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Leans towards a conservative perspective, but worthwhile
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.