It is fundamentally difficult to tell the American story. The difficulty does not arise out of the length of American history. While it is still a young country, the United States’ epic progression from rag-tag band of newly unified colonies to the world’s singular superpower and longest-lasting constitutional democracy is one whose essential thrusts can be captured in a single volume. That is the basic accomplishment of historian Wilfred McClay’s new book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. In it, McClay does a sound job of selecting and recounting the key episodes of our national saga from founding to the end of the Cold War in a way that will fill in the blank spots that riddle most peoples’ mental outline of the American story. It does so in a way that is not intimidating, while not sacrificing the core depth at the heart of any of its major subjects.
Yet McClay accomplishes something much deeper than this in these pages. What he accomplishes is the communicating of proper perspective when it comes to the discipline of “doing history.” It is that perspective that makes telling the American story difficult. More importantly still, Wilfred McClay’s masterful work addresses the existential challenges of our contemporary national psychology with an eloquent illustration of the dimensions in which we discover—and may rediscover—our shared American identity. Some today treat the American story as a tale of continual moral triumph. Some tell it as a tale of unending moral hypocrisy. Across this narrative gulf, common understanding of what our history implies for who we are as Americans has become hard to come by. Land of Hope grounds American patriotism in words that are reverential, but also honest and reflective. It allows the reader to see herself in the American story while equipping her to embrace the wide berth of her countrymen as fellow players in this drama whose role in it tells her something vital about her own.
McClay begins his telling of American history with the settling of the Americas and the development of the uniquely industrious, religious, and independent culture(s) of the British North American colonies. Here he brings insights into the peculiar historical and psychological circumstances present in the birth and growth of these settlements that set them apart in important ways from the colonial projects that had been and were also being established in French Canada and in Spanish America. One of those insights is that the self-governing character of Jamestown and other early American communities was not just reflective of the independent-mindedness of those British transplants who first chose to come here, but of an English history that allowed for the evolution of a much stronger pattern of relative autonomy and self-governance than what one would have found in its imperial rivals of Spain and France. This was demonstrated by the relatively free reign England had given its American colonies to run themselves from the very beginning. “The English approach, propelled by an uncoordinated multitude of private investors who were allowed to pursue their interests as they saw fit, was distinctive, and that distinctiveness would make all the difference.” Part of the difference, as McClay goes on to tell, was that Americans were unprepared to accept the heavier hand of regulation and taxation that occurred when British colonial policy attempted to shore up the finances of the empire after the French and Indian War.
The book proceeds at measured pace through the founding and the Revolution, reviewing in largely familiar terms the major sequences of events that led to the Declaration of Independence and the winning of America’s freedom: The publishing of Common Sense by Thomas Paine (“Paine had connected the dots as no one before him had done and brought sharp definition to an unsettled situation.”), the winter at Valley Forge (“Conditions were horrifyingly difficult, and the army’s very existence hung by a thread.”), the Battle of Yorktown, and so on. After covering the Washingtonian era McClay takes us on a journey through the early maturation of American democracy, from the Jeffersonian era to the Jacksonian era and “the rise of the common man,” in which the brutality in the legacy of Andrew Jackson toward America’s indigenous peoples is reckoned with but measured against the vital role he played in expanding the culture of American democracy to include (and even exalt) the voices of ordinary men. McClay writes,
If Jefferson had believed that education could raise the commonest man to the same station as the well-born, then Jackson believed that the common man was already where he needed to be and needed no raising—that his innate capacity of deciding questions of politics and economy on his own was sufficient, the hallmark of democracy.
