A History of the American People by Paul Johnson. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. 1997. pp 814 of text; 111 of references, maps and index.
This review was written on February 23rd 2005
The American War of Independence finished with the Paris Treaty of 1783 and America’s link with the British Crown. Like the freedom we achieved in Ireland in 1922, there were many citizens of the colony who were loyal to Britain and its king, and who were bitterly disappointed by the success of the war. Between patriots, loyalists, Indians and slaves, the revolutionary war was to some extent a civil war as much as a war of liberation. Many of those loyal to Britain crossed the border to Canada, thus changing the balance there where previously the French dominated the local scene. Through this demographic change Britain gained Canada as compensation for the loss of the American States. A few others returned to England but most remained in the States where they were subjected to some discrimination during the early years of independence. Whatever resistance to independence from Britain existed in the colony, it was inevitable that, in such a distant and potentially powerful and wealthy colony, its population would not remain subservient to any other nation.
This book is a very comprehensive account of the United States since the first immigrants arrived at the end of the 16th century and survived to be the harbingers of the powerful nation we have to-day. I found the book of particular relevance because of the huge impact the United States has had on the world during the last two hundred years, leading to the gradual Americanisation of the planet. The Americans have created a secular and materialistic society committed to consumerism, waste and self-gratification and yet, paradoxically, with a strong contrasting tradition of church going. Church going and moral rectitude there seems consistent with personal ambition and wealth, and with business success. Government was designed to allow ordinary people equality and the opportunity to leave them free from interference and oppression. Revivalism and fundamentalism were the passions that stirred the American frontiersman but did not diminish their ardour in seeking wealth and power and in decimating the indigenous population. Kellog, who set up the great food industry, was an ardent Seventh Day Adventist, illustrating the close compatibility between business, money, wealth and church going. It was an important principle that private interest had priority over public welfare. This may explain why the wealthiest country has such a relatively poor welfare and social security system.
It was axiomatic that American culture was egalitarian and democratic and that the people were anti-elitist. There was a strong prejudice against legislation and meddling with the people’s natural initiative and opportunities to advance and enrich themselves. ‘Open the door to opportunity, talent and virtue, and they will do themselves justice.’
In no country is the American influence more evident than in Ireland. It has contributed to many of our social habits, to our culture in entertainment and in the commercial world, and it has introduced into our country many aspects of organised crime, violence and commercial racketeering. It has also made us more and more dependent on America as we become a component of the American commercial empire and as we witness the increasing imbalance between the commercial and military power in the United States and the rest of the world.
In 2005, with Bush in command for his second term and following the American invasion of Iraq, we can only speculate what America is likely to do next in the world. As Lord Acton said ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and there is no reason to believe that the extraordinary power in the hands of the American will not lead to corrupt and disastrous consequences which may end in catastrophe for the human race. Traditionally the Americans have lead the world in establishing personal freedom within the democratic system but may they not respond to Bush’s neo-conservatism in the same way as the great majority of the German people responded to Nazism and continued to support and adulate Hitler up to the very end of the World War?
The book is comprehensive and covers many aspects of the social, economic and political history of America. Much emphasis is laid on the personal freedom of individuals which was the fundamental tradition of the States from the early years. For those immigrants who escaped from the feudal, aristocratic and monarchic systems of Europe, it is not surprising that the American dream of personal freedom acted as such a strong magnet from the earliest times; freedom from religious prejudice and oppression, from poverty and the devastation of recurring famines and deadly pandemics.
Much as personal freedom and the democratic system were preferable to the subjugation of the masses of Europe, they were not achieved without serious problems. Personal responsibility was not assured in equal measure in the United States and particularly so in the early years. There was a gradual and increasing migration across the continent with the passage of time but the rule of law seldom accompanies a pioneering people. The tardy development of legal restraints led to early violence, lawlessness and corruption, little known among the plain people of Europe, and this tradition of violence, corruption and racketeering at all levels of society remains with us to this day. Like many other American attributes, violence against the person, property and society is becoming part of the Irish scene and that of other European countries. In what was known as the Wild West there were constant conflicts between vigilantes and horse and cattle thieves, whites against Indians, miners versus farmers, and farmers and landowners versus railroads, although the situation did improve in the west as legal structures were set up in the new states.
