America! Yours in 592 Pages

October 27, 2009 Topics: Society Regions: Americas

America! Yours in 592 Pages

Mini Teaser: It may be that the best one-volume history of the United States has been penned by a Brit. David Reynolds takes us into the very essence of what it means to be an American, offering wisdom perhaps only possible from an outsider.

by Author(s): Joseph Ellis

David Reynolds, America, Empire of  Liberty: A New History of the  United States (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 592 pp., $35.00.

 

[amazon 046501500X full] LET US not mince words. In my judgment, this is the best one-volume history of the United States ever written. To be sure, not many such books are written anymore, mainly because historians have sliced and diced the American past into increasingly smaller segments, the monograph aimed at fellow specialists is the preferred scholarly vehicle, and textbooks covering all of American history are usually multiauthor affairs in which each contributor focuses on his or her designated piece of the chronological terrain.

David Reynolds, author of tomes such as One World Divisible, In Command of History and Rich Relations, on the other hand, begins his story with the migration of Mongolian tribes across the Bering Strait around 12000 BC and ends it with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Lots of history happened between these dates, of course, and thousands of historians have written millions of pages about-let's see-the meaning of the American Revolution, the embedded cancer that was slavery, the causes and consequences of the Civil War, the emergence of America as a world power, the Great Depression and New Deal, the two World Wars, the Cold War, the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Reagan Revolution, the War on Terror and the Great Recession. And this, let it be noted, is a highly selective list.

At least on the face of it, no single mind can master this mountain of material, avoid the almost-inevitable factual blunders, negotiate the long-standing scholarly controversies, and control the narrative in clear and at-times-lyrical prose. But that is precisely what Reynolds has done.

Here, for example, is the sure-handed Reynolds's treatment of three highly contested pieces of historical turf, each of which is littered with the dead bodies of historians who preceded him. First, on James Madison's role at the Constitutional Convention:

Madison was not an obvious leader. Five foot six and sickly, usually dressed in black and often cripplingly shy, he looked like a diffident schoolmaster. But on the debating floor "little Jimmy Madison" was a match for anyone-crisp, fluent, yet disarmingly diffident-and he also had a plan. Madison did not want to tinker with the existing Confederation. A few extra teeth would do little for a body that lacked brawn or brain. He wanted to turn this inefficient alliance into a truly national government-one that would check the excesses of the states and the overly democratic assemblies.

Second, on the implications of Abraham Lincoln's message in the Gettysburg Address:

Lincoln anchored his arguments in the American Revolution, avoiding the controversies of recent years, but he put his own spin on what the Founders had done. In fact, they had ducked the issue of slavery in a land of liberty-for which the country was now paying an appalling price in blood. But the Emancipation Proclamation had begun to redress that wrong and then at Gettysburg Lincoln rewrote America's past to give meaning to the terrible chaos of the present and to offer hope for an uncertain future. . . . In time those ten sentences, delivered in a couple of minutes, would become one of the great texts of American and world history, but only after the war was won and Lincoln had become a martyr.

Finally, on the last days of Richard Nixon's presidency:

Nixon was asleep and his entourage decided not to wake him. . . . Whether Nixon was exhausted or drunk, remains unclear. It is quite evident, however, that the president was becoming a liability for the presidency. Harried in one television press conference by a battery of questions about the tapes, the cover-up, buggings, and his personal finances, he exclaimed that "people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook." If a president needs to say that to the American people, he is as good as finished.

 

AMERICA, EMPIRE of Liberty takes its title from Thomas Jefferson's beguilingly paradoxical phrase that nicely encapsulates two of the three threads that Reynolds weaves together to shape the tapestry of his story. They are empire, liberty and faith, each richly and often maddeningly ambiguous, all shot through with contradictions. The first nation-size republic bottomed on liberal convictions also contained an enslaved population of several million souls and adopted a policy of genocide-in-slow-motion toward the original occupants of the continent. The first avowedly secular state somehow generated a potent evangelical religious tradition that then seeped into its domestic and foreign policy, giving both a highly moralistic and bipolar coloration that strikes most European observers as slightly crazy.

Reynolds is not quite a European, though he is British, which makes him immune to many of the fashionable interpretive predilections of both Left and Right within the groves of academe in the United States. Instead of resolving America's massive contradictions, he seems content to regard them as irreconcilable features of the American historical landscape. He pays attention to race, class and gender, the reigning trinity in American historiography, but engages in no ideological posturing or preaching in the politically correct mode, preferring to describe rather than moralize. Like Walt Whitman, he contains multitudes.

Reynolds is distinctive for his narrative location. Most surveys of American history operate at a high altitude, an apparent necessity in moving across such a panoramic landscape, only periodically parachuting to the ground for more intimate portraits of particular personalities or dramatic events. But Reynolds is on the ground throughout, moving deftly through set-piece accounts of George Washington at Valley Forge, John Deere's invention of the plow, the sinking of the Lusitania and the emergence of the computer industry in Silicon Valley. On a canvas this broad, such specificity is extremely rare, reflecting a truly prodigious familiarity with the massive secondary literature.

 

SEVERAL OF his concluding observations strike me as wise in ways only possible from an outsider's perspective. "What remains remarkable," he writes, "is how such a vast and complex mix of social groups has held together as a polity. The United States, with 300 million people, is far more coherent than other mega-countries like India, Indonesia, or Pakistan, let alone the former USSR." As for the question of imperial decline, a topic on which British historians can claim the patent, Reynolds notes that America's soaring debt and deficit replicate the pattern of Rome, Spain and Great Britain on the downward slope. But he thinks the jury is still out, mostly because the United States is most likely to benefit from the open-ended, increasingly globalized economy.

In his conclusion he quotes Oscar Wilde: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years." Make it four hundred now, but the pattern persists. "The result is a history," writes Reynolds at the end, "that is rarely simple, often messy, and sometimes appalling; yet also full of surprises, frequently epic, and on occasion wonderfully uplifting." If I read him right, Reynolds is suggesting that all those poised to wager on American decline in the British mode should hedge their bets.

Finally, let me end with a less optimistic thought, not explicitly made by Reynolds, but that came to mind after completing this remarkable tour of the American past. Namely, that the powerful antigovernment ethos, which began with Jefferson's magic words in the Declaration of Independence and is so imprinted on the political DNA of our culture, has become a major liability in the twenty-first century. For it makes it much more difficult for the United States to regard government as "us" rather than "them," and therefore less capable than most European nations in devising a coherent response to problems like health care and global warming. To borrow a phrase from C. Vann Woodward, this has become the burden of American history.

Pullquote: The first avowedly secular state somehow generated a potent evangelical religious tradition that then seeped into its domestic and foreign policy.Essay Types: Book Review