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American history – the long and the short of it

A History of the American People
Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 1998

The Myth of the Robber Barons
Burton W. Folsom, Jr.
Young American Foundation, 1991 (3rd edition 1993)

Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People is a long (814 pages + notes and index, but no separate bibliography) but extremely well-structured book, so well-sustained that it is almost a page-turner. The author is openly partisan – i.e., holding to what was, by and large, the American consensus until the end of the Eisenhower era – and he opens his history by confessing its writing to have been a labour of love. There is no nonsense about starting it any earlier than the arrival of the first English-speaking settlers in 1580. Not being able to make a comparison with any other complete history of the US, I have to judge it in absolute terms.

The book is divided into eight parts, on chronological lines; there are no separate sections for the arts, sciences, social trends, or the like; all are integrated into the narrative, as are also the personalities, thumbnail biographical sketches and moral and political judgments. A painter himself, the author has much to say about US landscape painters of whom I had never even heard; perhaps significantly, Warhol, Pollock and Lichtenstein (to name those that come to my mind) are not even mentioned. Johnson’s thesis is that the US has flourished as a result of capitalist economics and minimalist government, on a strong religious substratum, combined with an integrationist policy based on the English language. All these prerequisites are now being damaged by various interests, but particularly by the media and academia. He makes the point: “All nations are born in war, conquest and crime, usually concealed by the obscurity of a distant past. The United States, from its earliest colonial times, won its title-deeds in the full blaze of recorded history …” and it has continued the practice. As Johnson believes, the judgment on the US must be regarded as favourable, and something must be put down to its starting down the right path, for which the Founding Fathers cannot take all the credit; much must go the Mother Country, England. Johnson, like practically everyone else, tends to judge in absolute terms; I can see he considers there would be no contest if comparisons were made with other colonial ventures. The whole of Latin America is bemused and exasperated by its failure and America’s success, even to the appropriation of the continental name by the United States.

A review I can’t find (I think in the Spectator) said that as Johnson’s history up to, I think, 1900 was uncontroversial, it would examine only his treatment of this century. This is certainly where he would get into trouble, with his support of Nixon and Reagan and his damning of Kennedy (whom he criticises for his handling of the Cuban crisis), Johnson, Carter and Clinton. Johnson finds Teddy Roosevelt sympathetic. Perhaps the most intriguing revelation here is that he found too little to do as President, an insight into how much Government was still a hands-off one in the early years of the century. He is also much more critical of Franklin Roosevelt than is modish (though far from damning), writing down his New Deal, his handling of foreign affairs and his gullibility towards Stalin. Truman is lauded and his origins, complicated as these were with the corrupt Pendergast machine, examined to free him from guilt by association. Bush Sr. is seen as a poor successor to Reagan (here the dangers of co-opting as running mate one’s opponent in the primaries emerges) and it is significant, and sad, that Margaret Thatcher, still present to urge him to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, had beeen ousted before she could encourage him to finish the job and occupy Baghdad.

Johnson also tends to exonerate the great entrepreneurs, the so-called “robber barons”, having perhaps read Folsom’s book on the subject. He emphasises the endowments of the rich to the arts and other public benefactions (Carnegie virtually gave away all his money) and ascribes the Great Crash more to Government interference that made things worse than to the “failure of capitalism”. He judges favourably the two Republican Presidents of the 1920s, Harding and Coolidge, but characterises Hoover as an interventionist bungler. He is critical of “judicial activism”, which goes back to Franklin Roosevelt (though he was thwarted by contemporary feeling) but fails to tackle the Sacred Cow of the Constitution. Considering the vogue for written constitutions, perhaps more could be made of the hazards of having a document of any sort whose meaning can be interpreted in any fashion by a coterie of unelected lawyers. An excellent book.

Folsom’s The Myth of the Robber Barons is, by contrast with Johnson, quite short (134 pages + 36 of notes) and thus easy to read through off and on within one day. This is an expansion of
the author’s Entrepreneurs vs The State; the third Edition is dated 1996.

Folsom runs through the classic age of US tycoons, from Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) to Andrew Mellon (1855-1937); in theory, all could have known each other – though this is not mentioned. Folsom’s interesting thesis is that the most successful men accomplished what they did without subsidies from the Government, and often in competition with others who received them – this especially applied to the railways – something not generally acknowledged, or perhaps noticed, by historians.

