Johnson wrote his book A History of the American People through the perspective of the leading men and women in all walks of life, both prominent and unknown, including pioneers, inventors, pilgrims, all the American presidents, politicians, artists, educators, religious leaders, moviemakers, and many others who helped shaped the United States to the great nation it is today. Specially mentioned are the likes of John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Cotton Mather, Franklin, Tom Paine, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. He used these peoples’ letters, diaries and other written and recorded conversations in order to give a the narrations a sense of reality.
What kind of “story” is he trying to tell?
Johnson went beyond a factual impersonal and chronological historical narrative. Instead gave a detailed, lively and bold recounting of 400 years of America’s history from the first settlers in colonial America and their deep ties to Britain’s history and culture in the late 16th century to its rise as the world’s only superpower at the end of the 20th century. As stated in the book’s jacket, it covers a wide variety of theme encompassed in every aspect of American history, including politics, business, economics, arts, literature, science, society and customs, and traditions and religious beliefs. Its in-depth portrayal of the American people followed the evolution of “American ideas” through its struggle for independence, the building of its nation, its endeavor to overcome slavery, the industrialization of its communities, and its massive economic growth.
Which “facts” does he select, how does he arrange them, and what interpretation (meaning) does he give them?
Johnson was not timid in giving his views and opinions on controversial topics like issues of racism, religion and education, the rising influence of women, political correctness, cause of depression and freedom of the press. He discussed them as they occurred chronologically throughout history. For example, unlike other history books that concentrated on the role of economics and military struggle as the main factor in shaping American politics and the Constitution, Johnson emphasized that religion is an important motivating factor that has been intertwined with American politics from the beginning. He discussed how Puritan concepts, like that of John Winthrop’s ideal of a shining ‘City on a Hill’ have inspired Americans to create a new society that would be an epitome for other nations. He later rationalized that the Great Awakening of the 1740s as “…the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible”. He even disclosed the religious views of several American patriots that helped shaped their personality and views in shaping the nation. For example, he revealed that Washington “… regarded religion as a civilizing force, but not essential” (p.206) and that the reason he served as a vestryman in his local Anglican church is due to the belief that “…this be a pointed gesture of solidarity with an institution he regarded as underpinning a civilized society” (p. 208). Another example of his facts is in his chapter “Why the Depression was So Deep and Long Lasting,” he asserted that the “… United States, in conjunction with British and other leading industrial and financial powers, tried to keep the world prosperous by deliberately inflating the money supply” (p. 727). He did not hesitate to put the blame of the problem at its door which is the American government itself whose reckless augmentation of its own currency has led to profound depression.
From what kind of cultural context is Johnson writing?
In other words, how is the “present” affecting his understanding of the “past”? The cultural context presented by Johnson is that the tradition of liberty and freedom has given its people the immense opportunity to improve their lives, rise from poverty, strengthen their solidarity and build an even greater nation. He used the data he researched to be presented as facts that would support his many opinions about the important aspects of the American history. Also he was able to give his opinions as to what should have and shouldn’t have been done throughout the course of history in a new perspective as a detached modern Englishman who has a deep understanding of the qualities that have separated Europe and America and allowed the latter to rise as a superpower. This allowed him to end his book with a chapter showing that the United States is a nation filled with people who are both problem-solvers and problem creators. Its culture is filled with strength, courage intelligence and skill it gained as it overcame numerous problems and diversities and learned from its past as it looks to its future; however, the same freedom causes its strong-willed and outspoken people to continually question not only each other, but also its politicians and government thereby creating more problems.
At the end of your essay, write at least one paragraph in which you critique Johnson’s history. What does he do well? How might we criticize him?
The book is the most opinionated concise comprehensive and well-written narrative of the history of the American people that I’ve ever read. He gave a realistic view of the prominent men and women in history and he was not hesitant to point out their flaws and praise their achievements. He gave was able to give details that explain the connections between causes and effects and gives facts that are often absent in other history books. For example, it is interesting to know that Hollywood was a “stuck-up religious place, found in 1887 by two Methodists…who hoped to turn it into a Bible thumping district.” However, it has to be noted that Johnson shows his biases in his opinions through the book. He is definitely a pro-individual with his persistent portrayal of its leaders. He is pro-religion with detailed accounts of the religious roots of the American Revolution and his insistence that the religious values have helped shape the nation. Lastly, he is pro-free market with his praise of this type of market in colonial America. Furthermore, there are some inconsistencies that are confusing in his book. For instance, Calhoun’s family was described as “poor”, however he also mentioned near the end of the same paragraph that upon his father’s death, “the family wealth was sizeable enough to finance a college education..” (p.314). Another contradictory statement occurred in his discussion on America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. He argued that America would have won the war if it has “…responded to aggression by occupying the North” (p.879). However, he later opposed his previous statement by implying that Vietnam cannot be won when he wrote on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that “they became involved in a Vietnam-type guerilla war which they could never win” (p.929). Despite these inconsistencies, I believe that Johnson’s presentation of the facts and their natural conclusion are fair-minded and well-balanced.