Lessons from 1920s textbook wars remain relevant today

American history lessons have sparked a modern-day dispute. The fighting isn’t new, though. A similar battle was fought in the 1920s over how the American Revolution should be taught. This shows that historians must speak up and be heard forcefully during the current debate. This will give them the freedom to teach the most accurate, up-to-date version of U.S. history and stop groups who don’t understand the historian’s role from shaping what American children learn about their history.

In the late 19th century, American history was written by talented writers without historical training. They praised the Founders and described the American Revolution as heroic and wholly justified.

After 1900, history writing was taken over by professionals from new history Ph.D. programs. Their complex interpretations of the Revolution replaced the one-sided, oversimplified accounts of the past.

Critics, including newspaper columnists, politicians, and patriotic organizations, were accustomed to the comfortable, simplified pre-1900 accounts. They saw the new interpretations as an insult. In the early 1920s, they began to attack leading textbooks. The critics complained about how the historian-authors questioned the motives of revolutionary leaders and their claims of British tyranny. These attacks resonated with much of the public, who had been influenced by the emphasis on “100% Americanism” during World War I and the post-war “Red Scare.”

In 1921-1922, Charles Grant Miller, a columnist with the Chicago Herald and Examiner, wrote a series of columns attacking eight textbooks for their allegedly unpatriotic, pro-British accounts of the Revolution. The Herald and Examiner was owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and other papers in the Hearst chain reprinted the columns. They were also edited and printed as a pamphlet. Other newspapers reported on Miller’s claims.

As the controversy grew, concerned Americans started to pay attention to what their children were learning. New York, Chicago, and other cities began investigating the history texts used in their schools. School boards and citizens’ committees began looking for pro-British, “unpatriotic” accounts of the Revolution. Patriotic groups also joined the fight. The campaign was, in effect, a “revolt against the professors” who were promoting “Anglo-Saxonism.”

By 1923, a dozen popular texts were on at least one list of questionable books.

The public outrage led state legislatures to intervene. An Oregon law passed in 1923 required school officials to buy only books that “adequately emphasize the services rendered and the sacrifices made by the founders of the Republic, which shall inculcate love for and loyalty to our country.” Wisconsin passed a similar law, while other states adopted less strict legislation. Even some states that didn’t pass new laws, like New York and California, came close.

The textbook reports issued by investigating groups and the laws themselves fell just short of banning specific books or calling for it, but they did establish criteria for schools to follow when selecting history textbooks. Educators began using the discretion recommended in the textbook reports or mandated by the new laws to choose history books.

Historians were caught off guard by the uproar.

They had never been attacked in such a broad way before. This forced the profession to reach out to the public to explain what historians do, why it is important, why they need independence, and why objectivity is crucial. Historians like Charles H. Ward and Claude Van Tyne wrote letters to the editor and op-ed pieces defending their work. They pointed out that critics had cherry-picked passages, taken things out of context, and distorted the books’ messages. 

The American Historical Association took the lead in the fight with a statement condemning “agitation” and “propaganda” by irresponsible newspapers and politicians.  “Attempts, however well meant, to foster national arrogance and boastfulness and indiscriminate worship of national ‘heroes’ can only tend to promote a harmful pseudo-patriotism,” the statement said. The assertion that thousands of school teachers and school officials are “so stupid or disloyal” that they would give students treasonable books is “inherently and obviously absurd.” The AHA’s support strengthened historians and educators and received widespread press coverage.

In 1923, Pulitzer Prize-winning professor James Truslow Adams wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly defending the textbooks. He explained that historians seek truth and balance, and they depict the Founding Fathers accurately as “living, struggling men.”

Three years later, Smith College historian Harold U. Faulkner accused critics of pushing “the old, moth-eaten, discredited and dangerous ‘nationalistic interpretation of history.’”

Even so, some historians revised their textbooks to correct errors or clarify points that the critics had misinterpreted or misrepresented. Others stated their interpretations more clearly. 

David S. Muzzey’s 1920 book had been criticized for saying that “there were two opinions as to colonial rights and British oppression.” This statement, recognizing the complexity of the issues and motives that led to the Revolution, made it a target for critics.

Muzzey published a revised version in 1925. The Revolution was “an armed protest against the invasion of the British Parliament of rights long cherished by the American colonies,” the new book explained, leaving no room for doubt. The new edition concluded that “the separation” was “chiefly due to the conduct of King George III” — including promoting ministers who favored confrontation, pressuring Parliament for coercive acts, refusing to compromise, and “ignoring impassioned warnings” from American patriots. The complexity of the 1920 edition was gone. 

Even though some books were revised, several Hearst newspapers and a few independent papers continued to spread the controversy. However, many others began to speak out against textbook censorship. Their editorials echoed the historians’ arguments about their role and need for independence. 

“Is the truth to be suppressed just because it happens to be unpleasant to recall and discreditable to some times and some people?” asked a 1925 Washington Post editorial. The public was tired of hearing historians’ critics claim that “history is something that can be cut and shaped to suit the purposes of the moment,” said influential columnist Walter Lippman in his 1928 book .

Dixon Ryan Fox, president of the New York State Historical Association, offered a final assessment in an essay titled “” “[P]atriotism is insistently prescribed as an ingredient of history teaching in many countries,” he observed, and the attack on historians was intended to impose that in the U.S. He argued, however, that, because the new laws were not strictly enforced and public interest in the issue faded, critics had only succeeded in pressuring historians to make changes that they should have made (and probably would have made) anyway. But Fox warned that the attack showed that “propagandist societies or politicians anxious to capture the votes of groups with special interests” could disrupt and discredit historians’ work.

Fox was right. The question of who controls history in the schools has resurfaced periodically over the next century, including in our own day.

The struggles of a century ago demonstrate that historians need to continue explaining their work and role to the public. That includes defending their right and obligation to present research-based, objective history — and to rethink historical understandings in the light of new evidence, insights, and perspectives. Such communication is essential for historians to provide young Americans with the best possible understanding of our past, including its positive and negative aspects.