Friday, July 05, 2019

America in Full

Tim Rice
July 3, 2019

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Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay (Encounter, 504 pp., $34.99)

Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope wastes no time making its purpose known. The first thing you notice about it is that it looks like a textbook. From its heft and glossy pages to its artistic cover and evocative subtitle (“An Invitation to the Great American Story”), this volume would look perfectly at home on a school desk, in a backpack, or jammed into a locker. Without even opening it, though, you can tell that Land of Hope is very different from that other book with which it is being been compared—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Land of Hope is a fact-driven history, open to the now radical-seeming notion that America is good. By presenting American history in full, McClay opens the door for a serious, studied patriotism. From the outset, this book sets itself apart from ordinary textbooks. Rather than dutifully marching through the facts and figures that led to the Founding, McClay takes care to situate America in a broader historical context. In quick but effective bursts, he guides the reader from the Crusades to the Reformation, stopping in at each milestone in European social, religious, and political history. At the same time, we see the premodern pilgrimage across the Eurasian land bridge of those who will come to be known as Native Americans.

By the time the first settlers dock at Jamestown, McClay has swiftly dispensed with the usual accounts of pre-eighteenth-century America. Neither winsome idealists nor vicious colonizers, the European settlers of the New World are presented as they would have understood themselves: as the inheritors of centuries of Western civilization. McClay, in turn, shows these settlers to be the most recent batch of rugged individuals, who, over millennia, have come here in search of a better life.

The spirit McClay identifies in this first group of Americans is crucial to his account of the Founding. Through a careful cultural study of the politics and religion of the various colonies, McClay shows that ideas of self-rule and a firm belief in the natural rights of man long preceded the conflicts of the 1770s. He doesn’t view the colonists as fighting to reclaim their rights as Englishmen. He sees the Founding, rather, as something entirely new in history—a revolution in thought based on distinctly American ideas about politics and civic life.

This is a crucial point, as McClay tells the story of America through the lens of the Founding. He takes note of all deviations from the Founders’ ideals, from the “manifest destiny” of the nineteenth century to the administrative revolution in the Progressive Era to Harry Truman’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons in World War II. No person or action is exempted from scrutiny or criticism, regardless of their political leanings or historical circumstances.

This approach becomes especially important as McClay reaches the twentieth century. These chapters are bound to be the most talked about portions of the book. When faced with a full and fair account of twentieth-century history, even the most cynical reader will be shocked at just how biased to the left, in comparison, the mainstream historical narrative has become.

It’s tempting to combat the accepted story of twentieth-century progress with a commensurate tale of decline, one that conservatives often tell: how Woodrow Wilson and his coterie of German professors tossed out the Constitution, creating the conditions in which Franklin Roosevelt sowed the seeds of a soft despotism that remains with us to this day. Instead, McClay presents the upheavals of the twentieth century as the result of an ever-present temptation to deviate from the Founding’s principles. The consistent application of this critique is one of this book’s greatest strengths.

Like other disciplines, the study of American history has fallen victim to a peculiarly modern obsession with facts. But factual accuracy does not guarantee fairness. True, most history textbooks are dull progressions of facts, but only facts that fit a specific leftist narrative. Land of Hope upends the narrative. This is not to say that it’s light on detail—rest assured, you’ll find everything you need to pass the AP exam in this volume. McClay doesn’t sacrifice facts, but instead builds up from them, reintroducing a grandeur to American history all but absent in most books of this kind.

“There is only one thing in life . . . that I must and will have before I die,” says Madeleine Lee, the socialite protagonist of Henry Adams’s 1880 novel Democracy. “I must know whether America is right or wrong.” To hear many historians today tell it, the American past offers a choice: you can love your country or you can learn its history—but not both. McClay rejects this dichotomy. He tells the tale of America in full, inviting readers to take up Lee’s question for themselves. Land of Hope proves that patriotism is not only compatible with a clear view of America’s past—it should proceed from it as well.

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