Mellon seems one of the first to have realised, in his capacity of Presidential financial adviser, what governments find hard to believe and unwilling to learn or even remember: that lowering tax rates can generate them more income than raising them. He pointed out that between 1916 and 1921, after tax rates had been raised between these dates, the number of tax-filers with incomes over $300,000 fell from about 1300 to about 250 and the share of the national tax they paid fell from about one-sixth of the total to one one-hundred-and-twenty-seventh. Not only had the rich effectively disappeared and hidden their money, but had rendered it unavailable for investment. Mellon lowered tax rates for all taxpayers with the result that that the rich paid more and everyone else paid less. Though the statistics are there to prove this happened, the college text-books of a whole string of historians – Blum and Schlesinger’s, Garraty’s, Bailey and Kennedy’s, and Unger’s – all say exactly the opposite, as Folsom cites, with long quotations. Obviously the results of Mellon’s strategy are so counter-intuitive that they are simply denied.

The whole book is full of interesting personalities; almost invariably the second generation did not match up to the first (unless father and son started in partnership). Some – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon – were philanthropists on a massive scale. One at least, Schwab, could be a spendthrift as well. Rockefeller seems to have been the best-adjusted to his success, though perhaps some might regard his deep religious faith as a kind of self-administered brainwashing.

17 comments to American history – the long and the short of it

  • Susan

    What American landscape painters? Thomas Cole? Asher B. Durand? Albert Bierstadt?

  • Folsom is an excellent writer. He did a companion to the book you read, focusing on entrepreneurs in the state of Michigan: Empire Builders, which is just as good, if not better written.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Susan: Since you ask, Johnson writes of “landscape painting the like of which the world has never seen.” Here are some of the painters he discusses: *Thomas Cole (1801-42), his pupil Frederick Edward Church (1826-1900), John Kennsett (1817-72), Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), Jasper Cropsey (1832-1900), Sandford Gifford (1823-80), George Inness (1825-94), *Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). *You have these two; I may have missed Durand. The Tate in London ran a big exhibition under the title “American Sublime” from 21st Feb. to 19th May 2002 which I didn’t see, but I got the catalogue which even though the canvases are apparently enormous is a very nice thing to look at. Phone the Tate +44 (0) 207 887 8869; they may still have copies – £30 for softback.

  • Frank P


    Thanks for reminding me of Paul Johnson’s book, I was scratching my head about what to buy for an American pal who attains the young age of 60 next month – ideal! It should piss him off appropriately. He just loves it when we limeys pontificate about American history. You on commission?

  • My one disappointment was the treatment of the Civil War. History textbooks addressing that era treat the war simplisticly: they cite a number of North-South political conflicts, and all of a sudden the South secedes and war breaks out. It’s like that old cartoon of the scientist at the blackboard, and written on the board are a bunch of mathematical formulas, the phrase “And then a miracle happens,” and then a bunch more formulas.

    What is missing is a blow-by-blow account of the South’s decision to secede. Also lacking are details on the military escalation that led to war. “The Southrons attacked Fort Sumter, and the Union had no choice but to burn Georgia. What more do you need to know?” I’d like to know why Fort Sumter was attacked. (Thomas J. DiLorenzo says it was because the fort was a hub for collecting a tariff the South didn’t want to pay.) I’d also like to know why Lincoln deemed full-scale invasion necessary, and whether there were alternative courses of action that could have avoided war.

    DiLorenzo insists that the war was essentially triggered by the 1861 Morrill tariff, the last staw of a decades-old tariff war between Northern and Southern states. Many claim that slavery was made a war issue in the middle of the war – right after Gettysburg, I believe. Slavery was certainly a special interest in the South, just as industries “protected” by the various tariffs were special interests of the North. Did slavery play a role in the decisions leading to secession and war, or did the abolition cause simply benefit from a war caused by other issues?

    When I have more time I’ll comment on another truly fascinating historical topic – the Great Depression.

  • Kit Taylor

    Interesting to note the success of unsubsidised vs subsidised businessmen.

    One wonders how the distribution and quantity of American wealth might be different had the country pursued a pure free market without selective perks.

    Grand infrastrucure projects, monster investment subsidies, eminent domain, monopoly patents and fiddly little pump primings [i]do[/i] apparently increase GDP, and “national greatness” righties and NPR liberals alike tend to take the fact that these things aren’t likely to happen under laissez faire as proof that political intervention in the economy is A Good Thing.

    I’ve some synpathy for the anarchist argument that these schemes are a corporate con to socialise the costs of private profit, concentrating wealth and sustaining all manner of waste and bloat.

