Social Education 57(1) pps. 14-18
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Children's U.S. History Textbooks:

Jimmie H. Hooper and Ben A. Smith
Textbooks of all kinds have been used for much more than simply supplying information to students. In varying degrees, they have also reflected the views and the times of their authors. This study attempts to gain some insight into the messages presented to students in early U.S. history textbooks.
Two hundred years ago the United States was a struggling new nation just recovering from a revolutionary war that had severed its colonial ties with Britain. Leaders recognized the need to instill a patriotic spirit and nationalistic pride in the country's citizens in order to form a new nation, based on democratic principles, that would be capable of assuming and maintaining its place in the world of nations. Mulhern (1959, 587) reports that among this group of leaders, Benjamin Franklin was "the most influential early herald of secular humanism, rationalism, and science to America, where, in spite of his conservatism, he did much to create a conception of values which have become a part of our national heritage." Franklin and other influential people called for a system of education that eventually became one of the primary means used to instill these nationalistic values.

According to Mulhern (1959, 592), "pedagogical thought in the period was concerned largely with the mode of inculcating patriotism and developing in youth a deep sense of morality." To do so, educational and political leaders encouraged the development of common schools in which students would be taught designated subjects, including, in elementary schools, U.S. history. Many educational leaders of the time believed that history instruction should include "moral training, training for citizenship, the judgement, and the imagination" (Johnson 1940, 51). In this way, the U.S. and European concepts of history were alike-both agreed that citizens should be loyal to the national government, obey the law, and love their country. In the United States, however, citizens were also expected to be informed in matters concerning the government and to participate actively in the governmental process. As a result, history education in the United States was intended to provide citizens with the knowledge necessary to do so.

Although most promoters and teachers in the field of education had been educated in religious settings of some sort, they realized that for education to be accepted by the population, the curriculum must be nonsectarian and Protestant-based (Nash 1970)-thus satisfying a majority of the population without completely removing the basic concepts of Christianity from the schools.

The establishment of the U.S. educational system was aided by technological improvements in printing and distribution. In addition, all types of goods-including textbooks-were made available to people living in rural areas of the United States by "Yankee peddlers" (American Publishers Institute 1949, 46). These men, traveling to outlying areas selling goods that would have otherwise been unobtainable by the settlers, found that children's textbooks sold well. Therefore, many of the peddlers regularly acquired textbooks directly from printers to sell to rural families.

Yankee peddlers, in fact, sometimes influenced the content of textbooks by communicating to the printers the needs of specific communities or groups of people. Such accommodation increased demand for the books so that it was feasible to produce large quantities at reasonable prices.

These textbooks offered teachers content and instructional methods that were much the same throughout the country, and up-to-date information that supported the values and philosophy of both the country's leaders and local interests. In time, the values and beliefs children learned from these books became the intellectual foundation supporting the United States.

We examined five history textbooks used in homes and common schools from 1787 to 1865. This period roughly approximates the early nationalist period of the United States. We have attempted, through the selections, to provide a sample of the common school textbooks of that period.

We chose Introduction to the History of America, by John M'Culloch (1787), because it is recognized by many education historians as the first history text compiled and printed in the United States following the Revolutionary War (Johnson 1940). We selected The American Geography, by Jedadiah Morse (1789), because it contains both history and geography, and was written by a man considered the "Father of American Geography" (Brown 1941). We chose History of the United States, by David Ramsay (1816), because it is frequently cited in educational works about early U.S. histories. We selected History of the United States, by Salma Hale (1846), because its author is recognized as a historian; we used the 1846 edition because of its availability. Finally, we chose The American Child's Pictorial History of the United States, by Samuel G. Goodrich (1865), because of its availability and because its author is considered one of the most popular textbook publishers in the United States (Smith and Vining 1990).

The authors of common school textbooks came from a variety of backgrounds. M'Culloch was a printer (Wallace 1951); Morse is listed as a member of the clergy (Spofford 1967); Ramsay was a physician and historian; Goodrich is noted as an author and publisher (Johnson and Malone 1931). Only one, Salma Hale, is listed solely as a historian (Spofford 1967). Many textbooks of this period were written by authors who were not exclusively historians. Since the students for whom they wrote grew into the people that built our nation, however, it is appropriate to examine the values and ideas to which those children were exposed.

