Posted: August 13, 2019
arlier this year, the Connecticut legislature adopted a bill which mandated the creation of a one-credit course on black and Latino history for the state’s high schools. “American history seemed to be a long catalog of kings, presidents, generals, a few industrialists and a couple of investors, that was about it,” complained the bill’s sponsor, Edwin Vargas of Hartford. But “religious, racial and ethnic groups, women, minorities, labor, unions—all these movements in America—they were lucky if they got one or two lines in one of our history books.” It was time, added Representative Bobby Gibson of Bloomfield, to shift the focus in history teaching to the “many contributions [which] have been given to this country, to this state, by African Americans and by Latinos.”
Given that African Americans compose nearly 12% of the state’s population (and Hispanics over 16%) this may not be an unreasonable demand. The difficulty lies in assuming that history should be taught piecemeal, race by race or culture by culture. As Representative Gale Mastrofrancesco objected, there seems to be little reason why the state should mandate a course on one “particular culture and it’s not mandated that we offer it about every other culture.” Yet the Connecticut proposal is testimony to a diminishing confidence that the history of the United States can be understood as a synthetic, national whole. We live in what Daniel T. Rodgers called the Age of Fracture (2011), in which “shared traditions, values, and customs” are defended only by “conservative intellectuals who [have] not taken the libertarian turn, who still [imagine] society in organic terms.” The Connecticut scheme gives us fracture good and hard.
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The fracturing of a shared history has been accelerated by the guilty realization that a good many shared histories in the past have really shared very little. In 2018, Harvard’s Donald Yacovone published a scathing review of 3,000 American history textbooks stretching back into the 19th century which depicted slavery as a benign institution where “untutored” blacks could “enjoy picnics, barbecues, singing, and dancing.” These textbooks “never mentioned any abolitionists or even an antislavery movement” and wrote off Reconstruction as a laboratory demonstration of “black incapacity.” That included, to Yacovone’s chagrin, the textbook he had read in a fifth-grade class in California.
Yet without a single integrative narrative of the American experiment, American historical understanding tilts toward the pattern of the Articles of Confederation. Such a pattern brings with it the same confusion and paralysis that forced Americans in 1787 to speak as We the People and not merely as the denizens of a state, much less a culture. American history textbooks have been shifting away for almost 30 years from the narratives Yacovone and the Connecticut legislators denounced, and the result has been texts which are little more than a Connecticut-style pastiche of American “cultures” sandwiched awkwardly between two covers. Or worse, not even sandwiched, but arrayed in militant hostility to each other. The most popular of all current American history texts, the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), bluntly states that American history can be reduced to “a profound conflict of interest between the government and the people of the United States.” It is, as Zinn later wrote in the Progressive, “a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant, corporation against worker, rich against poor.” Overall, A People’s History has sold more than 2 million copies, and the Zinn Education Project, which promotes the use of the text, has 300,000 followers on social media.
On those terms, Connecticut’s legislators will not have to look far to find the stories they are seeking. But what they may end up with is the war of all against all.
Neither Wilfred M. McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story nor Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States actually advertises itself as a school textbook. Each will nevertheless be seen as a possible candidate for that role—both because McClay’s Land of Hope is laid out in the large-print, large-page format we have come to identify with textbooks, and because Lepore is an extraordinarily talented and well-known storyteller whose vignettes of forgotten chapters in American history have been a feature of the New Yorker for over a decade. It will be especially hard not to see Land of Hope as the anti-Zinn: as the intelligent conservative’s response to Zinn’s scorching denunciations of nearly everything, and thus as the logical resort of AP high school teachers who would like their courses to be about something other than an America full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Lepore, on the other hand, has possibilities as a first-year college survey text—or would, if there were not so many gaps and bunches in the narration and so many personal obsessions to be vented.
