans received a secondary school education. By 1865 there were over 165 high schools and more than 2,500 academies (which also taught older students) in the United States (Smith 1932, 38-39). Only 10% of Americans had attended a high school or an academy by 1865. Most of these, Americans, however, came from the middle class, and this class played an important role in organizing and supporting social reform movements (Labaree 1995, 39).

I argue that these textbook authors problematize the notion of history education as primarily a celebration of the United States' triumphal ascendance onto the world stage and instead offer a multidimensional history education model. I show how universal and world history textbooks cast the study of history as a means to improve students' ability to critique the present while preparing them for the political culture of antebellum America. I also show how textbook authors, in their books' prefaces and introductions, offer up the study of history as a scientific method of learning about human social and political behavior. They frequently feature ancient history as the story of how human actors, rather than God's will, shaped the outcome of important events. Studying the choices of human actors, textbook authors believed, would allow readers to examine their society and government's actions more critically and make meaningful political choices during their own era. Finally, I illustrate how textbook authors problematize the triumphant America narrative by suggesting that students should judge historical narratives critically and that accounts of the past contain personal biases. These views demonstrate that textbook authors envisioned a component to history education that went beyond a Whiggish sensibility. This sensibility, applied to the United States, would interpret the past as the progressive emergence of American constitutional government and Protestant culture (Butterfield 1950, 11). (2) By viewing history as a way to learn from humanity's successes and failures, and by even encouraging readers to question narratives themselves, textbook authors advanced a form of history education that prepared students to effectively critique their own time period's dominant values and conventions. While this view never precluded authors from envisioning history that promoted national pride, it clearly highlights an underreported component of antebellum history education.

Casting historical knowledge as a tool for students to evaluate the present conformed to prevailing ideas about what education in general should achieve. While some antebellum educators envisioned history education as memorizing facts or emulating heroic figures from the past, other educators promoted techniques that would cultivate a more intellectually critical student. Kim Tolley (2003) and William Reese (1995) explain that some educators embraced Pestalozzi's teaching methods. His techniques eschewed rote learning methods, embraced experimentation (Tolley 2003, 33; Reese 1995, 132). Horace Mann, for instance, advocated for teaching students "self government" and rejected corporal punishment as a disciplinary method. This kind of school experience deemphasized memorizing patriotic and nationalistic stories and myths. Mann, of course, hoped that public education would cultivate nationalism and unify Americans. However, he also voiced concerns about social inequality in America in The Common School Journal (Mann 1841, 96).


Some antebellum writers did, in fact, envision history education primarily as learning about the past in a way that would inspire national unity. Most American history textbooks exemplified this. Selma Hale describes history education as cultivating "virtuous and patriotic impressions in the minds of readers" in his United States history textbook (Hale 1830, A2). Egbert Guernsey writes that the purpose of history is to "unite" Americans (Guernsey 1850, v). John Lord states that "if the youthful mind can be inspired with patriotic sentiment and increased veneration for the principles of our ancestors: no more useful contribution to the cause of general education can be made" (Lord 1854, v).

World and universal history textbooks offered a different perspective. While some world and universal history textbook authors cast history in their introductions as a discipline that highlights the virtues of American institutions, many emphasize history education as a useful tool for creating responsible republican citizens who make sound choices and avoid past mistakes. Benjamin Tucker's statement of history education's purpose illustrates this. He envisions the study of history as helping readers improve the present rather than inspiring patriotism. Tucker illustrates this idea in Sacred and Profane History by writing:

From this source, communities and nations are furnished with the brightest examples for the guidance of their actions, experiences, and animated with the virtue of the most distant ages (Tucker 1818, 2).

Here Tucker cast history not as an examination of how God asserts his will, but instead as an illustration of human actions and their consequences. This kind of history education, Tucker believed, shows readers how to improve their own societies by describing the past as a tool to solve contemporary problems in a rational way. Tucker also allows readers to decide for themselves what specific values they might learn, what narratives they might find useful, or what actions they might consider virtuous and choose to emulate.

D. Fraser conveys a similar view of history education in his 1807 history text:

History being the faithful repository of the actions of men of all ages, who have performed any distinguished part on the theatre of the world adds to our own experience a rich stock of experiences of others, and furnishes innumerable instances of virtue to imitate, and vices to avoid; Every law of morality and every rule of conduct is submitted to its tests and examination (Fraser 1807, iv).

