FREEDOM JUST AROUND THE CORNER
A New American History, 1585-1828
By Walter A. McDougall. HarperCollins. 638 pp. $29.95
Scholars of American history often have in mind some kind of archetype as they try to explain what makes Americans unique. For a Henry Steele Commager, the contemporary version might be a progressive reformer like Mario Cuomo. For Walter McDougall, it might well be Donald Trump.
McDougall is a professor of history who specializes in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. The most luminous of his earlier volumes was The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. That brilliant and iconoclastic book was a showcase for McDougall's many strengths as a historian, starting with vast reading, a sure sense of the importance of his material and a deep understanding of American art and literature and their relationship to politics, economics and science.
Those qualities are on similar display in his latest work, the first of a planned three-volume American history. In it, McDougall complains that earlier U.S. histories "display little appreciation (much less forgiveness) of the flawed human nature that makes Americans unexceptional. Perhaps that is why our great national narratives contain so little humor: whether they extol or condemn the American experience, they take it terribly seriously."
By contrast, McDougall focuses on what he calls "the American people's penchant for hustling." Among the heroes in this book are Cornelius Vanderbilt, "a true American hustler," and Sir Edwin Sandys, who managed to get British men and women to take a chance by coming to 17th-century Virginia. "It is tempting to name Sandys yet another archetypal American since he believed in popular sovereignty, representative government and social equality," McDougall writes. "But he was really an English businessman who happened to understand better than his fellow investors the company must give colonists a serious stake in their enterprise. His most effective political theory was 'What's in it for me?' " The result: "a largely autonomous civil society in which every free subject, not just the 'sirs,' might make it big through hustle and luck."
When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, many assumed that Americans would be so grateful for their hard-won liberty that they would treat their fellow citizens more kindly and nobly than the selfish inhabitants of Europe had. But by the time the Constitution was written 11 years later, the framers had accumulated enough examples of self-seeking and lawlessness to make them anxious to ensure that one ambition would counteract another. McDougall is happy to strip the Miracle at Philadelphia of its romance. He describes how "shenanigans, log-rolling and personalities aside. . . fifty-five men representing a plethora of interests in a convention of dubious provenance succeeded" in drafting the famous document. Throughout this book, he revisits the ways in which Americans managed to feel happy about their own self-promotion and striving -- not least through "a uniquely American brand of Protestantism that . . . sanctified commerce, that freed people to choose whatever faith helped them feel good about doing well."
When McDougall deals with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, it is no surprise who gets better treatment. The author says that when Hamilton expressed his view in 1791 that aristocracy "kept the hands of the people ('a great beast') off the machinery of government, while corruption greased its gears," he had "indeed sinned, but his sin was truth-telling about the way all governments work. Jefferson was no less a hustler for power, but he scorned such straight talk and told people what they wanted to hear." McDougall concludes that, after two terms as president, Jefferson had done "serious harm to the Union."
McDougall is fascinated by the early Americans as "hustlers" -- a term he uses repeatedly -- and he shows himself well aware that hustling did not always make this a better country, which is demonstrated in his treatment, for instance, of slavery, tobacco and what happened to the Native Americans. And while hustling is the dominant theme here, it is by far not the only one. McDougall draws on Mark Twain, Willa Cather and Kris Kristofferson to show how the American character has made it into myth and song. His reveals the economic underpinnings of political actions that political historians often miss. He pays close attention to the unusual characteristics that distinguished American subcultures, such as the states that entered the Union after the original 13 and the ethnic groups that flowed into the new land.
So original is McDougall's approach that you can read any five pages of this book and feel that you are encountering the American story through fresh eyes. This quality will make the volume compelling even to those who may not feel that the joys and dangers of hustling are the most important thing to know about early American history. *
Michael Beschloss's latest book is "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945."