Once upon a time, U.S. historians considered a single book insufficient to chronicle even part of the national experience. Henry Adams wrote nine stout volumes on the nation's history during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a 16-year period. John B. McMaster's "History of the People of the United States: From the Revolution to the Civil War" encompassed eight books. Such enterprises have disappeared, a casualty of today's shorter attention spans. Publishers now compete to fill their history lists with books short enough to be read on a coast-to-coast plane ride. And at a time of rampant academic overspecialization, few historians venture into unfamiliar terrain. Even today's survey textbooks typically have five or six authors, each an expert on a slice of U.S. history.
Walter A. McDougall deserves admiration for embarking on a three-volume account of the entire American experience. The first, "Freedom Just Around the Corner," a title borrowed from a line in Bob Dylan's "Jokerman," covers the years from 1585, from the first attempt to establish an English colony in North America, to 1828, when the election of Andrew Jackson symbolized the flowering of political democracy in the young republic. The University of Pennsylvania historian is best known for scholarship on the 20th century: He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age." He has read widely in the historical literature of early America and to a considerable degree mastered it. McDougall has a fluid, aphoristic literary style and offers incisive portraits of key individuals and complex historical phenomena. Political leaders such as George Washington, inventors Eli Whitney and Robert Fulton and lesser-known figures like British firebrand John Wilkes -- "the first English or American politician to make a business of posing as the people's tribune" in 18th century England -- come alive.
The book's strongest section covers the colonial era. Fascinated by technology, McDougall explains in loving detail how leather was tanned, linen produced and iron manufactured in the pre-Industrial Age. He lucidly describes the "fiscal-military state" that enabled 18th century Britain to rule a vast empire and enjoy substantial economic growth. He places the events leading to American independence in a global context, pointing out that Britain could not give in to colonists' demands to control their own purse strings without raising the question of how the Irish, Canadians, West Indians and Bengalis would henceforth be governed.
Effective coverage of so broad a time span requires a clear organizing theme. When he embarked on this project, McDougall explains in his preface, he considered among other ideas U.S. geography, technology, democracy and mythology. He eventually rejected them in favor of "the American people's penchant for hustling -- in both the positive and negative senses." The book begins not with early European colonization but with Herman Melville's mid-19th century novel "The Confidence Man," a portrait of a swindler. The con man, McDougall seems to be arguing, is the quintessential American.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary in that the concerns of the present shape our questions about the past. McDougall's is an American history for our times, an era of shady accountants, executives enriching themselves at the expense of stockholders and governments going to war under dubious pretenses. None of this, he reminds us, is new. Americans have always exhibited the good and bad sides of the hustler mentality -- they have been inventive and dishonest, striving and self-absorbed, committed to noble ideals but acting as if the ends justified the means. They were not the original hustlers -- that distinction belongs to England, "a nation of hustlers" for whom Christian morality became "an excuse for conquest." But Americans quickly outdid the mother country. Colonization began as a "gigantic land speculation." When Britain tried to enforce its trade laws, colonists appealed to high-minded principles to protect their bottom lines. Later, they created a "hustling republic" based on a Constitution that "embraced human nature in all its sordidness and, in potential at least, transformed private egos into public goods."