In this passage, Fraser presents history to readers as a force for progress that provides them with examples of human actions and their consequences, examples from which to judge and improve their own times. He describes the past as providing examples of virtue to be "imitated" and vices to be "avoided." Fraser writes nothing about the will of God as the primary force behind actions and outcomes and offers no specific policies, behaviors, or programs as examples to follow. He allows readers to make their own decision on this matter. His statement--"Every law of morality and rule of conduct is submitted to it tests"--implies that any value, including slavery or any other form of inequality, can legitimately be challenged if narratives from the past question their worth. Fraser casts history education as a process of discovery rather than a method to learn specific values.

William Sullivan (1833) illustrates how world history textbook authors sometimes envisioned history education as teaching students a mixture of goals. His introductory comments indirectly promote a positive American national identity by describing the U.S. political system as the culmination of past civilizations' best ideas, such as rights and political power for all citizens (Sullivan 1833, 13). However, Sullivan also explains in his introduction that history education entails teaching readers the mistakes that led other civilizations to collapse.

The study of history is peculiarly important to Americans, because they have the means of social welfare in an eminent degree; and far more so than any other people have had. They have an absolute control over their means. If they do not preserve them, and so use them, as to exalt human society, ... [i]t must be because they elect not to do so; but to add one more nation to the long list of those, who have appeared, flourished, and fallen, through their own folly, and perverseness (Sullivan 1833, 15).

He describes the United States as a civilization able to secure the social welfare much more effectively than other nations, which certainly presents his country in a superior light. Sullivan's statement also implies that American civilization is not immune to the forces that brought down past civilizations and will also decline if citizens make poor choices. This also constitutes an important lesson and a major focus of antebellum history education.

Sullivan's notion of history education's purpose--to warn readers of the consequences of bad choices by citizens--echoes the way antebellum journals used allusions to Rome. For example, the Working Man's Advocate and the Plebeian invoked Rome numerous times to advance the cause of urban workers and artisans (Malamud 2009, 54). George Bancroft also published an essay on Rome and Tiberius Gracchus to illustrate the need for land reform in the United States (Malamud 2009, 56). In Appeal, abolitionist David Walker argued that slavery would lead to the decline and fall of the United States, just as it did to Rome (Malamud 2009, 70-71). These uses of the past illustrate that Americans still held a cyclical interpretation of the past and viewed studying the past as a way to avoid the cycles that had brought down earlier civilizations.

Joseph Worcestor's Elements of History Ancient and Modern asserts that the goal of history education is to improve students' ability to make reasonable and intelligent decisions as citizens:

History may be regarded as the school of politics, and, as such, some knowledge of it is indispensible to rulers and statesmen; it is highly important to every citizens of a republic, in a manner honorable to himself and useful to the community, the duties of a freeman (Worcestor 1835, 2).

Like other authors of world and universal history textbooks, Worcestor casts history education as the acquisition of knowledge that prepares students for their future role as citizens. Worcestor does make a reference to history revealing God's action in events (Worcestor 1835, 2). However, he places greater emphasis on individuals learning from the past to improve the future: "by history we gain knowledge of the constitution of society; and those causes and circumstances which have promoted the rise of prosperity, or the decline and fall, of states and empires" (Worcestor 1835, 2). History education, it seems, entails students acquiring knowledge of the past to shape a yet-to-be-determined future and to prevent their own republic from suffering the fate of earlier civilizations. While Worcestor might believe studying history highlights the benefits of the United States' own institutions, his statement implies that America's survival as a republic is not assured and poor decisions could lead to its destruction.

Emma Willard's 1854 edition of Universal History conveys a similar idea. She implies that the United States is superior to others, but then explains that Americans must study history to avoid similar patterns of decay and collapse that destroyed earlier civilizations.

No wise man presumes to form conclusions concerning the destiny of nations, without first acquiring a knowledge of the past. It is at this time peculiarly to America; because the world is now looking for a response to the question "Can the people govern themselves?" Shall monarchy in its palaces, and aristocracy in its lordly halls, then exult, as it is told that America is passing through anarchy to despotism,--while mankind mourns.... Or shall we continue to be that people, which of all others heretofore, or now existing, possess the most equitable government; and when calamity is but a phrase ill understood? A history of the past might make us understand that phrase with a salutary fear; and it might teach our posterity what we as good citizens desire them to know--the virtues that exalt nations and the vices that destroy them; that so they may practice the one and avoid the other (Willard 1854, v).

