The Long View: A History of the American People

I've never been able to read A History of the American People. I've tried twice, but something about Johnson's style makes his books unreadable to me. I want to read his books, if only because he covers topics that interest me. Maybe it is his partisan unfairness to people he doesn't like. Or his willingness to bend the truth in search of a narrative.

Perhaps all that doesn't matter. Razib Khan keeps saying you need to pick a side, because the contest is coming. I think it's coming too, but I hope that we might mitigate the damage by being a little less partisan than we might be.

A History of the American People
by Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 1997
1088 Pages, $35.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-06-016836-6


The Emerald City on a Hill


How does Paul Johnson write these things? His list of brick-thick books now includes "The Birth of the Modern," "Modern Times," "A History of the Jews" and "A History of Christianity." Well, maybe part of the way you do it is by reshuffling research you have done for previous books. "A History of the American People" incorporates big slices of "The Birth of the Modern" and especially of "Modern Times." Still, this latest book is substantially a new work, in which Johnson provides new insights and picks new fights. The sharpness of his invective has not dulled over the years, and the result is as entertaining as ever.

Johnson starts this particular brick-book by propounding three questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and atone for them? Second, can idealism be mixed successfully with the desire for material gain? Third, has America in some sense fulfilled the Puritan Father John Winthrop's ambition to become an ideal "City on a Hill" for the rest of mankind? Fernand Braudel this ain't, even though the book is dense with statistics and anecdotal information about everyday life in the United States at every stage in its history. This is a fundamentally moralistic history, but then American politics and culture have always been cast in fundamentally moralistic terms. Any other approach would falsify the subject.

One of the ways that Johnson looks at American history is as a dialectic between the founding impulses of the colonies, and later states, of Massachusetts and South Carolina. Massachusetts, of course, was originally founded by militant religious sectarians with a strong millenarian streak. They were ferociously literate and instinctively democratic, though they disparaged the word itself. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed in the individual conscience and in public order, and they often combined these principles by using civil authority to promote both personal virtue and institutions for public betterment. Nearly their polar opposites, except in entrepreneurial zeal, were the people who first settled South Carolina. According to Johnson, these were proto-oligarchs, slave-owners from Barbados whose idea of the state extended little further than the police power necessary to protect a tiny group of owners from an illiterate mass of helots.

Happily, Johnson does not play this dichotomy for all it is worth, but he does note the continuities from these traditions that appear throughout American history. The one he mentions most, from the Puritan side of the family, is the institution of the witch hunt. Johnson discerns this pattern of behavior, which first appeared in the treatment of persons alleged to be real witches, in the later treatment of abolitionists and communists, and even in connection with the downfall of the Nixon Administration (of which more later). He does not mention the 1980s fashion for using hypnotically-generated "recovered memory" as evidence in criminal cases, a baleful development that produced judicial witch-hunts in an entirely literal sense. Well, how much can you cover in a book that is only 1088 pages long?

To the extent he can, Johnson tries to fit this history around a political narrative, with special attention to the fortunes of the presidency. This works fine for the post-Revolutionary period, extending from the early debates about the adoption of the Constitution and through the Jefferson Administration (1801-1809). It works even better for the twentieth century through the Nixon Administration (1969-1974). However, Johnson does not attempt this for the whole of American history, since for much of it the presidency is important only during crises. Particularly for the period between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, the story almost sinks into a swamp of statistics about things like the stupendous growth in the production of sowing machines. Similarly, after Nixon the only president worth mentioning is Ronald Reagan (1981-1989); the rest of the period is taken up mostly with reports on the culture wars.

There is more to history than politics and economics, so Johnson gives considerable coverage to certain aspects of the arts. American architecture did not start with the skyscraper, for instance, and we get an illuminating account of the various stylistic vernaculars that have appeared since colonial times. Johnson is particularly good on the Hudson River School of landscape painting. He notes its close connections with Turner, and does not dismiss its unique skill with natural light as merely pre-Impressionist. Johnson gives loving attention to the representational artists of the 20th century, particularly Andrew Wyeth. On the other hand, he says only the minimum about literature. The discussion of music concerns mostly popular culture. This may be understandable in light of the disproportionate impact of American popular music as compared to formal music. Besides, the later got interesting only after the appearance of Minimalism in the 1970s.

Johnson has certain pet revisionist theories. All these hobby horses are arguable, but usually only to a point beyond which he passes. For instance, he is at pains to rescue the reputations of the so-called Robber Baron industrialists and financiers of the late nineteenth century. He points out that they made what had been luxuries for the rich available to ordinary people for the first time in history, and they did this while lowering prices and increasing real wages. For myself, I am willing to be persuaded that J.P. Morgan was a considerable statesman. Certainly he acted responsibly as a one-man central bank until the Federal Reserve System was created in 1913. On the other hand, there is little to be said for stock swindlers like Henry Frick. We are repeatedly reminded that the palaces of all these amazingly rich people became considerable libraries and museums after their deaths, which is commendable but a little beside the point. More seriously, while Johnson has some useful things to say about the labor movement, he gives it stinting coverage. The United States had the most violent labor history in the Western world, on both sides, so this is a strange omission for a book keen on discovering instances of American exceptionalism.

This book is particularly cruel to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Johnson seemingly accepts the assessment of FDR's first critics that the man was an intellectual lightweight and an inveterate liar. Emphasizing the continuities between FDR's Depression Era economic policies and those of his much-maligned predecessor, Herbert Hoover, Johnson concludes that both between them contrived to extend what should have been a sharp, short economic contraction into a global catastrophe that lasted a decade. FDR gets no credit at all for trying to nudge the United States into alliance with France and Britain against the fascist powers. If you believe Johnson, Roosevelt had no particular intention of helping the Western allies. Rather, he blundered into the Second World War, in something of the way the British blundered into World War One.

