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Just So

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

March 08, 1998|ESMOND WRIGHT | 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."

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.

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