Willard casts the United States in a positive light by implying that it lies at the center of a great democratic experiment upon which the whole world has its eyes fixed. However, despite the implication that the United States is a leader of nations, Willard's view of history's purpose includes more of a warning to readers of future dangers than congratulations for being American. History education, for Willard, entails learning how to avoid mistakes of earlier civilizations so that the United States eludes the declines suffered by other great civilizations. As with Sullivan, Willard explains that Americans have options, and that no force will protect the United States from following the path of earlier civilizations if citizens make poor choices.

Elizabeth Peabody echoes the themes of earlier authors in her textbook's introduction:

Not everyone needs to be a geologist, mineralogist, botanist, chemist; but every man needs to be a fellow citizen, voter, and may be a legislator, magistrate, perhaps the chief magistrate, of his town, state or nation. If he knows nothing else, he ought to know the history of nations, especially of the nations whose career is run through. He needs to see how the institutions which have cursed the world have grown up, and learn how the more blessed influences in society are cherished by government, or at least kept unquenched (Peabody 1859, iv).

History not only prepares students to become citizens, but also grooms them as possible rulers by unlocking the secrets to a civilization's longevity and by alerting readers to signs of impending collapse. So important was the knowledge of history to Peabody that it even surpasses the physical sciences. Her comments describe history as a discipline that values rational and objective thinking with conclusions based on observation. The study of history will foster a better understanding of the forces that govern human behavior and laws of society (Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob 1994, 44). Although she writes nothing indicating that she opposes history as a tool to cultivate national pride, the main thrust of her remarks is to view the past as a source of both negative and positive models.

Peabody also suggests that history education might undermine tyrannical governments, writing:

It is only people, free peoples, that write history. The Sacerdotal governments of antiquity strove rather to conceal the Past, with its revelations, from the darkened multitudes that they governed, than to instruct them in it (Peabody 1859, iv).

Here she suggests that writing and studying history contains the power to liberate people and allows them to challenge those in power.

World and universal history textbooks featured here include nothing that would preclude their support for histories that celebrate the United States' greatness as a nation. However, they illustrate another element in history education that previous scholars overlooked. These textbooks cast history education as the study of human actions and their consequences rather than the workings of God. Readers apply this knowledge to the challenges facing their own times. When Sullivan and Willard note that history illustrates the benefits of American institutions and lifestyles, they follow this statement with gentle reminders that, should citizens act unwisely, the United States itself could decline. Willard, Sullivan, and other textbook authors imply that the United States will also collapse in the same manner as earlier civilizations if its citizens lack historical knowledge. Thus, antebellum textbooks often include a message that Elson's analysis does not address.

Some authors of world and universal history textbooks of the antebellum period allotted a greater role for God in historical events while still expressing the view that history education allows readers to shape their world in positive ways. In A Pictorial History of Ancient Rome, Samuel Goodrich writes "It is hoped, therefore, that these works will be found not merely attractive, but useful and attractive, inasmuch as they will enable the reader, by studying mankind, to study himself; and by learning the course of Providence in respect to the past, to judge of it in regards to the future" (Goodrich 1849, vi). History, according to Goodrich, informs readers about human nature in the present which gives them a degree of control over their lives. Goodrich's reference to providence assigns a role for God in the unfolding of human events which implies limited agency. Eliza Robbins expresses a similar idea in the introduction to Grecian History. She explains the providential history, writing: "Comparative views of mankind must teach us the plan of Providence--must enlighten us in respect to what men have been, what they are, and what God requires them to be." However, by describing history as "informing us what ought to be honored as well as ... detested," she describes history also as a tool for accessing and changing the present (E. Robbins 1833, 3).

Royal Robbins, in The World Displayed, also supports a view of history education that reflects a providential worldview while, at the same time, representing humans as agents who can positively shape their own destinies with historical knowledge. He writes "from the whole which history presents us, we deduce conclusions that have bearing on human happiness and virtue" (R. Robbins 1830, 7). In a later edition, Robbins writes "History improves our understanding, and enlarges our store of useful knowledge, by bringing to our assistance the experience of others" (R. Robbins 1833, 7). Like other authors, Robbins, use of the phrase "useful knowledge" implies that humans have agency and that history allows individuals to make better choices about what is best for themselves and their communities. On the same page, however, Robbins writes that "history is a record of what God has done, and what he has either enabled or suffered man to do, on the stage of the world" (R. Robbins 1833, 7). This statement suggests that God determines the outcome of most events while humans play a minor role. Robbins appears to blend these two conflicting positions in the following statement:

It is here [history] that we learn political science and philosophy; we ascertain the necessity of government, the blessing of civilization, the progress of reason and society; and especially it is here we see "a God employed In all the good and ill that chequer life" (R. Robbins 1833, 8).

