A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. By Paul Johnson . HarperCollins: 924 pp., $35

Esmond Wright is emeritus professor of U.S. history at the University of London. He received his degree at the University of Virginia in 1940. He recently completed a three-volume history of the U.S., and has edited "The Sayings of Benjamin Franklin."

Paul Johnson is brave and bold, comprehensive and versatile: brave and bold, in that he writes a 900-page single-volume history of the United States without having studied its history at school (Stonyhurst) or university (Oxford) where, in any case, in his day no American history was taught. The book is comprehensive in that its history is a reinterpretation of the American story from the first settlements to the Clinton administration, covering politics, business and economics, immigration, the commercial aspects of slavery, the growth of cities, art, literature, science, religious beliefs, the problems of alcoholism from the frontier to Prohibition and beyond, the recurrence of public hysteria (from colonial witch hunts to red scares to McCarthyism) and Vietnam.

For all of it, Johnson draws on records, diaries and letters, and yet he writes in a style that is smooth yet trenchant and is supported by what must be a gazillion words of notes about his source material that in themselves require 90 pages of text. And he is versatile in that he is the author of many quite unrelated books ("Modern Times," "Intellectuals," "A History of the Jews" and "The Quest for God"). Moreover, he sees Americans as a problem-solving people, bothered in recent years by issues like racism, Vietnam, political correctness, the growth of litigation and the rise of women but overcoming difficulties by intelligence and skill, by persistence and by courage.

Johnson handles and uses statistics well and "translates" them vividly into human terms. "A History of the American People" is a fresh, readable and provocative survey. He is full of opinions, for which he offers quite unnecessary apologies (for his views are usually well justified). But he is wise to quote Shakespeare: "Be not afraid of greatness."

Is this book then a work of distinction? Well, only just. He writes well and to the point. Consider the origins of the North and the South. "With remarkable speed, in the first few decades, the fundamental dichotomy of America began to take shape, epitomized in these two key colonies--Massachusetts and Carolina. Here already is the North-South divide. The New England North has an all-class, mobile and fluctuating society, with an irresistible upward movement pushed by an ethic of hard work. It is religious, idealistic and frugal to the core. In the South there is by contrast a gentry-leisure class, with hereditary longings, sitting on the backs of indentured white laborers and a multitude of black slaves, with religion as a function of gentility and class, rather than an overpowering inward compulsion to live the godly life."

And Johnson can be very wise. When summing up the story of the Great Awakening, on which he writes well, he concludes: "The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background. The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event. That fact was to shape the American Revolutionfrom start to finish and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being."

And he adds later when writing about the Civil War: "The Second Awakening, with its huge intensification of religious passion, sounded the death-knell of American slavery just as the First Awakening had sounded the death-knell of British colonialism."

Johnson's strength, which is also his weakness, is in his sketches of people; he treats them in quixotic fashion. To some, he is kind; to others, he is cynical, prejudiced, even savage, as he is in his treatment of JFK and LBJ (one finds his assessments of these men unduly savage because Kennedy, one must remember, held office for only a short time, and Johnson's presidency was filled with great social change and promise, though everything was eclipsed by the shadow of the Vietnam War.) He is always diligent and can be informative. The book is certainly an engaging series of pen portraits: Sir Walter Raleigh, the first great man in the story to come into close focus from the documents, is described: "Raleigh was, in a sense, a 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."

He is equally vivid when writing about the young Jim Fisk, premier robber baron of the Gilded Age, and Jay Gould and "Commodore" Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. And of the Roosevelts, the Oyster Bay branch and the Hyde Park branch, he writes: "The two branches were highly competitive and jealous of each other. They occasionally intermarried--FDR's wife Eleanor was from the Oyster Bay branch and TR's nephew married FDR's niece--though generally relationships were malicious, even hostile. But the presidential Roosevelts were gifted Populists in politics and had much in common, including enormous energy, especially under physical affliction, and a zest for life. TR was a radical conservative, whereas FDR was a conservative radical. A preference for one over the other is a touchstone of American character."

