Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828
by Walter A. McDougall
HarperCollins. 638 pp. $29.95
Textbooks aside, large-scale histories of the United States are not much in fashion these days. Even as assumptions about the nation’s unassimilable diversity have made the very idea of writing the Great American Novel appear quaint, so also have those assumptions made it seem folly to attempt to portray adequately the protean reality of America’s historical experience. Popularizers might try, the conventional wisdom would suggest, but surely scholars know better.
In the face of such widespread prejudices, it is a pleasure to report that Walter A. McDougall—a prolific historian at the University of Pennsylvania whose previous works include a detailed analysis of France’s Rhineland diplomacy from 1914 to 1924, a widely acclaimed survey of American foreign relations from 1776 to the present, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the space age, and a history of the North Pacific from the 15th to the 20th centuries—not only has taken on the task of narrating and explaining the nation’s history from its colonial origins to the present but shows every evidence of fulfilling that task brilliantly. In Freedom Just Around the Corner, the first of a projected three-volume enterprise, McDougall offers an analysis that is at once original, comprehensive, compulsively readable, and (to this reader at least) remarkably persuasive.
A comprehensive history is, by its very nature, impossible to summarize, but McDougall skillfully sustains a number of central themes that prevent his elegant narrative of colonial beginnings up to the eve of Andrew Jackson’s presidency from degenerating into a mere catalogue recording one damn thing after another.
The most striking—and certainly most controversial—of McDougall’s arguments is that America has been, from the beginning, a nation of hustlers. That term, initially jarring, becomes more persuasive as McDougall fleshes out his meaning. Americans in every period of their history, he shows, have been hustlers not simply in the negative sense of “self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventers” but also in the more positive sense of “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, [and] engineers.”
This mixed view of Americans translates into a mixed view of their history. McDougall quotes with approval Samuel P. Huntington’s summary judgment: “America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” Sternly undeceived, McDougall is nevertheless no cynic. His book is not revisionist history recapitulating a litany of American oppression, but neither can it be read as an American celebration. Better, it is a complicated celebration.
Americans, McDougall notes, “have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by fair means or foul, than any other people in history.” They have enjoyed unmatched freedom, and, given the mixed stuff of human nature, freedom in action can be as often corrupting as it is ennobling. As he proceeds from the colonial era through the Revolution, the making of the Constitution, the Federalist-Republican disputes of the 1790’s (perhaps the most bitter in our history), the complicated diplomatic relations with England and France that finally culminated in the War of 1812, and the nationalist-sectionalist tensions of the presidencies of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, McDougall reminds us that Americans mixed low self-interest and high ideals in ways so intricately intertwined that they cannot finally be separated.
Indeed, some of them were quite self-conscious as to what they were about: the trick they attempted to master, in McDougall’s telling, was to turn humanity’s corruption to creative purposes. Thus, he attributes the success of the Federalists in putting together a Constitution that would stand the test of time to precisely their lack of illusion about human nature: “They envisioned no utopias, put little trust in republican virtue, and believed the only government liable to endure was one taking mankind as it was and making allowance for passion and greed.”
McDougall’s narrative is similarly unsentimental throughout. On the colonial experience, he finds a degree of unity in the diverse experiences of the major English colonists—the New England Puritans, the middle-state Quakers, the Southern Cavaliers, and the Scots-Irish frontiersmen—in what he calls the “four spirits” of colonization: “the improvement ethic, the holy war against Catholics, the competition for empire, and the mission to expel or reform the uncivilized [i.e., the Indians].” Those unifying spirits, he says, remained alive through the Revolution and into the development of the new nation.
It was perhaps the second of these spirits—the religious one—that underwent the most development. “No popery” was a necessary but not sufficient dogma for British Protestants and their American successors. The various Protestant groups, whatever their doctrinal differences, all had to find a way to negotiate the tension between religious convictions and economic ambitions, to withstand prosperity’s threat to faith and piety.
McDougall’s discussion here is subtle and theologically well-informed, even if his conclusion is familiar to students of American religion. Americans, he says, designed a unique creed “that made the pursuit of happiness sacred, that commercialized religion and sanctified commerce, that freed people to choose whatever faith helped them feel good about doing well.” That is a little too neat, but true enough in the large.
Out of all this, the colonists developed over time an encompassing civic religion that transcended the boundaries of Protestantism and even of Christianity. (McDougall has a fascinating, original, and extraordinarily suggestive discussion of the central role of Freemasonry, a kind of meta-religion, in the formation and dissemination of the American civic religion, especially among the elite.) By the time of the Revolution, he suggests, most colonists had put together a package of beliefs in self-government, religious liberty, economic opportunity, and territorial expansion that they were ready to defend in a holy war against those, in England and at home, who posed a threat to the religion that was America.
As for the post-revolutionary era, the themes of nationalism, growth, and democracy remained central to a nation thoroughly persuaded of its providential destiny. About darker aspects of the national experience—slavery being the most prominent—McDougall notes that most Americans tried as best they could, though with diminishing success, to maintain a “conspiracy of silence.” That, no doubt, will be a central focus of his second volume.
In the meantime, we have the riches of this one, which I have only begun to suggest. McDougall is a master, for example, of the biographical sketch, and he provides dozens of deft portraits of people famous and obscure. He is never uncritical (though he clearly thinks Washington not just a great but an indispensable man) and he can be wickedly cutting (admirers of Jefferson should be forewarned). He also possesses the virtue that most historians, with their perspective of hindsight, find most difficult to sustain: a sense of contingency, of history’s radical indeterminacy. He believes, and shows, that such formative American events as victory in the Revolution or the ratification of the Constitution were very close-run things, which could easily have gone the other way—and that all succeeding history, in these and endless other cases, would have been unimaginably different.
In the end, McDougall’s great achievement is to have produced a book that can recommend itself to scholars and general readers alike. His 90 pages of small-print end-notes display a mastery of the massive scholarly literature, and will be a source of delight to readers absorbed by historiographical debates. At critical points in his narrative he integrates those debates into his text, but without losing the flow of the story. He also has an unusual facility for assimilating into his traditional political framework a broad range of economic and social history that expands his focus without blurring it.
But it does not take a scholar to appreciate—it may in fact be harder for a scholar to appreciate—the sheer sweep, drama, and energy of McDougall’s account. He announces at the very outset that “the creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past 400 years.” He is surely right about that, as he is in his claim that “America was not just born of revolution, it is one.” Whatever judgments one makes about America, its is an epic tale, and it takes a masterful storyteller to do it justice.
More than narrative talent is involved. There is also, and more importantly, the matter of judgment. McDougall rightly emphasizes the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on American thought. The central figures of that movement—Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, John Witherspoon—held to what was called the “common-sense philosophy.” As McDougall summarizes that perspective, “A perfect society was impossible, but common sense taught that the least bad society was one that freed each person’s passion for improvement and so made possible a measure of freedom and progress for all.”
“The least bad society”—a society, one might say, made by hustlers. McDougall’s American exceptionalism is free of moral grandiosity, and it is all the more persuasive for that. It tells the American truth unvarnished. Two more volumes at this level, and we could have the authoritative American history of our generation.