I am no history buff, but I like stories — and I love the first two books in Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, teacher, and author Walter A. McDougall’s trilogy on American history: Freedom Just Around the Corner, and Throes of Democracy.
McDougall explains moments in American history in ways that only my best teachers used to do (Hi Mrs. Oliver! Hi Mr. Schmitt!). I’ve never read anything like these books before, certainly not in any textbooks. They are poetic, humorous, and enlightening. They make me feel proud, and also ashamed, of my American heritage, less distant from my civic responsibilities, and more hopeful about my life as a hard-working person in this place and time of opportunities.
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Freedom:
What is novel about Americans, as their novelists repeatedly teach, is not that they are better or worse than peoples of other places and times (100 percent of whose genes they share), but that they are freer than other peoples to pursue happiness and yet are no happier for it. Therein lies the source of America’s disappointment. Only free people can disappoint and be disappointed by the discovery that worldly ideals cannot be advanced except by worldly means. That raises the historical questions: how did it happen that Americans managed to seize such freedom, conceive such ideals, achieve such success, yet grieve over such disappointment? Did they think themselves somehow exempt from the curses of Adam and Eve?
A short answer can be had by conducting a thought experiment based on a popular 1990s computer game. The player begins with an endowment of land, resources, and people, then plays God (or Caesar) in an effort to build up a civilization. Imagine a continent, heavily forested, plentifully watered, fertile, rich in metals and fossil resources, situated in the most benign latitudes of the north temperate zone. Imagine the continent vacant but for a few million neolithic tribespeople scattered over thousands of miles and vulnerable to diseases pandemic in the rest of the world. Imagine, too, a restless, advanced civilization across the sea, whose own population is starting to soar. Now introduce on the coasts of your continent tens of thousands, then millions of Britons, leavened by a mix of Germans, Frenchmen, and others, endowed with all the power, ideas, and ambitions of the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Scientific Revolution. Having imagined all this, all you need do is cry “Let the games begin!” and you have your American Genesis.
That is the short answer. For the long answer you have to read on.
Read the books. It’s what our founding fathers would want, with the possible exception of Jefferson.