Commentary Magazine

In Paul Johnson's America

How can we explain the United States? How, that is, can we explain a nation that from its inception until today has remained unique in the world—a nation that is exceptional in its claims about individual freedom and in its restrictions on government power; that has committed profound injustices but has largely risen above them; and that gives ordinary people extraordinary influence over government while keeping government devoted to a cause greater than the summation of their personal preferences? How, in short, does a nation become a human cause, so much so that its very name can be invoked as a slogan: “Americanism?”

“The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures,” writes the eminent British author Paul Johnson, and in his new book, A History of the American People1 he attempts to explain why. This is hardly the first ambitious project Johnson has undertaken; his previous “big” books include not only Modern Times and The Birth of the Modern but full-scale histories of Christianity and of the Jews. But A History of the American People, quite apart from its scope, is a welcome and peculiarly timely reflection on the riddle of this “greatest of all human adventures.”

The answer Johnson provides is not simple or easily summarized. Of course, for many people reading this book, any explanation at all would be superfluous. Men seeking gold landed on an unknown shore, started some colonial governments as theocratic autocracies, used other settlements as places to house transported English prisoners, moved and despoiled the Indians already living here, and claimed to fight a revolution in the name of personal freedom while keeping 600,000 slaves. Preoccupied with the ills of America, such readers will compare Johnson’s account of heroes and villains with their own preconceptions, objecting—inevitably—to the myths he fails to puncture and the mischief he refuses to discuss. And they will seize triumphantly on his errors of fact.

There are plenty of those. Contrary to Johnson, the Constitution does not confer “awesome powers” on the President. Kansas cattle towns did not grow up because they were on the railroad, they grew up because eastern Kansas refused to accept disease-bearing Texas cattle. Prohibition did not increase alcohol consumption, it lowered it. San Francisco was originally called Yerba Buena, not “Yerba Buer.” Boulder Dam is on the Colorado, not the Columbia, river. Ragtime music was not fast, but, as written by Scott Joplin, quite slow. Alfred Sloan did not have an “e” at the end of his last name. We have a National Association (not a Federation) of Manufacturers, a Joint (not a Combined) Chiefs of Staff, and an Internal Revenue Service (not a Bureau of Internal Revenue). Scholars and others know that Alfred Kinsey was wrong about the sexual practices of Americans. The Santa Ynez mountains are in southern California, not northwest of the whole state. The Columbia University law professor was Herbert Wechsler, not Washier.

ome readers and reviewers will pick over these and other nits in an effort to dismiss Johnson’s book. But they will be wrong. Whatever the trivial errors, Johnson gets the larger message quite correct as he tells us in these 1,000-plus pages how America became

huge and teeming, endlessly varied, multicolored and multiracial, immensely materialistic and overwhelmingly idealistic, ceaselessly innovative, thrusting, grabbing, buttonholing, noisy, questioning, anxious to do the right thing, to do good, to get rich, to make everybody happy.



The clues to how this came about are to be found early in our history. Johnson’s 100-page chapter on colonial America is in many ways the heart of the book. It deserves careful study, because most Americans mistakenly think our history began in 1776. In fact, it was not until after World War II that we could boast as many years of post-1776 history as pre-.

As everyone knows, the obvious attraction of America to Englishmen in the 17th century was that it offered free land to anyone able to cross the Atlantic. Though at that time there were more small, independent farm owners in England than in France or Spain, this lure of free land must have been overpowering. It created what Johnson calls a “huge, experimental theater of liberty.”

Why? In Latin America, too, land was free, or at least available to Europeans with guns and swords, but despite an equivalent influx, nothing faintly resembling America emerged there. To Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the United States in the early 19th century, the difference could be attributed to the mores and manners of Americans. But why did Americans have the mores and manners—what Tocqueville called the “habits of the heart”—to make self-government meaningful and economic growth inevitable? Johnson offers four main reasons.

First, English colonies in America had to be self-supporting. The English monarch, unlike the kings of France and Spain, supplied little or no money to overseas settlers, and so cash had to be raised locally by the colonists. Even American colonial governors, though appointed or approved by the crown, were with few exceptions not paid by it. This meant that their formal powers, though significant on paper, were in fact constrained by the need to raise their salaries from the people they ruled.

