Near the beginning of A History of the American People, Paul Johnson defines the “proto-American”:
He had certain strongly marked characteristics which were to be associated with the American archetype. He was energetic, brash, hugely ambitious, money-conscious, none too scrupulous, far-sighted and ahead of his time, with a passion for the new and, not least, a streak of idealism which clashed violently with his overweening desire to get on and make a fortune.
The man thus referred to is Sir Walter Ralegh, Elizabethan planner of the ill-fated seventeenth century Roanoke colonization venture to the New World. The laudatory description, however, could well have applied to most of the individuals whose exploits are recounted in a series of what might be called mini-biographies. Among the more colorful of these: Captain John Smith, Nathaniel Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Edward H. Harriman, and Andrew Carnegie. During America’s formative years, the author believes, a free-market economy allowed a meritocracy to develop and thrive. Noting the central role of religion in fomenting freedom—in contrast to European practices, where prelates generally were on the side of autocracy—Johnson distinguishes between separation of church and state and manifestations of civic religion. At the outset, he announces his intent to grapple with three fundamental questions: First, has America atoned for dispossessing an indigenous people and employing slave labor? Second, has the nation successfully blended its altruistic ideals with its acquisitive economic system? Finally, does the United States deserve to be a model for the entire planet? His answer to these questions appears to be an unqualified, though unstated, yes. On the title page, he endorses the United States’ acting upon its “Jupiter complex” as the world’s lone remaining superpower by quoting from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness.” Johnson credits fellow countrymen Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher with helping Great Britain’s former colony live up to its twentieth century mission, the former during World War II and at the outset of the Cold War (with his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri), the latter during the 1990 Gulf War (the author credits Thatcher with persuading President George Bush to resist the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and claims that had she not fallen from power, the war might have been prosecuted until Saddam Hussein was ousted).
In 1994, a national debate arose on how to teach American history after a panel of historians commissioned by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) put out National Standards for United States History, which stressed a multicultural approach. The recommendations caused a furor among conservatives led by NEH director Lynne Cheney, who called the tone of the guidelines “grim and gloomy” and recommended a more celebratory approach. Right-wingers are no doubt pleased with A History of the American People. Johnson, the author of Modern Times (1985) and A History of the Jews (1987), a columnist for The Spectator, and a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, is a throwback to the Victorian Age, when amateurs wrote grand, nationalistic histories. Anecdotal, unanalytical, opinionated, lucidly written, with provocative interpretations and meant for general readership, A History of the American People essentially is a succession of colorful sagas, history as pageant. The heroes, almost without exception, are bold men of action who served the interests of the country’s business class (a typical judgment on George Washington’s secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, is to rank him “alongside Washington himself, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams as a member of the tiny elite who created the country”) and who did not allow constitutional scruples to stand in their way, whether establishing the principle of judicial review (John Marshall), destroying the Cherokee Republic (Andrew Jackson), obtaining California and Texas (James K. Polk), preserving the Union (Abraham Lincoln), seizing the Panama Canal (Theodore Roosevelt), ending World War II (Harry S Truman), or opposing Nicaraguan revolutionaries (Ronald Reagan).
Johnson’s story is divided into eight parts: “ A City on a Hill’ (Colonial America, 1580-1750)”; “ That the Free Constitution Be Sacredly Maintained’ (Revolutionary America, 1750-1815)”; “ A General Happy Mediocrity Prevails’ (Democratic America, 1815-1850)”; “ The Almost Chosen People’ (Civil War America, 1850- 1870)”; “ Huddled Masses and Crosses of Gold’ (Industrial America, 1870-1912)”; “ The First International Nation’ (Melting-Pot America, 1912- 1929)”; “ Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself’ (Superpower America, 1929-1960)”; and “ We Will Pay Any...