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McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. Since earning his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1987, he has carved out an enviable career at the University of Dallas, Tulane, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His first book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994) won the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History. But McClay’s long suit has been the broad-based, pungent essays that he has written for First Things and the New Atlantis, and Land of Hope is his first large-scale book since The Masterless. It has, notwithstanding, been worth the wait, because McClay has a very clear sense of what he wants to do with this book. The reader will get a full idea of that purpose by beginning, counterintuitively, with the epilogue, “The Shape of American Patriotism.”
For McClay does not hesitate to talk about the p-word, and to present Land of Hope as “an accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative account” of American history which will “inform and deepen” Americans’ “sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” As much as McClay feels the professional historian’s urge to tell a story, he clearly wants Land of Hope to be “a contribution to the making of American citizens,” and not to their discouragement or disheartening at the prospect of unrelieved evil and guilt. There is much, McClay insists, “to celebrate and cherish in the American achievement.” Although he is cautious enough of the winds blowing from Connecticut and elsewhere to assure readers that “hope” “doesn’t mean...an uncritical celebration,” there is still something desirable, “something natural about patriotism, as an expression of love for what is one’s own,” which justifies not only the inculcation of that patriotism but the use of history as the primary means for adorning it.
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There are, nevertheless, at least two ways of construing patriotism—one is captured in the name of the department created after 9/11 to suppress terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security. The idea of America as a homeland conjures up ugly echoes of the German Heimat, the mystical patriotism of soil and blood responsible for so much of the misery that blots the record of the 20th century. Yet it deserves not to be condemned out of hand, McClay argues, if only because amor patriae ducit (love of country leads), and love is a passion which moves toward particular objects—toward what is beloved, apart from all others, and toward the symbols of the beloved—and seals loyalty at a level which is unusually resistant to the blandishments of betrayal and despair.
But American patriotism, like the double helix of human DNA, is also wrapped by a second strand—this time of ideas, and especially the one singular “proposition” to which Abraham Lincoln believed the republic was “dedicated”: that all men are created equal. To be an American is to be one who gives rational assent to that proposition, with all that it entails about natural rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and (as Lincoln remarked) “proving that popular government is not an absurdity.” Thus do love and reason, passion and assent, become the twin poles of American patriotism.
The question, however, is whether a narrative history can nourish love without sinking into a maudlin collection of uplifting parables, or simply ignoring the particular birth defects of the American republic (particularly concerning slavery). The answer, in McClay’s case, is a fairly strong maybe. McClay is extremely reasonable in disarming the worst barbs of the identity politicians—there were, for instance, no “Native Americans” with some overarching claim to possess the American continents, for the simple reason that all Americans, including all the presumptively “native” people, were themselves originally immigrants from somewhere else. And the “extinction or dramatic reduction of various indigenous peoples after contact” with Europeans was not the product of the “cruelty” of European invasion, “but the epidemic spread of Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, and malaria...to which they had no natural immunity.” Nor was slavery a uniquely European or American crime. In any case, the American republic in 1776 “was founded on other principles entirely” than the exploitation of slave labor, the clincher being the sedulous exclusion of the word “slave” from the federal Constitution in 1787.
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Still, there is comparatively little in Land of Hope, apart from Ronald Reagan’s apostrophe to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” which works on the amor that embraces patria. (A few more of those uplifting parables—George Washington at Newburgh, Sergeant William Carney at Fort Wagner—might not have been out of place.) McClay is happier in delineating the propositions around which American identity is formed, and he does so by an unreservedly conservative standard. The Revolution that created those politics was, from the first, a rebellion against “consolidating the empire” Britain had established in North America. After a brief fling with near anarchy as an alternative under the Articles of Confederation, Americans arrived at a sober balance between consolidation and liberty in the Constitution. The framers thus created “a federal system that would maintain a large measure of autonomy for the states, while turning over to a national government only those things that had to be undertaken in common.” Nothing quite explains that balance more effectively in McClay’s estimate than The Federalist (with its “darkly realistic view of human potentialities”) or describes its benefits more spaciously than Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which McClay lauds as “the richest and most enduring study of American society and culture ever written.”
