(*Reader be warned: this is a long post)
How many times have we heard in the political conversation over the past year, “That’s not who we are,” or some variation thereof? The fallacy, of course, is that America is a diversity of experiences, viewpoints and beliefs. And it seems increasingly that there is very little common ground in all of that diversity around which we rally as one people.
The best way to understand “who we are” is to read history. Judging by this video out of Texas Tech, we stopped doing that some time ago.
So one of my projects as election year begins is to take a refresher course in American history just to provide some context for all the sound and fury that will continue through the year. I picked up “A History of the American People” by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins, 1997). Actually, I had to bench press it – it’s more than 1,000 pages and has to be lifted with two hands. But Johnson is erudite and smooth, so it reads quickly and has a very strong narrative thrust. Even though Johnson is English, he is an unabashed lover of America, which he makes very clear in the first sentence: “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures.”
Now that I’m through the first 300 pages (covering the Pilgrims through the advent of the Jacksonian era), here are some highlights that struck me as weird, interesting and profound.
Size Does Matter “The success of the Bay Colony in this respect would not have been possible without the sheer space America afforded. America had the liberty of vast size. In a way, the most important political fact in American history is its grandeur and its mystery. For three centuries, almost until 1900, there were crucial things about the interior of America which were unknown to its inhabitants. But what they were sure of, right from the start, was that there was a lot of it, and that it was open. Here was the dominant geopolitical fact which bore down upon the settlers from their first days on the new continent: if they did not like the system they found on the coast, and if they had the courage, they could go on. Nothing would stop them, except their own fear.”
People Matter Too “What was particularly providential was the way in which (the Founders’) strengths and weaknesses compensated each other, so that the group as a whole was infinitely more formidable than the sum of its parts. They were the Enlightenment made flesh. Moreover, behind this front rank was a second, and indeed a third, of solid, sensible, able men capable of rising to a great occasion. Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important single one of them is always the quality of the people in charge; and never was this principle more convincingly demonstrated than the struggle for American independence.”
George Washington Was a Dog Guy He kept a lot of them. Here were their names: Old Harry, Pompey, Pilot, Tartar, Mopsey, Duchess, Lady, Sweetlips, Drunkard, Vulcan, Rover, Truman, Jupiter, June, and Truelove.
The Media Shaped Politics Even At the Beginning “The American Revolution was the first event of its kind in which the media played a salient role – almost a determining one – from first to last. Americans were already a media-conscious people. They had a lot of newspapers and publications, and were getting more every month. They now found they had scores – indeed hundreds – of inflammatory writers, matching the fiery orators in the assemblies with every polysyllabic word of condemnation they uttered.”
Don’t Fence Me In “Anyone depicting how America was to be governed had to take account of what was perhaps the most pervasive single characteristic of the country – restlessness. Few people stayed still for long. Mostly they were moving upwards. And vast numbers were moving geographically too. This mobility acted as an economic dynamic – restlessness was one reason the American economy expanded so fast . . . constant moving broke up settled society, worked against hierarchy and ‘respect,’ and promoted assumptions of equality.”
Will The Real Thomas Jefferson Please Stand Up? If there is a secular godhead in American history, it’s Jefferson, for all the apparent and well-known reasons. But at the same time, he was a truly eccentric and somewhat irresponsible individual. He worked on his house without finishing it for more than 30 years. He was $100,000 in debt when he died (at no point in his life did he have a grasp of his earning and debts). He was obsessed with material acquisitions like books and wine (OK, that’s understandable). He was a “monumental” hypochondriac. “From claret to concubinage, there was no delight he did not sample, or rather indulge in habitually.”
Ben Franklin May Have Agreed With Trump On Immigration “(Franklin) was not at all happy about the number of Germans coming to America, especially to Pennsylvania, where they tended to vote en bloc, the first instance of ethnicity in politics. ‘Why should the Palatine boor be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanise us, instead of us Anglicising them?’ These views were by no means unusual among the Founders. Neither Washington nor Jefferson wanted unlimited or even large-scale immigration.”
The Middle Class: The Heart of America Ultimately realizing that stopping immigration was like trying to stop the tide, Franklin at the end of his life wrote a pamphlet giving advice to Europeans planning to come to America. “He said it was a good place for those who wanted to become rich. But, he said, it was above all a haven for the industrious poor, for ‘nowhere else are the laboring poor so well fed, well lodged, well clothed and well paid as in the United States of America.’ It was a country, he concluded, where a ‘happy mediocrity prevails.’ It is important for those who wish to understand American history to remember this point about ‘happy mediocrity.’ The historian is bound to bring out the high points and crises of the national story, to record the doings of the great, the battles, the elections, epic debates, and laws passed. But the everyday lives of simple citizens must not be ignored simply because they were uneventful. This is particularly true of America, a country specifically created by and for ordinary men and women, where the system of government was deliberately designed to interfere in their lives as little as possible. The fact that, unless we investigate closely, we hear so little about the mass of the population is itself a historical point of great importance, because it testifies by its eloquent silence to the success of the republican experiment.”
More to come as I race through this magisterial tome . . .