The textbook is usually informative, clear, well organized, and unbiased. Students who read this text should do occasional outside reading to get a more balanced view of Michigan history.
The first and most substantial text to be reviewed is David McConnells Forging
the Peninsulas.3 There is much good to be said about this book. Eighth
gradersand high schoolers, toocan learn much from it because McConnells
coverage of Michigan history ranges from adequate to excellent. He devotes six of his 14
chapters to the pre-statehood period in Michigan. Two other chapters describe Michigan
from statehood to the Civil War. Some may think this too much coverage of the early
period, but McConnell does build a strong foundation for understanding Michigans
past. The different Indian tribes, the French settlement, the British conquest, and the
American triumph are essential ingredients in Michigan history and all get strong
attention from McConnell. Also, his detail on the Yankee exodus to Michigan helps him
explain the strong anti-slavery sentiment that made Michigan a center of the underground
railroad that gave freedom to so many blacks. After this, three full chapters develop the
entrepreneurial period of Michigans growth from the Civil War to World War I. The
two chapters on Michigan from the 1930s to the present are adequate.
Railroads. Michigan's early railroads were built by the state
government. They were run so poorly that the legislature finally sold them to private
entrepreneurs. Most Michigan textbooks neglect to tell this story.
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McConnells coverage of key social groups and individuals is also strong. The fur
trade brought Indians and French (later British) together and their customs and
differences are well developed. Later, McConnell uses the stories of Sojourner Truth, Adam
Crosswhite, Laura Haviland, and Pamela Thomas to describe the anti-slavery campaign and
the cooperation between whites (usually Quakers) and blacks that prevailed in Michigan.
After the Civil War, industryand later entertainmentwere avenues of upward
mobility for many in Michigan. McConnell cites inventor Elijah McCoy and musician Berry
Gordy as examples of successful blacks.
McConnells analysis of Michigans economic development yields mixed results.
His description of the fur trade, the dominant industry in Michigan until the 1830s, is
excellent. He also does a good job explaining Michigans use of its natural
resourceslumber, iron, copper, and salt. The furniture and carriage industries,
by-products of lumber, are nicely covered. The rise of the auto gets a whole chapter.
McConnell could improve his text, however, by explaining more clearly why
Michigan prospered. Furs, white pines, iron, copper, and brine all gave Michigan the
potential for economic growth. But the environment for investment had to be right, too.
Before 1850, Michigan had a strong state government that sometimes discouraged
entrepreneurs and private enterprise. After 1850, the state quit the business of economic
development and many entrepreneurs came in and flourished. McConnell needs to describe how
In the fur trade, for example, a government-operated fur company, with a $300,000
federal subsidy, competed in Michigan with John Jacob Astors American Fur Company.
Astors firm, with a major depot on Mackinac Island, crushed the inefficient
government company. Astor ran a more efficient business. For example, he sent agents to
live with the different Indian tribes. His axes, blankets, muskets, and kettles were
better quality items than those sold by the governments fur company. While the
Indians avoided the government trading posts, Astor dominated worldwide fur markets and
became a multimillionaire.4
After the government fur company was disbanded, many of Michigans leaders still
believed that strong state involvement was necessary for Michigans prosperity.
Michigan was isolated, cold, swampy, and too far north of the westward migration routes
that went through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The Tiffin Report, which
McConnell describes, was released in 1816 and claimed that less than one percent of
Michigan land was good for farming. This document also retarded settlement.5
With few people coming to Michigan, its leaders became committed to a plan of state
supported canals and railroads. Good transportation, the states leaders argued, was
essential to attracting settlers. The state government, therefore, needed to build canals
and railroads with citizens tax dollars. In fact, the Constitution of 1835 mandated
state-funded internal improvements: "internal improvements shall be encouraged by the
government of this state," the constitution read.
When Michigan entered the Union in 1837, the legislature met and approved a $5 million
bond issue to fund the railroads and canals. The result was a disaster. The bonds were
sold to the wrong group; the money that came in was misspent; the canals were poorly built
and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars; and the two railroads constructed were also
poorly built and lost even more.6
Michiganians were shocked at the incompetence of these state-run enterprises and
wondered why this happened. Here is where a text can help explain to students some
benefits of private enterprise and limited government.
When the state builds a project, the incentives are different from those of private
enterprise. Satisfying political interests is often more important to legislators than
building a railroad that is financially sound and well constructed. State builders use
taxpayers money, not their own. If the road fails, its the state, not the
builders, with empty pockets. The Michigan story is full of accounts of padded vouchers,
illegal bidding, cost overruns, and the stealing of materials by contractors and even by
the citizens themselves. Since no one actually owned the railroads, no one felt the
responsibility to take care of them.