He does not underestimate the demonic strength that slavery assumed in the American republic, but he is determined to fix the blame for it on something other than American principles. The slave South “had a certain...distinctiveness from the beginning” from the rest of the American experiment, and McClay does not hesitate to pronounce plantation culture “a feudal society...dominated as it was by an aristocratic planter class...with all the strict social hierarchy that implies.” Slavery did not undergird, finance, or instantiate the American Founding—it betrayed it into the hands of a “premodern, hierarchical vision” that despised the free-labor economy of the rest of the country and “was startlingly similar in many respects to the critique then being offered by radical leftists like Karl Marx.”
McClay is just as critical of the Progressives, who, although their roots were in the small-town middle class of the upper Midwest, were equally dismissive of “the competitive idea at the heart of the Constitution” and instead pushed forward an idea of government dedicated to “centralizing, consolidating, harmonizing.” It will come as no surprise, then, that McClay regards the New Deal with a certain skepticism, and dismisses Franklin Roosevelt (in the mordant estimate of his aide Raymond Moley) as a man whose “knowledge of political and constitutional history and theory was distinctly limited” and who lacked “any appreciation of the basic philosophical distinctions in the history of American political thought.”
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McClay is an intellectual historian—which is to say that he is concerned primarily with the history of ideas, whether religious, philosophical, sociological, or political—and so Land of Hope does not set out to be a strictly political narrative. Unhappily, however, politics displays a nasty penchant for swallowing up ideas in Land of Hope. McClay’s largest foray into American literature occurs with the New England Romantics—Ralph Waldo Emerson primarily, but also Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Not a word is said about the moral philosophers—John Witherspoon, Archibald Alexander, Francis Wayland, Mark Hopkins, Francis Bowen, Noah Porter, James McCosh—whose influence easily overshadowed the transcendentalist Romantics until William James and pragmatism blotted them out. But James and pragmatism are just as invisible, despite having provided the philosophical stuffing for Progressive politics. Instead, Land of Hope increasingly becomes a political history, and especially a history of presidential administrations. Of McClay’s 429 pages of text, 190 are devoted to America since 1900, and almost all of them are a progress through presidencies and their wars.
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Not that McClay’s judgments on those presidencies lack weight. But they are, in some senses, predictable. Theodore Roosevelt is “not inclined to be excessively deferential to the Constitution,” and he revives “[t]he activist power of the presidency” which had been “relatively dormant” since the death of Lincoln. Woodrow Wilson, with his management of low tariffs, income tax, central banking, the 16th and 17th Amendments (and, not to be missed, his loathing of African Americans) is even worse. Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge get higher marks—the first for his economic policies, the second for his principled defense of the integrity of the American Founding. McClay is unexpectedly generous to Richard Nixon—“talented and highly intelligent” with a “remarkable talent for compromise and coalition building”—and adulatory of Ronald Reagan. But he is dismissive of Jimmy Carter, whose sole talent was for “gesture,” and of Barack Obama, who was long on “inspirational talk about hope and change” but an “ineffective leader when matters got down to specifics.” Republicans up, Democrats down.
The result, however, is that by the end of Land of Hope politics has trumped culture in a singularly exhaustive way. No notice of any American literature surfaces after Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in 1955; American music begins—and ends—with jazz in the 1920s; apart from Martin Luther King, religion vaporizes after 1900. And rather than hope, McClay is forced to conclude with a dismal picture of an America mistrustful of its own political institutions and wallowing in debt, both governmental and personal. Perhaps Land of Hope might have ended with some stirring invocation of the American Muses to point to a return to first principles. But it does not—apart from a final exhortation to us not to allow “one of the bright lights of human history...to be extinguished, either through inattention to our ideals or through ignorance of our story.”
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One of the great virtues of land of Hope is McClay’s style: relaxed, conversational, unobtrusive, as though he were conducting a pleasant and eminently enjoyable evening with friends. Jill Lepore is, if anything, an even more talented literary stylist. But it is the style of a pugilist, jabbing remorselessly, punctuated with the frequent eureka! and then dropping to the conspiratorial whisper. And where McClay splashes primary colors across a vast canvas, Lepore is a pointillist, dabbing points and trusting the eye of the beholder to provide the unity. She is by turns sensitive, dismissive, dogmatic, and annoying—especially annoying when dangling participles at the end of paragraphs (“their songs unsung,” “two towers collapsing”).