Additionally, we learn that Roosevelt lacked gravitas, displaying a flippant demeanor in discussions of even the gravest topics. He was vindictive, sending the Internal Revenue Service after those whom he conceived to be his enemies, or sometimes after people like Andrew Mellon, President Coolidge's old Secretary of the Treasury, whom he just disliked. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, it goes without saying, was even more of a menace to human life. While acknowledging there is no hard evidence she was a lesbian, Johnson takes care to tell us all the rumors.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy comes in for far worse. Well, not just JFK, but all the Kennedys. He puts most of the blame on Joseph Kennedy, "Old Joe," the father of JFK. The tale of Old Joe is in fact a little disedifying. By turns a real estate speculator, a stock swindler, a bootlegger and a pro-Nazi while ambassador to Great Britain, he seems also to have been at all times a lecher and the companion of gangsters. There have been enough anti-Kennedy books and documentaries in recent years to make another rendition of the alleged crimes and malefactions of this family unnecessary here. Suffice it to say that Johnson makes JFK nothing more than Old Joe's puppet. JFK's books were written by Old Joe's hirelings, his status as a war hero was an artifact of Old Joe's publicity machine, and his elections were bought with Old Joe's money.

All in all, Johnson leaves President Kennedy with not a crumb of credit, from the Apollo Program to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He does allow that Kennedy "did not go through the motions of a first-rate education. . . . without acquiring some worthy interests," but only to explain how the president's brilliant and cultured wife, Jacqueline, was able to apply a cultural sheen to what would otherwise have been a wholly sordid administration. (Johnson has a lot to say about all the First Ladies, by the way. The only ones he seriously dislikes are Mrs. Harding and Eleanor the Ugly, though he also suggests that Mary Todd Lincoln could be a bit trying at times.)

For what it is worth, it seems to me that John Kennedy had serious faults, and that the criticism to which his life is now routinely subjected has a certain rough justice. No president in American history had ever received the sort of cringing adulation that he did from the press and from academia. President-worship had been a growing feature of American historiography since FDR came to office, and it is probably just as well that the practice has fallen into disuse. Still, there is such a thing as fairness.

Johnson's assessment of Richard Nixon and his Administration is almost wholly positive. He credits President Nixon with negotiating a respectable exit from Vietnam and with strategic vision in making the opening to China. He also credits him with saving Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The economy did well during those years, and Nixon was for the most part fairly popular. Johnson describes the Watergate scandal, which eventually forced Nixon to resign, as essentially a coup organized by the press and liberal members of Congress.

Many people on the Left had long-standing grudges against Nixon. One reason was his successful red-baiting Senatorial campaign 1950 against Helen Gahagan Douglas, for instance. Nixon greatest sin, however, may have been his role in the espionage investigation of Alger Hiss, a respected East Coast establishment figure with a promising career in the State Department. Thanks in large part to Nixon, he was eventually convicted of perjury. (The underlying charges against him were pretty much proven when Soviet intelligence information became available in the 1990s.) Besides, Nixon had run against Kennedy and lost in 1960, and many progressive people still cherished the contrast.

I was in college during the Watergate investigations, and I cannot tell you what it was about. There was some minor political espionage against the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Building in Washington, DC, during the presidential campaign of 1972. The White House tried to hush it up, and then to hush up the fact that it had hushed it up. In a normal context, all this would probably have been beneath the notice of a prosecuting attorney, but presidents are subject to impeachment rather than indictment by a prosecutor. The Constitution does not say what an impeachable offense might be, except for treason and bribery. The matter is left to the political discretion of Congress.

Richard Nixon at every point made the worst of the business. He had his strong points, but he was often petty and self-pitying about personal slights. A reprimand from Congress might well have been in order for some of his behavior. Nevertheless, I am increasingly coming to accept Johnson's position that the fall of the Nixon Administration was in fact a kind of coup.

Watergate was payback for Alger Hiss, and an expression of the fury that the liberal establishment felt for having been deprived of their fantasy of the Kennedy Administration. Johnson is probably right that the pursuit of Richard Nixon almost destroyed Israel and may, perhaps, have been a necessary precondition to Communist victory in Vietnam. Certainly it began a corrosive period of national politics, in which the ordinary processes of politics are increasingly criminalized and political ambition is expressed by official investigation and counter-investigation.

Not long before I wrote this, Speaker Newt Gingrich made a speech in which he compared the condition of the United States to that of the later Roman Republic. He was referring to the invocation by President Clinton of executive privilege regarding one of the investigations into which the business of the executive branch of government has collapsed. The Speaker's historical analogy was defensible, though not his application of it. The politics of the late Roman Republic also eventually came to be little more than a factional duel of investigation and counter-investigation of alleged malfeasance, punctuated by ever more expensive election campaigns. The national political establishment of the United States began to work on similar lines after the Watergate episode, and it has been bleeding legitimacy ever since.

It is interesting to note that this book (like this review) just comes to a stop, in a single upbeat paragraph tacked on to the end. The fact is that it was published too soon. For this history, Johnson had retained and even expanded much of the downbeat material with which he ended "Modern Times" in the 1980s. He can thus only mention, without attempting to interpret, the reversal of many of the negative social trends that began in the 1960s. Crime rates are falling and illegitimacy is down, for instance, and since this book went to press the federal budget deficit has actually disappeared. The "declinist" school of American history is little heard from these days. Whatever else is happening to the United States, it is clearly not a society running out of steam.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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