This is a review of the original 1983 edition, part of Oxford University Press's series on the history of the modern world. (According to the Guardian's obituary of Maldwyn Jones, who died in 2007, the second edition of 1995 added a discussion on "the conservative revival of the 1980s and the presidential election of 1992. It remains the most authoritative and comprehensive single-authored survey of American history to date.") The original edition, which ends in 1980, has twenty-eight chapter, fifteen maps, and five tables, details of which are given at the end of this review.
"The United States began as an extension of Europe. In some important respects it remained one." These are Jones's opening words, full of insight. He continues, "Yet even the first colonial settlements were never an exact replica of Europe. Right from the start American society and culture diverged from European models." Much about the American character is explained by Jones, but not the American penchant for referring to themselves with a middle initial, examples of which appear on virtually every page: indeed, it is notable when someone is not named in this fashion.
Jones punctures a few myths of the founding of the first colonies, but his work on their early history is relatively brief compared to subsequent years. For example, the first one hundred years of the colonies are contained within the opening twenty-page chapter, and independence from Britain is gained by the end of chapter three. Following chapters, though still following a broadly chronological progress, become based on themes: politics, economy, society, growth. Each chapter is about the right length, taking me about an hour each to read. Whilst one might consider the volume to possess the qualities of a dry textbook, the text itself - as I hope the examples given in this review demonstrate - is extremely well-written and is never laboured.
On more than one occasion I was struck by Jones's words having a very contemporary resonance. For example, of the anxieties of the 1890s he writes, "Though Americans were proud of their technological achievements many of the more thoughtful were disturbed by the rise of the trusts, the growing concentration of wealth, the spread of political corruption, the widening of social conditions, the bitterness of industrial strife, the scale and character of immigration, and the resulting loss of cultural homogeneity." Whilst not an exact match for the present (2012), we are close.
And how about Jones's consideration of the causes of the Great Depression?: " ... it is generally accepted that the prosperity of the 1920s had been built on shaky foundations. The most serious underlying weakness of the economy was that capacity to produce had outrun capacity to consume. One reason for this was that a substantial part of the population ... had not shared in the general prosperity. Another was that income was maldistributed. Profits and dividends had risen much faster than wages, while Republican tax policies had favored the wealthy."
Some of the questions posed about Soviet intentions during the Cold War have been answered since the USSR's collapse and were possibly included in the second edition. On the question of Kennedy's presidency, Jones is even-handed. Whilst praising his "courage, self-awareness [and} ... cool intelligence", he also sees the shortcomings of his policies.
Jones has titled his work `The Limits of Liberty', but he never explicitly engages with this concept. Instead, the reader comes to it implicitly in each chapter. The only occasion where reference to the phrase occurs in the text is towards the end, when he describes the country at the time of the 1976 bicentenary. Then, the country was "in a chastened, puzzled, introspective frame of mind. ... Vietnam had demonstrated that the United States was not omnipotent, Watergate that it was not uniquely virtuous, the `energy crisis' that its natural resources were not infinite. In short the old sense of boundlessness had gone. Even as they recalled the ringing phrases of the Declaration of Independence, Americans were painfully aware of the limits of liberty and of power."
Each chapter comes with its own detailed and guided bibliography for further exploration. The fifteen maps, whilst very useful, are all in monochrome. The five tables comprise 1. the populations of the individual states over time; 2. immigration totals; 3. admission dates of the states to the union; 4. all the presidential election results (to 1980); and a list of the justices of the Supreme Court.