Robbins features history as a discipline that provides the tools necessary for humans to exercise their freedom while simultaneously nurturing love for a supernatural power that intervenes and shapes the outcomes of all things.

We can better understand the relevancy of Eliza Robbins, Royal Robbins, and Goodrich's mixed views through John Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. Ward contends that writers in antebellum American reconciled the idea of providence with agency by suggesting that Americans such as Jackson win God's favor only when they sufficiently exert themselves (Ward 1955, 209). This idea explains why Goodrich, Eliza Robbins, and Royal Robbins simultaneously emphasized God's role in the rise and fall of civilizations while acknowledging the value of reason to making choices. While these authors describe God as an active force in history who favors American civilization, they do not view God's favor as sufficient to secure America's survival as a republic. Their statements indicate that an educated and knowledgeable citizenry is also required for that result.

Willard, Peabody, Goodrich, Tucker, Sullivan, Robbins, and Fraser, present history as a process that allows readers to use narratives of the past to judge existing values and contemporary governing policies. They cast history education as a tool to evaluate all social perspectives of this time, whether they are conservative and connected to the establishment or more populist in nature. In the case of Willard and Sullivan, this would lead readers to conclude that the United States had surpassed other civilizations in the quality of life and level of freedom it provided citizens. This use of ancient history can be interpreted as promoting an idealized vision of the United States. However, the focus on learning from past mistakes also means that history carried a warning for students that Americans should not assume they could avoid the same path of earlier civilizations. These authors imply that students must learn to become citizens willing to reform and change their society as a way to preserve the accomplishments of earlier generations. This kind of education extends beyond the simple celebratory or triumphant nationalism observed by other analyses of antebellum texts.


Reading histories with a critical eye constitutes another part of antebellum-era history education that Elson does not describe in her study. This component of history education reflects a desire for historical objectivity in the larger American society; for example, in an essay in The American Review, John Frost notes that "a man who sets out with a strong political bias in favor of the institutions of a country, is not likely to be a faithful historian." Frost also expresses this desire in his introduction by writing that he hoped to avoid any party bias while also praising histories that promoted patriotism (Frost 1848, vii). William Pinnock's History of Rome describes history in this way:

After all the researches that have been made, the true origin of the Latin people, and even the Roman city, is involved in impenetrable obscurity; the legendary traditions collected by historians are, however, the best guides that we can follow; but it would be absurd to bestow implicit credit on all the accounts they have given, and the editor has therefore, pointed out the uncertainties of history, not to encourage skepticism, but to accustom students to consider the nature of historical evidence, and thus form the useful habit of criticizing and weighing testimony (Pinnock 1835, 4).

Note that the American publisher of Pinnock's work probably wrote this statement since Pinnock himself wrote and taught in eighteenth-century England. This passage reveals, however, no desire to inculcate a sense of nationalism or patriotism. It also states nothing about history as a tool to teach values or how countries should look to the past for guidance. It instead invites readers to consider the nature of history itself, how it is produced, and even that it is flawed, as illustrated by the phrase that some evidence consists of "legendary traditions." The passage also alerts readers to the importance of weighing evidence critically and not to consider all accounts of the past as equally accurate. In essence, while still acknowledging the past contains important lessons, this passage seems more intent on teaching students the need to read history critically.

The 1835 edition of Pinnock's History of Rome conveys this same idea in the text's body in a passage on Caius Gracchus.

He [Caius Gracchus] is usually impeached by historians, as guilty of sedition, but from what we see of his character, the disturbance of public tranquility was rather owning to his oppressors than to him. So that, instead of calling the tumults of that time the sedition of the Gracchi, we should rather call them the sedition of the senate against the Gracchi. (Pinnock1835, 174)

The publishers of Pinnock's History of Rome point out that several views of Caius Gracchus exist, some of which incorrectly describe their land reform efforts as seditious. The publishers suggest that these other interpretations of the Gracchi are not credible and that their own interpretation of the Roman senate as the true seditious elements should be given greater weight. Thus, the publishers reinforce in the text itself the view that not all accounts of an event deserve equal weight.

