Review: ‘A History of the American People’

At times I read books from the other side of the political spectrum, and conservative Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (1998) was the latest.

This was mostly a decent book, and Johnson deserves credit for various inclusions: a look at how British democracy influenced American colonial democracy, the full influence of religion on early American society, Jefferson’s racism, U.S. persecution of socialists and Wobblies during World War I, how the Democratic Party was made up of southern conservatives and northern progressives for a long time, and more.

However, in addition to (and in alignment with) being a top-down, “Great Men,” traditionalist history, the work dodges the darkness of our national story in significant ways. That’s the only way, after all, you can say things like Americans are “sometimes wrong-headed but always generous” (a blatant contradiction — go ask the Japanese in the camps about generosity) or “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures” (what a wonderful adventure black people had in this country). It’s the pitfall of conservative, patriotic histories — if you want the U.S. to be the greatest country ever, our horrors must necessarily be downplayed.

Thus, black Americans don’t get much coverage until the Civil War, whereas Native Americans aren’t really worth discussing before or after the Trail of Tears era. Shockingly, in this history the internment of the Japanese never occurred. It’s simply not mentioned! Johnson offers a rosy view of what the U.S. did in Vietnam, believing that we should have inflicted more vigorous violence on both Vietnam and Cuba. Poverty doesn’t get much attention. The Founding Fathers’ expressions of protecting their own wealth, class interests, and aristocratic power when designing our democracy naturally go unmentioned. Likewise, American attacks on other countries are always from a place of benevolence and good intentions, rather than, as they often were in actuality, for economic or business interests, to maintain global power, or to seize land and resources. To Johnson, the U.S. had “one” imperialist adventure, its war with Spain — this incredible statement was made not long after his outline of the U.S. invasion of Mexico to expand its borders to the Pacific.

Other events and people given short shrift include LGBTQ Americans, non-European immigrants, and the abolitionist movement — until the end of the book when the modern pro-life movement is compared to it in approving fashion. The labor and feminist movements aren’t worth mentioning for their crucial successes, or intersectional solidarity in some places, only for their racism in others. Johnson is rather sympathetic of Richard Nixon, and somehow describes his downfall with no mention of Nixon’s attempts, recorded on White House tapes, to obstruct the Watergate investigation — the discovery of which led to his resignation. If anything, the book is a valuable study on how bias, in serious history and journalism, usually manifests itself in the sin of omission, conscious or no, rather than outright falsities, conscious or no (not that conservatives are the only ones who do this, of course; the Left shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems).

Things really start to go off the rails with this book in the 1960s and later, when America loses its way and becomes not-great (something slavery and women as second-class citizens could somehow never cause), with much whining about welfare, academia, political correctness, and the media (he truly should have read Manufacturing Consent before propagating the myth that the liberal media turned everyone against the war in Vietnam). Affirmative action receives special attention and passion, far more than slavery or Jim Crow, and Johnson proves particularly thick-skulled on other matters of race (Malcolm X is a “black racist,” slang and rap are super dangerous, no socio-economic and historical causes are mentioned that could illuminate highlighted racial discrepancies, and so on). Cringingly blaming the 1960-1990 crime wave on a less religious society, one wonders what Johnson would make of the dramatic decrease in crime from the 1990s to today, occurring as the percentage of religious Americans continues to plunge — a good lesson on false causation.

All this may not sound at all like a “mostly decent” book, but I did enjoy reading most of it, and — despite the serious flaws outlined here, some unforgivable — most of the information in the space of 1,000 pages was accurate and interesting. It served as a good refresher on many of the major people and events in U.S. history, a look at the perspective of the other side, a prompt for thinking about bias (omission vs. inaccuracy, subconscious vs. conscious), and a reminder of who and what are left out of history — and why.

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