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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


A History of the American People

By Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 1,088 pp, 1997

British historian Paul Johnson makes clear in the preface to A History of the American People his motivation for writing this book: “This work is a labor of love.” Indeed, this love for America shines through the massive tome, and ought to put native-born Americans to shame.

In 976 pages of written text (1,088 including the source notes and index), Johnson presents a well-organized overview of American history, from 1580 to 1997. He covers most of the major events, although in such an undertaking some are bound to get overlooked (the most notable being the Japanese internment during World War 2). He delves into some detail, as well, providing rich and colorful anecdotes.

Take, for example, Patrick Henry, of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame. Henry, a “born ham actor” has Proposed to the burgesses that Virginia should raise a militia and be ready to do battle. What was Virginia waiting for? Massachusetts was fighting.

'Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have?' Then Henry got to his knees, in the posture of a manacled slave, intoning in a low but rising voice: ‘Is life so dear, our peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!’ He then bent to the earth with his hands still crossed, for a few seconds, and suddenly sprang to his feet, shouting, ‘Give me liberty!’ and flung wide his arms, paused, lowered his arms, clenched his right hand as if holding a dagger at his breast, and said in sepulchral tones: ‘Or give me death.’ He then beat his breast, with his hand holding the imaginary dagger.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember learning it that way in school.

Another refreshing aspect of the book was the lack of deference given to normally worshiped figures, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt ("FDR’s lies are innumerable and some of those on the record are important.") and John F. Kennedy (Kennedy biographer: "No national figure has ever so consistently and unashamedly used others to manufacture a personal reputation as a great thinker and scholar" and this gem: "the one respect in which Jack carried on his father’s traditions not merely dutifully but with genuine enthusiasm was in his pursuit, seduction and exploitation of women.").

Although Johnson covers the political history quite well, he does not neglect, as most general histories do, the cultural aspects of American history. We learn, for example, that Hollywood was a "stuck-up religious place, founded in 1887 by two Methodists, Horace and Daeida Wilcox, who hoped to turn it into a Bible-thumping district." The town actually banned liquor and movie houses when it incorporated in 1903. Hollywood ran out of water, though, and in 1910 incorporated into Los Angeles, and in 1913 the first movie, The Squaw Man, was filmed there. That same year, a group called Conscientious Citizens gathered 10,000 signature to ban movie-making in Los Angeles, claiming that the movies would bring immorality. "Were they so far wrong?" Johnson asks.

Johnson also gives religion its proper due in the country’s history, calling the Great Awakening "the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible." Fittingly, he closes the book lamenting that religion, through the banning of prayer in schools and displaying Christmas symbols in public places, is being driven from the public square. He is one of the few modern historians to recognize the salient role religion, specifically Christianity, played in the founding and development of America.

Johnson’s admiration for the American people makes this more than a dry history – it is a compelling and enjoyable narrative of, as he puts it, "the greatest of all human adventures." It is well worth the time and effort required to slog through it.

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