Blogs > Jim Loewen > On the Amazing Similarity Between the New Texas Textbook Standards and the Textbook, "The Americans": An Open Letter to Gerald A. Danzer

Jul 29, 2015

On the Amazing Similarity Between the New Texas Textbook Standards and the Textbook, "The Americans": An Open Letter to Gerald A. Danzer

tags: textbooks

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Dear Professor Danzer:

            Although I pass through Chicago regularly and you teach at UIC, I don't think we've met. Our main connection is that I spent a lot of time with your high school U.S. history textbook, The Americans, while writing the second edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The edition I read came out in 2007. I found that one major textbook weakness is their treatment of secession. It's about this problem that I write you today.

            Most teachers cannot plug this hole, because they too are confused. See this chart for details. About 65% reply "states' rights" when asked why the South seceded. Another 10% answer "issues about tariffs and taxes."

            Trying to correct that deficiency, I wrote Teaching What Really Happened, which includes an entire chapter titled "Why Did The South Secede." Also, I wrote the introductions to the documents in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader and got that book out in time for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, hoping it would help teachers get the Confederacy right and neutralize textbooks that get it wrong.

            Recent events have convinced me, however, that we must go further. Surely historians have bent the facts about session to avoid disturbing neo-Confederates for far too long. Glorifying the Confederate cause makes it easier for young people to get ensnared by the neo-Confederate cause today. Although the results are rarely as horrific as the recent murders in Charleston, increasing the number of neo-Confederates never leads to better race relations. Surely it is time to de-Confederatize U.S. history textbooks, including The Americans.

            I write you, Prof. Danzer, because Houghton Mifflin McDougal Littell[1] lists you as senior author, and none of your co-authors have expertise in the Civil War, according to their descriptive paragraphs at the beginning of the textbook.

            Here is your main treatment of the question, why did the South secede.

            Southern Secession

            Lincoln's victory convinced Southerners that they had lost their political voice in the national government. Fearful that Northern Republicans would submit the South to what noted Virginia agriculturalist Edmund Ruffin called 'the most complete subjection and political bondage,' some Southern states decided to act. South Carolina led the way, seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860. Four days later, the news reached William Tecumseh Sherman, superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. In utter dismay, Sherman poured out his fears for the South.

Then comes an inset passage with a paragraph by Sherman in which he predicts the "country will be drenched in blood."

            Then you resume:

            Even Sherman underestimated the depth and intensity of the South's commitment. For many Southern planters, the cry of "States' rights!" meant the complete independence of Southern states from federal government control. Most white Southerners also feared that an end to their entire way of life was at hand. Many were desperate for one last chance to preserve the slave labor system and saw secession as the only wy. Mississippi followed South Carolina's lead and seceded on January 9, 1861. Florida seceded the next day. Within a few weeks, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had also seceded.


Let's consider this extended passage. The first paragraph lists sectionalism as the reason — fear that the South as a section will be outvoted by the North. The second paragraph lists states' rights, followed by fear "that an end to their entire way of life was at hand." Last, "many were desperate ... to preserve the slave labor system."

            In 2010, the state of Texas passed new standards for U.S. history textbooks. They list the causes of the Civil War as "'sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery' — written deliberately in that order," according to journalist Emma Brown. These new standards have prompted some rewriting in the history textbook publishing industry. Brian Belardi of McGraw-Hill, for example, said recently that the revised textbooks McGraw-Hill produces for Texas will not be used in other states.

            Note that Houghton Mifflin McDougal Littell will not have to change a word in The Americans. It already conforms!

            I must ask you, Prof. Danzer, do you think this is a good thing? Do you yourself think Texas seceded for those three reasons, in that order?

            If you do, let me share words from "A Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union," published by the secession convention as it took Texas out of the Union. The Declaration begins with three paragraphs outlining how Texas came to join the United States. This history emphasizes:

            She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

It begins to look as if slavery was the #1 cause, not #3, and was the concern of the entire state, not just "many."

            The Declaration then proceeds to charge the federal government with something almost no other Southern state charges: making California a free territory.[2]

            The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States ... from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.

This is nonsense. Even South Carolina, always the most extreme, never claimed in its secession documents that California should have or would have been a slave state, absent federal interference. In reality, Southern settlers in California at the time agreed that it should become a free state. As John S. Mosby, the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy, pointed out long after the war, "Now in the Convention wch. Gen. Taylor has called to form a Constitution for California, there were 51 Northern & 50 Southern men — but it was unanimous against slavery."[3]

            Texas then makes a charge against the federal government that is even more singular:

            The Federal Government ... has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico.

Here Texas is upset with the federal government for not acting enough, not for acting too much.

            Is Texas really seceding because ten years earlier, the Compromise of 1850 let California enter as a free state? And because it thinks the government hasn't sent enough troops to quell the Native Americans? Of course not. Indeed, the document goes on to say that while these issues with the federal government have been real, Texas has "patiently borne" them. Finally, Texas gets to its real reasons for seceding.

            When we advert to the course of individual non-slave-holding States, and that [of] [sic.] a majority of their citizens, our grievances assume far greater magnitude. The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated [Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution].

Texas makes various other charges against Northern states. In particular, Texas fulminates against their support for the Republican Party, which it calls an "abolitionist organization" (it wasn't, at least not yet) that demands "political equality between the white and the negro races" (it didn't and wouldn't until Reconstruction). Thus Texas makes clear that it is seceding against states' rights when exercised by Northern states on behalf of freedom and because of the November victory of the Republican Party, which is against slavery.