We studied the texts for styles and patterns as well as content in an effort to gain insight into the writers' intentions. We examined, for example, the type of print that was employed, readability of the material, and the way in which the material was presented.

Authors of the textbooks we selected did not hesitate to point out their reasons for writing history. In his preface, for example, Morse (1789, vii) says of his book that "it is calculated early to impress the minds of American youth with the idea of superior importance of their own country, as well as to attach them to its interests." In much the same vein, the publishers of Hale's book prefaced that work with these words, "It was his purpose to present a correct and interesting narrative of all the important events in the history of his country; to exhibit in a strong light, the principle of political and religious freedom which they fought and conquered; to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage and patriotism, which have rendered them illustrious; and to produce by moral reflections, as by the tenor of the narrative, virtuous and patriotic impressions upon the mind of the reader" (Hale 1846, 5). It is not surprising to find many examples throughout these books that serve to strengthen the spirit of American nationalism.

Most of the writing found in these texts is easy to read and understand, although the readability, as measured by the Fry Readability Formula (Fry 1972), was rather high. The textbooks examined were surprisingly similar in the number of sentences and syllables per one hundred words; they all averaged close to 3.9 sentences and 162 syllables per one hundred words (table 1), placing the readability at college level. The high readability level may be deceptive, however, due to the authors' use of many multisyllable words that are, despite their complexity, a common part of most students' vocabulary. The readability level was further influenced by extremely long sentences and outmoded punctuation. Today's reader may find it difficult to read the style of print found in some of the early books. As you can see in figure 2, for example, the letters s and f are almost identical in this type.

The way in which information is presented varies from book to book. Morse's book, for example, sets forth facts in a straightforward manner. Goodrich's textbook, on the other hand, is written in a storytelling fashion with questions and answers interspersed throughout the text (see figure 3).

We reviewed the textbooks, paying particular attention to their scope and sequence. The books contain almost no information about the Americas prior to Columbus's voyages. Furthermore, they followed one of three patterns for the sequence of events occurring in the United States prior to the Revolutionary War. Ramsay and Hale arranged the material in chronological order as nearly as possible. Goodrich divided the material into sections according to nationality. (That is, the exploits of the Spanish are found in one section, the French in another, and the English in yet another.) M'Culloch, Morse, and Hale grouped historical events by the state in which they occurred. From the Revolutionary War onward, however, all the texts are written in chronological order.

We also examined the textbooks' treatment of various nationalities, especially in relation to their encounter with the indigenous population. Goodrich, like some of the other writers, describes atrocities carried out against the Indians by the Europeans. He recounts the story of a French expedition in which a sailor nearly drowns. He was saved and treated "kindly" by the Indians; Goodrich is "sorry to say," however, "that after this, the voyagers kidnapped an Indian child and carried it away" (28). Later in the same chapter Goodrich describes another French expedition that wintered with the Indians near the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. After enjoying the Indians' hospitality, the French kidnapped the Indian king and took him to France.

The authors studied almost all describe the Spanish treatment of the Indians as inhumane. DeSoto's expedition was depicted in an almost identical tone by nearly all the authors. DeSoto, they explain, marched through what is now the southeastern United States torturing, killing, and making slaves of Indians found along the way. When the expedition reached the Mississippi River, DeSoto died; his followers secretly buried his body at night in the middle of the river so that the "savages" could not get it.

In general, these texts cover the exploits of the early English colonists much more thoroughly than those of other nationalities. Most of the authors were critical of the early settlers at Jamestown. Those settlers were generally seen as poorly organized and unwilling to work hard enough to make their venture a success. The adventures of John Smith and Pocahontas are covered here; in most respects, however, the authors seem to regard the early attempts at colonization of Virginia as rather dismal failures.

