For more than half a century, biographers have treated Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Rushmore-like reverence, celebrating the nation’s 32nd president as a colossus who eased the agony of the Great Depression and saved democracy from Nazi Germany.
Which never sat right with historian Burton Folsom Jr.
Growing up in Nebraska, Folsom remembers, his dad, a savings and loan executive, griped about high taxes and Roosevelt’s voracious ambition. FDR was dead, but his legacy — deficit spending, an activist federal government, an expansive social safety net — lived on.
About 15 years ago, Folsom read another of those historical surveys, this one placing Roosevelt on par with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. “As a matter of my professional integrity,” Folsom said, “I had to respond.”
The result was “New Deal or Raw Deal?,” a scathing 300-page counter-narrative that has made Folsom a conservative hero and placed him squarely in the midst of a roiling debate over America’s past, the nature of history and, some say, its manipulation for political ends.
It is an ancient debate spurred anew by the rise of the “tea party” movement, which treats the Constitution as both cudgel and sacred text; by TV commentators such as Glenn Beck, who wrap their ideology in selective scholarship; and by a current vogue among conservatives eager not just to revisit the past but to rewrite it.
Many tea partyers, for instance, speak as though the Founders favored a small, circumscribed federal government, when in fact some wanted a more powerful Washington than we have today. (James Madison proposed a national veto over state laws.) In a recent speech, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) extolled the Founding Fathers’ efforts to end slavery, when they actually made inequality the law, passing legislation counting blacks as three-fifths of a person.
Misleading or not, the revisionism represents a scramble for the high ground; in a country that reveres its history — even as we endlessly fight over its meaning — there are few more powerful arguments than precedent.
“We’re not discussing how many economic-stimulus plans we can balance on the head of a pin,” said the University of New Mexico’s Jason Scott Smith. “There can be real-world consequences to the lessons we attempt to take from history.”
Some scholars, however, worry the debate has been poisoned by the same attitude afflicting political discourse: the notion that truth and virtue reside on one side, and those who disagree are not just wrong but un-American. In a new book, Harvard’s Jill Lepore condemns what she calls “historical fundamentalism,” a belief that “a particular and quite narrowly defined past” should be worshiped, unquestioned, above all others.
“There’s an opportunity for an interesting national conversation about what the past means to us,” Lepore said. “But it needs to be a respectful conversation.”
That would seem to exclude the likes of Beck, who routinely heaps opprobrium on FDR — “one evil son-of-a-bitch"; Woodrow Wilson — the No. 1 “president you need to hate"; and other demons on the left. “Trained historians try to take seriously the complexities of the past … and not just reduce people to archvillains,” said Randall Stephens, an Eastern Nazarene College professor who edits Historically Speaking, a trade journal.
Folsom, whose book is a tea party must-read, is no armchair analyst. He holds a doctorate in history, and he spent 10 years on research and compiled 40 pages of footnotes that, even critics say, attest to the depth of his research.
Most historians agree the New Deal did not solve the economic crisis that began in 1929 and lasted until the U.S. entry into World War II. Many believe, however, that Roosevelt’s actions mitigated the suffering of many millions of Americans.
Further, they say, the New Deal’s foundation helped make the U.S. the world’s richest, most powerful nation. “The record of the edifice built by Roosevelt is mind-boggling,” said Andrew W. Cohen, a New Deal scholar at Syracuse University.
Folsom, an avid free-marketeer, couldn’t disagree more. He says Roosevelt’s policies not only failed — undermining business, worsening unemployment, contributing to higher crime and increased suicide rates — but, handed down, choke our economy to this day.
At 63, in square, rimless glasses and an argyle sweater, Folsom is professorial in both demeanor and dress: pleasant, unassuming and unfailingly polite. He is not one to press his point by raising his voice or lacing his arguments with invective.
The problem with most histories, Folsom said, is their focus on relief efforts, without serious discussion of their financing. High tax rates, approaching 80% of income on the wealthy, stifled entrepreneurs, he said, and were — to use a modern phrase — “a job killer.”
“That argument might resonate in today’s environment,” countered Smith, but not so much in the 1930s, when only 3% of households paid income tax.
What, he asks, of feats like Hoover Dam, the Triborough Bridge and the span between Oakland and San Francisco? Those sorts of public works not only created jobs, Smith said, but built a scaffolding that still buttresses our economy.
Those projects had merit, Folsom agreed, but all the government did was elbow out private industry, adding layers of inefficiency, corruption and cost. “The good things that are there would have happened and, I think, in greater abundance without the New Deal,” he said.
Folsom has not won fame or riches with his FDR indictment. But it raised Folsom’s profile on TV and the lecture circuit, affording the luxury of teaching half a year at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a conservative citadel, and spending winters outside Atlanta, near his adult son. He is writing a second Roosevelt book with his wife, Anita, criticizing his role during World War II.
Folsom knows that many dismiss his work as little more than conservative polemic. “I think the story I tell is the right story,” he said, as soft winter light filtered into his living room. “I want to present something that’s going to endure, and to endure you have to be accurate. You have to have something that’s going to be compelling 40, 50 years from now.”
In other words, he suggested, history will judge.