Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 , by Walter A.
McDougall. HarperCollins, 638 pages, $29.95.
Every chronicle of European settlement of the New World must
include a boat. The boat you choose will shape the story you tell. Start with
the Niña , the Pinta and the Santa Maria ,
and you wind up with explorers, adventurers and Spain’s Catholic empire. Start
with the Mayflower , and you wind with
pilgrims, pioneers and New England’s religious dissenters. Start with a slave
ship, and you wind up among laborers stolen from Africa. Start among the
European passengers crammed into steerage on an immigrant steamer, and you wind
up-sometimes-with a version of the American dream fulfilled.
In Freedom Just Around the
Corner , the first of a planned three-volume narrative history of the United
States, Walter A. McDougall makes a surprising boat choice. This American
history begins on a Mississippi steamboat, Fidèle ,
the ship of knaves, fools and schemers on which Herman Melville set The Confidence-Man , his dark satire on
mid-19th-century America. Mr. McDougall’s America, like Melville’s, is a
country of confidence men, rogues, hucksters, impostors, sharks and pretenders.
But the rogues who depressed Melville inspire Mr. McDougall, a
professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the
Pulitzer Prize–winning The Heavens and
the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985). According to Mr.
McDougall, the great genius of America has been to harness the human tendency
to hustle and turn it to the ends of nation-building and continental conquest.
“To suggest Americans are, among other things, prone to be hustlers,” he
writes, “is not to accord them a nature different or worse than other human
beings. It is simply to acknowledge Americans have enjoyed more opportunity to
pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in
We know we haven’t been equal-opportunity schemers, but in Mr.
McDougall’s America, white women and enslaved Africans trick the system too.
That’s what makes us Americans. To the nation’s founders, other things mattered
too-faith in progress, religious liberty, imperialism, racial hierarchy-but the
country was really born with a hustler’s soul. Hustling is what we do best. We
move forward, creating new ideas by corrupting the old. According to Mr.
McDougall, the net result of our “creative corruption” is the country and
culture of the United States, whose creation Mr. McDougall confidently labels
“the central event of the past four hundred years.”
Did we need another narrative history of the United States? For
generations we produced them regularly, finding the imp of American success in
geography, technology, demography, mythology, the frontier, good government,
God and good luck. Even with its hard-boiled embrace of the American hustler as
the American type and its title borrowed from Bob Dylan, there’s something
old-fashioned about Freedom Just Around
the Corner . Is there really such a thing as “the American character”?
Mr. McDougall thinks so. And with confidence in his confidence
men, he leads us back through the making of America. He retraces the patterns
of settlement, the schemes of European patrons and the imperial aspirations of
European courts. He finds smart Freemasons everywhere. His narrative moves
remarkably from battles on the frontier to battles within Puritan souls, from
diplomatic intrigues in courts and capitals to the complex political
compromises behind the American Constitution. Once the nation is up and
running, Mr. McDougall breaks the flow of his history to present each of the
states admitted after the first 13. In this volume, he offers capsule histories
of Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi,
Illinois, Alabama, Maine and Missouri; in each case, he tests out on a smaller
scale the play of greed, ambition, aspiration and hard work that made the
nation as a whole.
Mr. McDougall also spotlights a cast of favorite American
hustlers whose portraits he sketches with wonderful economy. He likes a
particular kind of hard-working, clever, self-inventing character: the
itinerant preacher George Whitefield; the ubiquitous Ben Franklin; or, perhaps
nearest his heart, the “thinking, drinking, laughing, slovenly country lawyer,”
Chief Justice John Marshall, and the brilliant Alexander Hamilton, who knew to
“fashion government so as to encourage
individual greed for money, power, and prestige under sturdy legal procedures
that do not dictate what people
should strive for, but only how they
must play the game.” A few women make it into this group: the clever and
seductive Caty Greene, wife of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene and
first patron of Eli Whitney; and the outspoken traveler Anne Newport Royall.
But he’s no friend to Thomas Jefferson, a man who appears in
these pages as a lazy, selfish, cowardly hypocrite-a
quartet of vices which combine to exclude him from Mr. McDougall’s pantheon of
“creative corruption.” Jefferson’s creativity was never sufficient, in Mr.
McDougall’s mind, to redeem his corruption: He ducked service in the
Revolutionary War, never faced the truth about slavery, and exaggerated his own
cleverness. Mr. McDougall won’t even allow him the Declaration of Independence:
“the original passages in Jefferson’s draft declaration were not good, while
the good ones were not very original.”
Mr. McDougall is a witty writer and a brilliant and opinionated
historian. He has devoured several decades’ worth of scholarship and digested
the articles and monographs into compact arguments and telling anecdotes. His
footnotes sometimes are as interesting as his text, although the dramas staged
at the back of the book are about writing history, not the making of nations.
Freedom Just Around the
Corner is an impressive accomplishment. But I believe it’s worth quarreling
with Mr. McDougall’s neo-Federalist version of American history. He warns
against a naïve reading that holds the past to present standards, dismissing
those who fault the Founding Fathers for ignoring the needs of Native
Americans, women and slaves. Indeed, as he puts it, “the roles scripted for
women and imposed on Indians and blacks during the founding were necessary
supports for the advances in civil liberty Americans did achieve. Once that
subtle, ironic insight sinks in, much of nineteenth-century American history
begins to make sense as well.” I’m not sure this insight is so subtle, but
perhaps it’s Mr. McDougall’s way of acknowledging that although freedom is
always “just around the corner” for everyone, that corner promises to be far
easier to turn for some than for others. If that promise of freedom is just
another of the con man’s come-ons, then Mr. McDougall has taken his ironic
realism too far.
But it’s not the lack of idealism that disturbs me most about
this volume. It’s that Mr. McDougall sees so little downside to his hustler’s
schemes and plots. Perhaps these plots worked well for the first 250 years of
conquest, when Europeans and Euro-Americans worked their way across the
continent, killing off Indians, making Africans work, building towns and
factories, and fashioning a system of government that turned individual greed
into common good.
But what happens when the great creative work is done, when the
magic that turns vice into virtue no longer functions? Perhaps we should
consider some alternatives to Mr. McDougall’s heroic hustlers: other, better
sides to the American character and a different, more varied cast. Some of us
may be as Mr. McDougall imagines us to be-ironic, hard-headed capitalists whose
vices have become virtues in the marketplace. But I like to think there are
Americans who have tried to hold to ideas and to fashion institutions outside
the voracious, all-consuming market. Mr. McDougall may need these other
Americans if he wants a moral compass for the next volumes of his history, when
his “free people” begin to feel the consequences of choosing always the
short-term prospects, when his good country faces the truths about slavery and
goes to war, when his creative capitalists begin to see environmental waste,
and when arrogance dismisses the subtle arts of diplomacy.
Ann Fabian teaches American studies and history
at Rutgers University.