All the books mention the arrival and sale of both women (for marriage) and Africans (for slavery). With the exception of Hale, the authors simply present the sale of human beings as historical fact without offering any indication of whether they believe it was right or wrong. Hale, however, describes the event this way:

A Dutch vessel brought twenty Africans, who were immediately purchased as slaves. This was the commencement in the English American Colonies of a traffic abhorrent to humanity, disgraceful to civilization, and fixing the foulest stain upon the character of the age and people. (23)
In the conclusion of that chapter Hale again addresses the issue of slavery:
The laudable efforts of these representatives to arrest the progress of slavery in the colony [Virginia] ought not be passed over in silence. Convinced of its inhumanity, and foreseeing the dreadful evils which it must produce, they often passed laws prohibiting the importation of slaves; but, those who were higher in authority, yielding to the wishes of merchants engaged in the abominable traffic persisted, with criminal obstinacy, in withholding their assent. (26)
Ramsay (1818, 255) identified the slavery issue as one of the causes of the Revolutionary War: "In the Southern colonies, slavery nurtured a spirit of liberty among the free inhabitants." He explains that because the people of the Southern colonies knew the consequences of slavery, they were afraid that if they remained subjects of Britain they might become slaves themselves. Apart from these examples there was almost no mention of slavery in these textbooks.

The Puritans did not escape criticism from these authors. M'Culloch wrote rather glowingly of the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts; he points out, however, that although the Puritans were persecuted themselves, they in turn were responsible for the persecution of the Quakers and Anabaptists that also attempted to settle in Massachusetts. M'Culloch notes that this persecution was so severe that those groups were forced to leave Massachusetts and settle in Rhode Island. Although some other criticisms are leveled at the Puritans, most history written about them suggests that they practiced many of the same ideals that supported U.S. nationalism, including industriousness, superiority of the Anglo race, and a strong belief in Protestantism.

Generally, these authors appear to be ambivalent toward Native Americans. Native Americans are portrayed in these books alternately as helpful and kind and as savages. Ramsay offers two distinct descriptions of Native Americans. First:

With respect to morals they were miserably depraved. They were liars, thieves, and murderers. They were insidious and revengeful. They in general kept many concubines....They imposed all drudgery on their women. The men declined labour of any kind. (42)
Later, however, he notes that "the Indians performed many acts of kindness toward the English settlers" (43).
Goodrich, in a portrayal typical of the textbooks studied, presents the following description of the Indians:

The poor Indians in the country now occupied by the United States, had no books, no iron tools, no comfortable furniture: no roads but the rude paths of the woods, no ships no boats save canoes hollowed out from logs, they knew nothing of the Bible, and knew no God but the imaginary spirits of the winds, the mountains, the bears, the beavers, and the like." (24)
An example of the type of illustration usually accompanying these descriptions is shown in figure 4.

The authors were not, however, blind to the injustices visited on the Native Americans by the white settlers. Ramsay, for example, was critical of the claiming of Native American land by early explorers:

The right of the Indian nations to the soil in their possession was founded in nature. It was the free and liberal gift of heaven to them; and as such no foreigner could rightly annul. The foreigners blinded by superstition of the times, regarded the Diety as the partial God of Christians; and not a common father of saints and savages. (37)
He and other writers also recount in these texts an incident in which the Pequot Indians were annihilated, describing the event as reprehensible yet, at the same time, a "brilliant success of the English" (Hale 1846, 34).

In their portrayal of the various groups of people involved in the American colonial experience, the authors apparently intend to reinforce the belief that the English-speaking Protestants were superior to any other group. Arguably, then, this belief would help to justify the existence of the United States as a nation.

The accounts of the Revolutionary War also seem to be intended to further strengthen this spirit of nationalism. Although these accounts may be accurate, the authors' biases are obvious. Noah Webster, writing for Morse, for example, refers to England as an "oppressive and hostile parent" (99).

In addition, the American heroes are described as performing great deeds while the accounts of the British Army's feats are, at best, neutral. Specifically, depictions of the battles of Lexington, Bunker Hill, and others laud the Americans'; spirit and prowess. In many cases the British soldiers are described as masters of cruelty; M'Culloch, for example, tells of the conduct of the British soldiers during a foray in Rhode Island: "Mr. Caldwell was a respectable clergyman and warm patriot, and his lady, were inhumanly murdered by the savage soldiery" (63).

Almost no women appear in these textbooks. Only one woman, Moll Pitcher, appeared in most of the works. According to these writers, Pitcher accompanied her husband as he soldiered for the American army. His job was to swab a cannon clean after each firing. When he was killed during a battle, Pitcher, without hesitation, took his place.

