E Pluribus Unum
American History For The Twitter Age
A new book takes on American history in the style of Steinbeck and Benet.
The publication of A Little History of the United States really intrigued me. Fascinated by works such as poet Stephen Vincent Benet’s America (1944) and novelist and journalist John Steinbeck’s America and the Americans (1966), I have often thought of offering a course to history and social science students that would require them to tell the story of the United States in a limited number of words (say, a 5,000-word essay). And I was secretly hoping that this new book by James West Davidson would push me to finally do so.
Davidson opens with a great question: “How do you make history?” Which immediately led me to wonder: Was he speaking of historiography, the writing of history, or the actual making of history, the struggle to create and recreate the world we live in? And he quickly answered: “writing history and living it seem to belong to two different worlds. Yet those worlds are tied together more closely than might first appear.” Absolutely!
Davidson himself rightly argues that one’s sense of history shapes not only how one experiences the world, but also how one engages it—a point he illustrates by citing the lives of two very different but equally good and courageous men: He speaks first of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whose reading of Thoreau not only led him to struggle against white supremacy, but also, to oppose the war in Vietnam. Davidson then speaks of his own father in law, Valentine Untalan, a Filipino whose reading of the military history of World War I led him to join the fight against the Japanese in 1942 and, after surviving the horrific Bataan Death March, to come to America at war’s end and serve in the United States Army. All of which is to say that what we “make” of history shapes what we try to make of our lives and of our lived history. Again, I heartily agree, though I kept wondering if Davidson believes—as I do—that those of us who make history by writing it have a responsibility to make history not just interesting and entertaining, but also challenging.
Davidson’s A Little History of the United States is the latest work in the Yale University Press series “Little Histories.” Previous titles include the 1935 classic A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich, A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland, and A Little History of Science by William Bynum. But don’t let the “little” in the title fool you. In contrast to the Oxford University Press series “Very Short Introductions”—aka VSI’s—Yale’s Little Histories are not so little. Davidson’s contribution comes in at around 300 pages. Still, its 40 short chapters make for a jaunty read. And the original drawings by Gordon Allen at the head of each of Davidson’s chapters will give readers good little visual nudges.
It may sound cliché, but I mean it when I say that A Little History of the United States is a work that can be read with pleasure and “profit” by folks of all ages. While young people will get a fresh and crisper take on what their too-often-dull textbooks are trying to teach them, older Americans will not only be reminded of what they have forgotten since high school, but also become better acquainted with what historians have revealed about the past since then. And though the work is not as short as I imagined, it has encouraged me to consider anew the offering of that long-imagined “little history” course.
Davidson writes in his Introduction, “This book is a history of how the United States came to be. The tale is remarkable, spanning over five hundred years. It describes how one nation spread across a continent filled with an enormous variety of peoples. And it explains how they came to unite under a banner of freedom and equality.” And to his historical and literary credit, Davidson does not render American history as a tale of steady upward progress or as one of divinely ordained Manifest Destiny. Nor, thankfully, does he resort to the old Cold War narrative that placed the ideals of liberty and equality in competition, if not at war, with each other. Rather, he attends smartly and critically both to the tragedies and ironies that have marked the making of America—the brutality of conquest, the establishment of slave-based regimes, the inequalities, exclusions, and injustices of class, race, and gender—and to the popular hopes and efforts to secure the Declaration’s promise of “equality” and “the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
An accomplished scholar and textbook author, Davidson has written a work that should lead readers to reflect anew on America’s past and present. Starting with Columbus and finishing with Reagan, he really does pack a lot into the book—in fact, one of my few complaints is that in view of how he titled it, A Little History of the United States, not A Little History of America, I think he could have, no, should have, started his history in the 18th century to allow him to write more on the nation’s past hundred years.
