McClay’s Master Work: A History for Citizens

Decades ago, historians began to talk about the need for a usable national history. What makes a historical account usable depends, of course, on what it is one wants a people to do, where one wants the nation to go. Whether we are self-conscious about it or not, we are always telling stories about the past (history) with purposes for our own time. Something happens, however, when people set out to rewrite this story for new purposes. Typically, they have scores to settle, myths to debunk, victims to remember, and heroes to recover.

One of the most famous efforts came from a Marxist, Howard Zinn. His 1980 A People’s History of the United States, however error-prone, turned out to be the pitch-perfect as a text for high school students who, abetted by radical teachers, loved to discover a sordid account of exploitation and abuse largely unknown to their parents. Iconoclasm was usable history for leftists because it disconnected young people from any obligation to the past or any recognition of authority that comes from experience and tradition.

Zinn’s book was hardly the only or even the most important book in producing a “usable history” for the purpose of transformation. From college textbooks and academic histories to popular accounts of our past, historical storytelling became increasingly an activity in support of political and cultural purposes.

We do need a usable history of America. We need a truthful account that models the humane discipline of history and captures the excitement of discovering the past, and also that takes our most important moral questions seriously instead of turning the past into a cheap moral melodrama.

This we now have. Wilfred McClay’s beautifully crafted American history bears the perfect title, Land of Hope. His subtitle, “An Invitation to the Great American Story,” might just as usefully be called “A History for Citizens.” McClay’s account doesn’t simply marble throughout the crucial themes necessary to understand one’s participation in this story, but their interconnections form the bright threads that give McClay’s entire historical tapestry a vivid complexity. This complexity, we will see, fosters in the reader an organic attachment to, and sense of participation in, this story.

From a Fractured History to a Shared Story

For as McClay says, “the best stories show us [that] simplicity and complexity are not mutually exclusive.” With history as it is currently done, we can get hopelessly lost in tangled thickets of narratives—the many voices of America as told by most academic historians—that leave the reader without a way of linking her life’s history with this cacophonic record of the past. At its worst, this sort of account represents the most basic failure of historical writing, the inability to turn evidence from the past into a meaningful story for the present.

Because the multivocal account of American history necessarily undermines a meaningful single narrative, the ideological reader rejects the very idea that this national story can be meaningful except as iconoclasm. The only moral imperative left is to overcome the past in search of an abstract, clean, and universal ideal—social justice.  Morally the idea is to step outside of history.

It is partially in response to this disordered state of historical understanding that McClay wrote Land of Hope. The theme of hope captures the blend of simplicity and complexity that makes this story relatable and useful, truthful and morally understandable, loving but unsparing. Most historians craft their story around an abstract ideal like equality or freedom as projected against a sordid account of power, privilege and, most of all, hypocrisy. Hope, by contrast, is not an ideal or an abstraction, but a constitutive part of the human experience, rich in meaning and complex in form. Christians have theological hope that girds them for hard times and tames their expectations in good times. Faith is, we recall, the substance of things hoped for; faith emerges from our experience of the unseen reality that frames and gives meaning to all that we do see.

Hope is as real as the catch in the breath of the eight-year-old boy who hears a noise downstairs on Christmas eve. Hope is the natural projection onto the future of one’s expectations; the vision of a house and crops that the Irishman saw when he surveyed the hard and barren land of the 1889 Oklahoma land run. Hope explains the expectation that Fredrick Douglass, and later Martin Luther King, Jr., had for America in light of ideals not realized fully but tangibly a part of the spirit of the nation. It was this very hope that inspired their insistence that America as they experienced it become more fully itself. Hope suggests motion and action, not easy moralism.

Unlike optimism, hope does not promise success. America is, after all, also “a land of dashed hopes, of disappointment. This is unavoidable,” McClay notes, because “a nation that professes high ideals makes itself vulnerable to searing criticism when it falls sort of them.” But hope is a way of living with failures without either despair or rejection of the ideals. Hope allows continuous reaffirmation, and when hope is entwined in the cultural DNA of a people it has a way of reemerging as a useful, productive virtue during times when ideological despair is otherwise the only option.