There are admirable summaries of the careers and achievements of John Adams, Hamilton, Washington ("[I]n the war he nothing common did, or mean, or cruel, or vengeful. He behaved, from first to last, like a gentleman."), Franklin, Madison, Jefferson (he recognizes was "a mass of contradictions") and Tom Paine, whose tract "Common Sense" he salutes as "the most successful and influential pamphlet ever written." He writes a deft portrait of John C. Calhoun, "the Iron Man" and the coming of the Civil War. To spend an evening with Calhoun in his mansion Fort Hill was "like spending an evening in a gracious Tuscan villa with a Roman senator." On the Civil War, his best and most detailed studies of people are of Jefferson Davis, Lincoln and Jackson. Nor are the biographical sketches confined to humans: Witness the profiles of Indianapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles, of Coca-Cola and jazz and Washington, D.C., the nation's new capital, which "then as now specialized in giant cockroaches."

But amid all the sparkle, there are weaknesses. Columbus, the first portrait we encounter, is described in part as Genoese and Venetian, but there is not a word on the fact that he had made his home in the Azores and first approached Portugal to finance his voyage. Or, if Jefferson is properly saluted, Madison is seen--particularly in the War of 1812--as an incompetent president. Johnson is more interested in Jefferson, whose activities were varied as president, than in Madison, the father of the Constitution, who was burdened by war and could not be the constitutional specialist that he was by nature.

Johnson does not attempt to retell the story of the war between the states and, no doubt, space forbids it. He recognizes that it is the "central event" in the American story. He confines himself, however, to a chapter of comment--and some asperity: "The new President [James Buchanan] was a weak man, and a vacillating one. He was lazy, frightened, confused and pusillanimous. . . . The leaders on both sides were righteous men. . . . Lincoln was a case of American exceptionalism, because in his humble, untaught way, he was a kind of moral genius, such as is seldom seen in life and hardly ever at the summit of politics. . . . By comparison, Davis was a mere mortal. But, according to his lights, he was a just man, unusually so."

Johnson's portrait of Davis is the fuller and the more attractive of the two. Of the battles of the Civil War and of the contrasting economies, he says less. But what he says is all too apt. On the decision to secede, "697 men, mostly wealthy, decided the destiny of a million people, mostly poor." He is laconic but effective on the cost of the war: "More arms and legs were chopped off in the Civil War than in any other conflict in which America has ever been engaged."

The industrialization of the United States and the development of the cattle country, railroads and the coming of the skyscrapers, Carnegie and Morgan, and the coming of the trusts, Henry Ford and the Model T (selling for $850 in 1908) are all duly recorded. With them the simultaneous flowering of American literature is discussed: Cooper, Melville, Poe, Irving, Longfellow, Twain and Whitman. The Information Age that has now transformed America is left unremarked, and Hemingway and Faulkner need more than a single reference.

Johnson's forthrightness, however, is to be condemned if that is why he is so scathing about all the 20th century presidents after Woodrow Wilson--until he reaches Ronald Reagan. And here, in singling out Reagan, it is most clear that he is a historian whose conservative judgments often affect the narrative. Reserving judgment is certainly difficult, yet it is important that one writes the story of the past as its events were understood at the time: One should enter into the spirit of the past rather than impose contemporary verdicts or what other scholars have made of it.

Of Wilson, he is lyrical: "There was indeed a streak of selfish egotism in Wilson, a self-regarding arrogance and smugness, masquerading as righteousness, which was always there and which grew with the exercise of power. Wilson, the good and great, was corrupted by power, and the more he had of it, the corruption bit, like acid in the soul."

He is especially culpable, however, in his scorn for the New Deal. He is probably correct in seeing Hoover, "the Engineer of Prosperity," as the author of the first New Deal and in seeing the Depression end only with the advent of World War II. But he is unnecessarily ruthless in his handling of FDR. It would be more accurate to describe FDR as the greatest president in U.S. history, and as the man who won World War II.

"A History of the American People" is a vivid and highly readable portrait of the way in which the United States has emerged, but students of its history will need to do some additional reading on the Roosevelt years. They can well begin by using Johnson's detailed and extremely helpful list of sources.

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