Eden without the Serpent

Eric Foner

  • A History of the American People by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 925 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 297 81569 5

Paul Johnson is one of the most indefatigable writers on either side of the Atlantic. In the past twenty years, the former editor of the New Statesman turned ardent Thatcherite has produced, among other books, The Birth of the Modern (weighing in at more than a thousand pages), Modern Times, a massive chronicle of the 20th century, and lengthy histories of Christianity and Judaism. If succinctness is not his forte, neither is modesty. Johnson’s latest book opens with the claim that it ‘has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America’s past’. No one who knows his earlier writings is likely to be surprised by its strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, A History of the American People is vintage Johnson.

Johnson proudly asserts that he makes no effort to ‘conceal’ his ‘opinions’. What this means is that his approach to history is polemical, one-sided and prone to gross oversimplifications. An excellent storyteller, he describes very well those figures from the past whom he admires, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. Those he dislikes, on the other hand, are little more than caricatures: Thomas Paine, for example, was ‘a man with a grudge against society, a spectacular grumbler’. No one seeking a fair-minded account of the American past will find it here. On the other hand, anyone who has wondered whether the history of the United States can be forced into a Thatcherite mould may well find the book of interest.

Johnson announces at the outset that he comes to American history ‘completely fresh’, with no qualifications other than a love of the country and a willingness to immerse himself in the literature of its past. It’s true that he has read widely, but far too many of the works on which he relies are long out of date, in part because he feels current scholarship is distorted by ‘political correctness’. Thus, in discussing the impact of the early settlers on the North American environment, he cites not William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983), now the standard work on the subject, but Civilisation and Climate by Ellsworthy Huntington, published in 1925. His account of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War rehashes long-discredited myths: that Congress was motivated by ‘hatred’ of the South when it enfranchised black men, that black office holders were mostly illiterate, that by distributing poor relief, the Freedmen’s Bureau discouraged former slaves from engaging in honest labour (a charge not levelled against the thousands of whites who also received Bureau assistance).

In attempting to fashion a conservative account of American history, Johnson has fearlessly entered a debate about the presentation of the past, one strand in the United States’ ongoing ‘culture wars’. In past decades, American historians have tended to concentrate on recovering the experience of groups neglected by earlier scholars – African-Americans, women, labourers etc. This focus on the ‘subaltern’ has made it impossible to treat American history as an unambiguous saga of national progress. Of late, conservative politicians and intellectuals have called for a return to a more patriotic history, to rekindle a sense of national pride among schoolchildren and adult citizens in need of uplift.

Many critics of the ‘new history’ charge that the American academy has been taken over by ‘tenured radicals’ bent on undermining authority by disseminating a ‘depressing’ account of the past. This is often said but is wildly inaccurate. In one recent survey, American historians cited not Das Kapital or the writings of Chairman Mao, but the Bible, as the book that had most influenced their scholarship. It is true, however, that American historians, if they have any politics at all, tend to be vaguely liberal in outlook. This helps to explain why no forthrightly conservative history of the United States currently exists. A more important reason is that it is far easier to carp about the limitations of ‘history from below’ than to produce an alternative. For attempting to do so, Johnson deserves some praise.

It is worth considering what a modern conservative history might look like. Is it, for example, possible to take pride in the many achievements of the American experiment, including a long history of stable democratic institutions and widespread prosperity, without neglecting those who have failed to share in what the Constitution calls ‘the blessings of liberty’? Can the historian emphasise the values and experiences Americans have in common while acknowledging the role of dissenters and critics? Should a conservative history seek to engage the findings of recent scholarship or, as Johnson essentially does, ignore them?

Nietzsche once distinguished three approaches to historical writing – monumental, antiquarian and critical. From the opening sentence of his book – ‘The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures’ – celebration rather than critical analysis is Johnson’s technique. The problem with his monumental history is not so much that it studiously ignores the less than admirable features of the American past, but that it fails to take account of the symbiotic relationship between the heroic and the ignoble, the democratic and the exclusionary.