Land of Hope seems written for such a time as this, when ideology, combined with a profound historical ignorance, has left several generations belonging to no internalized story larger than their own experiences. Here we encounter a habitable story that comes complete with the principles, obligations, and privileges of citizenship. The author stresses citizenship as a “vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership.” Belonging to this story supplies one with the richness of a great civilization even as it entangles one in the nation’s failures and dashed hopes.

It provides a salutary barrier to the rather disagreeable tendency to loathe those who confronted realities we will never face.

In other words, to belong to this story, to have full membership in this civilization, combines the necessary rootedness of a good life with the cosmopolitan awareness that our own time gives us no Archimedean point from which to lob simplistic moral judgements. We belong to the story that our ancestors helped give us and we, as much as they, live and act in a reality that will never be exactly as we want. We live in hope.

Political Complexities, Unifying Antimonies

The story McClay tells is essentially a political narrative of America. The story of the creation and development of the American republic is the organizing structure that helps sort out how social, economic, cultural, and intellectual developments ought to be told. Chapter Three’s title reveals as well as any McClay’s governing plot: “The Revolution of Self-Rule.” This title not only offers a basic interpretation of the American Revolution but it establishes the essential challenges and context for the forging and early history of the republic.

Americans in the 18th century were a self-governing people, and rather than the Revolution’s being fought over natural rights or out of economic self-interest, we have an account that explains the extraordinary choices of that period in light of deeply encoded habits, traditions, and attending moral beliefs. Natural rights were hardly a challenge to these habits. American beliefs about them took on more particular and sophisticated form as they responded to novel British abuses in taxation and other offenses to American traditions. The great American expression of human ideals, the Declaration of Independence, emerged in this form in reaction to abuse. The governing reality of the time was that Americans had long been self-ruling and their attachment to their political freedom would not only give a particular shape to the U.S. Constitution but, through that document and the supporting culture of local and state power, would give a unique direction to American concepts of government and freedom.

But if McClay offers a plot to his political history—self-rule—he adds to it the important explanatory conditions of culture and what we might call public philosophy. In America, the strong Protestant consensus, including deep roots in the Reformed tradition, gave to the Founders a framework for understanding and debating how to create a new nation that rested on self-conscious moral principles. What makes McClay’s account so compelling is the seamlessness of his story, such as when he turns to the Federalist Papers and to Madison’s views in particular:

Beneath it all was a darkly realistic view of human potentialities, reflecting the chastened Calvinist view of human nature that permeated eighteenth century American and informed the thinking of the Framers themselves, making them suspicious of concentrated power. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison warned.

McClay’s discussion of the important differences of philosophy engaged by Federalists and Anti-Federalists of the period reveals that they nonetheless shared an intellectual culture.

Individualism Versus Community

The development of a more culturally democratic republic over the next few generations revealed changes and continuities that McClay traces through the rest of his account—tensions and antinomies that play out repeatedly in the American story. Among these is the interplay between individualism and community.

Rooted in American Protestantism, individualism finds new forms in this land of hope, but so also do Americans possess a special gift to create community. The same evangelical groups that stressed individual choice created the most vibrant new communities in America, reinforcing both the volunteerism and pluralism that form the heart of American self-rule. The complex relationship between individualism and communalism plays out in this book in nearly every generation and in ways that transcend political or ideological differences. This tension—one of many in McClay’s account—is a dynamic, creative, and yet harmonizing chord playing in the American soul.

The best evidence of the author’s mastery of the moral complexity of this story is found in his discussion of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements—all within a few tightly argued, elegantly written pages. We discover the ideas and moral compromises behind the gradual emancipationists like Frederick Douglass and the moral purists like William Garrison. Few readers would expect an author to pause to consider Max Weber’s distinction between the “ethic of responsibility” and the “ethic of moral conviction” as a way of explaining not only this debate,  but the more enduring trends in American politics. But this McClay does. In a single paragraph he clarifies the underlying issues at stake in a way that helps us understand America’s long history of political/moral argument—a part of our history that today is particularly relevant.

While no one expects Weber in a history like this, we all expect a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). However, there is nothing obligatory or boiler-plate about McClay’s brilliant treatment of both the novel and the reasons for its impact and influence. In three paragraphs, McClay offers a compelling analysis and historical account that connects Stowe’s work with deeply ingrained American cultural commitments. Stowe reached the profoundest parts of the American moral imagination. The result is a rich, supple and morally textured account of the political and spiritual conundrum of slavery leading to the Civil War.