Corruption is an inherent form of behaviour among us all. It becomes more widespread in a society striving for more and more possessions, whatever their needs, and it can only be controlled in a democracy by a strong spiritual and cultural commitment to virtue or by the effective rule of law. In practice the rule of law in a democratic society, obsessed by the urge to acquire more possessions, seems relatively ineffective in controlling the opportunities for corruption. Does democracy with its assurance of personal freedom but lacking the certainty of personal responsibility hold within itself the seeds of its own destruction?
Every branch of the administration and particularly the civil service was infiltrated by the spoils system. The presidency was seriously discredited at times and this is inevitable where money and commercial power play such a large part in electing the president. Andrew Jackson was beaten in the 1824 election by the corruption of Clay and Adams. This was the time when the two-party system was founded. It is also part of the culture of the Americans that successful businessmen and financiers became the icons of a materialistic society. Most of the really rich, such as Carnegie, Frick and Morgan, made their money on railways, oil, steel and mining, in a vast country with unlimited natural resources and relatively few people to exploit and enjoy these. Personal freedom and corruption brought huge opportunities for people to amass great fortunes. Does freedom eventually lead to sin and to chaos unless society is governed by a culture of caring and virtue?
In 1993 there were 559 members of Congress, that is, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives combined. Of these, 239 were practising lawyers. One hundred and fifty five were businessmen of whom about 70 were qualified lawyers. There were 77 in education, 33 in medicine and 97 in the public services. Parliament was heavily dominated by the legal profession. One reason for the imbalance in congressional personnel was the huge cost of becoming elected, computed at $5.000 per week for the House and $12,000 for the Senate. It was virtually impossible to become a member of Congress without being wealthy. In the 1990s the President and his wife, 42% of the House and 61% of the Senate had law degrees. It appears that the number of lawyers in government continues to grow. It surely must be ironic that at the time of independence difficult questions of legislation were referred to the lawyers because they were deemed to be independent of personal ambition!
A worrying aspect of American governance is the increasing power of the courts. This applies in particular to the Supreme Court. The adoption by the courts of legislative measures which by right should be a matter for the President and Congress is a trend which is apparent in Ireland too where parliament may be reluctant to adopt measures which may be unpopular with the electorate. The author provides several examples of such intervention by the Supreme Court in the United States, including its role in establishing desegregation, a decision which should have been the responsibility of the President and Congress. Another worry, at least in Ireland, is the widespread lack of accountability resulting from the easy access to the law courts.
The author provides important biographical notes about the outstanding leaders of the revolution and the subsequent architects of the new republic. These accounts confirm the qualities of courage, energy, idealism and eccentricity which mark those who inspire us and provide the dynamics of history. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams are among those whose full biographies could be read with profit.
|Trinity Episcopal Church, Unfinished Capitol in background|
There is an important chapter about the American Civil War and its genesis. It appeared to be an inevitable consequence of the division between the Northern anti-slavery States and the Southern slavery States. Slavery originated in Barbados and spread rapidly to the Southern States and Islands when cotton became an important industry. The slavery division between the Northern and Southern States originated as early as the end of the 18th century at the time of the Revolution and it festered for another 80 years up to the Civil War in 1850. The war lasted for about four years with after-effects which continued for another fifteen years. While it seemed to be inevitable in view of the bitter division about slavery, it was in fact a major failure on the part of the Federal government in Washington to control the extremists on both sides of the divide. Owing to this central failure to solve differences amicably, the Southern slave States seceded unilaterally without discussing the proposal with their electorates, thus precipitating the war. Like all civil wars, it was conducted with great bitterness and there was little respect for the rule of law. It led to much destruction where the fighting took place and left scars on the American psyche which was to endure for a few generations.
Although the end of slavery was inevitable, nevertheless one could not but have sympathy for the slave states because of the stable system which had evolved there. On many of the estates the slaves became loyal and happy subjects and enjoyed the security of a stable community. There were of course, as always happens in human affairs, many examples of abuse and cruelty but it was sad to realise that many of the slaves were much worse off when they were freed. Many left the Southern States and became rudderless, underprivileged and a hated minority in all parts of the Union, including the Northern states where the seeds of their freedom were set.