Lepore bounded quickly out of the graduate school gate at Yale: her 1998 book on King Philip’s War, The Name of War, earned her the Bancroft Prize, and a second opus in 2005 on the New York City slave uprising of 1741, New York Burning, a nomination for a Pulitzer, and the David Woods Kemper Professorship in American History at Harvard. But since then, her historical writing has been almost entirely the possession of the New Yorker, where she has published a lengthy succession of popular pieces on some singularly unknown people and places—on Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Mecom; on the first political consultants, Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker; on Robert Ripley (of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!). Any casual flip through These Truths will show that much of its 789 pages of text reads like reproductions of Lepore’s New Yorker articles, loosely filled in with connecting threads. Almost all the major incidents of the book—Frederick Douglass and photography, women as moral crusaders, the historical misperceptions of Magna Carta, scientific management (and her quarrel with Clayton Christensen), the invention of polling—have previously appeared in her New Yorker pieces since 2008.
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Lepore is as conscious as McClay that a nation needs a history, and like McClay, she conceives of These Truths “as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions.” In a brief essay in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, she chided American historians for allowing “the nation” to fall “out of favor” as a subject. But her idea of a revitalized history is not aimed at fostering anything so déclassé as patriotism, largely because a) Lepore does not believe that there is an American nation to which one may attach emotions of patriotism, and b) she entertains an epistemological looseness which is at war with a national foundation constructed of propositions, much less the self-evidence Thomas Jefferson and the founders saw in “these truths.” She is, at bottom, a postmodern; hence, all narratives are fictions, including historical narratives. “Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past,” she declared in Foreign Affairs, but those imaginings are invariably “little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state.”
Normally, nations do this to justify the emergence of the state—as, for example, the Germans, who existed as a “nation” long before they created a “state” in the form of Germany in 1871, and who then had to work at making the Wilhelmine state believable. Americans had to do the reverse: they created a state in 1776, and then, since Americans were really a wild composite of immigrant identities, had to invent a “nation” to give it flesh and bones. “Our union is perfect,” Jefferson claimed in 1775 at the Second Continental Congress, “being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.” Except, of course, that it wasn’t, either politically or ethnically. So, Lepore asserts, 19th-century historians concocted a national history “in an attempt to make the United States’ founding appear inevitable, its growth inexorable, and its history ancient.” But in fact, as she argues, America was riven by multiple racial divisions (which hardened into ideological divisions) from the start, and continues to be so.
Similarly, the idea that Americans are guided by a set of “truths” is just so much wishful thinking. “The truths on which the nation was founded are not...articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God.” Far from it: “the nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds.” But, in good postmodern fashion, neither are “these truths” entirely false. “[N]either are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth.” The problem is that Lepore offers no method for parsing the truth in “truths” from the lethal falsehoods she decries, except to say that we must walk “an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs.”
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Walking that uneasy path means, for Lepore, walking in the shade of suspicion, trusting to nothing of the conventional in American history. “The Declaration,” she writes, “was a stunning rhetorical feat,” but “[i]t also marked a colossal failure of political will, in holding back the tide of opposition to slavery by ignoring it, for the sake of a union that, in the end, could not and would not last.” Immigrants who filled the cities of the new republic were met by stone walls of economic inequality and crammed into common schools “animated…by nativism” and “regimentation.” The American Revolution speeds past in only five pages, the Civil War in 17 (with the war itself breezily captured in just three paragraphs). The Korean War gets four sentences.
Curiously, suspicion also leads her into some unusually favorable judgments about figures who have otherwise been the scorn of the historical establishment. William Jennings Bryan’s hopeless prosecution of John Thomas Scopes in the famous “monkey trial” of 1925 earns from Lepore praise for seeing that “secular modernity” and “the heartlessness of science” spelled “the end of sympathy, compassion, and charity.” In battling Darwinism, Bryan “wasn’t battling a chimera,” since Darwinism was “indeed breeding eugenicists.”
