Book: Freedom Just Around the Corner
Walter A. McDougall
Monday, April 26, 2004; 11:00 AM
In his new book, "Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828," the first volume of his new trilogy, Pulitzer Prize winning author Walter A. McDougall describes the United States as "the central event of the past four hundred years." McDougall goes on to show that with their historically unequaled freedom American's found numerous ways to satisfy their desires - both good and bad.
McDougall discussed the book, American history and his vision of the American character.
The transcript follows.
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Walter A. McDougall : Greetings! This is Walter A. McDougall on-line. My sincere thanks to TheWashingtonPost.com for this opportunity to connect with readers. If this chat intrigues, offends, or otherwise interests any of you in the D.C. area, I invite you to visit Olsson's Book Store at 418 Seventh Street, N.W., tomorrow (Tuesday) at 7:00 PM. I'll be doing a reading and signing. Now to your questions....
When do you expect the next two books of this series to come out? Have you been happy with the reviews?
Walter A. McDougall : Some of you may have read the front page review in the Sunday NY Times on March 29. I could not have asked for a better review from the most distinguished American colonial historian: Gordon Wood. I also received a rave from a noted women's historian in Newsday. Strangely, the Washington Post itself has not yet run its review.
If I may tease Professor Wood a little, however, I think his review does the same thing he says I do in the book, which is over-emphasize the theme of Americans as "hustlers". Yes, I certainly do stress our "hustling" character in both the positive and negative senses of the word. But that is only one major theme among many, including the role of geography, demography, Protestant spirituality, technology, the Scottish Enlightenment, etc.
I am scheduled to take a sabbatical in 2005 to do most of the work on Volume 2, which will go up in 1932. Then, if I live so long, Volume 3 will appear several years after that.
I wonder, why stop at 1828? I understand this is part of a trilogy, and you will get to 1829 and beyond, but do you see a sea change in America at that date?
Walter A. McDougall : I'll tell you why. This was originally supposed to be a one-volume history of the American people from the beginning to the present -- similar to Paul Johnson's book a few years ago. But I grew so fascinated with the colonial era and founding era of the USA that by the time I had written 500 pages I was only up to the early 1800s! So the published agreed to make it a 3-volume project. I decided on 1828 as the break-point for several reasons. The last of the Founders died in 1826 (save for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, only Catholic signer of Declaration of Independence), the first major railroad was begun in 1827, and the election of Andy Jackson in 1828 sort of completed the maturation of American politics, setting the template for the whole ante-bellum era to follow: "Jacksonian Democracy" (or "white man's democracy" as it's been called), hard money, cheap land, and sectional strife.
I have read a review of your book which fleetingly mentions a passage about the Salem witch trials being a "war scare." Can you explain? This is not a take I have heard about.
Walter A. McDougall : Of course, the Salem witch craze was multi-faceted, with religion, gender relations, adolescent psychology, and much else playing a part. But I asked why this craze occurred precisely where and when it did, and placed it in context. After the Glorious Revolution in England (1688), the Catholic Stuarts were expelled and William and Mary launched a war against Catholic France (Louis XIV) with one purpose being the conquest of all North America. New England embraced that cause and even tried to invade Canada. Meanwhile, there was no clear govt in Boston because James II had revoked the colonial charters only to be ousted himself. Hence, when the invasion of Quebec aborted, French and Indian allies threatened Massachhusetts with invasion at the very time the colony had no clear authority. The result was panic, especially when several of the accused "witches" spoke of meeting not only the Devil, but French and Indians in the woods to plot the ruin of New England! Cotton Mather himself bought that for a time, but at length persuaded the new governor, when he arrived, that the witch trials were a travesty.
Who do you consider to be the most important creators of this nation?
Walter A. McDougall : There are so many, and one of my tasks in the book is to give proper attention to some who have been ignored. Such as John Winthrop, Jr. (not the City on the Hill father), who did more than anyone to hasten the growth of New England (also was godfather of Connecticut), or Henry Hugh Brackenridge, our first great satirist of the American character (and outstanding jurist), or James Wilson, the Scottish-born lawyer who brokered the Constitutional Convention, or Hugh Williamson, the doctor/statesman who saved the Convention in its big/small state crisis, or women such as Eliza Pinckney, Catherine Littlefield Creene (wife of Nathanael), and Anne Newport Royall. But if I had to pick just a few names as "most important" they would surely include Washington, Washington, and Washington. Which reminds me: Washington was a prominent Freemason, as were many of the Founders. Washington, DC, is a Freemason-designed city.