Take slavery, the serpent in the New World Eden. Johnson seems to see it as extrinsic to the American experience, a ‘corruption’ of the nation’s real spirit. It was British planters from Barbados who imported slavery into the mainland colonies; had they not done so, he writes, ‘it is quite possible that the American Civil War would not have taken place.’ Johnson manages to ignore the work of Edmund Morgan, David Brion Davis and numerous other scholars of the past thirty years who have demonstrated that slavery was an intrinsic element of American life almost from the beginning of the colonial era, and that it imparted a powerful exclusionary dimension to the American conception of freedom. If Morgan and Davis are too politically correct for Johnson’s taste, he could have recurred to Adam Smith, who noted more than two centuries ago that in a political democracy it was all the more difficult to abolish slavery, since ‘the persons who make the laws in that country are persons who have slaves themselves.’The very ‘freedom of the free’, Smith pointed out, helped to produce ‘the great oppression of the slaves’.

Johnson succumbs to another kind of oversimplification when he attempts to read today’s anti-statist conservatism back into the American past. In discussing Federal land policy before the Civil War, for example, he states that the Government allowed the free market to determine land prices, with the result that settlers could obtain all the acreage they needed. In a word, ‘freedom’, meaning the market, ‘worked’. But can one speak of a ‘free market in land’ when the fact that vast territories were available for settlement was a result of the Government’s clearance of Indians from that land and their absorption of half of Mexico? And since blacks were excluded from acquiring public land, this so-called free market was not quite as free as Johnson claims. This is not to deny that thousands of settlers acquired homesteads, but the process was more complicated than a retrospective application of Free Market ideology allows.

On occasion, Johnson’s conservatism yields useful results. More than most current scholars, he emphasises the powerful role of religion in shaping the American experience. He understands the centrality of Christianity to the lives of colonial New Englanders and the ways secular and religious languages reinforced one another during the Revolution and Civil War. Typically, however, he devalues his insight by taking it to extremes, describing the religious revival of the mid-18th century known as the Great Awakening as ‘the formative moment in American history’. As for the Revolution and the Civil War they were not simply influenced by religious belief but actual ‘religious events’.

In fact, many of the founding fathers, as well as Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, were indifferent churchgoers. Their religion was deism rather than devout Christianity. Johnson has a hard time explaining why a nation ‘founded primarily for religious purposes’ has a Constitution that is a purely secular document, containing no reference to God and prohibiting religious tests for Federal officeholders.

By the time he reaches the 20th century, Johnson’s account has become increasingly tendentious, his likes and dislikes more predictable, his judgments shriller. Given his distaste for government intervention of any kind, it is not surprising that he blames the national state, not capitalism or Wall Street, for the Great Depression. The economy was ‘fundamentally sound’ and would have quickly righted itself after the Stock Market crash of 1929 had not Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt indulged their penchant for ‘social engineering’. Most historians blame Hoover for his inaction: as Johnson sees it, his mistake was to have pumped modest amounts of money into the economy to prevent a collapse in wages. Hoover and Roosevelt, Johnson believes, should have done nothing. Once wages had ‘fallen to their natural level’ (unspecified here), entrepreneurs would have resumed investing. Johnson is quite correct to point out that Roosevelt did not end the Depression – although he says little about the vast improvement in people’s lives brought about by rural electrification, the Social Security system and other New Deal programmes. Johnson sees FDR as a pleasant bur pathologically dishonest man without any real qualifications for the Presidency – and his wife Eleanor as an over-sexed harridan.

Not surprisingly, he much admires Ronald Reagan, who restored ‘the will and self-confidence of the American people’ and launched ‘decisive and masterful’ initiatives like the Star Wars anti-missile defence programme that was supposed to surround the country with the equivalent of a bullet-proof vest. True, his Administration ‘technically broke the law’ in the Iran-Contra scandal, but it was acting in the national interest. Johnson’s real hero, however, is Richard Nixon, an embodiment of all that is best in the American character. By contrast, John Kennedy was a spoiled rich kid without principles or convictions, who thought he was above the law and ran around with glamorous women.