In other words, America had taxation with representation long before England tried to increase the former while diminishing the latter. By the time London, having changed its mind about colonial self-government, began to revoke the commercial and proprietary charters it had granted to the early colonists, American settlers had become quite accustomed to self-rule, and so all new British restrictions were resisted with mounting anger.

Second, this resistance was reinforced by the fact that many colonists had been given the rights of Englishmen—so that Virginia, for example, could form a representative government loosely based on the Westminster model. In time, every colony had some kind of council to advise (and pay!) the governor. Unlike the English model, however, the American councils were from the start empowered by written documents, of which the first examples were the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639).

Johnson is correct to note the extraordinary importance of such documents. Once government is defined in writing, its limits are also stated in writing, and against these limits people can claim rights. Even in Massachusetts, home of a theocratic regime headed for many years by the authoritarian John Winthrop, it was possible for the governor to be deposed by his followers—as Winthrop was.

Third, much of America was settled by families. Although this may strike the casual reader as an obvious point, it is not.

Men left England, France, Portugal, and Spain to go many places in search of fortunes; the women were mostly left at home. The weakness of such men-only communities becomes clear if we look at the Western cattle drives or the mid-19th-century California gold rush, both mostly male ventures. Wherever young, ambitious, and reckless men are sent to work, death, drunkenness, and violence ensue. When there are no women or children to be protected, government is hard to create, or if created hard to energize.

The conflict between cattle-drive cowboys and family-based farms is a constant theme of the Western movie, and (minus the cows) it could just as easily be the story of the early American colonies. Jamestown, in Virginia, was originally settled by men, and additional men were recruited by the offer of free land. But in time, of course, whole families did set out from England, as on the Mayflower and later on ships to Jamestown. During the 1630′s, 200 ships brought 20,000 Englishmen and Englishwomen to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When families arrived, the men had other things to worry about besides looking for treasure.

Fourth, many colonists came to America in response to two competing motives: religious freedom on the one hand, economic opportunity on the other. This was especially true in New England where, as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison would put it, the Yankees became “a race whose typical member is eternally torn between a passion for righteousness and a desire to get on in the world.”

That passion for righteousness provided a ground for both unity and dissension. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religion formed the basis of social and moral order and gave authority to some tough-minded rulers. The Calvinists had rejected Anglican England and its bishops, archbishops, and faintly Roman style of organized religion. Puritans (and later Baptists, Huguenots, and Methodists) were determined to create a truly religious community based on family life and self-governing churches. In early America, there were no Anglican bishops; every denomination was run by those who belonged to it, sometimes (as in Massachusetts) in a single church under a strong elected leader and sometimes (as in Rhode Island) in a welter of rival religious groups.

These settlers were all Protestants, but—as Johnson reminds us—Protestantism was a form of protest, and this could become an open invitation to dissent. Since Puritanism rested on the idea that the word of God could be directly understood by each religious person, religious and political leadership was always open to a challenge from the faithful.

No group of people of any size will long agree on everything, especially if what is at stake is the future of one’s soul. Soon dissent weakened the hold of religious leaders. In Massachusetts, the deposed John Winthrop later reclaimed the post of governor, only to lose it again two years later. In Rhode Island, Roger Williams could produce no single church; instead, he had to welcome many rivals.



What made it possible to sustain this level of dissent was that everyone knew that nearby, or just to the west, lay vast tracts of empty land, waiting for fresh settlers and their new ways of living. In this way, religion interacted with and was tempered by economic reality. But in economics, North and South diverged.

The farms created in the North tended to be built to the scale of a single family, with no more land under cultivation (as opposed to speculation) than could be worked by a husband, wife, and a few children. In the South, by contrast, different people and different conditions—land was cheaper there, and easier to work—led to a different economy. On large tracts of flat land, a cash crop of rice, tobacco, or cotton could be grown if people could be found to do the backbreaking work of cultivating it. Slaves provided that labor.

