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3.9 out of 5 stars14
3.9 out of 5 stars
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 26 November 2001
An interesting and informative book. Johnson broadly defines his subject geographically (the territories now comprising the mainland United States) and chronologically (the post-Columbian period) but his real aim, and his great skill, is to trace the origins and history of the political entity, and the people, now known as the USA. There is little coverage of Indian history, but that, to be fair, is outside Johnson's mandate.
Johnson's style is anecdotal and character-focussed. Perhaps because of this, he is at his most formidable when dealing with the early days of the Union, when great individuals could truly influence the shape of a nation. However his writing remains colourful, yet pertinent and firmly grounded in fact, throughout. Other areas of strength include Johnson's ability to decipher the true founding principles of the American project, and to express them through the eyes of the ordinary American; and to mark out the role of religion as a creative force, especially in the earliest days of settlement.
Johnson's style is enthusiastic and he is not afraid to show that, as a historian and an Englishman, he greatly admires the American nation. His approval, however, is factually backed, and he is not afraid to criticise those who, though devoted to their own concept of the American dream, had their heads in the clouds or their fingers in the till. He has thoroughly mixed opinions of such American luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Overall his work presents a generally balanced tone though the reader may wish subsequently to explore the work of more adverse Americologists.
If there is one criticism of the book, it is that it becomes thinner in its coverage of issues during the twentieth century. But Johnson has perhaps wisely stuck to the theme which he enjoys most, and is able to most thoroughly explore - America in the early days, when the ideals and projects of settlement and union were at their most defined and resilient, strong in the face of the adversity posed by colonialism, economic strife and racial division. And the author is not afraid to pose controversial viewpoints in respect of later periods, as illustrated by his coverage of Watergate, where he stages what amounts to a fascinating defence of the besieged Nixon.
For those with the time to spare to delve into, and digest, this work, Johnson's is a thoroughly rewarding history.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 6 April 2002
Simply stated, this has got to be one of the best one volume histories of the USA. The author writes with enthusiasm for his subject and also a lot of love and respect for the whole American enterprise. The book itself is a real page turner and challenged some of my own preconceived notions about certain events in American history. It was a delight to read and was one of those books that I was actually sad about finishing in the end. Just read it and above all, enjoy it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 8 June 2008
It took me ten years, and I had to buy three copies of the book, but yesterday 7 June 2008, I finished Paul Johnson's big, fat doorstep of a history. It was very satisfying. My enthusiasm for starting again was kicked off by a visit to New York and Washington earlier this year.

Johnson is a journalist, and his prejudice makes for lively copy. Having read his account of each President I was rushing off to Wikipedia to see if other people agreed with his points of view. I like the way he shows that Prohibition stimulated the culture of organised crime, and helped to strengthen the immigrant communities. So without the Prohibition, no Godfather and no Sopranos.

He hates Clinton, loves Eisenhower. He hates Theodore Roosevelt and the Kennedys, and loves Richard Nixon. Many of his views are typical of a British Conservative in the 1990s. He doesn't seem to impressed by Martin Luther King. He's opposed to welfarism. Still, from his conclusions, he would have seen George W. Bush and the Second Iraq War coming. He refers to the "Jupiter Complex" - the American habit of dropping bombs on recalcitrant states that incur their wrath.

He explains the Americans intermittent love of persecution, and their love of freedom. He covers the differences between the North and the South, the peculiar history of the slave trade, the genius of the Founding Fathers, the grip of religion, and their passion for commerce. Johnson is interested in art and culture, and he has fascinating things to say about architecture, painting, literature and self-help books.

