Why I Decided to Write a History of the United States





Mr. McDougall is Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Co- Chairman of our History Institute for Teachers. His latest book is FREEDOM JUST AROUND THE CORNER: A NEW AMERICAN HISTORY, 1585-1828.

The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years. If some ghostly ship, some Flying Dutchman, were transported in time from the year 1600 into the present, the crew would be amazed by our technology and the sheer numbers of people on the globe, but the array of civilizations would be recognizable. There is today, as there was then: a huge Chinese Empire run by an authoritarian but beleaguered bureaucracy; a homogeneous, anxious, suspicious Japan; a teeming crazy-quilt of Hindus and Muslims in India attempting to make a state of themselves; an amorphous Russian empire pulsing outward or inward in proportion to Muscovy's projection of force; a vast Islamic crescent hostile to infidels but beset by rival centers of power; a dynamic, more-or-less Christian civilization in Europe aspiring to unity but vexed by its dense congeries of nations and tongues; and finally an Iberian/Amerindian culture in South America marked by relative poverty and strategic impotence. The only continent that would astound the Renaissance time-travelers would be North America, which was primitive and nearly vacant as late as 1607, but which today hosts the mightiest, richest, most creative civilization on earth--a civilization, moreover, that perturbs the trajectories of all other civilizations just by existing.

One might object that the most salient features of modern history have not been territorial and demographic, but intellectual and political: the invention and spread of enlightened ideas of human rights and democratic self-government on the one hand, and the scientific and technological explosions in human power on the other hand. That is so, but the rise of America goes far to explain the rapidity and scale of their triumphs. North America was simply the greatest prize in the world circa 1600, and the fact Britons won that prize rather than Spaniards, Frenchmen, Chinese, or Russians explains the shape of modern history more than anything else. I used to disparage American history as a relatively provincial field of research. I now realize trying to make sense of America is nothing short of heroic (unless it be foolish). For if historians aim to explain change over time, then the United States is the most swiftly moving target of all because nowhere else has more change occurred in so short a span. America was not just born of revolution, it is one.

At an early stage I chanced to describe this new project to a distinguished senior colleague and mentor. I expected to receive a blessing from this man of good will that might relieve the anxiety I felt over the undertaking. Instead, he asked me a question: "Do we really need another American history?" My eyes fell to the pavement of the Lower Manhattan street, and I croaked, "I don't know. Probably not."

What after all, did I have to say about the United States that had not already been written by Henry Steele Commager, Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Hofstadter, Oscar Handlin, Carl Degler, and others? How many times did the stories of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge and the Constitutional Convention, the Erie Canal and Civil War, the Progressive Era and Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement need to be told? What could I say about our national past that would be both original and defensible? What indeed, given I was not even formally trained in American history and thus risk whatever remains of my professional reputation? But the faith of others won out, for better or worse.

Cass Canfield, Jr., and Hugh Van Dusen of HarperCollins hatched the idea of a narrative history that would avoid the extremes of condemnation and celebration of the American past characterizing the Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson titles already on their list. They imagined a cool, objective book telling Americans candidly "who and why we are what we are." Steve Fraser suggested my name to them and Gerry McCauley urged me to take up their offer. I thought it all over during a solo automobile trip to New Hampshire and back. Did I have some new notion of what made Americans exceptional, some additional insight into the American character? Perhaps not, but I had lots of ideas about specific eras and themes I wanted to test. For instance, existing U.S. histories, whatever their slant, display little appreciation (much less forgiveness) of the flawed human nature that make Americans unexceptional. Perhaps that is why our great national narratives contain so little humor: whether they extol or condemn the American experience, they take it terribly seriously. I also realized while driving through upper New England how much I love the fifty United States (all of which I have lived, worked, or traveled in save North Dakota and Oregon). At length, I decided to learn the history of my country whether or not I had much to teach.

But I couldn't tell that to the editors. So I sent them upon my return a list of themes worthy of emphasis in a new U.S. history. First, geography, being the reconnaissance, conquest, and settlement of the North American continent, and the challenges and chances posed by its lands, woods, and waters. Second, technology, being the tools Americans fashioned to tame and develop the continent. Third, demography, being the ways in which the numbers, origins, customs, and values of those who peopled America expanded and sometimes restricted the nation's choices. Fourth, mythology, which is to say the construction of America's civic religion and its problematical coexistence with multiple forms of Christianity. Fifth, the federative power, a concept coined by Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupe to describe the unique power of American institutions and ideology to knit together diverse territories and peoples while relieving the tension between their ideals of liberty and equality.

I also imagined special features that might justify a new U.S. history. I wanted to pay more attention to all regions and states so that Kansas, for instance, would not exist only when it was "bleeding." The Midwest, in particular, has received far less attention than it deserves in synthetic histories, while the "new Western history" demands a correction of traditional interpretations of the frontier. I hoped to be genuinely inclusive by making room not only for African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans, but for European ethnic groups such as the Germans, Irish, Italians (indeed, Catholics generally), Slavs, Scandinavians, and Jews. I meant to treat all these as people rather than icons, recognizing that no American is "just" a member of a group, but a person with loyalties to kinfolk, region, occupation, religion, and political party as well as ethnicity. Next, it seemed imperative to stress how the United States, despite its reputation for xenophobia and isolationism, grew on the strength of immigrant labor, foreign capital, and imported technology. Last but not least, I wanted to study the unique experiment in religious liberty. As Bob Dylan wrote, in a striking poetic inversion: "I heard the Sermon on the Mount and knew it was too complex / It didn't amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects." Of course, the Sermon on the Mount is not complex, but terrifying in its simplicity. Rather, the effects of Biblical religion, filtered through the lenses of American consciences and projected on to law, society, and politics, are what seem kaleidoscopic.

A good plan, or so it seemed to me then. But the moment I dove into the research, much less writing, I realized the plan was madly ambitious. Given how much exciting new scholarship in American history appears every month, trying to synthesize it all is like trying to dam the Mississippi River. What levees might I build just to channel the flood? Shall I portray Americans as individualists or community builders, pragmatists or dreamers, materialists or idealists, bigots or champions of tolerance, lovers of liberty and justice for all, or history's most brazen hypocrites? Did succeeding waves of immigrants make the United States what it is, or did the land make Americans of immigrants? Are words such as capitalism, republicanism, and democracy abstractions best not used at all, or can the lexicon of social and political science help us to shrink our own heads? Some of the answers emerged from the telling. But it quickly dawned on me that one of the book's major themes would be none of the above. It is the American people's penchant for hustling -- in both the positive and negative senses. It emboldens me to call this book candid. It is novel enough to require a whole chapter of explanation.

This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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dan mcneil - 4/27/2004

'The only continent that would astound the Renaissance time-travelers would be North America'

what about Africa?

'I hoped to be genuinely inclusive by making room not only for African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans, but for European ethnic groups such as the Germans, Irish, Italians (indeed, Catholics generally), Slavs, Scandinavians, and Jews.'

will you have anything on ethnic groups within Black America? Caribbean Americans?


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/23/2004

Interesting, though I suppose not surprising, that your frustrations mirror mine as I try to cram US history into two semesters.

The second semester is the worst, as it keeps getting longer, and as the war requires me to get up to the present.

And yet the times in which something is communicated--an idea, an illuminating image or metaphor, a set of facts that answers a question the student knows is important-- those times are glorious.

That remains true, even when I tally up what I failed to teach. And hopefully that will be true for you even when you tally up what you could not write.

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