It is only in recent times that the bitter racial divide which existed in America after the civil war has begun to narrow but even to-day the blacks remain underprivileged in political, social and economic terms. A paper in the Lancet published in 2004 shows that infant mortality, adult mortality, school drop-outs and health care in general showed a substantial disparity between blacks and whites with a twofold difference between blacks and whites in terms of lives lost before the age of 75 years. Asians and Hispanics also enjoy better conditions than the blacks and are much closer to the whites in terms of prosperity, health and education. The United States is still a deeply divided nation, most especially on ethnic grounds.
Many of the immigrants from Ireland, England, Scotland and other European countries were subjected to religious persecution in their native lands and this applied to Catholics and the disestablished churches – the Quakers, Huguenots, and the many low churches which broke from the Anglican persuasion. Religion was always a feature of the American culture where atheism and agnosticism was generally frowned upon. From the early days of immigration religion was the binding force that secured the communities on the East coast. The popularity of religion, while always strong in the United States compared to Europe, tended to fluctuate from time to time. There was a surge in church going among all denominations during Eisenhower’s presidency. In 1910 43% of citizens were attached to church. This had risen to 49% in 1939 and by 1950 it was 55%. After Eisenhower’s presidency it had reached 69%, back to 62% by 1970. The substantial increase during the 20th century might be attributed to the huge evangelical movement during the 1930s and later, with such well known evangelists as Monsignor Sheehan and Billy Graham and many other figures travelling the continent and spreading the Bible and the gospel of Christ at their revivalist meetings. It is no surprise that the churches which have the most numerous adherents to-day are the Catholics, and the low churches which have forsaken much of the ritual of the Anglicans to dwell mostly on the ‘truths’ of the Bible. The Episcopalian Church, the direct American extension of the Anglican Church, is in continued decline as it gives away to the Catholics and a bewildering variety of traditional and latter-day Bible adherents.
It was not uncommon to find that the religious could also be among the corrupt. Some amassed great wealth and some became great benefactors in their later years, perhaps realising that they could not take their worldly goods with them. As was said, plutocracy often leads to democracy. Thus the public was often the beneficiary of a crooked man’s generosity.
As regards violence, in 1992 one of every four American citizens was the victim of crime. On this date there was a greater proportion of criminals among children than any other age group. According to Johnson, reported violent crime had increased by 560% from 1960 to 1990, and there was a greater preponderance of criminals among blacks. He drew a direct correlation between the rise of crime and the decline of religion, although the evidence of secular churchgoing changes seemed inconsistent with this view.
In his chapters on social and economic affairs, Johnson’s description of the rise and fall of prohibition should be an object lesson to all legislators and is a classical example of the so-called Karl Popper’s law of intended effect for, apart from not reducing alcohol consumption and alcoholism, it lead to widespread organised crime. It was a do-gooder’s conception and the not unexpected result of their poor understanding of human nature. The prohibition laws were rescinded in 1933 but the organised crime continued in many other areas to blot America’s social and political life and history. Prohibition was an experiment in social engineering which did permanent damage to American society. We can draw a parallel to our own current laws criminalizing drugs in Ireland. We are living in an increasing drug culture, contributed primarily by the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession but spilling over into the criminal supply of addictive drugs to the public. The criminalising of drugs has been an abysmal failure, both in terms of controlling the scourge and in leading to widespread crime. It is another classic case of the Karl Popper law and, like the scourge of prohibition; it can only be controlled by decriminalising the personal use of drugs while at the same time employing legislative and commercial measures to control the sources of supply.
There are interesting allusions to the drinking habits of the Americans. The history of the origin and growth of the Cola soft drink industry is a parable of the commercial history of the American nation. The past American craze for dry martini sparks the author’s reminder of Barbara Parker’s quote
I like to have a dry martini;
Two at the very most;
After three I’m under the table;
After four the host.
There are also chapters on the evolution of American music, education, literature and the visual arts. The chapter on demography is essential reading if one is to understand the dynamics of the American phenomenon.
The chapter on the history of California is fascinating. It describes the early immigration from the East about 1850, mainly as a result of finding the rich deposits of gold; a huge gold rush followed. It describes the foundation of San Francisco (and its disastrous earthquake) and its reputation in the early years as America’s premier sin city, later to be cleaned up by William Randolph Hearst. Johnson describes the meteoric rise and growth of Los Angeles, a city which owes its size and its huge contribution to American culture in the areas of music, films, the arts and architecture to the many Eastern Europeans immigrants, including the Russians Jews, who found their permanent home on this part of the West Coast of America. Frank Lloyd Wright made a seminal contribution to American architecture and his career was intimately related to Los Angeles where he built some of his extraordinary houses which made such an impact on national and international architecture.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex.