Falls Church, VA:
Does your thesis that the founding of the U.S. is perhaps the most significant event of the past half century, justify this notion of American exceptionalism which seems to drive our Utopian foreign policy types to "seek out monsters," to quote John Quincy Adams, our greatest Secretary of State?
Walter A. McDougall : Gordon Wood praised my willingness to speak of an American national character. I guess you're not supposed to do that anymore. In fact, I argue in one sense that there is no strictly "American character": rather the conditions of liberty in America merely allowed the human nature common to all people flourish and express it in the most complete way, the good, bad, and ugly alike. But in another sense Americans certainly have -- or had -- a distinctive character born of their origins. Those origins were the four British cultures that dominated the 13 colonies (here I follow David Hackett Fisher): the Puritans, the Quakers, the "Cavaliers" (Virginia planters), and the wild Bordermen or Scots-Irish. The ways in which they learned to tolerate their differences and join in a common cause so that (in John Adams' words) "thirteen clocks were made to strike as one" were truly *exceptional*.
On going abroad (or NOT going abroad) in search of monsters to destroy, see my previous book "Promised Land, Crusader State: the American Encounter With the World Since 1776." It argues that the sort of global crusading begun with the Spanish American War and Woodrow Wilson in WW1, and clearly in evidence today in the Middle East, was heresy to American leaders during our nation's first century. But the missionary spirit, religious, material, and political, has always been present in America's self-image. It is that notion that America is a Promised Land, guided by Providence, and destined to lead the whole human race to a sort of Millennium. It is a very powerful myth. Also a very dangerous one.
Would you say one of the great American ideals was that we learned to settle religious differences peacefully? Instead of going to battle over theological differences, my hometown is a perfect example of the new American way. When part of the community disagreed with the town's dominant religious teachings, they left to form Lyme, N.H. or to form Lyme, Ohio. Under the old European example, they would have taken up arms.
Walter A. McDougall : The American experiment in "free exercise of religion" is indeed one of the most important sources of what made America exceptional, at least in the 18th and 19th centuries (Europe eventually drifted into tolerance as faith itself declined there). I cite Bob Dylan's line: "I heard the Sermon on the Mount and knew it was too complex. It didn't amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects." That is a stunning poetic inversion, because of course the Sermon on the Mount is chilling in its *simplicity*, whereas the reflections of a broken glass are wild and kaleidoscopic. So are the effects of religious liberty in America: effects that are pyschological, social, economic, and political as well as spiritual. Robert Fogel of Univ of Chicago has traced all America's great reform movements to religious revivals or "Great Awakenings." I think he exaggerates somewhat, but the first revival in the 1730-40s did help sow the seeds for independence from Britain, the second in the 1830-40s certainly drove the abolitionist movement, and the third from around 1880-1920 inspired the Social Gospel, Progressive Era reforms, and (I must say) that crusading foreign policy culminating in Woodrow Wilson.
Bunker Hill, Mass.:
Hello! Trying to thumbnail the American character is a daunting task. I bet if you asked for opinions in 12 different countries, you'd get at least 10 contrasting descriptions. In my opinion much of what I consider the American spirit has gradually died away with the elimination of frontier opportunity (more people, rules, regulations). As we become more homogenized and conformist, it's less common to see the inherent distrust of authority and strident individualism of the 'you ain't gonna tell me what to do' attitude. There seems to be less individual and more state in our character. Your thoughts... thanks.
Walter A. McDougall : A great question, especially from Bunker Hill, Mass.!
Yes, I agree that the American character (or characteristics) discernible in our early history seem much less in evidence today, and for the reasons you describe. Ironically, the groundwork for homogenization and conformity was laid by Chief Justice John Marshall. He would abhor the activist courts and all-powerful federal govt of today, yet his decisions reining in state govts and forging a unified national marketplace made possible the later triumph of massive national and multi-national corporations that plow under (i.e., drive out of business) family and local firms, stoke our appetites, and supply the uniform gruel to satisfy those manufactured appetites. Hence McDonald's, Disney, Microsoft, CNN/Time/Warner, etc., etc. Americans have always been expert at being fooled and fooling themselves in order "to feel good about doing well." But they also displayed that "git offa mah propitty" and "damn your eyes" attitude toward any authority trying to tell them what to do or believe. We are now, far more often, a nation of sheep rather than shepherds.
Long Beach, Calif.:
This discussion is predicated on your statement that the "united states" is the central event of the last four hundred years. Is this view held internationally, or
is it your personal observation?
