'Freedom' plumbs nature of national character
Sun, Jul. 04, 2004
By Claude Crowley
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
"Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828" by Walter McDougall; HarperCollins ($29.95)
Walter McDougall says in the foreword of "Freedom Just Around the Corner" - the first volume of his proposed American history trilogy - that his goal was to write a book "about who and what we are without extreme condemnation or celebration."
Clearly, he doesn't approach our national history with a negative view of our moral character because the Constitution didn't free the slaves or because of our forefathers' other failures as the country developed. Nor does he march into the task with flags waving. He tells it like it is, but with a creative flair uncommon in historians. Just the title, inspired by a line from Bob Dylan's song "Jokerman," is a clue that the history buff picking up THIS book is in for something different.
In the first chapter, "American Archetypes - What Some Great Novels Tell Us About Ourselves," McDougall explores traits and behaviors of the fictional characters created by Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Willa Cather to help us envision the cultural, philosophical and economic roots that developed the American character. He suggests that this character is still evolving because "America was not just born of revolution - it is one ... a society in constant flux." Ongoing revolution has resulted in a nation that has provided more stability, prosperity and liberty than any other, he says, but American corruption also has been spectacular, because corruption is most pervasive during eras of swift social change.
McDougall maintains that Americans as people are unexceptional, with the same shortcomings and flawed natures of people everywhere. The difference between them and other denizens of the world, he says, is that the American physical and political environment provides opportunities unknown in other countries. He cleverly explains this profound contrast with the allegory of a ghostly, time-traveling ship - some Flying Dutchman, returning from the year 1600 to the present.
The crew could still readily recognize China, Japan, India, Russia, Europe and even South America, but "the only continent that would astound the time-travelers would be North America, which was primitive and nearly vacant as late as 1607, but today hosts the most dynamic civilization in history."
This "dynamic civilization" isn't a recent development: "Thanks to the abundance of good land, the moderate climate, the seemingly inexhaustible animal, fish and tree life ... Americans achieved, at some point in the early to mid-18th century, the highest per-capita standard of living of any people on earth." With the exception of the enslaved, the prosperity spread remarkably across the board. Even poor colonists enjoyed diets, dwellings and opportunities beyond the reach of Europe's working classes.
The chapter on the framing of the Constitution should be required reading for anyone of any political or philosophic stripe who wants to tack on amendments or pass legislation to alter its meaning to fit a biased agenda. This chapter also explains and makes sense of one of the Constitution's least understood features - the provision for the Electoral College.
McDougall extensively explores early cultural and social factors that shaped America, such as the pulsating role of religion and the surprising importance of Freemasonry to the founding fathers. In the portion documenting the years after the Constitution's ratification, he inserts a boxed text giving the history of each of the 11 states admitted to the union beyond the original 13 up to 1828. These aren't just thumbnail sketches, but fairly comprehensive "historical travelogues" covering facts, names and dates, served up with entertaining local color.
Walter McDougall is a historian with a masterful grasp of his subject. He has previously written five history books, including "The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age," for which he was awarded the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for History. In "Freedom Just Around the Corner," he tells the story of early America with clarity of thought and language that wipes the cobwebs from "dull" history.
2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.