Posted: October 22, 2007
ow much American history do young Americans learn today? Or—better question—what American history, if any, do they learn? The answer to the first question seems to be very little. The answer to the second question is too much of the wrong kind. They learn that America had slavery and treated women unequally and that colonists and settlers behaved in beastly ways toward "Native Americans." They learn that military units were racially segregated in World War II and Japanese Americans interned. They end up not knowing whether the Civil War came before or after the American Revolution or who attacked Pearl Harbor. Yet American adults seem to hunger for another kind of history. They snap up copies of excellent recent books on the Founding Fathers and the Civil War. They want to know how this country came to be what it is: a nation that has advanced ordered freedom, representative government, and bounteous global capitalism. They want to read the kind of history Bill Bennett has written in his two-volume America: The Last Best Hope.
A former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, now the Claremont Institute's Washington Fellow and host of his own radio show, Bennett assures us early on that his account shows our country "warts and all," but decidedly not an America that is "nothing but warts." "It is the story," he writes, "of a great people who wisely choose how to save themselves and others, how to correct wrongs, and how to preserve what is still the greatest nation in the history of the world."
A narrative history cannot, even in some thousand pages, cover everything, nor can it be based on close examination of more than a few primary sources. Bennett has relied on secondary sources, and in my view has chosen them well (including my Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, 1990). He has a gift for choosing the pithy, revealing anecdote and for providing fresh character sketches and critical analyses of the leading figures. This is an American history that adults will find refreshing and enlightening and that younger readers will find a darn good read.
He starts off with Christopher Columbus, but soon shifts from the conquistadors to the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay. His is an Anglocentric America, where settlers brought English traditions of law and liberty and spread them, with modifications, across the continent. They also brought slaves, as Bennett notes. One way this book differs from the histories that I read growing up in the 1950s is that black Americans are woven into the story throughout—as slaves in the colonies and the young republic, as opponents of slavery before and during the Civil War, and as advocates of desegregation in the 20th century. Due notice is given the extraordinary Frederick Douglass, and due praise is given Thomas Jefferson for his demand for a speedy end to the slave trade, and to Ulysses S. Grant for his (unhappily) unsuccessful attempt to preserve black citizens' rights in the Reconstruction-era South. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement are rightly celebrated in America's account of the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast, Bennett's treatment of American Indians will irritate some. He does not indulge the fantasy that they lived in respectful harmony with nature, and takes pains to show why American frontiersmen (and -women) saw them as something like terrorists.
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Bennett's America is, most of all, the product of great men. George Washington takes center stage when in 1753, at age 21, he negotiates with the French in what is now western Pennsylvania. With relish the author tells us how Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776 and saved the revolutionary cause from disaster, how he laid down his command voluntarily after the war, and came out of private life to preside at the Constitutional Convention. Bennett reports that when one delegate moved that the U.S. standing army be limited to 5,000 men, Washington, in one of his few interventions at the convention, replied the proposal had merit "provided that we could also require that no enemy would ever invade with more than five thousand troops."
One of the forces pushing the founders toward a closer federal union (and also later toward division), notes Bennett, was the question of what to do with the territories. In 1787, when slavery seemed to be on the way to abolition in most of the states, the Northwest Ordinance established that the territory north of the Ohio River would not have slavery. In 1854, when Southerners hoped that slavery would expand beyond its present bounds, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened any territory to slavery if its settlers were so inclined. One lesson to be learned here is that 18th- and 19th-century American statesmen believed that their nation was still in the process of formation. Even when the new 13 states contained just 3.9 million people, mostly not far from the Atlantic, George Washington envisioned the United States as a continental country (it already boasted a Continental Army!) with 100 million people, inferior to none in the world.
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My generation tends to identify the 1930s as America's most dangerous decade. For Bennett it was the 1850s. The nation had just been expanded, under the dour but determined James K. Polk, to Texas, California, and the Pacific Northwest. And, as Bennett points out, American settlers had led the way before U.S. military troops arrived. Immigrants were also moving into America in a tide that, as a proportion of preexisting population (12%), has never been exceeded. And Southerners were determined to advance slavery in the territories and to acquire slave territory in Central America and the Caribbean.
Into this picture stepped Abraham Lincoln who, CRB readers will not be disappointed to learn, is the central and most fully realized figure in a book whose subtitle comes from one of his great speeches. Lincoln dominates nearly a hundred pages of this text, and it is he more than anyone else who fulfills the purposes of the founders and enables America to live up to Washington's vision. We see his furious reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, his debates with Stephen Douglas, his struggle to save the Union, and his Second Inaugural, perhaps the greatest speech in American history.
No other individual comes across as Lincoln's equal. Theodore Roosevelt's vigor is nicely evoked. Woodrow Wilson's stubbornness in blocking reasonable reservations to the Versailles Treaty is sternly recorded. Bennett does not have much to say for the Republican presidents of the 1920s, and treats the decade, as so many historians have, as a time of flappers and Fordism, Charles Lindbergh and H.L. Mencken. There is much more, some of it admiring, some of it critical, on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal with its extraordinary cast of characters. Here I would note my chief criticism of the book, that it underplays the economic achievements of the United States, the sources of its prosperity, and its economic preeminence in the world. Bennett does give some credit to the 19th-century entrepreneurs, too long unjustly dismissed as robber barons, but like so many New Deal historians he seems to regard the prosperity of the 1920s as an unsustainable bubble, and does not explain that FDR (like Herbert Hoover before him) misdiagnosed the downward deflationary spiral of the early 1930s and prescribed mostly the wrong medicine. He is much better on Roosevelt as war leader and on his extraordinary partnership with Winston Churchill.
The American histories I read in the 1950s all stopped at 1945. There was perhaps a danger of stirring controversy about the beginnings of the Cold War and the accompanying anti-Communist movements. Bennett covers post-1945 with a crisp narrative that takes fair account of the period (he notes, for example, that there were indeed Communists in high government places during World War II) and scrupulously avoids partisan cheap shots. Harry Truman is honored for resolutely taking on the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Dwight Eisenhower is given credit for enforcing the court order desegregating Little Rock's Central High School. The author explains that John Kennedy's dispatch of U.S. troops to South Vietnam and approval of the coup against the Diem government presented his successor Lyndon Johnson with unpalatable alternatives, and he argues that Richard Nixon's paranoia led him to sanction the abuses that have been gathered under the rubric of Watergate. Gerald Ford's and Jimmy Carter's administrations come across as unhappy times, and Bennett hails Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 as the beginning of a national revival. He ends the book with the picture of Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev at Governors Island in New York Harbor in December 1988, the same tableau with which I ended Our Country. In that picture, of course, we have inklings of momentous events to come, not all of which had occurred when my book appeared: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
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Narratives tell a story and help us understand what was centrally important. For many years the dominant narratives of American history were written by the New Deal historians, who depicted Franklin Roosevelt as the equal of Lincoln, the culmination of progressive thinking from Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt to the social workers and union leaders of the 1920s and '30s. These histories gave way to those by the New Leftists, who depicted our history as one outrage after another committed by privileged white males against women and people of color. Bennett presents an older story brought up to date. Twentieth-century leaders are given their due—Roosevelt and Reagan more than the rest—for taking the nation from difficult times into important triumphs. But the central figures in this narrative are George Washington, preeminent among the founders, and Abraham Lincoln, sublime in his seeming simplicity, who elevated and held together the Union, the last best hope of mankind. I think Bill Bennett's got it right.