I feel I can go through the rest of my life with an excellent in-depth insight into the history of the greatest nation on earth.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2001
If you are interested in the history of the United States, from the first European settlers through to Bill Clinton, and have several hours to spare to study the subject you cannot help but enjoy Paul Johnson's marvellous journey through America old and new. Johnson keeps the reader interested by provided a portrait of the main protagonists through the comments of their contemporaries, as well as their own writings and provides analysis of the thousands of issues that have made the United States what it is today, from settlement to revolution and from civil war to world war, enabling the reader to envisage and understand the trial, torment, tragedy, triumph and resolution that has forged the USA. An absolute must for any scholar of US history, or of US relations with Europe.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 October 2000
Johnson's work is a worthy achievement and, to counter the earlier reviewer's opinion that there is too much focus on religion in the book, I think more needs to be said on the context religion is presented in and why.
In tracing the evolution of the United States Johnson explores four interweaving threads of historical context; religion, politics, commerce and culture. The US, as much as any country and probably more so, has been shaped by religious concerns. The Puritan founding fathers escaping from religious orthodoxy in Britain, waves of immigrants escaping from religious persecution in Europe and elsewhere, the use of Christian religion to justify or condemn slavery are just a few examples.
The deep moral convictions observed in the American people (however they might manifest) have grown from four centuries of religious, primarily Christian, reformist activity. A great strength of Johnson's work is to paint the 'big picture' of American history but to also track the character and motivation of the people as a whole; the faceless masses with their countless untold personal histories. As he notes in the book, life on the frontier afforded few entertainments and many hardships - the Bible tended to sate both needs.
America was founded on principles of religious tolerance and where Johnson's work succeeds is in showing the American people's continuing efforts to uphold, interpret and occasionally challenge these founding principles against a vibrant ever-shifting tide of political, economic and cultural ideology. Religion plays no more an important part in the history than that.
If I were to level a criticism at the book it would be at the bias shown towards the benefit of laissez-faire government. He is keen to redress historical wrongs pointed at the tycoons and fat cats and dismiss interventionist government and labour movements. These redresses are well researched and argued and can clearly be identified with the economic ideology of Adam Smith. He qualifies his biases in the prologue and writes well enough to provide the reader with space to form their own conclusions.
It is a grand tale, well told. If you want to know what makes Americans tick, to join the dots between the Salem witch-hunts, cowboys, marching bands, the A-bomb and rap music, to remember a dozen or so Presidents and what they did, then buy it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 26 November 2012
Getting a one-volume history of America is not easy, so Paul Johnson's huge effort, 'A History of the American People' is probably the best that can currently be found. Unlike Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States', Johnson deals with history chronologically rather than broadly thematically, and provides a wider sweep of information compared with Zinn's deep focus on class relations, complete with the injustices and triumphs experienced by average Americans. Both books serve a purpose, but Johnson's is more of a 'traditional' history which tells the basics of all the important events from the arrival of the British in Virginia in the early 17th century, to the mid 1990s.

Early in the book I was particularly fascinated by the way Johnson used the colonies in New England to draw out themes which have since been a part of the American character, specifically the tensions between Puritan Boston and Quaker Providence. The Protestant work ethic and deep conservatism of Boston were pitted against a more liberal and accepting version of religion/society in Providence, embodied by John Winthrop and Roger Williams, respectively. This is still something you can see in American society today, surrounding issues from exceptionalism to Obamacare. Finding out about the origins of this strange paradox between conservatism and liberty in such an engaging way was a brilliant introduction to the book.

The Revolution was not quite as entertaining, though, perhaps because there were just too many characters and events to include. That is not to say that it is uninformative, but it lacks an intriguing narrative, admittedly a minor quibble. I also wasn't convinced by Johnson's emphasis on religion as a major factor in creating the drive to declare independence. It seemed perfunctory, and I would rather have heard about the social and economic conditions on the ground, along with the power struggles between Britain and the American colonies. More interesting, surprisingly, was the period before the Civil War - known rightly or wrongly as the era of Jacksonian Democracy. It describes the incredible jumps in technology America experienced, and how these pushed the country towards being a global superpower. The parts on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln are also very good, though not enough time was spent looking at the the war itself, again likely because of space.

