A review of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay
Originally published on May 25, 2019 here.
What is the purpose of history? Is it merely a record of facts—of dates and kings, wars and voyages? Or is it something more?
Evaluating a history textbook must begin with knowing what history is.
A nation’s history is more than just a list of facts to memorize. It weaves the facts into an intellectual and emotional tapestry that tells us who we are, what our lives are about, and what kind of people we should aspire to be. It should be:
- Informative: Helping us understand the past by telling us what happened, when, and why.
- Enlightening: Helping us understand the present by comparing it to the past.
- Inspiring: Helping us develop moral character by learning stories of past heroism and villainy.
- Supportive: Helping our countries flourish by legitimizing the social order.
In his History of Rome, the ancient Roman writer Livy explained those four goals in a way that eerily foreshadowed America’s current predicament:
My wish is that each reader will pay closest attention to how men lived, what their moral principles were, under what leaders and by what measures our empire was won; then how, as discipline broke down bit by bit, morality at first foundered, subsided in ever-greater collapse and toppled headlong in ruin—until the advent of our own age, in which we can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them.
An honest account of the facts is essential, but it’s not enough. To survive, any country must believe that it is good (even if imperfect) and that it deserves to survive. Truthful and inspiring historical stories about the country’s origin, leaders, and ideals provide that foundation. Conversely, stories that are biased and negative tend to undermine the foundation.
Any history book must balance those goals against each other. Some books are unabashedly patriotic, such as Our Island Story in Great Britain and A Patriot’s History of the United States in America. Others are very negatively biased, such as Howard Zinn’s bestselling and influential People’s History of the United States, which depicts the United States from an enemy’s viewpoint, as an unrelenting criminal enterprise of genocide, racism, and exploitation.
McClay’s new textbook Land of Hope, on the other hand, strikes the right balance. It is optimistic without being jingoistic, acknowledging America’s mistakes without reading like a brief for the prosecution. It celebrates America’s achievements, but not uncritically: “celebration and criticism are not necessarily enemies.” And its goals are explicit:
To help us learn . . . the things we must know to become informed, self-aware, and dedicated citizens of the United States of America, capable of understanding and appreciating the nation in which we find ourselves, of carrying out our duties as citizens, including protecting and defending what is best in its institutions and ideals.
The most popular competing textbooks are Jill Lepore’s These Truths and James Fraser’s By the People. McClay’s book eschews Lepore’s globalist glibness and Fraser’s array of textbook-y features. But how does Land of Hope fare by the criteria of good history?
It Is Informative
Land of Hope gives an accurate account of America’s history that is undistorted by the selective emphasis and omission found in other textbooks. One key piece of evidence comes in McClay’s description of the U.S. Constitution, which:
… is not, for the most part, a document filled with soaring rhetoric and high-sounding principles. Instead, it is a somewhat dry and functional document laying out a complex system of boundaries, markers, and rules of engagement, careful divisions of function and power that provide the means by which conflicts that are endemic and inevitable to us, and to all human societies, can be both expressed and contained; tamed; rendered harmless, even beneficial. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s spirit is undeclared, unspoken; it would be revealed not through words but through actions.
Implicit in McClay’s description is that the United States was influenced but not formed by Enlightenment rationalism. The Founders had studied the history of failed republics to learn what worked and what didn’t. And they were the heirs of a British legal and social tradition from which they learned that well-informed pragmatism was wiser than well-intentioned rhetoric.
Napoleon Bonaparte had dismissed England as “a nation of shopkeepers,” preoccupied with the practical issues of life instead of lofty ideals. Napoleon was wrong, and the British defeated him. The lofty ideals that led to the horror of the French Revolution had mostly been avoided in America by a Constitution designed for practical issues. McClay highlights that fact.
It Is Enlightening
Learning about our history reveals that many current quandaries are neither new nor unique. President Trump’s alternating use of provocation and conciliation seems strange until we learn that earlier presidents (like many world leaders) used the same strategy. McClay describes how Abraham Lincoln followed a similar path:
His initial thinking began to emerge more clearly in his eloquent First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861. Its tone was, in the main, highly conciliatory. The South, he insisted, had nothing to fear from him . . . But secession was another matter. Lincoln was crystal clear about that: it would not be tolerated.
Compare that to President Trump’s inaugural address on January 20, 2017:
We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country . . . Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.
That was the conciliation. “We” are joined in a national effort. The Obamas “have been magnificent.” And then comes the crystal clear:
Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today . . . we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.
Apart from the tweeting, almost any of that could have been said in 1861 just as easily as it was now. By 2017, Washington had virtually seceded from the United States, and it was time for it to come back into the fold.
It Is Inspiring
Land of Hope is short on emotionally stirring tales, but the reason is obvious: it’s a textbook, not The Children’s Book of American Heroes. It says nothing about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Paul Bunyan creating the Grand Canyon, or Davy Crockett catching a bullet in his teeth (that was only done by actor Fess Parker in the movie version).
Instead, it tells factual stories about people who achieved great things. Quietly, humbly, and often without fanfare, they shaped our national character. Land of Hope portrays them not as saints or fanciful superheroes, but as prudent and courageous Americans trying to do their best.
One of the first would have been approved by the Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote that the only people who could be trusted with power were those who didn’t want it. George Washington, who led the American colonies to vanquish the mighty British army, became America’s first president. But he didn’t want the job:
Nearing the age of sixty, after enduring two grinding decades of war and politics in which he always found himself thrust into a central role in determining the direction of the country, he wanted nothing so much as to be free of those burdens . . . [but] if the task before the country was a great experiment on behalf of all humanity . . . how could he refuse to do his duty?
The only omission with which I disagreed was the story of Nathan Hale, an American soldier captured in 1776 by the British and executed as a spy. His final words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” were echoed almost 200 years later when newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
It Is Supportive
The final criterion of good national history is that it help our country flourish by legitimizing the social order. We don’t usually think of history as doing that, but its importance is evident when we consider books that do the opposite.
Take, for example, how Jill Lepore’s book portrays the United States and its origin. After noting correctly that “a nation is a people who share a common ancestry,” she claims “the fiction that [America’s] people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over” — a statement that is technically true but highly misleading, since the vast majority were British. Then comes the indictment:
The nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds . . . Against conquest, slaughter, and slavery came the urgent and abiding question, by what right?
That’s how Lepore sees America. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have an endowed chair as a history professor at Harvard. But her view leads only to the question of whether America should be destroyed now or later.
Land of Hope presents our country’s history in an affirmative way that is more than just “technically true.” Founding Father Alexander Hamilton identified the stakes in Federalist 1. America is a great experiment to decide:
. . . whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Amid the tumult and hysteria of 2019, it’s tempting to say that the decision has yet to be made. But the American record, checkered like that of all great nations, shows the answer to Hamilton’s question is a qualified “yes, we can.”
Perfection exists only in Heaven. If the United States has sometimes fallen short of its heritage and its ideals, it has more often shown itself as a worthy heir and sturdy practitioner of both.
Land of Hope stands squarely in that American tradition.