WE OFTEN HEAR that today's historians are smothering history beneath a massive load of quantitative studies, dull monographs and the trivia of social history. Where, the lament goes, are the modern Bancrofts, Parkmans, Turners, and Morisons whose absorbing volumes will draw the present generation of Americans toward an understanding of their historical heritage?

James MacGregor Burns, a political scientist noted for his biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, may go far toward satisfying this demand with his projected three-volume The American Experiment. This first volume demonstrates not only that Burns is a masterful literary craftsman but that he has a comprehensive knowledge of American political history. His conclusions are frequently controversial but never pedantic and always intriguing.

Covering the period 1787 to 1863, The Vineyard of Liberty offers a brilliant, though highly personal, interpretation of the American attempt to preserve liberty, which for the Revolutionary generation had become "the supreme end of government." Liberty had many different meanings and applications. It included not only the cherished liberties of the Bill of Rights but also the liberty to take and exploit Indian land, to enslave Africans, and to deny women their political, legal, and economic rights. Burns concludes that "inequality in the American republic in its first seventy years had simply been constant." For example, John Randolph of Roanoke could say in the 1790s, "I love liberty, and I hate equality," just as Lincoln could announce in 1858, the Negro "is not my equal in many respects." Neither the Jacksonians, professing a belief in liberty and equality, nor the Whigs, stressing ordered liberty, found sufficient agreement among themselves to provide intellectual leadership for a nation that was seeking to work out the meaning of its libertarian heritage.

Given such ideological ambivalence, the problem of leadership for the infant republic became crucial. Much of The Vineyard develops in larger historical dimension the thesis that Burns advanced in his 1963 work, The Deadlock of Democracy. In both books he contrasts the Madisonian, or constitutional, system of checks and balances and countervailing interests, which "forces leaders to govern by coalition, compromise, and consensus," with the Jeffersonian system of centralized party government headed by a strong president free to govern "vigorously and expeditiously."

The Vineyard examines the leadership of each president from Washington to Lincoln and of selected leaders at other levels including "grassroots activists." The essence of the governmental system lay in "balances, adjustment, and compromise." It was sufficiently flexible to provide moments of presidential power, as when Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory, when Jackson crushed the tariff revolt of South Carolina, or Polk made war on Mexico. But the system fell apart in the 1850s under the burden of the conflicting ideologies of the "urbanizing, industrializing, modernizing" North and the states-rightist, slave-holding South.

The perceptive reader may well finish this first volume with the expectation that the completed American Experiment will turn into a gigantic tract for the times, that volume 3 will conclude with an eloquent description of Jimmy Carter's failures and a plea for democracy to save itself by modernizing the political system to make possible effective leadership. Even so, The Vineyard is first- rate narrative and seems certain to become one of the most widely read historical works of the 1980s. More successfully than any other major modern American history, it combines serious analysis with unforgettable descriptive passages.

The publisher announces that this work will be a major history of the United States. Indeed, the popularity of the The Vineyard is certain--it is already a selection of two book clubs--but consequently its few weaknesses may be overlooked. Burns and no one else can fully comprehend the American political system by beginning with Shays's Rebellion of 1786 and the Constitutional Convention of the following year. The men, ideas, and institutions of the new nation were shaped by the colonial experience and would have been embodied in any governmental structure developed by Americans. A close study of colonial politics and the state governments formed during the Revolution casts doubt on the tendency of Burns (and political scientists in general) to jump to the conclusion that the nation was saved from chaos and disintegration only because James Madison "did gallop across the New Jersey flatlands in 1787 to take the lead in confronting and resolving, for a time at least, the dilemma of 'liberty versus order.'" Because it neglects the colonial period, The Vineyard is a seriously truncated study.

Burns is abreast of much of the recent work on American social history, but he is far more successful in integrating economic than social developments into his narrative. Much of the social history is encapsulated in separate sections at some distance from political events of the same period. Burns seems particularly insensitive to religious influences. For instance, he has nothing to say concerning the large Baptist contribution to the separation of church and state, nor does he relate revivalistic fervor to the War of 1812. He seems far more at home with the relatively few Unitarians and Transcendentalists than with the evangelicals and Catholics, who made up the great majority of the population.

Writing from a somewhat present-day point of view and making national politics the center of the American story, Burns skews the historical record toward his own interpretations. But in so doing, he has produced a remarkably readable volume that calls Americans back to the oft-forgotten truth that the past imprisons the present.