Rewriting the Amendments

John J. Newman and John M. Schmalbach’s United States History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination is an bestseller. In fact, it is Amazon’s number one bestseller in the History category for Teens and Young Adults. It is also one of the most Wished For books in that same category (users of can create personal “wish lists” of items they would like to have). As a U.S. history teacher and enthusiast, this should be music to my ears, right? Sadly, it is not to be. Just the opposite, in fact. The fact that this book is so widely read scared me. Why? Quite frankly, because the book is not accurate.

The Amazon listing says this of the book: “U.S. History: Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination presents the history of the United States from pre-Columbian times to the Obama administration. It follows the curriculum put out by the College Board for this course of study. Thirty chapters, each covering a different time period.”

That would be good news, and a book like this–a one-volume overview of U.S. history specifically designed to help students prepare for the Advanced Placement exam and/or to assist the student of U.S. history in understanding the events and people that shaped this nation–would logically be in demand, particularly when modestly priced (as this one is). However, a book like this can also be expected to accurately present the facts of U.S. history, and this one does not.

I have not had the opportunity to review the entire book, so I cannot speak for it en toto. Having reviewed just the books presentation of the Bill of Rights, though, I can say that the book is revisionist history at its best.

It strikes me as odd, quite frankly, that the book feels the need to summarize the Bill of Rights at all. Most history books that I am familiar with simply present the Constitution and its amendments as written. After all, why read a summary when it is easy enough to read the original? Nevertheless, Newman and Schmalbach decide to present a summary. Interestingly, they introduce that summary with a paragraph that includes this statement: “Together they [the Bill of Rights] provided the guarantees that Anti-Federalists wanted against possible abuses of power by the central (or federal) government.” While that is accurate enough in and of itself, the amendment summaries that follow are so twisted that they actually do the exact opposite of what that sentence states; the amendments described in the summary would give far more power to the federal government than even the Federalists wanted, let alone what the Anti-Federalists feared.

For example, the summary of the First Amendment reads, “Congress may make no laws that infringe a citizen’s right to freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Congress may not favor one religion over another (separation of church and state).” The first amendment actually does not say that Congress cannot favor one religion over another, and there is an abundance of historical evidence that in its early years Congress clearly did favor Christianity over other religions. And the First Amendment certainly does not say anything about the separation of church and state. This a phrase that does not exist in any founding documents; it first appears in a private letter written from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, and even Jefferson did not intend it in the way that judicial activist judges have used it in recent decades. What the First Amendment actually says is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Accurate summary: Congress cannot create a state church and cannot pass any laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. (What this amendment clearly does not say, by the way, is that the church must not influence the state, but that is a topic for another day….)

Move on to the Second Amendment. The textbook’s summary reads, “The people have the right to keep and bear arms in a state militia.” What does the Second Amendment actually say? “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Accurate summary? Since the people must have a right to defend themselves in a free state–and to preserve a free state–the government cannot pass any laws prohibiting law abiding citizens from owning firearms. It certainly does not say that only in a state militia can citizens bear arms.

As I said above, this rewriting (or intentional misinterpreting) of the first two amendments clearly gives the federal government far more power than the actual Bill of Rights gives it since this revision would allow the separation of church and state and would allow the restriction of gun ownership to anyone not in a state militia. These are powers that the federal government does not have. There are definitely members of the government, and people in the political realm, who would love to see the federal government have this power, and there are certainly those who will try to convince gullible students and citizens that these are powers the government does indeed have. Let us be ever vigilant in defending our freedoms and opposing wrong teaching in our schools!

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