Gratefully, McClay’s “great American story” is not merely the recitation of the history of presidents. He examines the evolving spirit of democracy in the writings of Tocqueville but also, importantly, in the crescendo of American revivalist movements and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, the springing of America’s intellectual and cultural independence manifest in the romantic rebelliousness of Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist.”), and the swelling currents of unyielding moral rectitude as realized in the rising abolitionist movement and set aflame in the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
It is hard to add anything new to our understanding of the Civil War. Yet McClay does something marvellous for our understanding of the significance of this most tragic American episode by identifying it as not merely the time in which our nation was forced to confront its most blatant moral evil but also the experience by which the United States truly became a nation in earnest. For better or worse, in nearly tearing the country apart the Civil War, and even the military institutionalism it birthed, consolidated the energies of national commitment beyond loyalty to states in the American people, “affirming the new primacy in American life of the American nation.”
There is a poignancy in the contrast between the exploding power and wealth of America that followed the Civil War, the “consolidation” that this wealth and national commitment demands, and the agrarian idealism of our founding that can be tracked throughout McClay’s entire telling of the rest of American history. The ascendency of the consolidating forces of not only the centralized state but also industry, corporate power, and technology—from the rise of Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and the national rail system to radio, television, and the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against—have always found themselves at odds with a simpler vision of America. That vision, culturally and politically, rests upon an individualism, a self-sufficiency, and a material modesty that shrinks back from the roaring tides of “progress.” It eschews national mission in favour of an Americanism pointed inward, toward the humbler concerns of home and the more intangible treasure of liberty.
There is another tension at the heart of the American self-conception. McClay, referencing mid-twentieth-century Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, describes the tension as the “contradiction between American ideals and American practices.” This is made manifest by viewing how the American “belief in universal human equality, freedom, and opportunity” stood in stark contrast to the reality of racial injustice, from the country’s founding throughout its subsequent history.
These tensions and contradictions strike at the heart of what makes it difficult for us to discover a unified spirit of American identity in our own time. Is America the grand, sprawling guarantor of global freedom that Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan imagined, or a nation committed principally to the preservation of its own liberty as intended by George Washington and James Madison? Is America defined by the glowing words of the Declaration of Independence or by the searing moral wounds of slavery and the Trail of Tears? And is the American heritage of recent immigrants really the same as that of the descendants of slaves, and can that be meaningfully said to be the same as that of those who trace their lineage back to the time of an overwhelmingly Anglo-American-dominated founding? What is America really? What if anything can it really be said to mean to be an American?
Near the very beginning of the book, in detailing the voyages of Christopher Columbus whereby the Italian explorer discovered what would come to be called “the New World,” McClay notes that Columbus would die believing that the lands he chanced upon were a part of India. Quoting Robert Frost’s lament for Columbus, McClay observes that “America is hard to see.” He makes the deeper meaning of this observation plain at the book’s closing.
American patriotism is no simple thing to define because it is not tied to blood and soil. It is rooted in universal ideals. Whether by active involvement with the world or by mere example, the quest to realize these are meant to serve the universal good of humankind.
Yet such ideals by themselves are but abstractions. It is not these universal ideals but “our nation’s particular triumphs, sacrifices, and sufferings—and our memories of those things—[that] draw and hold us together, precisely because they are the sacrifices and sufferings, not of all humanity, but of us alone.”
This is a patriotism that cannot exist in the absence of the “local and particular loyalties and intimacies that are the stuff of ordinary human life.” While Americans may believe in liberty and equality, our identity is bound to the sufferings of slaves seeking freedom, as surely as it is to the sacrifice of American soldiers at Pointe Du Hoc. The particular American stories of Eastern European immigrants, African Americans, evangelical Christians, and labour will all overlap and diverge in ways that allow for specific trials within the panoply of American stories. But the fact that this is particularly true for all of us makes this phenomenon universal for all of us. American patriotism and the nature of our identity, therefore, is a matter of our ideals and our experiences. “So we have a responsibility before us,” McClay writes. “We must know both, not only our creed but also our culture.” In this we discover what it is to be an American.
Wilfred McClay sets forth a wonderful telling of the American story in whole and accessible terms. He does so in a way that shines a light on the true dimensions of the American character, in all its complex subjectivity. In this, he calls upon us to remember that what America is has always been a question of who it is we are. In Land of Hope we see ourselves in the story.