Balance sheet of stars and gripes

A History of the American People
March 20, 1998

Paul Johnson's strengths and weaknesses as a writer are well known and vividly on display in his latest blockbuster. He writes simple narrative with the same facility as 19th-century writers of adventure stories for boys. If the history of colonial America and the United States could be told as a ripping yarn in the manner of G. H. Henty, A History of the American People would be an unequivocal success. But what Johnson has no taste for is complexity. As a result, the book turns out to be something closer to yet another of Johnson's Thatcherite tracts. It is a tract lavishly illustrated from American history, but for all that it remains a work animated less by the historian's wish to understand a complicated story than by the polemicist's urge to score debating points.

Indeed, it is a puzzle to know who will read it. It is too cluttered with commentary and too long to provide the simple introductory text the beginner needs, but it is hard to imagine anyone other than the beginner taking it seriously as a work of history.

The fact that Johnson approves of the US - to the extent that it has been a capitalist, liberal, democratic state for longer than any other - does not, of course, mean he fails to acknowledge the existence of such obvious evils as plantation slavery. The sensitive may think that "the dispossession of an indigenous people" is rather too anodyne as a description of the near-genocide of the native American population. But Johnson writes as though what is at stake is at worst a matter of balancing the good bits of American history against the bad bits - the rule of law good versus "the sweat and pain of an enslaved race" bad. The balancing image is his own, but exactly how he thinks the question should be posed is less than clear. What he writes is: "In the judgmental scales of history, such grievous wrongs must be balanced by the erection of a society dedicated to justice and fairness. Has the United States done this? Has it expiated its organic sins?" Yet the thought that the sins might be organic is just what Johnson resists. He says in his preface: "I have not bowed to current nostrums about nomenclature or accepted the fly-blown philacteries of political correctness", which is, I take it, another way of saying he rejects any suggestion that slavery and genocide are inextricably implicated in the history of America, or that the things he admires - as most of us do - such as the reckless boldness of the first explorers beyond the Appalachians were part and parcel of a temperament that would exploit blacks and Indians as ruthlessly as they exploited raw nature. To say as much is hardly to insult the colonists and explorers. Aside from Enlightenment writers who ascribed an unusual, implausible, innocence to the Huron or whomever by way of a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the absurdity of civilised life, there was little, even in educated opinion, to restrain anyone who felt the native inhabitants were at best children and at worst dangerous savages.

Johnson does something to deflect such thoughts by suggesting that slavery was somewhat alien even to the planters of Virginia, let alone to the puritan farmers of New England. It is true enough, as he insists, that it was sugar rather than tobacco or cotton that brought slavery to the New World, and that it was the Portuguese who institutionalised plantation slavery years earlier, when they began large-scale sugar production in Madeira and off the African coast. Still, it cannot be said that the British settlers who resorted to the use of slaves to grow tobacco as early as 1619 showed any reluctance about it. Nor, contrary to our later beliefs, is there anything particularly surprising about the conjunction of slave-owning and a more general commitment to fairness and a large measure of equality. There have been democracies in the past where slavery was taken for granted; Athenian democracy may or may not have been possible in the absence of slavery, but almost nobody in Athens suggested slavery was incompatible with democracy.

The Roman republic took the rights of citizens seriously; but one of the things that gave a citizen's freedom its value was the contrast between his freedom and the slave's servitude. The defenders of southern slavery also knew that one of their stronger cards was the claim that any free man in the south was better off, and enjoyed a higher social standing than workers and farm labourers in the north. Lincoln was cautious about emancipation precisely because he knew that he could carry the northern states with him on the question of maintaining the Union, but until late in the civil war doubted whether he could carry them on the abstract principle of emancipation. The New York draft riots suggested he was right to be anxious.

Johnson's antipathy to political correctness makes A History of the American People an oddly old-fashioned book. The very fact that Johnson has so little interest in America before the arrival of British settlers nowadays strikes an odd note. Writers have come to take seriously the fact that North America was not entirely empty when the settlers arrived, and it is not mere sentimentality to do so. Johnson pauses long enough to notice that the first settlers in New England learned what crops to grow from their Indian neighbours, but when he remarks that the settlers found the place conveniently empty because so many Indians had died of smallpox, he does not wonder where they had caught it.

Once under way the story rattles along at a good pace, and all the usual people and places are visited. When it comes to the revolution, Johnson's contempt for political correctness leads him to underestimate Tom Paine - whom he treats as a propagandist of near-genius, but as anything but a serious political theorist. But the well-read and intelligent readers of Common Sense plainly were moved by Paine to see that the logic of their revolt against British authority had only one possible destination. Still, Johnson does not wish to suggest that the American revolution was nothing better than a misconceived rebellion against a lawful colonial government; at best the British government was needlessly unintelligent about a country of which its ministers knew next to nothing. Whether it would have been wise of them to undertake a five-month trip across the North Atlantic to inform themselves in person is another matter.

What will disconcert most moderately well-read readers is Johnson's view of industrial America. Although he may be right to suggest that the "robber barons" of the late 19th century were not as corrupt as they have been painted - a view that depends a good deal on whether one approves of the practice of hiring private militias or that of sacking workers and replacing them with immigrants fresh off the boat whenever trouble broke out. Johnson seems to think that the workers, or perhaps agitators, started the trouble, either by firing on the Pinkertons, as during the Homestead Strike in 1892, or more generally by not holding the sort of strike ballots that Mrs Thatcher introduced to this country. Given the readiness of Samuel Gompers to cooperate with any owner who was willing to pay half-way decent wages, that is something less than an even-handed view.

Again, Johnson complains, and rightly, that the American left used the trial and execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti for their own propaganda purposes even when they were more than half persuaded that Sacco and Vanzetti had indeed committed the murder for which they were tried. What he does not mention is that American anarchists had long memories, and remembered that after the Haymarket riot of 1886 eight of their leaders had been sentenced to death after a rigged trial before a packed jury, and that three of them had been hanged. The idea that the rule of law in the US was as impressive in reality as it surely is in aspiration is not one a historian would take on trust. Johnson's judgements on the recent past can be left for his readers to enjoy. The flavour is nicely conveyed at the top of his final pages, where his running headers include "judicial aggression and the litigational society", leading seamlessly on to "the sinister legacy of Myrdal" and "language, abortion, and crime".

But one ought not to end on a grumpy note. There are some very good patches - the set-piece account of the growth of New York and Chicago is especially nice - and very few dull ones. Not everything that passes for history ought to be held to Ranke's austere standards.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.

A History of the American People

Author - Paul Johnson
ISBN - 0 297 81569 5
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 923

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