Judge Thomas Cooley, Michigans most famous 19th-century lawyer and a president of
the American Bar Association, observed this waste firsthand. He wrote about it later and
said, "By common consent it came to be considered that the State in entering upon
these works had made a serious mistake." The people of Michigan, Cooley reported,
became convinced "that the management of railroads was in its nature essentially a
private business, and ought to be in the hands of individuals." In 1846, therefore,
the state of Michigan abandoned all the canals and sold the Central and Southern
Railroads, which were only partly completed, to private investors. The new owners promised
to do some rebuilding and to expand the lines to the Chicago area. From this distress
sale, the state recovered one-half of its $5 million investment and ended its headaches
from being in the railroad business.7
Once the railroads had been privatized, they were rebuilt with care and extended across
the state. At last, Michigan citizens had the roads they needed to trade and thrive. This
turnaround was so startling that its implications were not lost on Michigan voters. They
learned from history.
In 1850, Michigan threw out its old constitution and wrote a new one. It read,
"the State shall not subscribe to or be interested in the stock of any company,
association, or corporation." Furthermore, "the State shall not be a party to or
interested in any work of internal improvement, nor engaged in carrying on any such
work" except to provide land.8 The heavily taxed voters were determined to
learn from their mistakes and chart a better future for the state. In the years of
laissez-faire that followed, Michigans entrepreneurs developed the states
natural resourceslumber and iron oreso effectively that Michigan soon became a
major industrial state.
McConnell missed the chance to tell the railroad story, but he does describe
Michigans industrial history after the Constitution of 1850 opened the state for
free trade. In the open environment from 1850 to 1910, Michigan rose to become a national
leader in producing lumber, furniture, iron, copper, salt, and bromides. McConnell
describes many of these developments in detail. In the lumber industry, Michigan inventors
and entrepreneurs made their state the leading timber exporter in the nation. McConnell
describes Silas Overpacks invention of big wheels, used to haul logs to rivers, and
Scott Gerrishs invention of the logging locomotive as central to Michigans
success. McConnell also shows how logging was a means of rapid upward mobility for many;
and also an area of mismanagement when forest fires and erosion prevailed.9
Students need to understand the importance of lumber to Michigans prosperity. A
booming lumber industry led to a strong furniture industry, centered in Grand Rapids.
Cheap lumber was also central to the flourishing carriage industry, centered in Detroit
and Flint. And, of course, the expertise needed to make carriages was later transferred to
the making of autos. The triumphs of Henry Ford and Billy Durant made Michigan the heart
of U. S. car production. McConnell does a fine job describing Henry Fordhis genius,
his stubbornness, his mastery of car sales, and his fall from the top.
McConnells final two chapters, covering the last 65 years, need some improvement.
McConnell starts by connecting the stock market crash of 1929 to bank closings, and the
bank closings to the Great Depression in the 1930s. This connection is valid, but recent
scholarship has shown that poor government policies helped start the chain of problems.
The Federal Reserve, for example, created artificially low interest rates in the 1920s,
and artificially high rates in the 1930s. In the last case, this retarded investment
during the economic collapse.10
McConnell needs to mention other government policies that plagued Michigan during the
Great Depression. For example, in 1930 Congress passed, and President Hoover signed, the
Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the highest tariff in U. S. history. This law hit Michigan and the
auto industry especially hard. Over 800 items used to make cars were taxed by
Smoot-Hawley. Not only did this raise the cost of producing cars, but foreign countries
retaliated against our high tariff by refusing to buy U. S. cars. General Motors, Ford,
and the other automakers saw vehicle sales plummet from 5.3 million in 1929 to 1.8 million
in 1933. Michigans economy was in ruins. McConnell notes that the number of workers
at the Ford Rouge plant dropped from 98,337 to 28,915 from 1929 to 1933, but he never
mentions how the Smoot-Hawley Tariff helped lead to this fiasco.11
Once we recognize that poor government policies helped get us into the Depression, we
can question whether more government was really needed to get us out. McConnell implies
that it was, and he presents only the positive side of Franklin D. Roosevelts New
Deal. "Once Roosevelt was in office," he writes, "the federal government
started a number of programs to help the jobless. The new idea was to create jobs and pay
the workers with federal money." He cites the Works Projects Administration (WPA),
which employed 200,000 Michiganians by 1938, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC),
which hired 100,000 young men in Michigan to plant trees, build parks, and restore
McConnell omits a description of the tax hikes and deficit spending that were needed to
support these programs. If we dont describe how the money was raised for the New
Deal programs, we risk giving students a false sense of how an economy works. Many
students will think, "If we have a depression and lose, say, 300,000 jobs in the auto
industry, we can have the federal government come along and hire 300,000 people for the
WPA and the CCC and thereby cancel the effects of the depression." This tactic,
however, didnt work then and doesnt work now. Unemployment in 1938 was still
in double digits. Jobs "created" by the government had to be funded by taxes,
and these taxes siphoned capital out of industrial markets.
