Does the study of history make a difference in how we live our lives?

A dramatic illustration of the importance of history and history texts is found in the life of G. Mennen Williams, Michigan’s only six-term governor. Williams, who promoted an active state government, moved Michigan into the Democratic column during the 1950s. Yet Williams’ background was in free-market Republicanism. His grandfather was a successful entrepreneur and founded Mennen soap products.

What caused Williams to change was his history classes at Salisbury Prep School in Connecticut in the late 1920s. Williams read widely in English history and was deeply moved by the critical accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Historians in the 1920s and 1930s were strongly influenced by the writings of John L. and Barbara Hammond. Their books, according to Professor Philip A. M. Taylor of the University of Birmingham, have been "far more influential than Marx in molding the popular British view of history." The Hammonds, in colorful language, argued that the Industrial Revolution was "crowded with overworked children," "hotbeds of putrid fever," and "monotonous toil in a hell of human cruelty."

This view of English history, Williams later said, "determined me to go out and fight for the underdog." An increase in government authority, Williams concluded, would be needed to protect the common man from what the Hammonds called industrial "enslavement." Other influences, of course, touched Williams, too, but when he became governor in 1948, he promoted government intervention in Michigan life more than any other governor the state ever had. He realigned politics in Michigan more than any other person this century; his ideas about an active government still shape political debate in Michigan today.

The irony here is that the Hammonds were later proven to be wrong in much of what they said. The Hammonds had relied on the Sadler Report of 1832 for much of their information on the Industrial Revolution. They called it "one of the main sources of our knowledge of the conditions of factory life at the time. Its pages bring before the reader in the vivid form of dialogue the kind of life that was led by the victims of the new system." Mr. Sadler, we know today, lied in his report. He was a member of Parliament and made up much of his report to gain support for a bill he wanted to see Parliament pass. Economist W. H. Hutt has described Sadler’s falsification of evidence. Even Friedrich Engels, comrade of Karl Marx, concluded that "Sadler permitted himself to be betrayed by his noble enthusiasm into the most distorted and erroneous statements."1

Some historians today still have a negative view of the Industrial Revolution, but no longer can they use the Sadler Report, nor can they borrow freely from the Hammonds for their information. The Sadler Report deceived the Hammonds; the Hammonds deceived the historians of the 1920s; the historians deceived Williams; and Williams built a career on a questionable theory of the Industrial Revolution. History textbooks can make a difference, and it is worth our time to evaluate them.