The Great Republic

It is sometimes observed by critics and readers of history that professional historians have carved out specialties for themselves, and those who write “popular history” usually concentrate on the dramatic event or the exciting personality. The one- and two-volume histories purporting to cover the whole story almost always turn out to be textbooks, especially college texts for the survey course. The tradition of a single scholar attempting to write a complete history of the United States intended for the general public seems to have died out in favor of specialization.

This situation makes The Great Republic as remarkable as its publishing history has been unusual. The “original” edition seems to have been intended as a text, and the otherwise identical hardbound edition meant for the more general market. It bears many of the marks of the better college texts: carefully defined division into parts, chapters, and sections of chapters, suitable for assignment and study; plentiful and useful maps; an abundance of illustrations, including six “color essays” which tellingly use the arts of a period to display its character, progress, and problems; chronological charts; reading suggestions after each chapter; appendices including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; a table of population and area growth; a table of presidential elections; a list of presidents up to and including Jimmy Carter; and an index. The Great Republic is a handsome and usable text; it has not a single author but six, all recognized in the profession. They include winners of the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, and of the National Book Award. Each has written one of the six parts, approximately equal in length, about a particular period in United States history: to 1760, Bailyn; 1760-1820, Wood; 1820-1860, Davis; 1860-1890, Donald; 1890-1920, Thomas; and 1920-1976, Wiebe.

The authors’ approach may hold some surprises for the general reader. Columbus’ voyage is more or less taken for granted; so is the Mayflower’s. But there is a considerable discussion of the administration of the Spanish colonies in the New World, and of demographic factors in early Massachusetts. Captain John Smith is covered in a paragraph, and Pocahontas does not appear; but the mechanics of the tobacco trade are detailed. The Great Republic is not old-fashioned history, nor is it the careful, bland mixture many accuse textbooks of being. For example, James Madison is described as “the greatest political thinker of the Revolutionary era and perhaps of all American history,” while Thomas Eakins rates as “the greatest painter of the post [Civil] war period.” On the other hand, there was “that bumbling incompetent, Ambrose E. Burnside, whose one redeeming feature was that he knew he was bumbling and incompetent.” And the reference in the Suggested Readings summarizes the biography of A. Mitchell Palmer as “the portrait of a national villain.” Such outspoken opinions may arouse controversy, but they certainly add vigor and interest to the story.

In their Introduction, the authors set forth two general themes which unify the book, and presumably the history it recounts. One is the development and testing of free political institutions; the other is the tension between majority rule and minority rights. Lest this thematic, and apparently political, approach seem simple, the authors profess their more general view of history: it is not the mere accumulation of fact, but a mode of understanding. The view, moreover, is not deterministic; economic, political, cultural, and social forces interact and influence one another “in no predetermined pattern.” These themes and the viewpoints set the...

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Choice. XIV, September, 1977, p. 932.

Library Journal. CII, May 15, 1977, p. 1182.

New York Times. May 4, 1977, p. 31.

Time. CIX, April 25, 1977, p. 87.