Why, then, was Nixon’s Presidency a failure? The blame, Johnson contends, lies not with Nixon and the lies he told but with the machinations of John Sirica, the ‘publicity hungry’ Watergate judge, and a media controlled by ‘East Coast liberals’ who had not forgiven Nixon for his principled anti-Communism. Normally a staunch upholder of honesty and the rule of law, Johnson never quite manages to condemn Nixon’s frequent lies or his complicity in the obstruction of justice and bribing of the Watergate burglars. Nixon’s removal, Johnson writes, was a ‘dark hour’ in the history of the Republic, a sign of the collapse of respect for authority brought about by the Sixties. The possibility that, thanks to Vietnam, Watergate and decades of complicity in racism, authority had effectively discredited itself does not occur to him.

Conservatives today complain that historians devote entirely too much attention to ordinary people and not enough to political leaders and captains of industry. Johnson aims to redress the balance. For a book dedicated to ‘the people of America’, which repeats with monotonous regularity that the opportunity offered to ‘ordinary men and women’ constitutes the essence of American greatness, the ‘people’ make remarkably few appearances. This is a narrative of great men, along with a handful of great women such as the colonial religious Dissenter Anne Hutchinson. The account of the Revolution, for example, is written entirely from the top down. A ‘tiny élite’ created the nation, and Johnson offers no sense of what Bernard Bailyn calls the ‘contagion of liberty’ – the way small farmers, urban labourers and even slaves seized on the patriotic ideology to advance their own claims.

Johnson’s account of the late 19th century offers an excellent description of technological developments and lively character sketches of financiers and entrepreneurs like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie (the latter ‘the hero of the age’). It says nothing about the era’s vibrant labour movement, except to accuse unions of imposing an ‘atmosphere of terror’ on workers. In good Thatcherite fashion, trade unionism for Johnson is ‘undemocratic’, a label he declines to apply to the use of state militias and private police forces to break strikes.

This ‘history of the American people’ is remarkably silent about the social movements that have populated the country’s past. Johnson all but ignores both abolitionism and the women’s rights movement – the ‘great majority’ of women apparently did not want the vote. The struggle for civil rights – the greatest mass movement of the century – receives only cursory attention, most of it unfavourable. Martin Luther King, Johnson says, ‘played the religious card for all it was worth’, an odd remark from an author who on all other occasions extols the role of religion in American life. Overall, Johnson’s treatment of blacks constitutes one of the book’s most glaring weaknesses. Essentially, he sees them as a problem confronting white society, not as participants in the chronicle of American history, and refuses to take racism seriously as a historical issue. After migrating from the South in the 20th century, he writes, blacks ‘settled down into ghettos’, as if the racial apartheid in American cities was the most natural thing in the world.

While Johnson criticises the politically correct for degrading the English language, his own vocabulary leaves much to be desired. Black women are consistently referred to as ‘girls’ – which may, just, be appropriate for Phyllis Wheatley, who was 14 when she published her first poem in 1767. But Rosa Parks was not a ‘black girl’ when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott that launched the modern civil rights movement: she was a woman of 42.

A History of the American people is a paean to what Johnson calls ‘the American consensus’: ‘the free market, capitalism, individualism, enterprise, independence and personal responsibility’. Yet the final chapter is a diatribe against just about every aspect of contemporary American life and culture. All the usual targets of conservative jeremiads – affirmative action, feminism, over-zealous courts, rampant crime, declining schools – are singled out and Johnson’s rhetoric, never restrained, is now totally out of control. Political correctness is a form of McCarthyism, religious people are now seen as ‘enemies of freedom’, and thanks to affirmative action, the country is on the verge of embracing a legalised caste system like that of India and Nazi Germany. (Oddly enough, Johnson did not wax indignant earlier, when discussing a real parallel between Nazism and American race policy – the segregation laws of the early 20th century.) What this screed suggests is that Johnson’s view of American life derives not from experience, but from reading the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the writings of ‘experts’ safely ensconced in conservative think-tanks. The despair permeating this last chapter is as overheated as the Panglossian optimism of the rest of the book. But then, whatever the virtues of A History of the American People, judgment, balance and subtlety are not among them.