Joseph Worcestor, in his textbook preface, also notes that students should read historical narratives critically:

Everyone much conversant with history must be aware of the frequent and often great diversity in the accounts given of the characters of men and events, even by authors of reputation. This diversity is to be attributed to the peculiar prejudice of the historians, and partly to the contradictory statement in the original sources of history (Worcestor 1838, vii-viii).

Here Worcestor informs readers that history is characterized by a diversity of accounts, reflecting both author bias and imperfect sources. As with the passage in Pinnock's history of Rome, Worcestor writes nothing indicating that history should inspire patriotism, reveal universal truths and morals, or facilitate civilizations' progress. He instead warns readers of the different ways historical narratives can manipulate them. While Worcestor does not reinforce the idea of different historical interpretations in his text in the way that Pinnock's does, he does begin his history with a discussion of historical sources which include ancient ruins as well as old texts.

Marcius Willson acknowledges in his preface that accounts of the past derive from limited sources:

But although the whole meaning of what has been recorded lies far beyond us, the fact should not deter us from a plausible explanation of what is known, if happily, we may thereby lead others to a more just appreciation of the true spirit the Genius of History and the great social, moral, and political, that it teaches to scholars (Willson 1854, iv).

Willson acknowledges that readers can learn some lessons from the past. However, he is vague on the specifics and writes nothing that portrays history as a record of God's judgment. In the body of his Outlines of History, which discusses Tiberius Gracchus, Willson explains that some interpretations of the past are more accurate than others:

The impression has generally prevailed that the Agrarian laws proposed by Tiberius Gracchus were a direct and violent infringement of the rights of private property; but the genius and learning of Niebuhr have shown that they effected the distribution of public land only, and not those of private citizens, although there were doubtless instances where incidentally, they violated property rights. (Willson 1853, 168)

In this passage Willson explains that several interpretations of Tiberius Gracchus reform exist. He first writes that traditional interpretations have held that Tiberius Gracchus' reforms violated property rights, but then states that recent interpretations by Barthold Niebuhr reveal a different story. Public lands, rather than private lands, were part of the reform process. Thus within the body of his history text Willson reminds his readers of multiple interpretations of the past, some of which he regards better than others.

Samuel Goodrich states that histories can manipulate readers. However, rather than alert them about imperfect evidence, Goodrich explains how despotic states prevent writers from producing history, or at least, useful history. He writes:

Modern monarchies, like all monarchies, have been built up by wars; the sword is their architect; military heroes the instruments of kings. War must therefore be made the path of glory. Historians, as teachers of the people, bound to bring them up in support of the monarchical institutions, must do their part (Goodrich 1849, iv).

Goodrich's reference to monarchies may be influenced by the American Revolution and the colonists' struggle with a monarchical government. Nevertheless, read in a broader context, he highlights the danger of authoritarian governments in general and how they negatively impact history writing. His statement that authoritarian regimes force history writers to produce what is essentially propaganda to perpetuate the ruling regime raises questions about a historical narrative's value when written under such conditions.

Although Goodrich makes no statement in the body of his historical text illustrating how an authoritarian government affected a historian's account of an event, he does show in his account of Caius Gracchus an awareness of different views of an event.

Thus fell Caius Gracchus, who is usually censured by historians as guilty by sedition. Whether the two brothers (Tiberius and Caius) were actuated by ambition or patriotism, in the promulgation of the agrarian law, is not, perhaps, very easy to determine, but it appears that justice was on their side, and sedition was that of the senate against the Gracchi (Goodrich 1849, 98).

With the exception of a few words and phrases, this passage is exactly like Pinnock's description of the Gracchi in History of Rome. This is because both are variations of Oliver Goldsmith's History of Rome. Like Pinnock's history, Goodrich's narrative of the Gracchi illustrates how authors convey to readers the existence of different and sometimes conflicting views of the same event. As with Pinnock's history, Goodrich also acknowledges that other historians have labeled the Gracchi as seditious but that he views them more favorably. Goodrich even notes in his text that historians explain why they were motivated to promote agrarian reform.

