The ignorance of Americans about their history has a long history. You can find surveys of freshman classes at Harvard, conducted a century ago, that reveal startling lapses in basic knowledge. The myths of American history—the comforting fairy tales and conspiracy theories and outright inventions—are as numerous as the facts, and frequently better known. Even in the heyday of the liberal arts on campus, history was never a fashionable subject for study. As the Communists used to say, it is no coincidence that the famous scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the teacher is lecturing uninterested students involves a history lesson. And an important one, for as Wilfred M. McClay explains in Land of Hope, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930 was “disastrous… ill-conceived.”
Does any of this matter? Americans may generally be preoccupied elsewhere and more engaged by relative trivialities, but this hardly distinguishes them from the average Belgian or Chinese. The business of life is always more urgent than the study of the past. And in any case, no matter what their philosophical posture may be, Americans still walk over battlefields, drive to Mount Rushmore, and have their photograph taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. As much as I dislike Ken Burns’s popular documentaries on PBS, they respond to some measurable need in the American soul.
Enter McClay, who teaches history at the University of Oklahoma, where he also directs its Center for the History of Liberty, and is a graceful writer and prolific contributor to magazines and professional journals. He believes that an understanding of America’s past—the facts, ma’am, in all their beauty and ugliness—not only enriches the present day but allows us to comprehend it as well, even welcome the future. He is also distressed, as any scholar ought to be, by the evidence of public indifference to our history. More pertinent still, he approaches the American past from an unconventional angle. He is admirably direct about his intentions in writing Land of Hope: “It means to offer to American readers … an accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative account of their own country—an account that will inform and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.”
With the possible exception of the word “inspiring,” which would have been implicit, almost any survey of American history by any American scholar of the past would have been introduced with roughly the same words and sentiments. But the historical profession is not quite what it was, as McClay gently explains:
“Citizenship”…means a vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of one’s own country. Let me emphasize the word story. Professional historical writing has, for a great many years now, been resistant to the idea of history as narrative…. This approach seems unlikely ever to succeed, if for no other reason than that it fails to take into account the ways we need stories to speak to the fullness of our humanity and help us orient ourselves in the world.
There are a handful of distinguished exceptions, of course, but McClay is too generous to his colleagues. No doubt, some past chroniclers were intent on weaving a relentlessly heroic narrative of our history. But history as scholarship has always involved some measure of interpretation, and the scholarly consensus of one generation is invariably superseded by the next. You need only scan random introductory essays to get the idea. After reciting the works and ideas of their predecessors, scholars will report that they have sifted and refined the facts and literature and arrived at the final, incontrovertible, conclusion. Yesterday’s conventional wisdom was abhorrent; today’s is unassailable.
Yet historians, who ought to be most mindful of this conceit, seem least aware of it. And the problem is especially aggravated, in our time, by the fact that contemporary academic wisdom—about the history of the United States, among other things—is suffused with a habitual, obsessive Marxism. And the heroic narrative, needless to say, has been reversed: Scholarship is now investigative journalism, uncovering past crimes.
There have always been rancorous debates among historians, and schools of history are often tinctured by dogma. But our current predicament is, to some degree, unprecedented. What we might call the pathological view of the United States—American history as a chronicle of injustice, oppression, inequality, violence, and little else—is firmly established in the academy and insulated against institutional dissent by the custom of tenure and the folkways of academic publishing. To make matters worse, one of the seminal texts of contemporary doctrine—Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980)—is also one of the few academic bestsellers of our time.
So McClay has his work cut out for him. Does he succeed? Well, he begins at the beginning—the archaeological evidence of our aboriginal inhabitants—and like most American histories, McClay’s tends to pass a little quickly over the first century-and-a-half of European settlement. But this is a minor complaint. His description of America on the eve of revolution is perceptive and succinct, and capacious as well. The reader never doubts the author’s perspective on the colonists’ revolt, or British government in America, but he tells the story with illuminating clarity and, above all, fair-mindedness. The answer to ignorance is not indoctrination but knowledge.
This virtue in the writing of history is not necessarily self-evident. The American Revolution, like any such episode, was a complicated matter, reaching back in history and forward in effect; and both sides—one is tempted to say all sides—were benighted and heroic, generous and arbitrary, products of their various places and time. George Washington was not without his flaws, and the Loyalists were not without their reasons. McClay sets all this out in crisp detail, balancing his judgment in conjunction with the evidence, flattering his readers to draw their own conclusions.
Which is what distinguishes this from other history texts. The present sits not in judgment but inquiry. And to the extent that we can understand people and events in circumstances far removed from our own experience, the past is revealed in Land of Hope to the present, without prejudice. The dramas and their actors—the drafting of the Constitution, Andrew Jackson, westward expansion, John C. Calhoun, the Mexican War, Samuel Gompers, women’s suffrage, Woodrow Wilson, the Great Crash, Ronald Reagan—are given the chance to speak for themselves in explaining themselves to modern sensibilities.
This is especially useful in contending with subjects—slavery and its relative significance in national life, the Civil War and its aftermath, the condition of African Americans in their own country—that routinely disrupt the historical profession, and are just as routinely distorted by ideology. This is no small matter, and no small achievement. McClay’s skill in furnishing context to emotion, in introducing modern presumption to past evidence, puts the history of the American republic in a new light by revealing its inward and outward complexity. This makes Land of Hope important, compelling, essential reading.
“Nothing about America better defines its distinctive character than the ubiquity of hope,” he writes, “a sense that the way things are initially given to us cannot be the final word about them, that we can never settle for that.” I hope he’s right.