Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828
By Walter A. McDougall
HarperCollins. $29.95
New York Times Book Review, May 23, 2004

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."

McDougall's narrative is too nuanced and complex to stick consistently to the theme of hustling. To the extent that he does so, however, the book resembles an inverted pyramid, its elaborate edifice of scholarship resting on a wholly inadequate interpretive base. Positing "hustling" as a universal theme of U.S. history -- indeed, of human nature itself -- collapses the differences between historical eras and lumps all kinds of economic and political activities into a single distended category. It also makes it impossible to account for significant historical change. McDougall, for example, embraces Gordon Wood's argument that the American Revolution transformed a society based on hierarchy and patronage into one of striving individuals. But this sits uneasily with his portrait of the colonial era as a time of ceaseless individual hustling.

What makes a book good, my former colleague John A. Garraty once remarked, is what you leave out. Having just completed my own textbook of U.S. history, I am fully aware that the key to a book of this kind is selection. Unfortunately, McDougall's single-minded preoccupation with hustling leads him to leave out those who do not fit into his predetermined framework. He entirely ignores Spanish colonization, since Spain did not, it seems, contribute to Americans' hustling mentality. Indians appear exclusively as obstacles to the expansion of hustling colonists or as playing one acquisitive European power against another. Critics of mainstream values such as Puritans Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams get short shrift. Instead of detailing their distinctive social and theological views, McDougall describes them as "hustlers looking for new opportunities."

Generally speaking, this is history written from the winners' viewpoint. McDougall's first chapter offers an excellent portrait of England on the eve of colonization, with its modernizing agriculture, burgeoning merchant class and emerging market economy. But when it comes to the general population, including the thousands evicted by hustling landlords, all he can say is that ordinary Englishmen "had to learn how to hustle themselves to get their piece of the action." Artisans who helped shape the American Revolution, workers victimized by the early Industrial Revolution, farmers striving not for ceaseless accumulation but for small-scale economic independence receive little or no attention. McDougall justifies his omissions by commenting that no Americans were "anti-development or anti-market." This throwback to the consensus history of the 1950s, which portrayed an America without serious internal disagreement, ignores those who resisted the rise of competitive capitalism or had other ideas about organizing society.

The book's most startling gap, however, concerns slavery. Fewer than 10 of 200 pages on the years to 1763 deal with Africans, who accounted for nearly half of all arrivals to 18th century British North America. Slavery then essentially disappears for another 150 pages, until it resurfaces at the Constitutional Convention.

In a book remarkable for the author's command of a wide variety of subjects, the discussion of slavery seems not only insufficient but oddly out of date. Contrary to recent scholarship, McDougall has convinced himself that U.S. slavery was a rather mild institution. "Life in the Chesapeake," he writes of colonial slaves, "while undeniably hard, was not insufferable." Later, he sugarcoats the experience of slavery in the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th century -- "the work was drudgery, but not physically demanding" -- and grossly underestimates the number of slaves sold from Eastern states to the Deep South, with the consequent disruption of families and communities.

McDougall recognizes that the early republic was a "white man's democracy" but seems to take racial exclusion for granted. He refers to the Naturalization Law of 1790, which imposed no literacy, religious or property requirements on immigrants, as establishing a national principle of "free immigration." Yet that law was not an open door since it limited citizenship to "white" people, thereby excluding much of the world's population. Ultimately, he fails to probe the symbiotic relationship between liberty and slavery, a more fruitful and meaningful theme than the hustling mentality that shapes and limits his account of the first 2 1/2 centuries of U.S. history.

Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of American history at Columbia University, is the author of "The Story of American Freedom," "Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World" and the forthcoming "Give Me Liberty: An American History."