Interview with William R. Polk About His New Book, The Birth of America


Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. In 1965 he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Subsequently, he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his books are The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Neighbors and Strangers: the Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and the just-published Understanding Iraq. Other of his writings can be accessed on www.williampolk.com. His latest book is The Birth of America (HarperCollins, 2006).

The following interview is being circulated by the publisher of Mr. Polk's newest book. It was prepared at the request of HNN.

Your previous books which include Understanding Iraq, The United States and the Arab World, and The Elusive Peace have been about foreign policy subjects, but in your current book, The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution, you deal with early American history. What prompted you to switch gears?

I really didn’t switch gears. As an American, I have always been interested in the history of our country. And, in fact, I wrote a book on it a few years ago. It was called Polk’s Folly and covered the whole drift of American history as experienced by my family – from long before the Revolution, through it to the presidency of James K. Polk, and right up to the present. That book raised a lot of questions in my mind and I went to work on them in The Birth of America.  

Was it difficult to do the research for this book?

Not so much difficult as intriguing. And of course, it took a lot of time. Colonial American history is a virtual academic industry. As a specialist on the Middle East, I could cover that field pretty completely; on American history, no one can. There is just too much for any one person to read.

And, it is also exciting because so much is being added to what we have known. There has been a revolution in what was known even a few years ago about the Indians and we are now in the midst of a great expansion of knowledge on African societies, the Atlantic migration and the painful and difficult moves toward creation of new social groups under slavery in the colonies.

Did you approach this subject as an outsider?

Yes, I did. Of course, that is really the way that all the early Americans approached America. Our ancestors were all rooted in other cultures and other economies.

Let me give you an example. When I was a young graduate student at Harvard University, I bought a colonial house – built around 1692 – in the town of Harvard. That town was then on the frontier. And the house was built as a little fort with solid oak and chestnut planking to stop musket balls. It was built by a shipwright. Of course, he had no architect and no plans and, worse, he lacked various things English builders took for granted – no paint, no glass, no plaster. But he must have been driven by childhood memories. So when I tore away the ceilings put in by later owners, I discovered that he tried to make what he remembered as an English beamed ceiling – in between the beams, since he had no plaster, he whitewashed the floorboards of the room above to look like plaster. I found that a good lesson in how the immigrants adapted and created new things which were almost English.

But much you write about is not about the English colonists.

Yes, that is true. Early American historians naturally wrote about things that were more or less available to them in the language they knew, English, about people with whom they related. Now, Americans have “grown up.” We know other languages and recognize our diverse heritage. So, for example, the Spanish and French – even the Dutch and Danish – contributions to early American history are receiving the emphasis they have long deserved.

How did you deal with the American Indians?

We start with a serious problem in viewing the Indians. Our view is shaped by the later white interaction with the Indians of the Great Plains – the people we see in the movies – who were nomads. But the Indians the colonists met were villagers and farmers. So, we have to back away from later descriptions to see them. I felt this particularly as in some of my writing on the Arabs, I had to do the same thing, turning from the nomads of the desert, the Bedouin, who everything regards as the “real” Arabs to the villagers along the riverways and in the mountains who always have been the vast majority of the Arabs. Our problem in making this mental switch in colonial American history was not felt by the early whites – they knew how the Indians they knew lived. And far from despising them, as, sadly, most Americans later did, the early colonists admired them and learned from them. Without the Indians, the first colonists would have starved.

Was this equally true of the Spaniards?


No. I found two things different about the Spaniard approach to the Native Americans. The most intriguing was that the Spaniards learned “colonialism” from their dealing with the natives, a people called the Gaunche, on the Canary islands. The Gaunche were so primitive that the Spaniards thought of them as mere animals. And they wiped them out, taking away their land. So when they came to the New World, the Spaniards applied what they had done in the Canaries to Hispanola, Mexico and later to La Florida. In each of those places they were less interested in land than in religion. That, I think, derived from the other Spanish experience, often cooperating and interacting with Islamic society as they gradually conquered Al-Andalus. Against the Muslims and Jews of Spain, they developed the Inquisition; in the New World, they desperately sought to wipe out native religions and customs.

You spend a good deal of time on the black experience in early America. What did you find that particularly intrigued you?  

Several things particularly struck me: the first was the complexity and richness of the original societies in Africa. These are only now beginning to get the appreciation they deserve. We know more about the Indians now, having put aside the Hollywood image, but the richness of African societies and cultures has received far less attention. For example, West African societies were as proficient in metallurgy and textiles as any contemporary people and more advanced than the American colonists by far. They had elaborate bureaucracies and armies that dwarfed those of the colonists and the Indians. They built several huge empires, but maintained a surprising degree of autonomy culturally, economically and even politically within them.

While most of the societies practiced slavery, the form of slavery was more like what contemporary European white peasants suffered than what came later in America. That horrible experience began as raiding parties kidnapped whole villages, incarcerated the people they wanted to keep in concentration camps and sold them off to slave traders. That traumatic experience was intended to “break” the slaves like one might break a horse. Even more decisive was that the process of producing what were called “New Negroes” so mixed languages, cultures, religions that within a generation or so memories of African life were “homogenized” and indeed largely destroyed. It seems to me that one aspect of the black experience in America is the desperate attempt to rediscover what was lost.

Most Americans think of July 4, 1776 as the birth date of America, but your book shows how important the events that led up to the Revolution really were. What would you particularly single out?

There are many things, of course, but I found particularly intriguing a legacy of my family. My Mother’s ancestors, the Henrys, played an important part in the development of the iron and steel industry. As we know, the English were trying to prevent the colonists from making essential tools and goods as to force them to buy from England. Adam Smith focused in The Wealth of Nations on that policy as the very essence of the colonial system. The colonists were furious and writers like John Dickinson pointed to the English prohibitions as proof that they must break from England. But, the more conservative colonists feared that they might not be able to do so. They had a good point: if the colonists had not developed the means to make iron and steel, they could hardly have fought the Revolution.

I had another perspective on this issue. During my four years in government service, I had some experience with overseas aid programs. After watching a number of failures, I learned that it wasn’t just having the physical things (the steel implements in the colonies or roads, dams and bridges in more modern terms) but the organizational skills developed in the process of making them that was crucial. The key man in organizing the supply of Washington’s army around the time of Valley Forge was just such a “graduate” of the steel industry, William Henry.

You have said that the colonists brought with them memories of their native societies and cultures and set about adapting these as best they could to their new circumstances. Did they then just turn their backs on the “Old World?”

No, not at all. This is one of the intriguing – and enduring – aspects of American life from the beginning to the present. The English colonists at least took quite literally the idea that they were beginning a new world in the New World. As the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthrop, said in an often quoted phrase, “We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us…” Feeling alone and lonely, they reached out – or at least looked out and listened – for signs that others shared their hunger for liberty. They identified with depressed peoples in Ireland, Poland, even in little Corsica and on the eve of the revolution were seeking allies within England. That is a theme that most famously is echoed in the American venture into world affairs under Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. I think even today, we all like to think that we keep alive the attitude in our distant colonial experience, that we should be, even if at times we fail to be, “as a city upon a hill.”

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