Alan Taylor: Historian roasts journalist Richard Kluger for mistakes in a new book





[Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, is the author of The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Knopf).]

... Despite this dramatic and important story, [Pulitzer Prize winner Richard] Kluger's book [Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea (Knopf)] often bogs down in long and repetitive accounts of the back-and-forth of diplomatic exchanges, recapitulating dead ends as well as actual consequences. After belaboring British and American negotiations over Oregon, Kluger observes that "by late August [President] Polk's patience had run out." Kluger's readers will understand how Polk felt.

To break the tedium, Kluger recurrently jolts readers with flamboyant metaphors. He likens one small colony to "a flea spitting into a hurricane" and Americans to "a porridge of diverse peoples ... not free of lumpiness." Kluger likes his metaphors well mixed. Of the American Revolution, he observes that "here was a substantiation that theirs was a truly indissoluble union and no mere display of pyrotechnics sent skyward to scare away their overseas masters. " Of the French Revolution, he observes that "French grievances were vented in alternating waves of liberation and repression that swept the overwrought masses toward the cauldron of anarchy. France became an inflamed society with a large and easily dislodged chip on its shoulder."

Undiscriminating in his use of sources, Kluger sprinkles his book with errors, large and small. He places the American attack on Quebec in late 1775 on the famous "Plains of Abraham," when in fact that assault targeted the Lower Town beside the St. Lawrence River. He confuses the Federal Constitution (1787) with the later Bill of Rights (1791) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), when he argues that the Constitution "provided a broad array of individual rights, installed brakes on tyrannical tendencies of the central government, and imposed prohibitions on the states to protect all their citizens against impairment of their liberties." In recounting the War of 1812, he colorfully refers to the "Tory-leaning province of Maine," when the region was actually an electoral stronghold for the Democratic-Republicans who declared war on the British. He labels the notorious John Randolph a "Federalist" when, in fact, he was a dissident Republican properly known as a "Quid."

Some of Kluger's bigger mistakes derive from a determination to cast the British as pompous exploiters of the poor American colonists. Kluger insists that the colonists blamed the British crown for the massive land speculation in frontier lands. In fact, leading colonists, including George Washington, were the speculators, and they bristled when the crown tried to regulate or restrict their aggressive intrusion into Indian lands. Kluger contradicts his colonial picture by later (and correctly) noting that the post-revolutionary land speculation "smacked of the same cronyism and inside dealing that marked the rampant abuse of public office in the colonial era." That similarity was hardly coincidental, given that the same sort of Americans speculated in land after, as well as before, the revolution. Similarly, Kluger repeats the hoary myth that a tyrannical king provoked the American Revolution: "the crown's demand for obedience and tribute money" was "a clear case--no matter how dressed up--of child abuse." But until 1776 the colonists hoped that the king would help them by intervening against the real culprit, which was Parliament, and its offensive taxation.

In addition to tedious stretches, bursts of overwrought writing, and frequent factual errors, Seizing Destiny suffers from an uncritical embrace of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis. Praising Turner as the "eminent Meistersinger of the farmers who carved America from the wilderness," Kluger tells a trite story: "When a new world was found across the sea, the set ways of the old one began to be thrown into question." A frontier of abundant and fertile land generated "an unpredictably feisty breed of restless colonials, scornful of authority and orthodoxy." Unable to abide the rule of British kings and aristocrats, that "breed" staged a revolution to create a democratic nation designed to seek "new land for its ill-disciplined, hard-charging people." This recycled Turner derives from Kluger's reliance on creaky scholarship from the early twentieth century, and on more recent pop histories that repeat the old cliches....


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