Another hero of the Revolutionary War represented in all of the books is George Washington. Washington was praised by all of the authors without exception. None could find fault with Washington in any way. The writers portray him as the most popular and exceptional person associated with the war. Washington's success and the Americans' ultimate victory appeared to establish a sense of national pride that carried over well into the next century.

Any study of early children's history textbooks would be incomplete without some mention of religion. In most cases the authors of the texts we studied did not mention religion in any significant way. Where it was mentioned, the authors seemed to assume that anyone reading these books knew that the only true religions were Protestant: "That the religion of the first settlers of New England was tinctured with enthusiasm, must be admitted; but it is equally true, that, without a portion of that infirmity, no great enterprise was ever accomplished" (Ramsay 1818, 82). Apparently, these writers considered religion of some kind essential to the nation and society.

The writers of these textbooks were not averse to using each other's work without formal citation. For example, both Morse (1789, 104) and M'Culloch (1787, 56) describe Washington in this way: "This gentleman had been a distinguished and successful officer in the preceding war and seemed destined by heaven to be the savior of his country." In addition, three of the texts (Goodrich 1865, 130; Ramsay 1818, 6; Hale 1846, 147) attribute the following quotation to Major Pitcairn, one of the British commanders at Lexington: "'disperse, you rebels,' shouted the English officer, Major Pitcairn, 'throw down your arms and disperse!'" Since most of the authors lived during the same time period, shared the same politics, in many cases frequented the same places, and in some instances were acquainted, it is not surprising that their accounts are similar (Smith and Vining 1990).

Children's history textbooks of the late eighteenth and early to mid nineteenth centuries promoted a sense of nationalism related to the political development and ideals of the American nation of the time. The authors describe the white, English-speaking, Protestant population in terms more favorable than those used for other national and ethnic groups. They present the accomplishments in a fashion indicative of the pride they have for their country and its culture. The national pride expressed in these history textbooks undoubtedly had considerable influence on the children who studied them and would later be responsible for shaping the nation. Although these texts may be looked upon with some disfavor in the context of our society today, at that period and time they seem to have served their intended purpose.

These textbooks, in many instances, deliberately downgrade other cultures and minorities in an attempt to promote a strong, monocultural nation. Only recently has the United States begun to embrace a more realistic, multicultural model of life. More and more, textbooks are required to fairly represent people of various cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Textbooks represent the ideals of the authors who write them and of the society that selects them for use in teaching its children. As with all materials used in the schools, textbooks are an attempt to perpetuate and improve society through the education of its children. The production of textbooks that are instrumental in supporting the development of future citizens continues to be a prime concern of historians, authors, educators, publishers, and private citizens. We, as citizens and educators of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, should hope that future generations will view our efforts as directed toward the best interests of all citizens of the United States.

American Publishers Institute. Textbooks in Education. New York: American Publishers Institute, 1949.Brown, Ralph H. "The American Geographics of Jedidiah Morse." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 31, no. 3 (1941): 145-188.Fry, Edward. Reading Instruction for Classroom and Clinic. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972.Goodrich, Samuel G. American Child's Pictorial History of the United States. Boston: E. H. Butler, 1865.Hale, Salma. History of the United States. Keene, N.H.: J. and J. W. Prentiss, 1846.Johnson, A., and D. Malone, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931.Johnson, H. Teaching of History. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1940.M'Culloch, John. Introduction to the History of America. Philadelphia: Young and M'Culloch, 1787.Morse, Jedadiah. The American Geography. Elizabeth Town, N.J.: Kolloc, 1789._____. Geography Made Easy. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1807.Mulhern, James A. A History of Education; A Social Interpretation. New York: Ronald Press Co., 1959.Nash, Paul, ed. History and Education: The Educational Uses of the Past. New York: Random House, 1970.Ramsay, David. History of the United States. Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1813.Smith, Ben A., and J. W. Vining. Samuel Griswold Goodrich aka Peter Parley: Early American Geographer. Unpublished manuscript, 1990.Spofford, Ainsworth R., ed. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1967.Wallace, William S., ed. A Dictionary of North American Authors. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1951.Jimmie H. Hooper is a graduate teaching assistant in the Division of Teacher Education and Ben A. Smith is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary Education and the Department of Geography at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas 66506.