            A few pages before your treatment of secession, The Americans has a two-page "Tracing Themes" box titled "States' Rights." Such boxes repeatedly interrupt the main narrative of your book, like other textbooks. A box on states' rights could be a good idea. My essay on Gettysburg in Lies Across America, "South Carolina Defines the Civil War in 1965," shows how that state did favor states' rights when it put up its monument at Gettysburg, though it did not when it fought there. Tracing this history could introduce your readers to "historiography," among other benefits.

            Your box, however, begins:

            The power struggle between states and the federal government has caused controversy since the country's beginning. At its worst, the conflict resulted in the Civil War.

Surely most readers will infer that the South's insistence on states' rights led to secession and war. Surely they will not realize that the South's opposition to states' rights (and territories' rights) when exercised on behalf of freedom led to secession and war.

            That box then has four paragraphs treating four key years. "1787" treats the various Constitutional compromises. "1832" treats the Nullification crisis, certainly a states' rights issue. The fourth paragraph, "1957," treats the Little Rock crisis about school desegregation, also about states' rights. The third, "1860," is subtitled "South Carolina's Secession." You claim "South Carolina seceded after the election of Abraham Lincoln" — true enough — "whom the South perceived as anti-states' rights and antislavery," only half true. Again, let's refer to the key document, here the "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union." It does mention the election of Lincoln, whom it immediately denounces because his "opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery." Nowhere does it say anything about Lincoln's position on states' rights. Why would it? Lincoln had sworn repeatedly, "We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists, because the Constitution, and the peace of the country both forbid us ...." Again, then, The Americans obfuscates rather than clarifies the position of the South on states' rights. South Carolina was furious with Lincoln's victory because he was anti-slavery. Period.

Prof. Danzer, can you defend this box? I know you may reply that you had nothing to do with these "Tracing Themes," "Great Debates," Section Reviews, Chapter Reviews, Further Readings, "Presidential Lives," and other boxes. Why not? They make up maybe half of your book. Who other than you should bear the responsibility for this content? Surely not the clerks who grind it out! Neither you nor I even know their names!

            If Texas is clear that it is seceding against states' rights, its secession document also makes clear that Texas is seceding for slavery and the ideology that undergirds it, white supremacy:

            We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

             That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.


            Surely, Prof. Danzer, Texas seceded mostly about slavery (and white supremacy). If you do not feel you can say so on your own and still get adopted in Texas, why not just quote Texas's "Declaration of Causes?" Or quote from some other document! Is it good use of precious space to let the only "secession document" that you include be a comment from Sherman to a professor at the school he was running? Is it good pedagogy to tell students why the South seceded, rather than let them find out for themselves from reading what the leaders said as they left?

            There are some good things in your book, Prof. Danzer. For instance, you discuss "slave resistance in the Confederacy." You mention Confederate war crimes, such as Fort Pillow, which many textbooks duck. But your treatment of the essence of the Confederate cause — why it seceded in the first place — simply won't wash. Indeed, your book presents an even bigger problem than McGraw-Hill promises to produce. McGraw-Hill plans to lie about and obfuscate the reasons for secession only in Texas. You do so across the nation.

            The Texas standards, listing slavery third, are indefensible. So are the treatments of secession and of states' rights in The Americans. Teaching or implying that Texas seceded for states' rights is simply wrong. Avoiding the role of white supremacy in our past is itself a form of white supremacist history. I studied the index in The Americans. "White supremacy" does not appear. Neither does "racism" or any related term, such as "prejudice," "discrimination," "racial prejudice," "racial" anything, or even "race." Nor does this demonstrate mere bad indexing.

            If you agree, Prof. Danzer, that it is important to get the history of secession and the Confederacy right, what will you do about it? Will you ask the publisher to make immediate changes to align your book's treatment with the facts, the documents, rather than the Texas standards?


James W. Loewen

            PS: I wrote Prof. Danzer on 7/15/2015. He replied on 7/21 and reminded me that we had met, when I was "the commentator on a panel on textbooks at the AHA meeting in San Francisco about 2002." He confirmed he had not had anything much to do with The Americans for some years; even in 2002 he had moved on to "global history." Danzer did imply that he had had something to do with the textbook's first edition, although "As you know," he wrote, "The Americans had a 'cast of thousands' in its original development and each major revision." I do not infer that he wrote even the central narrative, let alone the boxes and other material.

            Danzer did not speak to any substantive matter, such as his book's treatment of secession. Nor did he offer to make an effort to improve the textbook now, implying that it is a dead horse: "My impression is that The Americans is reaching the end of its life."

    [1]In 2008, Houghton Mifflin McDougal Littell seems to have merged with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which had acquired Holt, Rinehart & Winston. The resulting part of this behemoth that produced the 2012 edition of The Americans is now known as Holt McDougal for short. I have not read the 2012 edition.

    [2]Isham Harris, Governor of Tennessee, "Message to the Legislature," January 7, 1861, also complained that the Compromise of 1850 excluded "the Southern people from California." (See The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010], 160, 162.)

    [3]John Singleton Mosby, "Letter to Sam Chapman," 7/4/1907, reprinted in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, 305. 

Copyright James W. Loewen

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