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  • McCullough's Critics Offer a Narrow View of History
  • John Bicknell (bio)

The formation in March 1786 of the Ohio Company by a band of New England land speculators sets the stage for David McCullough's The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. And their provenance was key: that the speculators hoping to settle the Ohio Country were from New England rather than Virginia made all the difference. Settlers from slaveholding states would follow, but Puritan values, rather than proslavery ones, would guide development of the new land.

In The Pioneers, McCullough celebrates the difference. McCullough's critics do not.

Reading the critiques of historians and journalists commenting on The Pioneers, one might assume there was no difference at all between the antislavery New Englanders who made settling the Old Northwest their project and the Southerners who would lead the nation toward civil war.

This uncharitable—and ahistorical—outlook makes one wonder if these reviewers have given any thought to how different U.S. history would have been had Virginians been the guiding force of settlement in the lands that became the Midwest.

In a series of tweets,1 author William Hogeland, who has written his own excellent history2 of the opening of the Northwest Territory, objected to the "nice guy" version of history he sees in The Pioneers.

More typical criticisms came from, as the Associated Press3 put it, the "new generation of historians, scholars and activists [who] took to social media to accuse McCullough of romanticizing white settlement and downplaying the pain inflicted on Native Americans."4

The book does neither of these things. What it does is tell the settlers' [End Page 153] story from the settlers' point of view. Every book of history has a point of view. There are no neutral observers of history. For a long time, writing from the settler's point of view was routine. Then for quite a while it wasn't. Now, apparently, it is verboten.

This is exactly the wrong way to think about history. Nothing is to be gained from simply flipping the narrative.

If, for a century, the story was one-sided on behalf of the settlers, for the last half-century that has been reversed. Few of McCullough's critics are in search of balance. It is not that they object to only part of the story being told. It is that they want the version they do not like to be silenced so only their version is told. They do not want to compete in the marketplace of ideas. They want to run the market and bar the door to anybody they do not like.5

But popular tastes defy these critics, leaving many of them critical to the point of absurdity. Harvard's Joyce E. Chaplin, reviewing the book in the New York Times, even took exception to McCullough's description of the Ohio Territory as "unsettled" because it had people in it. Well, yes, it did. But, until the arrival of white European Americans, it did not have any settlers; thus, it was "unsettled." To suggest that McCullough is implying otherwise, or that he somehow indicates that the people who were already there do not count, is not defensible. But if you are looking for ways to be outraged, you'll find them.6

For these kinds of critics, it is not enough to dominate the academy and have a virtual monopoly on indoctrinating students. All dissenting voices must be condemned as unworthy of consideration and hectored until they fall silent.

McCullough, who is considered a national treasure while his critics are not, has not responded to the criticism—although not, I suspect, because he fears being hectored. At eighty-six, he simply has nothing to gain by engaging in a public spat with people who have resented his success for decades.

The First West

McCullough's tale of the first West, the land beyond the Appalachians and Ohio River, is not as well-known as the story of the Old West that features cowboys and Indians, prairie schooners and mountain men. This period is more an extension of the Revolutionary War era than...