Almost every nation in the world has practiced slavery, but not all forms of it have been the same. The American style, Johnson suggests, was one of the worst, for unlike in England, where slaves were granted certain rights, or even Spain, where they were at least believed to possess souls, here they were bits of property. A chattel slave was one who had little hope of freedom, whose children would automatically become slaves as he was, and for whom the threat of discipline was held in check only by the discretion of the slaveholder and the need to protect an economic asset.

The Carolinas imported the habits of slavery early on, when people with experience in subtropical farming migrated there from the slaveholding West Indies, especially Barbados. Initially whites and blacks in the Carolinas worked more or less together in efforts at cutting timber, hunting fur-bearing animals, and raising cattle. But once rice became established as the cash crop, black life was reduced to misery while white life was elevated to plantation luxury or diverted to village idleness.

Tocqueville would brood over the consequences of this Southern arrangement, noting that “industrious Ohio” differed from nearby “idle Kentucky” because slavery existed on the latter’s side of the Ohio River. Among slaveholders, the institution created a class of people whom Tocqueville described as “without energy, without ardor, without a spirit of enterprise.” That was true up to a point, although his observation misses another important characteristic of life in a slave society.

White men who regarded physical labor as a lowly endeavor reserved for black slaves had to devote time and effort to avoiding being thought of as “white slaves.” This helped stimulate a hunger for honor that was almost as strong as the desire for wealth. Using force not only to keep blacks down but also to keep their own status among whites up, white Southerners engaged in a kind of violence that was constrained only poorly by government and not at all when the victims were black. To this day, rates of violent crime are higher in the South than in the North, even though migration has greatly reduced the social differences between the two regions.



But it was not just circumstance that made the South distinct from the North. Colonists also varied in the culture they brought to their respective regions. Johnson alludes to differences in migration patterns, but does not appear to have made much use of David Hackett Fischer’s magnificent study, Albions Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989).

The Puritans, for example, who came from the eastern counties of England, brought with them strong families, congregational churches, and some experience with political liberty. By contrast, the migration to Virginia involved men from Kent and Devon, steeped in hierarchy, manorial life, and the Anglican church, and more interested in wealth than in religion. As for the Quakers and Pietists who arrived in Pennsylvania, they hailed from the North Midlands where they had acquired a distinctive speech and an intense work ethic. Finally there were the migrants from the northern frontier of England, including the Scottish lowlands and parts of Ireland; their border culture had been shaped by centuries of fighting, a love of heroism, and extreme inequalities of wealth.

England, in short, was not a simple country with one culture. It was a collection of cultures, many of which were exported to America; and what the colonists brought with them may have been as important as what they found here. The combined effect—of culture and condition—shaped what America was to become.

That effect was extraordinarily powerful. Americans in the early 19th century had a unique nation, diverse in its several regional cultures but alike in the deference of all sides to the Constitution. All sides: even during the Civil War, the Confederacy produced, as its own constitution, a version of the 1787 document that was only slightly altered to accommodate states’ rights.

But could that deference endure if the nation was flooded with millions of immigrants from countries other than England and Ireland, all coming to fill up vast new tracts of land created by the Louisiana Purchase and the movement West? In the latter part of the 19th century, the pattern of immigration was vastly widened, and in the 20th it was widened still more. The welcome mat was out; until late in our history, anybody could arrive and become an American with scarcely any formalities.

Any other country might have been changed in its very essence as English colonists were replaced by German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Scandinavian, Asian, and Latin immigrants, all with their own motives, culture, and needs. But it did not happen here. The immigrants became more like America and less like their native countries. Even after free land largely had disappeared, American culture persisted. The ancient experience with congregational churches and a nonhierarchical religious order instilled in newcomers, too, a disposition for self-government. The world’s first written constitution gave to all a stake in finding, asserting, and acquiring rights (and a stake in hiring lawyers to do the work for them). The tradition of self-supporting government dependent on the good will of its constituents meant that every immigrant, whatever his native experience, would find here a government created by the people and bound by law to serve them.

These powerful cultural expectations were made more attractive still by the fact that in America there was virtually no army and certainly no conscription; no censorship and no political police; a government a fraction the size and wealth of any European rival; cheap land; and next to no taxes. Out of this combination of economic mobility, religious freedom, political opportunity, and popular sovereignty, Americanism was born.