His military leadership during the World War certainly qualified him to share insightful views about the military. Eisenhower was critical of militarism, of generals being involved in politics and of the excessive growth of military power. He disapproved of the arms lobby encouraging government to expand the military arsenal.
The author was critical enough of FDR but admitted that he had good qualities as a president. He is informative about all the presidents from Wilson to Clinton. Wilson he described as having made a disastrous contribution to foreign policy after the Great War despite a successful domestic career. He was the president who was seriously ill during the last two years of his presidency but his wife and doctor managed to conceal this from his closest colleagues and the public.
Johnson is neo-conservative in his views of the latter day presidents, approving strongly of the republican incumbents Nixon and Reagan, and being disparaging and contemptuous of the Kennedy and LBJ regimes. He is dismissive of Clinton, describing him as a second rater. He refers to his ‘failures and moral inadequacies’. The author would undoubtedly have been enthusiastic about Bush’s foreign policy.
He is harshly critical of Jack Kennedy and the extended Kennedy family. He makes so many improbable accusations about them, their lying ways, their corruption, their contact with well known criminals and their extraordinary sexual appetites, that one must have serious doubts about Johnson as an objective and credible historian. If he is correct in averring that Jack Kennedy’s election to the White House was based on money and corruption, and his father’s malpractices, criminality, dishonesty and lies, can much of these factors not have been a feature of other presidential candidates? He states that most of the intellectuals and liberals who supported Kennedy were guilty of self-deception and were involved in one of the biggest frauds in American history. He doubts whether Kennedy was the real winner, stating that the elections in Texas and Illinois were rigged in his favour. Cortisone treatment was employed to give Kennedy a more handsome and elegant appearance. In Kennedy’s TV confrontation he had with Nixon, the author charges the TV company with using extraordinary means of embarrassing Nixon during the interview. His account of Kennedy’s sexual activities beggars description. He had sex every day, he could have it with anybody and he had sex in the early morning before his inauguration! His seemingly unbalanced opinion of Kennedy can only damage his own reputation.
Johnson is equally critical and contemptuous of Linden Johnson who took over from Kennedy. He refers to the many scandals that Johnson was involved in and to his corruption and unpleasant character. He too had a voracious sexual appetite, no more discriminating than Kennedy’s, and was an inveterate bottom pincher in swimming pools! A philanderer and at least one homosexual episode!
On the financial side, LBJ was the first president to introduce budget deficits, thanks to his introduction of progressive and radical social services and his concern about mounting environmental problems. Under his presidency he had nine million acres of land put aside as a wilderness and by the time of his retirement this had increased to one hundred million. With the accession of Bush this land is apparently now under threat as part of his alleged antagonism to the environmental lobby. Since LBJ’s time the successive American governments have apparently thrown all discretion to the winds in matters of budget deficits. LBJ also continued to support the Vietnam War and considerably increased the American military strength in Vietnam. The War started in 1961 in Kennedy’s time and did not finish until 1975. However, American intervention in Vietnam had started as early as 1954 but was initially a more clandestine operation. The amount of ordnance employed in the War included three times the explosives employed by US bombers in the World War. The Vietnam War and other foreign interventions by the Americans are a reminder of how vulnerable we and the rest of the world are to the American industrial/military influence under Bush.
In view of the author’s definite bias in favour of the Republicans and the conservative lobby in America, it comes as no surprise that he is an admirer of Thatcher and describes her successor John Major as ‘featureless’. Clinton is lacklustre and the author makes excuses to justify such disastrous American policy decisions as the Iran arms scandal and the intervention in Nicaragua during Reagan’s administration. They were excused by him ‘in the American interest even if they were guilty of technically breaking the law’!
He describes the interesting episode of the McCarthy intervention into American affairs in the 1950s. It was a dramatic and emotional response to the Cold War and to the passionate anti-communism of Senator Joseph McCarthy who managed to highjack the administration into adopting draconian measures against many citizens, innocent and otherwise, who were suspected to have contacts with or leanings towards Moscow. McCarthyism terminated as abruptly as it emerged, to the longstanding embarrassment of the American government and people. It was a sudden break from sanity and was likened to the Salem witch hunt of the 18th Century.