It sounds a bit egocentric, don't you think?
Obviously, the freedom to perpetrate genocide on the natives, and to essentially
ruin a pristine continent is freedom perverted to epic proportion. When one takes
into account our "human rights" record of the last 50 years, and our status as the #1
arms dealer and resource glutton on planet
earth, the very word "freedom" takes on sinister connotations, don't you think?
I'm sure you touch on the duality of
freedom in your book. What is it about the
American view of freedom that strikes you as
>being the most dangerous quality?
Thanks and good luck on the book!
Walter A. McDougall : Right. I did not say the emergence of the USA was the "best" or "most glorious" or "most promising" event of the past 400 years, merely that it was the central event. The point being, a time-traveler from around 1600 would recognize much today about Japan, China, India, Russia, Europe, Latin America. But s/he would be astounded to observe North America, which was a wilderness sparsely populated by neolithic tribes c. 1600 but today hosts the most dynamic, powerful, and rich civilization in history.
One of my primary goals when beginning this project was precisely *not* to celebrate the rise of America or to condemn it for such reasons as you suggest. I wanted to be as objective as possible about how and why this USA came to be and why it evolved as it did. There is much to be proud and ashamed of in the story, but first the narrative must be constructed without reference to emotions. I argue that the American colonies were founded on the basis of 4 English spirits of the 17th-18th centuries: rural capitalism with its "improvement ethic", fierce Protestant anti-Catholicism, England's geopolitical/imperial rivalry with Spain and France, and the belief (justified by none other than John Locke) that productive people had a right to push unproductive ones (e.g., Irish and Indians)off the land. Those 4 spirits explain a good deal about why Americans could often plunderers and yet be righteous about their plundering!
Who are the preeminent villains of early America? We always hear about the heroes, but who are the scoundrels?
Walter A. McDougall : Who are the scoundrels! Anyone who DARES interfere with our pursuit of happiness! Americans pretty much want to be left alone and to leave others alone so we can do business and pursue our dreams. Americans will put up with a lot before getting aroused. But once Americans conclude their dreams, their futures, their Manifest Destiny are in danger from an enemy, foreign or domestic, they react with ferocious, impatient violence.
So were the villains of early America, besides the Catholic French and Spanish, hostile Indians, and later George III and Parliament? The answer would be anyone who refused to embrace the majority view of America's destiny, especially Tories. Read Tom Paine's Common Sense closely and you'll be struck by the explicit threats he delivers to all those who would shrink from declaring independence, much less oppose America's "glorious cause." The WE -- we patriots --are determined to "start the world over again," and to achieve it WE will "get" any of THEM who dare stand in our way. Self-righteous? Sure, but the myth of America's special Providence was a mighty glue for a disparate people and a mighty goad to the nation's growth and development. The Civil War happened because northern Whigs, then Republicans, believed slave labor and the slavocracy were choking the nation's growth, whatever their moral shortcomings. The paranoid South seceded, smashing the Union and imperilling all Americans' futures. That was the "sin against the Holy Ghost" in terms of our *Civil* Religion.
The introduction to this discussion contains a grammatical error --How much of an undertaking is a three volume history of the America?! I don't envy the task. Were you reluctant to start this job?
Walter A. McDougall : Was I reluctant to start this immense task? You bet I was! The publisher wanted a new, fresh, lively, but academically solid American history, and a brilliant editor and author himself, Steve Fraser, recommended they ask me. So it wasn't my idea to do this, and I agonized, contemplated, and prayed over the decision for months. At length I was persuaded, or persuaded myself, that I might indeed have much new to say about the sweep of American history: new perspectives, themes, and subjects not already chewed over in the vast existing literature. I stumbled on to the theme of Americans as "hustlers" in the course of my research. But I set out with the intention of, for instance: stressing *all* regions of the country such as the Middle West, Deep South, and Mountain West, which usually get short shrift; stressing *all* immigrant groups that helped build America, especially European ethnics such as the Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews; stressing the tools that made America the highest-tech country, from the tobacco and cotton plantations to the Erie Canal and the birth of American engineering, to the railroads (and horse-breeeding!), to the chemical and metallurgical industries; stressing the plethora of religious communities that flourished under conditions of liberty, including the Mormons, Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and mainline denominations; and so on. So the answer is: yes, it's one heck of an undertaking. It's like being "pregnant" for 3 years before giving birth, and then getting "pregnant" twice more after that! But I learn *so much* myself ... and have a lot of fun doing it, too.
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