Two hundred years ago, as the young American republic approached the end of the 18th century, many of its leading thinkers believed that slavery, the greatest blemish on the nation, would soon die a natural death. It looked like a primitive remnant of the past, a practice that was economically obsolete as well as degrading. But that optimistic belief was altogether wrong: slavery was about to become much more profitable, heightening the tragedy that awaited America in the future.
In the 1790s, Eli Whitney, by inventing a simple way of separating cotton lint from seeds, put cheap, washable fabric onto the world market and quickly made it possible for hundreds of millions of people to dress comfortably in clean clothes for the first time. "But," Paul Johnson writes in his stirring new book, "there was a price to be paid, and the black slaves paid it." As the cotton industry grew richer after 1800, it wanted more slaves, not fewer. The new slave-operated cotton gins, combined with the eager commercial spirit of the age, raised the value of a slave. Johnson, the author of books such as Modern Times and A History of the Jews, tells us: "It is a horrible fact that modern economics and high technology do not always work in favour of justice and freedom." By 1852 one pro-slavery writer could boast that Virginia was now a slave-producing state, breeding not only its own slaves but also 6,000 a year for shipment elsewhere in the U.S. Importing new slaves from Africa was now illegal, but it was becoming common again. The governor of South Carolina wanted to legalize it, in order to encourage the economy by reducing the cost of slaves. Every day slavery became more entrenched, and every day the South more committed to it, until Civil War became inevitable.
Cotton growers persuaded themselves that enslaving an African was actually a favour to him, and more than a few clergymen gave official Christian support to that idea. By emphasizing obscenities of that kind, Johnson points us toward the darkest contradiction of his subject. America was a self-consciously Christian nation from the beginning, the greatest experiment in post-European Christianity, but it was founded on blood and bondage as much as on vision and courage. We might say the same of all great societies, and most small ones, but America, as Johnson notes, is the one major nation that did not emerge from the mists of obscure antiquity but was instead created within carefully recorded history. We know just when and how its title-deeds were acquired, and "the stains on them are there for all to see and censure: the dispossession of an indigenous people, and the securing of self-sufficiency through the sweat and pain of an enslaved race."
Johnson raises these issues on his first page and never loses sight of them for long. His book, huge and ambitious, is on one level a friendly Englishman's attempt to wrestle with the moral failures of American history. He sees the creation of the United States as the greatest of all human adventures, but he believes its story raises two profound questions. (1) "Can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?" (2) "In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism...be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all? Have the Americans got the mixture right?"
Of course he can't finally answer those questions, but asking them gives his narrative an urgent moral subtext. He notes that slavery was there from the beginning, in the life of the man he considers the greatest political thinker of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, who owned and even bred slaves all his life--though he thought it evil. Farther back, Johnson finds the blindness and corruption of racism in another exemplary character, John Winthrop, a leader among Puritan settlers--"the first great American," in Johnson's view. Winthrop dreamt of a towering moral stature for America, and in 1630 told his fellow Puritans, in a much-quoted passage, that the new nation "shall be as a City upon a Hill," an example for the world. He was also the man who noted with satisfaction in his diary that all Indians within 300 miles of his settlement in Massachusetts were "swept away by the small-pox....so God hath hereby cleared our title to this place." Winthrop and many like him brought across the Atlantic their version of an idea that had arisen in England during the Reformation--"that the English...were divinely appointed to do God's will on earth."
Slavery produced great riches in the first half of the 19th century and the most terrible of all civil wars in the second; it then left a burden that has weighed the souls of blacks and whites through the 20th century. You know nothing of America if you do not understand its innately religious nature, Johnson tells us several times; and in racial matters this Christian nation appears to be acting out a Biblical drama of original sin and eternal damnation.
But Johnson has not written a dour or heavy tract. A History of the American People is a high-spirited piece of work for all its length, and full of acute observations on everything from the brilliance of Benjamin Franklin to the most immediately attractive quality of the American environment for the earliest immigrants--it was warm. They had suffered the cold of many winters in England, for lack of fuel; in America wood was so plentiful that even the poorest could afford a good fire.
Johnson loves to take us into an emblematic scene, like the inauguration in 1829 of Andrew Jackson, the first populist president. It turned into "a demotic saturnalia" when a huge mob surprised the gentry and the politicians by spontaneously invading the party inside the White House. After much broken crockery and damaged furniture, they left the building only when the liquor supplies were moved to the lawn.
Jackson made his name as a ruthless killer of Indians (and sometimes Spaniards), the champion of the settler class. He or his ideas ruled America from 1829 to the Civil War, with the result that the Indians were shoved out of all lands east of the Mississippi and made uncomfortable in the territory to the West. It was under Jefferson, in 1803, that the U.S. doubled its size at a stroke by buying the Mississippi Valley from Napoleon Bonaparte for $15-million, but it was under Jackson and his followers that this land was quickly established as the rightful home of European-American immigrants--and no one else.
