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The Limits Of Liberty: American History, 1607-1992 (Short Oxford History of the Modern World) Paperback – 23 Jul 1998
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The clear exposition of the main ideas and the simple and agile notation the author uses help facilitate the comprehension of the different concepts presented.  This book is highly recommendable due to the insight it gives into the field of quantum field theories, providing a sound basis for further research. (Journal of Statistical Physics)
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"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.
In a relatively short book for a huge subject, not everything can be covered to the same standard. Jones gives a clear and informed view on political developments, which make up the bulk of the book. He also writes well about population growth, immigration and population movement, but seems less comfortable writing on economic history. The coverage of the period before the American Revolution is quite brief, but the period from then to the end of the Civil War and through Reconstruction is covered in depth and with skill, as is the period from about 1920. The coverage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is reasonable, but the period is generally less interesting than that earlier or later ones.
The quality of writing is good, and the book has a reasonable number of maps and tables to supplement the text. Overall, it is a very good single-volume introduction to American history.
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