  • Interesting – think I’ll have to buy the book. I’d like to see what he says about Nixon. Oddly enough, the consensus on Nixon seems to be turning into “other than Watergate and the machine guns on the White House roof, he was a pretty durn good preznit.”

    I’m not sure I buy that, yet. He gave us racial preferences in hiring, wage and price controls, and he “opened” relations with the Chi-Coms. (Does trade kill communism and tyranny? Jury’s still out on that question). He also pulled us out of VietNam rather than trying harder to win it, and his screwups led the country to elect Jimmah Carter, perhaps the most naive (or just plain wrongheaded) president ever.

    Hmmm… I look at that list of horrors, and start to understand why the conventional wisdom is rehabilitating Nixon. What a perfectly politically correct liberal. I’ll have to get that book and see what he looks like to outsiders.

  • Ken

    “Nixon did end the draft. That’s a point in his favor (the only one that comes to mind at the moment).”

    “DiLorenzo insists that the war was essentially triggered by the 1861 Morrill tariff, the last staw of a decades-old tariff war between Northern and Southern states.”

    None of the secession resolutions mention tariffs. The ones from Texas and Alabama mention the threat that then current Federal policies pose to “slaveholding states”. Alabama’s starts off “WHEREAS the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice-President of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama…” It’s pretty clear which “domestic institutions” to which the document refers, and it has nothing to do with tariffs.

    It’s pretty clear to me that the South seceded to protect slavery. The North, on the other hand, only later included the elimination of slavery among its rationales for the war effort.

    “One wonders how the distribution and quantity of American wealth might be different had the country pursued a pure free market without selective perks. ”

    I figure the quantity of American wealth would be so much greater that any remotely likely distribution of it would have left everyone better off than they are now.

    Plus, a full century of unfettered Edisons, Wrights, Bells, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fords, and so on, in place of the century recently completed full of increasingly powerful regulatory agencies, would have left our roads decaying and crumbling through being completely obsolete while skycars zoomed overhead, and also left us a flag with a couple of hundred stars on it representing a large number of extraterrestrial states.

  • Susan


    Those artists you name are mostly from the Hudson River Valley School, very well-known in the US, but apparently not very well-known elsewhere. It’s good to know that the Tate featured them recently.

  • If you are interested in US History, there’s two books that are favorites of mine that have come out in recent years.

    The first, H.W. Brands’ _The Age of Gold_, is about the California Gold Rush and its effect on the national character. One thing I found of interest was that Brands went into how the Gold Rush and the new state of California affected the leadup to the Civil War; though I grew up in California and learned a lot about the Gold Rush in class, the effect it had on the rest of the nation was largely ignored. And I didn’t even know that it was the state constitution – an anti-slavery one – that nearly started the Civil War a decade earlier.

    The second book is by Russell Shorto, _The Island at the Center of the World_. It’s a history of Dutch Manhattan, something which has been largely unavailable due to the lack of translated documentation. (Not to mention that the West India Company threw out most of its records of that time period.) It gives a pretty good reason for why the Dutch colony was denigrated – the Dutch and the English were rival imperial powers at the time – and goes into fascinating detail about how seventeenth century Amsterdam influenced modern America. Plus it goes into more detail about the infamous purchase of the island for $24 (nineteenth century equivalent), and it turns out that the natives were not nearly so gullible as we’ve thought, since not only did they not leave the island, but apparently expected to be able to show up at random people’s houses with forty of their friends and receive lodging and a party. With gifts.

    I love the history section. Even though it’s right next to Poli Sci.

  • toolkien

    I read Johnson’s book about a year or so ago. I recall liking it as a primer, and turned me on to some specific aspects of the founding of the US and the turmoil between the founders (e.g. Jefferson and Hamilton). I do remember being struck by a certain inconsistency in logic relative to some dyed-in-the-wool conservative elements (I don’t have the book at hand so can’t provide examples) as compared to the ‘liberal’ aspects he was shooting down. In a nutshell, as a libertarian, I found the book a bit too skewed toward the conservative view point in justifying certain elements of unnecessary Statism. Though there weren’t a ton of such of elements, it left me wondering if there weren’t more that were removed so as to lessen the skew, and a few were left behind by oversight.

    It did, though, assist in the development of the idea that the US government itself was instrumental in creating the ‘Baron’ class (perhaps not intentionally) in the name of economic development. While there is seen some Good in stimulating economic development by some, others simply see the ying and yang in action, bigger highs and lower lows with about the same average productive capacity overall (how can the government itself, consistently create more output above and beyond the people and resources that make it up?).