That imperfect history could negatively impact society is illustrated in the broader society by Ann Johnson. In her 1855 book on the Iroquois, she writes "The details of wars form far too great a portion of every history of civilized and barbarous nations; to conquer and to slay has been too long the glory of Christian people" (Johnson 1855, 24). In this case, Johnson explains that histories inspired violence rather than civic virtue. On the whole, these authors link history to an empirical method and implicitly acknowledge a degree of subjectivity in all histories, even histories of the United States. Just as history can enlighten readers and improve thinking, it can also function as a tool to manipulate and mislead readers and reduce their ability to make intelligent decisions.

Several contextual factors provide a plausible explanation for why Pinnock, Worcestor, Willson, and Goodrich describe history as an imperfect account of the past. First, antebellum-era world and universal history textbooks are really accounts of places and time periods that other writers such as Oliver Goldsmith or Barthold Neihbur have spliced together from a collection of ancient sources such as Livy, Tacitus, Sallust and Apian of Alexandria. Niebuhr in particular went to the trouble of citing these varied sources at the bottom of his pages. S. A. Hardford indicates that early historians of Rome such as Sallust also possessed their own political biases, with Sallust singing the praises of the Roman general Marius in his history (Handford 1972, 10). (3)

In addition, when Americans used history narratives in the way that Peabody, Willard, and other writers advised, namely for guidance to improve their own times, they added to social tension in antebellum America. As I noted in the beginning, history narratives featured in antebellum world and universal history textbooks provided fodder for numerous antebellum activists to advance their social cause. While textbook authors warned that the past's full meaning can't be entirely known, activists and reformers on both sides of the slave and land reform debates often implied that the past's meaning spoke clearly in support of their cause. As Margaret Malamud notes, abolitionists frequently invoked the history of Tiberius and Caius Gracchus's effort at Roman land reform to illustrate the duel dangers of landlessness and slavery to a republic (Malamud 2009, 60-61). Southern supporters of slavery, however, used the same narrative to laud the benefits of virtuous aristocrats and womanhood and challenged the notion that this narrative illustrated the dangers of slavery (Malamud 2009, 77).

Alerting readers to history's subjectivity offers authors a way to temper history's use as a tool for critiquing government and stoking sectional tension. Many Americans during the antebellum period used history in partisan ways. Such a use of history was bound to create tension in an American society divided by slavery and land reform. Teaching readers the nature of history itself constitutes an element of education that offers authors a way to temper conclusions about the present some readers might draw from the past. This explains why statements by Worcestor, Willson, and Pinnock about history as comprised by a diversity of accounts also parallels their tepid statements on how the past teaches one about the present.


Textbook authors envisioned a much richer history education in antebellum America than Elson and other studies have shown by offering differing and sometimes contradictory educational goals. In the case of universal and world textbooks for secondary school students, most authors argued, in some form, that history enables readers to critique the present by using the past. This idea of history education legitimized historical narrative that sometimes supported reformist causes. Several textbooks, however, advanced yet another idea of history education that encouraged readers to judge the quality and the veracity of history narratives themselves. This idea, which encourages readers to view historical narrative more critically, potentially tempers history education as using the past to critiquing the present and using the past to cultivate patriotism. Finally, texts by Sullivan, Goodrich, and Robbins featured mixed messages by simultaneously acknowledging God's influence in world events while asserting that Americans must still use the past to avoid the destruction that befell earlier civilizations. This multidimensional idea of history education in world and universal history textbooks extends beyond the more linear idea of history as simply cultivating patriotism.


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(1.) Butterfield describes the Whig interpretation of history as a method where one judges the past from the perspective of the present. This method is based on the assumption that the twentieth century represents the apex of progress and the historian's task is to chart those moments which led to the emergence of twentieth-century culture. The Whig interpretive model, according to Butterfield, also lists Protestantism and Whig values as the source of progress and Roman Catholicism and the Tories as impediments to progress.

(2.) Butterfield focuses primarily on British history. However, his discussion of the place of Protestant and Whig culture in historical interpretations can easily be applied to American history.

(3.) Handford contends that Sallust is an admirer of Marius.

Edward Cromwell McInnis

University of Louisville

Edward C. McInnis, Department of History, University of Louisville, 101 Gottschalk Hall, Belknap Campus, Louisville, KY 40292, (T) 502-852-3658, (F) 502-852-0770, Email:
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Author:McInnis, Edward Cromwell
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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