Home > Book Reviews > Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black and White by David Barton

Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black and White by David Barton

Setting the Record Straight:  American History in Black & White by David Barton.  I was very disappointed with this book, and believe that the back cover blurb and a recommendation I received were misleading.

First, my expectations. I thought that the book was going to be presented as a series of biographical vignettes which would highlight the political and cultural (societal, philosophical, rather than artistic or scientific) achievements of African-Americans in the history of the United States. I expected that the author’s viewpoint would condemn the horrific institution of slavery, but would also bring to light certain instances where, in spite of the difficulties, African-American individuals had a clear, profound impact. I was also expecting that the author’s tone would suggest that many of these instances have been forgotten and perhaps expunged from our American heritage education.

As I read the book, I was disappointed that mentions of prominent African-American thinkers, orators, and political figures were frankly too brief. Without question, Barton suggests that the treatment of black Americans was evil and unlawful. The context of the individuals he did use in his arguments was certainly eye-opening to me.   For example, I had no idea that so many black representatives (comparatively) were elected to the Congress in the 10 or so years following the Civil War.

So, the anecdotes were interesting to me, as was the path to voting rights for African-Americans. Although I was familiar generally with the attempts to keep black voters from exercising their rights through the years, I never comprehended how systemic this was and to what lengths that people prevented the vote.

What I found most disagreeable about the book was its political bias. From page to page I wondered if the book shouldn’t have been entitled: American History in Black & White: The Racist and Misguided Agenda of the Democratic Party, Then and Now. The author constantly reveled in revealing how the Democratic party itself was inherently pro-slavery, racist, and believed in the supremacy of whites and how the Republican Party was abolitionist and constantly fought to gain acceptance of the equality of the races. And, while the evidence presented seems to support this view, it certainly seems a mistake to draw parallels with the modern day parties. It certainly seemed to me that the author had an axe to grind. Which, in turn, made me question whether there either might be other interpretations of the evidence or that additional evidence to the contrary was omitted.

Now, the bias against the Democratic Party and for the Republican Party seems quite clear throughout the text, but it wasn’t until the final pages where Barton explicitly states it:

As many today have lost their knowledge of the black political history known so well by previous generations of black Americans, and as the black Americans have in recent decades become solidly aligned with the Democratic Party, many African Americans today have picked up the Democrats’ long-standing hatred for Republicans without understanding its origins; yet the racial issues behind the generations-long Democratic hatred for Republicans is well documented.

Also well documented is the fact that African Americans made their earliest and some of their most significant political and civil rights gains while affiliated with the Republican Party — and that progress is still continuing in this generation.

Now, Barton goes on to say that “no vote should be cast solely on the basis of any party”, but the damage via bias was unfortunately done for me. How can I trust the evidence when his neutrality is so repeatedly questioned?

On the positive side, there are enough nuggets of interest here that have already caused me to do some additional web searches for more information, which is always a sign of a good non-fiction book. But sadly, some of those searches were to test the data itself….

Definitely not a horrible book and eminently readable as a history of the political parties on the race issue during the nineteenth century, but not what I expected.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars (October 24, 2010)

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  1. October 25, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Did you perchance happen to catch the Glenn Beck TV show episodes where he focused on Black Americans in the Revolutionary period? It was completely fascinating, and more along the lines of what you said you expected from the book.

    I think you’re right, that it’s difficult to draw good parallels between the Dem and Repub parties in the Civil War era, and those parties now.

    • michaelldennis
      October 25, 2010 at 10:57 pm

      Yes, I did see that show and I was fascinated by the stories which was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book (someone else recommended it to me also). The book turned out to be a bit more politically motivated than I anticipated — well, maybe not politically motivated since that would indicate it is probably more propaganda than it was. More that I didn’t read the book that I thought I was going to read, so it kinda irritated me.

  2. Paula
    January 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I am currently reading this book and am curious to know what your further internet searches revealed about the veracity of Barton’s claims.

    I have personally attended some of Barton’s lectures and find him to be very knowledgeable and sure of his facts. However, I agree with you, it is obvious where his bias falls, so I, too, have been doing research. However, I can’t find anything that disputes his facts. The critiques I am finding are personal attacks and not factually based. Any pointers to what you have found would be helpful.

    • michaelldennis
      January 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

      It’s a really good question. I’ve done just a little research on some of the items, and everything seems to check out. But, most of my fact checking was merely that…checking on specific biographical names and certain events, but not necessarily the author’s argument that historically the Democratic Party has been intrinsically anti-equality and anti-suffrage. I think that’s probably a bit harder to prove. The examples used may all be true, but how many examples contradicting this argument were ignored?

  3. jim
    April 15, 2011 at 12:25 am

    He leaves out very important details. Page 129 he rants and claims that republicans in congress made it possible for the civil rights act to go through under Johnson. As you can see in the statistics both northern democrats and republicans wanted to pass the bill. It was the conservative democrats and republicans who did want to see the bill pass. Leaving details like this out give a real distorted view……i guess thats why most historians view the book as pseudo-history….lol

    The original House version:
    Yes-No
    * Southern Democrats: 7–87 (7%–93%)
    * Southern Republicans: 0–10 (0%–100%)

    * Northern Democrats: 145-9 (94%–6%)
    * Northern Republicans: 138-24 (95%–5%)

    The Senate version:

    * Southern Democrats: 1–20 (5%–95%)
    * Southern Republicans: 0–1 (0%–100%)
    * Northern Democrats: 45-1 (98%–2%)
    * Northern Republicans: 27-5 (84%–16%)

    As you can see it wasn’t a matter of democrat/nor republican, more of north and south.

  4. campb23
    April 24, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    pure propaganda.. to appeal to southern conservatives who want to re-direct the blame for racial strife in this country to northern liberals, rather than southern conservatives.

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