    Having the State dangle carrots in front of us, or creating illusions about the function of an economy and its output, is not its purpose. It is to preserve what is output and see that a person who suffers from contractural fraud is made whole from the equity of the defrauder while conducting production/trade. Performing a slight of hand, ‘creating’ Good which can be pointed to ad nauseum, only can be done by toting the negatives elsewhere, or ignoring them altogether, by the bureaucracts and the masses alike.

    Unfortunately we haven’t learned much from 19th century Statist inclinations and only turned the spigots on full blast in the 20th century. Such blindness to the inevitable ying and yang of Statist involvement is the only thing which can account for a system that contains a debt of $7,000,000,000,000 soon to be $10,000,000,000,000+ and a population that is only mildly concerned about it, at best. And some pundits point out that Europe’s problem, country by country, as actually bigger than ours, if nothing else due to our greater capacity to attract and absorb migration to mitigate ‘yangs’ when they come back full circle.

  • Frank P

    B Durbin

    I bought Russell Shorto’s book on Dutch Manhattan last month and am still in the process of reading it. It’s quirky excursions into London’s history are also fascinating and as a lover of New York and an erstwhile servant of London, I recommend the book to anyone who loves to delve into dusty archives for original material and unique insights. It is a treasure trove. The sub-story of Peter Stuyvesant itself is a rippng yarn. I also admit that it gave me a slightly different slant on Pan-European politics but not enough to make me vote “Yes” to a new European Constitution, no matter how the question is phrased; too much dirty water under the bridge for that.

  • Susan

    Someone should give a copy of that Dutch Manhattan book to Matthew Parris. A few months ago he wrote an article in the Times which identified the Roosevelts as the first “German-American” US presidents.

    The Roosevelts German! Yikes! FDR must be spinning in his grave.

  • If slavery guided secession, then what was the imminent danger that scared the Southerners into secession?

    Is it not possible that the Morill tariff threatened the economic survival of slavery (and all other Southern commerce, aka “domestic institutions”)?

  • Now for that other fascinating topic…In a 1000 page book covering 400 years of history, Johnson could have given three or four extra pages to this period of history, and could have explained the Depression in a more orderly fashion. He does challenge the myths of Hoover’s suport for laissez-faire (actually he was quite the fiscal interventionist) and the purported benefits of FDR’s New Deal. He provides hints but does not clearly describe the causes and cures of the Great Depression.

    In Free to Choose, Milton Friedman notes that the emergency measures to protect the banks during the 1920-21 depression were not implemented by the Hoover/FDR-era Federal Reserve, which had been created for that specific purpose. But why did the banks fail?

    The natural result of he bank failures, as Thomas Sowell notes in Basic Economics, was deflation. Banks create part of the money supply, through the combination of lending and fractional reserve accounting, and if they vanish, their monetary assets above the reserve vanishes. Deflation drives down wages and prices – but the nominal amount of monthly payments on fixed-rate loans stays the same; as time goes by that mortgage payment becomes an ever-increasing percentage of the household budget, and default looms on the horizon for many. Those (like government employees) who earn fixed incomes are immune; their debt/income ratio remains constant, and the stuff they buy gets cheaper. Mortgage defaults threaten even more banks.

    (FDR’s agricultural subsidies, which kept food products artificially high, had a similar effect. Wages go down, groceries don’t.)

    So what ended the Depression? Conventional wisdom credits the mother of all government jobs programs – our entry into WWII. But some sort of recovery must have already been underway; the war machine could not have been potent if the hyperdeflation had not been cured. Christina D. Romer offers the more plausible explanation:

    A simple calculation indicates that nearly all of the observed recovery of the U.S. economy prior to 1942 was due to monetary expansion. Huge gold inflows in the mid- and late-1930s swelled the U.S. money stock and appear to have stimulated the economy by lowering real interest rates and encouraging investment spending and purchases of durable goods. The finding that monetary developments were crucial to the recovery implies that self-correction played little role in the growth of real output between 1933 and 1942.

  • jason

    Folsom is one of the writers that I truly admire. I wish though that in the future, no matter how distant, he would come up with the best Vice Presidents in our history. Hannibal Hamlin goes number one in my book. By the way, I like your blog. The background color is fantastic!

  • Folsom is great. My dream is that he would come out with a book soon regarding vice presidents. Hamlin would be my number one. More power to you!