The Hopeful Land

David Randall

Wilfred McClay’s marvelous essay on American history, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, pushes back against the content and the form of American history textbooks: “It [Land of Hope] means to offer to American readers, young and old alike, an accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative account of their own country—an account that will inform and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” Alas, there is need. The acids of anti-Americanism, both Marxist and Multicultural, have produced a generation of textbooks unwilling to regard America with affection or as a unity. McClay indeed has written what history textbooks avoid: an engaging narrative, without the anxious busyness of footnotes, section breaks, insets, or charts. McClay follows Adam Smith’s stricture that “It is not his [the historian’s] business to bring proofs for propositions but to narrate facts.” In so doing, McClay has written a history of America that easily outshines the textbooks it seeks to replace.

I described Land of Hope as an essay, and that may give the misleading impression that it doesn’t perform the necessary work of a basic history book. It does. McClay’s narrative provides the essential skeleton of events, people, and dates that make up American history. McClay interprets these facts, but he does not scant them.

What McClay also provides is lucid, conversational prose, accessible both to young readers and to adults, which simultaneously summarizes and interprets large amounts of American history. Consider McClay’s swift, easy description of the career of Charles Grandison Finney (1792 – 1875):

Finney would become the greatest revivalist of his day, and in his style, he could be seen as the prototype of the modern American evangelical preacher, in the mold of Billy Graham and his stadium-sized open-air revivals. Yet Finney’s theological convictions were very far from the Calvinism in which figures like Graham would be educated. Finney believed that the saving of souls did not have to wait upon a miraculous infusion of grace; nor was it a question of a proper theological education. Instead, it was possible to induce conversion of everyone, black and white, male and female, young and old, by the careful use of “new methods” designed to elicit the proper emotional state and receptivity.

McClay goes on to describe Finney’s mastery of revivalist innovations like the “anxious bench,” in which sinners would confess their sins and publicly seek forgiveness while surrounded by family and friends. Finney defended these powerfully cathartic events by declaring “the results justify my method.”

McClay concisely conveys a great deal of information about Finney; puts him within a historical context connecting him back to John Calvin and forward to Billy Graham; lightly evokes the quintessentially American radicalism of his religion (“black and white, male and female”); and equally lightly brings up a basic American debate about the good and bad in preaching Finney-style (“results justify my method”). And McClay makes an equally important interpretive point just by spending so much time on Finney: the history of faith is central to the history of America.

McClay emphasizes that point throughout. His chapter on “The Shaping of British North America” starts with the medieval Catholic background of European thought and the religious revolutions wrought by Martin Luther and John Calvin. Land of Hope takes the time to explore the nature and the influence of New England Puritans’ theological commitments, frame Progressivism within the long history of Protestant revival movements aimed at communal moral reform, and underscore how Martin Luther King Jr., preacher and preacher’s son, marshaled faith in the crusade to extend full civil rights to black Americans. McClay notes that he has “chosen to emphasize the political history of the United States at every turn,” but his sustained focus on America’s religious history strikes me just as strongly.

So does McClay’s emphasis that our historical task should be to seek out understanding of the moral complexities of the past. McClay notably provides a measured judgment of the antebellum South, the reliable standby for historians who seek the cheap satisfaction of denouncing the dead as villains: “the old South . . . had many elements of beauty and graciousness, learning and high culture, piety and devotion, all mixed in with elements of ugliness and brutal dehumanization.” McClay also impresses by his ability to provide judgments of comparative importance. McClay mentions that Indians, blacks, and some workers got a pretty raw deal during the Gilded Age—after he mentions a more enduring, and therefore more salient, trend: “In 1865 . . . American industrial power was inferior to that of any of the major European powers, but by 1900, the United States had become the leading industrial power in the world.” Land of Hope tells American history with nuance and proportion.

McClay achieves this nuance and proportion not least because he tells the American story in coherent narratives, rather than in the textbook style which divides each chronological chapter into discontinuous subsections on different aspects of American history. Most textbooks parcel the story of slavery into several chapters; McClay collects its long history into one chapter on “The Old South and Slavery.” McClay’s account of nineteenth-century American foreign policy likewise unites a century of events, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Roosevelt Corollary. McClay facilitates complex judgment of American history by preferring thematic unity to chronological division.

Land of Hope also facilitates complex historical judgment by integrating the history of individual Americans into the larger story. Too many textbooks reduce American history into an account of reified social and economic abstractions—the history of abolitionism or capitalism, and not the history of abolitionists or businessmen. McClay takes the time to provide short biographies of large numbers of important, admirable Americans, which explain the importance of their actions in American history. He includes not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but also a wonderful range of lesser known figures. Charles Grandison Finney is one; so are Jonathan Edwards, Henry Ford, and Henry J. Kaiser. McClay’s American history is a chain of American lives.

Kaiser’s story is the least likely to appear in a standard history textbook, and so most worth quoting, to illustrate how McClay uses biography to serve historical narrative. Kaiser—a “blustery, colorful entrepreneur with boundless energy” was one of numerous industrialists who played a crucial role in securing Hitler’s defeat. Having previously demonstrated his indomitable spirit completing such projects as the construction of the Hoover Dam, Kaiser threw himself into relief efforts for the victims of Nazism as early as 1940.

His chief contribution to the defeat of Hitler, though, was in inventing critically important techniques for the mass production of commercial and naval ships, such as the use of welding and subassemblies that allowed for Ford-like efficiency. He established the famous Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California, where he perfected the construction in a mere forty-five days of the homely but indispensable workhorse vessels known as Liberty ships, the first all-welded prefabricated cargo ships, later to be superseded by the larger and faster Victory ships. Other Kaiser shipyards produced the smaller “escort carriers”. . . All were produced in record time.

Many American history textbooks mention Liberty ships; few, if any, discuss them as the achievement of Kaiser individually, rather than of America generically. Many textbooks include economic history; far fewer include the enterprising achievements of businessmen. McClay’s smooth integration throughout of individual character and historical consequences gives Land of Hope’s history a sharp and illuminating focus that its textbook rivals lack.

McClay set out to write an accurate, inspiring narrative history of the United States. There’s an old tension between accurate and inspiring. Cicero wrote, “Who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth?” But he also wrote that history “gives life to recollection and guidance to human existence.” One need not be a cynic to think that truth and guidance sometimes come into tension. It’s a delicate job to weave together truth and guidance, to unite the accurate and the inspiring, a task which McClay executes with nimble aplomb in Land of Hope.

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