Roughly speaking, those jobs we "create" by government programs are offset by
losses in the taxpaying private sector. As Alan Reynolds points out, "a family
earning $10,000 with four exemptions paid $40 in 1929, $416 in 1932." Roosevelt
raised the rates even more: corporate taxes almost doubled; inheritance taxes reached 70
percent on large estates, and top incomes had to pay 90 percent. In 1929, two percent of
Americans paid income tax; fifteen years later this increased to 65 percent of Americans.13
These new tax dollars helped fund the WPA, the CCC, and other federal programs. A textbook
would be helpful if it explained some of this to students.
Unions are important in Michigan history and also in any study of economics. McConnell
has a seven-page section entitled, "Unions: A New Friend at the Factory." As the
chapter title implies, McConnell sees unions as an unmixed blessing for Michigan.
"Companies had a hard time making profits," he writes, "so they put
pressure on their employees to do more with no increase in pay. Many workers thought
unions could help them." McConnell also says, "Thousands of Michigan workers
joined unions after the strike in Flint. Unions became an important way to protect
workers rights for fair pay and safe working conditions."14
McConnells coverage is one-sided. Certainly unions benefited those members who
used their collective force to raise their wages. But there is more to the story. Higher
wages mean less capital is available for the auto companies to expand or improve their
product. Also, if wages are raised, then the increased costs of the finished product are
passed on to consumers. Farmers near Muskegon, clerks in Lansing, and bellhops in Grand
Rapids had to pay more for cars so that auto workers could earn more. The higher costs for
cars put pressure on the auto companies to be competitive. Auto sales, as we have seen,
dropped from about 5.3 to 1.8 million from 1929 to 1933. When the United Auto Workers
(UAW) secured higher wages during the 1930s, those costs had to be passed on to customers,
many of whom could not afford new cars. Also, new employees could not be hired and cheaper
foreign cars became more competitive.
McConnells analysis of unions would be more balanced if he had made three other
points. First, unions usually promote a system of rewards tied to seniority, not merit.
Younger, talented workers can lose out in this system, and so does the company that loses
full use of their labor.
Second, many unions have tended to be racist. The UAW has not been this way, but others
have. As late as 1969, for example, 1.9 percent of the members of the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) were black; only 0.6 percent of the members of
the International Plumbers and Pipefitters were black. Other unions had no blacks or
Hispanics. In 1972, one study found that 58 percent of local unions of boilermakers,
electrical workers, elevator constructors, iron workers, plumbers and pipefitters, and
sheet metal workers had no blacks or Hispanics. John Stephen Durham, who has studied the
rise of unions, concluded, "in the last decades of the nineteenth century the process
of Negro displacement had begun, and trade unions were a most important part of this
Third, states with right-to-work laws often have better records of creating jobs and
higher standards of living than in forced-unionism states. Dr. James T. Bennett, of the
National Institute for Labor Relations Research, showed in a recent study that "after
adjusting for state and local taxes and inflation, the average family in a right-to-work
state has $2,852 more in purchasing power than a family in a forced-unionism state."16
Unions can protect their members and get them more pay, but many others lose in the
process. McConnell is right to show the gains of autoworkers, and the unsavory efforts of
Ford and General Motors to stop them. But his text would be stronger if he showed the
negative effects of unions, too.
McConnells last chapter is on "Michigan as We See It Today." This
chapter is too brief on recent political and economic history. In the last 30 years,
federal, state, and local governments have grown enormously. From food stamps to federal
aid to education, an expansive federal government has become so significant that it
requires special coverage.
McConnell says little about the growth of government in Michigan, but he does describe
the building of the Mackinac Bridge, a state project, and the construction of highways
across the state, which are often federal projects. Whether state or federally funded,
these programs mean taxes, and the tax issues have dominated Michigan politics since the
1960s. The state income tax, the single business tax, the intangibles tax, a progressive
inheritance tax, and the Headlee Amendment (which limits taxes) are central to political
discussions in Michigan in the 1990s. McConnell does not mention these issues; perhaps he
thinks that students would be bored by them. If so, he may be right, but as future
taxpayers, Michigans students ought to learn how much they are paying and what they
are getting for their money.17