Davidson peoples his narrative with Americans in all their diversity—men and women, the conquerors and conquered, the oppressors and oppressed, the native-born and immigrant, the inspiring voices and the struggling multitudes. He points to the ravages both intended and unintended of imperialism and colonialism, and of slavery and capitalism. And again, he gives good attention to the efforts from below at resistance, rebellion, reform, and revolution.
Moreover, Davidson writes in a most engaging fashion. For example, I admired how he opens his chapter on the making of the U.S. Constitution (“More Perfect Union”) with an almost-poetic statement, a critical question, a powerful and beautiful historical image, and a restatement of the fundamental question: “Americans thought their way to a revolution and fought their way to independence. But could they stay united? At war’s end, Congress issued an official Great Seal of the United States featuring an eagle with the motto: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. But how could this possibly be managed?” And I loved the way he closes his chapter on the presidential election of 1800—in which the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent Federalist John Adams—with a touch of democratic pedagogy: “The election of 1800 provided an important lesson. The end of one administration did not signal the end of the nation. E pluribus unum did not mean that everyone had to think the same way and hold the same beliefs. The nation could survive—even with differences.”
Davidson’s chapter on antebellum slavery—Cotton Kingdom—is excellent. Posing the question “How much did slavery shape the South?” he proceeds not simply to cite the numbers of masters and slaves, but also to discuss, in a humane and down-to-earth way, the experiences of the respective classes and the sufferings wrought by “the peculiar institution” upon those at the bottom of Dixie’s social order. Indeed, his treatment of the 19th century is generally excellent. And I got a special kick out of the way he wrote of immigration and urbanization in A Tale of Two Cities. Focusing on Chicago’s growth, he says, “In a city expanding so quickly, the answer [to how new a city it was] can be found by considering a series of directions: up and down; in and out; high, middle, and low.” When you have limited space as a writer you have to write creatively, if not at times cutely. And Davidson does so quite effectively.
Unfortunately, however, after racing through 400 years in 225 pages, Davidson seems to rush all the more through his 20th century chapters. He continues to cover a lot, but he leaves out too much that Americans, especially young Americans, need to know and critically “appreciate.”
For all of his desire to show “how [we] came to unite under a banner of freedom and equality,” Davidson short-changes 20th century history. He is still attentive to the question of E pluribus unum. But he fails to adequately reveal how working people white, black, and brown—from the ’30s New Deal, through the ’40s war effort and postwar boom years, right on through to the ’60s Great Society—mobilized and fought against powerful corporate and conservative opposition to make the United States progressively freer, more equal, and more democratic. While he notes in passing that the Franklin Roosevelt administration empowered workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, he says nothing of how workers actually did so and of how capitalists resisted their doing so. And I really cannot forgive him for making no mention of either FDR’s Four Freedoms speech of 1941 or his Economic Bill of Rights speech both of which articulated the hopes and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Davidson also fails to fully address “the ’60s.” He writes smartly of both the civil rights struggle, including not just the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but also Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. And yet he makes no mention of either the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley or Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the latter of which had significant chapters and major followings on campuses all across the country.
Even more disappointing, when Davidson moves beyond the ’60s, he essentially reduces the conservative ascendance to Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and slashing of government programs and fails to properly address how the corporate elite and conservative politicians and pundits have pursued forty years of class-war and culture-war campaigns intended to undo the progressive achievements of “the long Age of Roosevelt”—campaigns that have engendered nothing less than a Second Gilded Age and placed the future of America’s democratic promise in serious jeopardy.
Given the historical crisis we face today, and what I see as the responsibility of the historian to the “making of history,” I think Davidson should have cut the chapters on Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors. They too are very well composed, but doing so would have allowed him to stay inside the apparent word limit of the Little History Series and better address the 20th century and recent history.
Nonetheless, I definitely do recommend Davidson’s book. We can all use not just a good refresher course on American history, but also some good historical thinking on how we might better realize freedom, equality, and E pluribus unum.
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fight for The Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014), which was recently released in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @harveyjkaye.