History Lite

Paul Johnson’s superficial A History of the American People.

A History of the American People
By Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 921 pages; $35

If you want your history books to be entertaining–full of anecdotes about the lives of the rich and the famous–Paul Johnson is the author for you. A prolific British journalist-historian, Johnson is the author of many popular books, including Modern Times (1992) and A History of the Jews (1988), which explore the past in large sweeps. More opinionated than academic historians tend to be, he is also skilled at offering character sketches and at spinning out stories. While this ambitious and lengthy history of the American people gets bogged down here and there, it manages, for the most part, to move ahead at a lively pace. It covers developments from 15th century explorations of the New World to the mid-1990s, but you can open the book almost anywhere and have a good read.

You will also encounter a host of superficial and slanted judgments. Some of these reflect thin research–hard to avoid entirely in a book of such scope. Others expose a sourness about modern American politics and culture that becomes increasingly acid as Johnson moves toward the present day. Particularly in the sections devoted to the years since 1929, Johnson has trouble containing his conservative political and cultural agenda. He is better when he keeps things light.

This is not to say that Johnson dislikes what he discovers about the American people. Far from it. Indeed, if he may be said to have an overall interpretation, it is one that is fairly conventional: that America’s English colonies (there is little here about Spanish or French colonies) were settled by extraordinarily adventurous and idealistic people and that the North American continent until well into the 19th century was a fantastic land–an “economy of plenty” that rewarded bold and ambitious dreamers. Early Anglo-Americans had the “English virtues of pragmatism, fair-mindedness, and honorable loyalty to each other.” The founding fathers were “the most remarkable group of men in history–sensible, broad-minded, courageous, usually well-educated, gifted in a variety of ways, mature, and long-sighted, sometimes lit by flashes of genius.” Their British opponents during the revolutionary era, by contrast, included “boobies” such as the royal ministers Charles Townshend and Lord George Germain, as well as King George III himself, “a young, self-confident, ignorant, inflexible, and pertinacious man.”

When Johnson turns to the 19th century, he continues to reward us with lively prose and well-crafted sketches of people–mostly presidents and big business leaders such as the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and the banker J. Pierpont Morgan (this is decidedly a top-down history, in which the poor, labor union leaders, and minority groups receive far less attention than in most scholarly histories these days). Johnson, a shrewd observer, often needs relatively few words to convey his opinionated judgments. Thus, on John Adams as president:

[T]he historian warms to this vain, chippy, wild-eyed, paranoid, and fiercely patriotic seer. But, whatever they think, presidents of the United States should not publicly proclaim their detestation of democracy and equality. That leaves only fraternity, and Adams was not a brotherly man either. He was much too good a hater for that.

On President Ulysses Grant, Johnson writes simply:

Grant, the great general, turned out a political and administrative booby. He wished to run a third time but his party was not having it. … He then went on a two-year tour of the world, during which he got spectacularly drunk and committed many enormities.

If there is a sexual bit to be found in a story, Johnson usually contrives to slip it in. Dolley Madison, he explains, controlled her diminutive husband and “launched the White House’s first ‘drawing room’ receptions which, in her day, were celebrated–the men in ‘black or blue coat with vest, black breeches and black stockings,’ the ladies ‘not remarkable for anything so much as for the exposure of their swelling breasts and bare backs.’ ” Woodrow Wilson was “fond of women, highly sexed, even passionate, and capable of memorable love-letters. His first wife, Ellen, was a proto-feminist, and their marriage was a grand love-affair. But it did not prevent Wilson striking up, in due course, an acquaintance with a frisky widow, whom he met in his favorite vacation haunt, Bermuda. This developed into a liaison, which led in time to a bit of genteel blackmail.” Readers can guess what is in store when Johnson yanks back the White House curtains during the Kennedy years.

Well before then, Johnson’s political agenda moves to front and center, best revealed in a lengthy section lauding the minimalist economic and political philosophy of Calvin Coolidge (perhaps his favorite American president) and in another passage concerning Norman Rockwell, whose representations of the “magnanimity of Middle America” send Johnson into raptures: “It is now possible to predict his [Rockwell’s] emergence as an Old Master, like the Dutch genre painters, especially Jan Steen, or the English moralist William Hogarth.”

Alas, there is not much else about America’s recent past (save Harry Truman’s decisive stance during the early Cold War years) that appeals to Johnson. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal gets short shrift; Social Security is “a kind of pyramid fraud, played on youth.” Worse, FDR “tended to give Stalin what he wished, thus making possible the immense satellite empire of Communist totalitarian states in eastern Europe.” Lyndon Johnson, the author adds, threw money at problems–so much so that one might conclude that “the whole of the Great Society program was unconstitutional.” Citing conservative critics of Brown vs. Board of Education, Johnson seems to agree that it was an “unprincipled decision” that “turned out to be a prelude to a major step backward in American race relations.” Affirmative action programs, he adds, are “based on illegality.”

Nothing distresses Johnson, a distinguished journalist, more than the behavior of the liberal American news media, which are described as having abused enormous power in recent years. Fidel Castro climbed to power, Johnson informs us, on the back of adulatory news stories in the New York Times. The media have developed an insatiable passion for “witch hunts,” such as the one that badly distorted Iran Contra stories during the Reagan years. We are asked to feel especially sorry for Richard Nixon, who endured vilification from the New York Times and Washington Post that was “continual, venomous, unscrupulous, inventive, and sometimes unlawful.”

Statements such as these add a great deal of spice to Johnson’s ambitious History. No one can accuse him of waffling. Sometimes he seems mainly to be having fun–whacking away at everything from Marxism to contemporary political correctness offers him happy sport. All too often, however, such statements are zingers, as if whipped out from the comfort of his easy chair or dashed off for the op-ed page of a conservative newspaper. Popular history need not come at the expense of thoughtful reflection and serious research, but Johnson’s zingers are too often substitutes for those qualities. This is a pity, for his caustic tone and shallow glosses undermine what is a bold and worthy effort: to write a readable one-volume history of the American people.