Well, its official. For whatever it’s worth, David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies edged out Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by nine votes in the HNN poll for the “Least Credible History Book in Print.”
It is fitting that both of these books were so close in the voting. They are both examples of writers using the past for political propaganda. Barton and Zinn are guilty of using history to serve their political activism.
Yet, I am sympathetic to the historians who thought that Zinn’s book did not belong in the same category as Barton’s. One might argue that Zinn represents an extreme form of the kind of activism that progressive historians–I am thinking here of Charles Beard and Carl Becker–believed to be an important part of the historian’s vocation. Many of these progressives played a vital role in the development of the historical profession and served as presidents of the American Historical Association. As Peter Novick has argued, this progressive, activist impulse–like it or not–has always been a part of the debate over the meaning of history in America.
The difference between Zinn and Barton is that Zinn’s activism is based upon the so-called “rules” of the historical profession, at least in terms of the gathering and use of evidence. In the early years of the historical profession in America, Beard and Becker may have wanted to use history to promote social reform, but they could also agree with their conservative critics that historian’s should not fabricate evidence or deliberately mislead. Barton’s work, on the other hand, has just too many blatant factual errors to be considered a work of history. And there, I think, is the difference. I would probably argue that Barton’s book should not have been included on the list because it is not “history.” (I can’t speak for the other books on the list because I have not read them).
In the end, I wonder how much of the voting was driven more by the political convictions of the voters than by an honest assessment of the books. This is the only way I can make sense of why the vote was so close.