If Johnson clearly sees America's sins, he also celebrates its virtues. He warms to the energy, ambition, egalitarianism and spontaneity that are the essence of the American way. English authors often look on America and its wonders with disdain, but not Johnson. He loves its grandeur, its wild confidence, even its gawkiness. Charles Dickens expressed horror before a key feature of American geography when he wrote about "the hateful Mississippi, a slimy monster, hideous to behold, an enormous ditch running liquid mud"--the same river Mark Twain called, a few years later, "the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, shining in the sun." By the time we encounter these quotations, on page 367 of Johnson's book, we have no doubt at all that he will come down firmly on the side of Mark Twain.
People who dip into Johnson for a moment may look up an hour later and realize they have been enticed into reading a long account of western expansion, or a careful analysis of the roots of the Republican Party, or a meditation on Jefferson Davis, the melancholy president of the Confederacy. When Johnson comes to a major figure (Lincoln, above all) he stops and walks patiently around him, inviting us to contemplate this marvel at leisure before moving on. And like any good museum guide, he points us toward the obscure corners as well as the displays that are heavy with meaning. It probably doesn't signify much that Jefferson was so bone-headed and smug that in 1812 he believed "The acquisition of Canada this year as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack on Halifax next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent." Still, the dumbest remark by the smartest American is worth remembering.
Johnson is a conservative, though seldom predictably so. ("That Standard Oil was ruthless and predatory was obvious to all," he tells us at one point.) A book on so broad a subject must be selective, which means it's also uneven. Johnson writes with brio and insight about Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and other 19th century artists, but he has little to tell us about most of the 20th century writers. D.W. Griffith, the director who probably did more to shape the modern imagination than any other artist, is covered in one uncomprehending sentence, which might have been lifted from an encyclopaedia, and Johnson isn't much better on the rest of the world-conquering American entertainment business. He provides a pocket history of jazz, respectful but not enthusiastic.
Nineteenth-century painters like Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer attract his praise for their ability to convey the nobility of the American spirit, but Johnson's enthusiasm for Norman Rockwell's genial verisimilitude leads him into eccentricity: "It is now possible to predict his emergence as an Old Master, like the Dutch genre painters, especially Jan Steen, or the English moralist William Hogarth," he writes. Fulfilment of that brave prophecy will have to await certain adjustments in taste, notably an abandonment of the prejudice against arrant sentimentality.
The proof-reading of A History of the American People is erratic, the index untrustworthy--it omits, to give two examples, Emperor Hirohito and the Battle of Midway, though both appear in the book. Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabeth adventurer, has no "i" in his name when he appears in the text but acquires one in the index. Johnson's prose sags, but not often. His last 100 or so pages are his least interesting, perhaps because the stories are so familiar or because the material hasn't yet been sorted out; it still comes across as journalism, not yet distilled into history or myth. On affirmative action, the feminist revolution, the Clintons, political correctness, even Reagan's breathtaking success in the Cold War, Johnson is never incompetent but seldom original or compelling, either in his material or his ideas. In fact, as he heads toward his final pages, Johnson himself seems to tire a little, as if, like many of us, he had heard too much about these subjects and knew them too well.
While crossing the great divide of the 1960s he works up a little anger over the creation of John Kennedy's political career, "one of the biggest frauds in American political history," which involved everything from the ghost-writing of his college thesis to the cash purchase of votes. But of all post-1950 presidents, the one who fascinates Johnson most is that amazing piece of work, Dwight Eisenhower, the president from 1953 to 1961, who talked in a woolly gobbledegook and pretended to be dim while outsmarting everyone. Robert Taft, Eisenhower's rival for the Republican nomination, said, "I really think he should have been a golf pro." Eisenhower of course rolled over Taft, as earlier he had rolled over Bernard Montgomery, George Patton, and other fractious generals under his Second World War command, and as he later rolled over Adlai Stevenson and Joseph McCarthy, who in different ways challenged his political power in the 1950s. Eisenhower presented himself as amiable but lazy by having his press secretary release every day an account of his schedule that omitted, over the years, hundreds of crucial meetings--a deception that was revealed when his office logs were studied decades later. During most of his years in office he made it appear that John Foster Dulles was running foreign policy and Sherman Adams was running everything else. Even Dulles and Sherman sometimes thought so at the time, but the record shows that Eisenhower kept both of them, and everyone else, on a short leash.
In describing this process, Johnson gives political science and management studies what I believe is a new phrase: "He practiced pseudo-delegation." Eisenhower fooled everyone--well, almost everyone. His vice-president, Richard Nixon, whose opinion on this point deserves respect, called him "the most devious man I ever came across in politics."
Johnson's account of Eisenhower's career reminds us how much can be accomplished in stealth by someone who is not anxious to appear clever. It also demonstrates that we should never assume we know what is happening inside a government at the time it is governing: perhaps politics, like life, can only be understood in retrospect. Reading A History of the American People also reminds us that, in the hands of a gifted writer, even the most obvious subject can yield a book of genuine stature.