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But Lepore’s sympathy for Bryan has less to do with any respect for Bryan’s religion (which, throwing her dismissal of truth aside for a moment, she regards as a “challenge...to the nation’s founding principles and especially to the nature of truth”) and more to do with her intuition that little in American life is what it seems. More than half of These Truths is taken up with America since 1900, and much of that becomes a story of manipulation and wire-pulling that mixes C. Wright Mills with the Luddites, all with a view toward debasing the political coinage of American life. “Political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money,” she complains, as though 19th-century political campaigns lacked for political managers and seas of cash on which to float. Radio was the handmaiden of fascism, Lepore laments, television its modernized extension. Facebook and social media “exacerbated the political isolation of ordinary Americans,” while polling, instead of measuring public opinion, is actually intended to “manufacture opinion, given that a sizable portion of Americans know nothing or nearly nothing or else hold no opinion about the subjects and issues raised.” Lepore is more focused on culture than McClay, but it is a culture rabid with conspiracy.
The crafters of these monstrosities are mostly “the Right,” Republicans, and conservatives, including (quite remarkably) Silicon Valley, which she believes has corrupted the Democratic Party beyond recognition. Of course, understanding Silicon Valley as a Trojan horse for right-wing technocrats illustrates how easily conspiracy-mongering can teeter over into credulity—something Lepore demonstrates when she dismisses Alger Hiss’s treason as merely “military” rather than “political” (the same thing might be said about Benedict Arnold), wails for a dozen pages about Joe McCarthy but says nothing about the Rosenbergs, and attributes the prosperity of the post-World War II years to “the growing power of the state.” It does not help that Lepore also trips heavily over several impossibilities: placing Midway (the site of the vital 1942 naval battle) in the Hawaiian islands, running Lincoln against Stephen Douglas in 1854, escorting FDR and Winston Churchill to the Yalta conference with “six fighter jets.” Caveant commentatores.
At least Lepore is evenhanded in dispensing disdain, especially for Bill Clinton (“he had, all his life, the face of a boy.... And yet he was, all along, a rascal”) and for intersectionality with its “politics of grievance and contempt.” All Republicans are down, but so are most Democrats. If she finds any saints at all among this congregation of the unrighteous, they are Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama, whose “soaring storytelling about the nation’s long march to freedom and equality” was, alas!, sabotaged by a “foreign policy” that “looked aimless and haphazard and tentative.”
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Both McClay and Lepore illustrate in different ways the difficulties that lie in the path of fashioning a worthwhile national story. But there are other difficulties, too, of a more practical nature. Starting with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, the time allotted to any history instruction in American schools has been shrinking, sometimes to the vanishing point. Overall, in the first five years of NCLB, the Center on Education Policy reported that 71% of the nation’s 15,000 school districts reduced the instructional time spent on history, music, and other subjects in order to double down on reading and math. By 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 18% of American eighth-graders could be considered “proficient” in American history. Similarly, since 2011, the numbers of history majors in American colleges and universities has declined by a staggering 33%. According to Benjamin Schmidt of Northeastern University, who analyzed this decline for the American Historical Association, “Students and their parents seem to be thinking a lot more that they need to major in something practical,” and “history, humanities, English, and philosophy are not those practical majors.”
The legions of the Left who populate the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, and who rigorously ensure that no conservatives will sit on steering committees or occupy leadership posts, are not likely to be of much help in addressing Lepore’s and McClay’s dismay. They have shown little inventiveness in addressing the evaporation of history in the schools. But conservatives, whose intellectual torque has tended overwhelmingly toward political science and economics, have not shown themselves to be much of a resource, either. Without a vision, the people perish, and that is especially true of a historical vision. Where, apart from Wilfred McClay and the small cadre of conservatives that dot the historical profession, are the historians ready to restore that vision?