The American Pageant (12th ed.)

A Critique

By Burt Folsom, PhD

The American Pageant may be the bestselling American history textbook ever written. It has sold many millions of copies, and every year thousands of high school and college students are required to read it. Advanced Placement (AP) history courses in high schools especially like to use The American Pageant as their text.

The problem is that The American Pageant is unreliable. As a strongly biased textbook, it has distorted American history for three generations of students. Today too many students have little knowledge of the United States and the uniqueness of the American experience. Students’ lack of factual information can be traced to unreliable textbooks such as The American Pageant that are widely used in classrooms today.

This online critique of The American Pageant, is designed to help the thousands of students each year who are misled by the indoctrination from The American Pageant. First, I highlight many of the key passages that give students an erroneous view of the United States. I quote a section from the text in italics with the textbook’s page number. Then I explain why that section is either misleading or completely in error.

I do not emphasize minor errors, which understandably creep into most histories. My focus is on the flawed ideas in The American Pageant that mislead students into thinking that the United States is fundamentally corrupt, and that the world is often worse off because America exists and has so much global influence. How can current students become effective leaders in America’s future if they think their nation has been evil during so many eras of history? In my analysis of the flawed passages in the text, I will briefly explain the distortions, point out contradictions, and sometimes comment on the defective historical methods used.

In my criticism, I include fifteen chapters from The American Pageant that cover the 1865–2001 period. I use the 12th edition of The American Pageant, which was published in 2002, and is still the text used in many classrooms. Some schools are using newer editions, but those editions incorporate almost all of the errors described in the 2002 edition. We are, however, preparing a study of more recent editions that correlates my criticisms with the new page numbers in these editions.

Since The American Pageant is such a misleading text, we should perhaps not be surprised that the authorship of the text is presented in a misleading way in modern editions. The original author was Thomas Bailey, a long-time professor at Stanford, who originally published The American Pageant in 1956. By the 1979 edition, he had added his colleague David Kennedy as a co-author. Bailey died in the 1980s and shortly thereafter Lizabeth Cohen of Harvard University was added as co-author. But in the most recent editions, Bailey’s name has been completely eliminated from the cover and title page (although Bailey is briefly acknowledged in the author credits). Few students realize that The American Pageant was first written over sixty years ago by Thomas Bailey, and that many of the most egregious original chapters have been only mildly changed since then. Therefore, in my critique of chapters before World War II, I often only cite “Bailey” as author because he wrote the original text and was responsible for writing so many of the defective sections.

If Bailey had told his readers he was writing a biased textbook that stressed for students a Left-liberal view of American history, he would have been giving them a fully honest approach. But he didn’t. In his public comments, Bailey portrayed himself and his textbook as neutral and independent. In his autobiography, entitled The American Pageant Revisited, Bailey says, “I firmly resolved that I would never prostitute my calling as a historian to promote false or deliberately distorted propaganda” (p. 16). More specifically, he says, “My independent status has, I think, been reflected in my writings, particularly in The American Pageant” (p. 143). Not true. History, in Bailey’s hands, is a weapon to advance his distorted point of view on the many sins of so many leaders in the United States.

Students deserve better. I encourage you to read The American Pageant and then read my challenge to the substance of this text. Make up your own mind. And discuss these contrasting ideas with other students and with your teachers.