Following this, the book begins to noticeably show its political sympathies. Johnson essentially argues that the Robber Barons were motivated more by doing public good than gaining private wealth, and makes out J.P. Morgan to be some sort of saint. He criticises Unions unfairly, and says little, if nothing, about their role in gaining the spoils of America's enormous wealth for the common people. In fact he tries to argue that Unions actually inhibited this, which is misleading to say the least. His faith in free-markets is difficult to take seriously given the evidence of their failures, and he even avoids mentioning a number of crashes that occurred throughout the 19th century to bolster his argument that unfettered markets are an objective good. In light of this, it is hard to accept much of the book from 1929 onwards, which is perhaps 100 or so pages. On the other hand, it gives an interesting insight into the mindset and arguments of today's Republican party.

Also problematic was Johnson's treatment of the Native Americans. He is not unsympathetic, and is fair at crucial moments, but seems to gloss over a lot of the tragedies and injustices that befell them. Andrew Jackson came across as particularly barbaric to the Native Americans, but Johnson seemed to think this was representative of strength of character rather than psychosis or even evil.

Despite these significant failings, the book is overall an informative, scholarly, and at times engaging history. Johnson has great respect and sympathy for America, and provided one reads the book critically, one cannot help but share in this.
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on 22 April 2015
Paul Johnson does not do things by halves. His sweeping, epic, history of the American people covers every aspect of the history of the USA one can think of. Starting with Sir Walter Ralegh and the first attempts to establish a colony at Raonoke, Virginia, progressing up to the era of the Revolution, and onward to the present day, or near enough (ending in 1996) Paul Johnson leaves no stone left unturned.
Paul Johnson does not simply provide a chronological, blow by blow account of events in the development of the United States. Rather, he examines the cultural,and industrial circumstances that fueled American progression to the country that it is today. Amongst these are the religious revivals of the 17th and 18th centuries, the invention of the Cotton Gin, the post Civil War industrial era, and the American melting pot, the ability to absorb and assimilate the various people who constantly emigrated and made the US the nation that it is today.
Paul Johnson is not one to leave out opinions. From his writing one can see that he holds no mythical, romanticized opinions about George Washington, viewing him as an entirely human figure, but manages to lavish praise upon the figures he admires, and deconstruct the ones for whome he feels little affinity.
Amongst the figures who do not fare so well are Woodrow Wilson, John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson and Bill Clinton, but Johnson has a special affinity for Abe Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Johnson is especially disdainful of new cultural, leftist trends, and has nothing positive to say about movements like affirmative action, or new cultural practices, such as the teaching of Ebonics on certain US Campuses.
Whether one enjoys this book or not may depend on one's political or cultural leanings. For those who have a more class based view of history, then perhaps Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States is perhaps a better read.
But for one who prefers a sweeping history of the US, encompassing culture, industry, politicals and sociology, you will struggle to find a better work than this.
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This is fine book that does its subject great justice . Its scope is superb . I found it hard to put down ,such was my enjoyment . Politically , I know where Paul Johnson comes from . I don't agree with his politics but that never got in my way or clouded my deep appreciation of this epic work . It is a book that has set me on a personal quest to learn much more of American history . This is a deeply satisfying book ..........
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 16 May 2004
The subtitle of this book could quite easily be �eThe story of how America became such a great place�f, the conclusion being that it was because of the lack of a socialist party and the fact that �egreat men�f such as businessmen and inventors were allowed to get on with it on their own. The author then �edebunks�f whatever good reputation any liberal figures or government interference might still have in America (he much prefers Nixon to Kennedy). With such a political slant, it is unsurprising that the author has no truck with Marxist or feminist interpretations of history, and this is very much a traditional story of presidents, pressmen, businessmen and artists- although it is also quite strong on economic statistics and the stories of inventions and how they affected people�fs lives. All this does make for a very readable book, with the author making a real effort to show why the things he covers are important and influence life today, and he makes good use of personal descriptions and witty quotes. The book needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it is an easy read, and at least the political slant is clear from the start
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 3 January 2000
The problem with Johnson's text is the way that he gives far greater weighting than necessary to religion.
Whilst he dispenses with the War of Independance in a few pages he goes into minute detail about the religious beliefs of the main personalities involved.
A glance at the titles of Johnson's other works indicates that religion is his main expertise. Therefore, when you read this book you must recognise the bias that the author imparts.
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