Still sometimes a great nation

A rich portrait of a country at the crossroads offers Richard King a sense of where it might be headed

October 30, 2008

The United States has been lucky in its foreign analysts. From Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s to Max Weber in the early 20th century and on to Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s, much of the significant work on America as a whole has come from non-Americans. With The American Future: A History, historian Simon Schama, a native of Britain based at Columbia University, makes a bid for membership of this formidable group.

Schama is no ordinary historian. Over a long career, he has turned out work on the history of the Netherlands, Israel, France, Britain and, most recently, the United States. He also has several accomplished works of art history and criticism to his credit. In evoking and analysing aspects of America's cultural, social and political history - but regrettably omitting its art history - Schama once again shows the remarkable range of his concerns.

His "Prologue: Iowa Waltz", a 22-page, first-person account of voting night in the Iowa primary in January 2008, wonderfully captures the spirit of those mysterious exercises in American democracy, the party caucuses. Near the end, the purpose behind Schama's book becomes clear when he tells us that he has been concerned with whether the US would successfully complete "the latest act of self-transformation". More generally, The American Future is Schama's attempt to understand where the America of Barack Obama - not John McCain - comes from and where it might be heading.

Schama is no "one thing after another" narrative historian. Shifting between past and present and between a first- and third-person narrative voice, he organises his book around four themes: "American War", "American Fervor", "What is an American?" and "American Plenty". Why he chooses these particular themes and whether any one of them is more important than the other remains unclear. Schama structures each section in turn around the opposing tendencies in each of these areas. The first section advances Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to represent the two ways America has thought about the purposes of war. For Jefferson, the US Military Academy was designed to turn out armed engineers rather than an elite warrior class, while Hamilton saw war as the means to expand empire and power.

"American Fervor" deals with American religious expression, from Roger Williams in Rhode Island to Fanny Lou Hamer in 1960s Mississippi. It also contrasts the Williams-Jefferson emphasis on the separation of Church and State with the John Winthrop-John Adams tradition of encouraging the intimate link between religious morality and political power. Along the way, he visits a Primitive Baptist Church in rural Virginia and a suburban mega-church north of Atlanta, while also noting the relatively cordial welcome the US has generally shown to European Jewry.

But when it comes to American ethnicity and the centrality of land in the American psyche - the material covered in the last two sections - the mood becomes darker, the vision more sombre. Their history is not a pretty sight. If Jews have been relatively well treated and Catholics gradually accepted, the treatment, for instance, of Chinese migrant and indentured labour in the West, the racist attitudes of white Protestant ranchers and farmers along the Rio Grande in the 1830s and 1840s, and the actions of President Andrew Jackson that led to the forced relocation of Native Americans - the Trail of Tears - were simply disgraceful. The "dream of American plenty for the ordinary man", claims Schama, came at the expense of "tens of thousands of Indians", who were misled by their friends and traduced by their foes. Indian removal from the southeast United States was "one of the morally most repugnant moments in American history".

There are few heroes in either of the last two sections. The Frenchman J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur is shown playing a large, if complex, part in advocating the vision of an ethnically diverse America, while an almost unknown white man, Fred Bee, valiantly defended Chinese workers in the West, and Jane Abbott and Grace Abbott were friends of the "new" immigrants in Chicago around the turn of the century. Villains are thick on the ground, but two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and especially Andrew Jackson, brought particular dishonour to the presidential office itself.

"After this what forgiveness?" To his credit Schama never tries to explain away this unseemly history; rather, he tends to look to the future to help redeem the soul of America - hence the promise of Barack Obama. Having tried to escape history, the people of the United States now find that history has caught up with them. As a work of popular history, The American Future has a lot going for it. For one thing, anything by Schama will be told in a lively, if occasionally overheated, fashion. He is at his best with the broad generalisations and the engaging profiles of unknown or barely known American figures such as the first Quartermaster-General of the US, Montgomery Meigs, who loved the Union, hated Robert E. Lee and was responsible for keeping the vast Union Army supplied during the Civil War.

But Schama's grasp of American political history can be shaky (the Mississippi delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention were not "yellow-dog Democrats" but the opposite) and his geographical knowledge lets him down when he says that eastern Georgia borders on Alabama. He often conflates the separation of Church and State with the separation of religion and politics, although the latter does not follow, constitutionally, from the former. That said, his treatment of American religion is broadly sympathetic and a powerful rebuke to the ignorance of Europeans about the role of religion in US history and in history generally.

Finally, for all its appealing strengths, The American Future lacks an organising thesis or principle that both encompasses and focuses the diverse material he offers for our consideration. There is no Toquevillean focus on the meaning of "democracy"; no Myrdalian "American creed" to mobilise anti-racist sentiment; no "Protestant ethic" to explain American productivity. Still, Schama's The American Future creates for us a rich and textured vision of a country that has found it difficult to decide whether it wants to fulfil the promise of becoming a great nation rather than just being a large and powerful one.

The American Future: A History

By Simon Schama

Bodley Head, 400pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781847920003

Published 2 October 2008

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