The Industrial Revolution improved all of these circumstances while creating new problems of its own. Johnson lists several factors that produced faster industrial growth here than in most other countries: liberal patent laws (which made innovation easy), high labor costs (which made innovation necessary), standardization of machinery and an abundance of energy sources (which made innovation possible), and free interstate commerce (which made innovation profitable). I would add only the existence of a single market stretching 3,000 miles from shore to shore, a condition that Europe is only today managing to duplicate in part.

To develop that market required everything we now describe (and sometimes deplore) as marketing and salesmanship. These vocations were not the defect of our system, but an essential element of it.

In his treatment of industrialization, Johnson may irritate readers schooled in the old textbook saws about the American “robber barons.” True, he dislikes the barons Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, but only because they were unscrupulous. He likes Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, because they were scrupulous. John D. Rockefeller gets a mixed review; he manipulated railroad prices to suit Standard Oil, but in the process created a gigantic industrial empire that brought the price of oil (and later gasoline) down to a level that anyone could afford.

Like virtually every other student, I was taught in college that the bad things we associate with the age of the Industrial Revolution were so bad as to demonstrate the need for a strong government to restrain markets. But what Progressive (later, liberal) college history teachers forgot, and what Johnson understands, is that a weak government also has its advantages. That is the government America had, and it made good as well as bad things possible.

A strong government would not have let J.P. Morgan manage the national finances in times of crisis; instead, a strong government would have done the job by itself—and gotten it wrong. (Morgan did not make mistakes because he understood money and because, in exchange for his intelligence, he sought neither votes nor favors.) Nor would a strong government have allowed venture capitalists to build our railroad system. It would have built the railroad itself, and the result would have been France: many railroads, all costing dearly in government subsidies, and pro-railroad policies that would have denied people what they ultimately wanted, namely, roads on which to drive their own cars.

It is true that here, too, there were subsidies to railroads—private railroads, that is. Indeed, the land area turned over to American railroad builders was larger than the entire territory of France. But a subsidy to a capitalist differs fundamentally from a subsidy to a government-owned entity. The former can be ended, or shifted elsewhere (as to highway builders); the latter never ends but is rather endlessly defended.



To appreciate why immigrants from whatever country, possessing whatever culture or religion, have ended up talking and thinking like Americans, suppose we had lacked our remarkable combination of generalized economic ambitiousness and competitive religious aspiration, all within a regime of limited government and local self-management. Had we an economic aristocracy controlling personal advancement, our economic life would have been a continuous struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Had we one state religion, other religions would have become dissenting sects organizing to protect their culture and defend their claims. Had we a strong government nationally managed, a few problems might have been solved earlier than they were, but many more would have been exacerbated.

In other countries—the places where the immigrants (that is, all of us) came from—most people do not think of themselves as middle-class; religious orientation is much weaker; and scarcely anybody sues anybody else. In America, the opposite is true. That is a testament to a general equality of condition in this country that is astonishing to realize, and that is a direct legacy of our peculiar national experience.



Opinions may differ about how well Americans have managed what they have been given. At the outset of his book, Johnson asks whether this country can rise above the injustices of its past practices, successfully combine altruism and acquisitiveness, and create a model republic suitable for adoption by other nations. He never quite answers this particular set of questions; rather than arriving at a systematic judgment, his book simply ends. My own answer, for what it is worth, is that America has done more than other nations in overcoming past injustices and made good progress in tempering acquisitiveness with altruism. But it has not become, and will never be, a model that other nations can copy. There is only one America, just as there is only one Japan, one Switzerland, one India.

The essential feature of Americans, wherever they came from, has been to acquire a problem-solving cast of mind. Their ancestors from abroad may have been destitute, oppressed, or victimized, but here their children acquire good will, confidence in democratic habits, and an enduring willingness to attack the ills of society, even the ones that effort alone cannot solve. As Johnson puts it, “they will not give up.”

Whatever our complaints about this country, our attachment to it cannot but be vividly reinforced by Paul Johnson’s deeply insightful, eloquently expressed account of its triumphs and its failures. Those who insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that somewhere else, or in some imaginary world of which visionaries dream, life is or can be better, will not like this book. Everyone else will love it.



1 HarperCollins, 1,088 pp., $35.00.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.