If a stark moralism (one springing from simple reason and not the imagination) has become a dominant posture of Americans today who seek to bend the arc of history, McClay’s book humbles the honest reader with a story that never loses its profound complexity in the search for a meaningful and truthful narrative arc. The rise of Progressivism, for instance, was neither simply an ideological creation nor simply the importation of a foreign ideology at odds with American self-rule. Nor is progressivism a confused series of moral impulses with nothing to give them coherence.

Without appreciating the profound changes in America during the period we call the Industrial Revolution, we cannot understand the many strains of Progressivism. The transformation of everyday living, the alteration of almost all the economic and social conditions that had fostered an American system of self-reliant people, meant that serious reactions were inevitable and necessary. Amid the myriad, diverse responses to these changes, McClay sorts out trends that over time significantly affect the way Americans live and think.

Among early Progressives, for instance, Christian ideas of reform and moral improvement operated without the “hard-edged doctrine of original sin,” demonstrating continuities and change in the still regnant American Protestant belief system. But, over time, emerging forms of knowledge based on scientific thinking gave rise to administrative systems of organization for such a complex social organism.

A mature and reasonably coherent progressive ideology emerged from these diverse sources and impressed itself upon America’s intellectuals, if not the broader public. These intellectuals helped change the national conversation about the nature of our republic. Broadly speaking, a more secular and scientific view of governance and all policy problems came to challenge the principles or beliefs undergirding the U.S. Constitution. We not only get the “living Constitution” as the most basic alternative to the longstanding ways of American self-rule, but progressives introduce new and much more ambitious goals for a technocratic national government, none of which was part of the American self-understanding before this era.

Still a Land of Hope?

Ideas and ideologies operate in contexts, and McClay interweaves all three seamlessly. For instance, he notes that with the end of World War II, Americans faced such dramatically different conditions from previous eras that we are hard pressed to understand fully the options and alternatives of their time as compared to ours. To be sure, the America of the 1950s offered a new version of America as a land of hope. Faced with the emerging threat of the Soviet Union in which the fate of the globe itself or, at least, the fate of “freedom” worldwide rested in American hands, old republican ideas of self-rule were sorely tested. From large standing armies and spy agencies to previously unimagined expansions in the power and scope of the federal government more generally, what did it mean for Americans to be self-ruling when almost all the key policy decisions were made outside the direct reach of the electorate?

One of the alluring possibilities of this new context was to redefine America from a peculiar self-governing nation into the prototype of all future “free” nations. Another possibility was for the public to slowly lose interest in the messy and inefficient business of taking care of ourselves (self-rule) in favor of a powerful and protective government that serves our public interests. McClay is again careful to trace out these temptations, developments, and possibilities in a way that connects them to a long history that still matters. One of his best examples is his extended discussion of President Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech. This very unusual speech, with its echoes of George Washington’s famous speech, addressed tensions between “reconciling the urgent demands of the present with the more abiding values embodied in the nation’s founding institutions and affirmations.” Today’s reader cannot help but see renewed relevance in Ike’s speech.

The Middle of the Story

Among the virtues of this book, the one that I have stressed most is how McClay’s story supplies the sort of historical knowledge so important to citizenship. To know one’s national story is necessary to the kind of patriotism that spurs citizens to both preserve and change—to consolidate and shed—in light of our deepest experienced truths. But, McClay’s history is not complete, in my view. No historical account is ever complete because we live in medias res and almost all historians become cautious about how they tell the story of recent events.

McClay’s account loses some of its characteristic richness after 1960. The author does not demonstrate, in my view, the historical importance of 1960s radicalism, or the way progressives (of various stripes and under diverse labels) took over the most important cultural, intellectual, and entertainment/media institutions over the ensuing 30 years.

Today’s rising generation is perhaps more intellectually provincial than any recent generation, and the most profound weakness in their understanding is historical. For them to recognize the degree to which they inhabit an intellectual and cultural world crafted by two generations of leftists who have sought to rob them of the historical resources for meaningful resistance to transformation, they must understand the developments below the surface that effectively robbed them of their civilizational inheritance.

In a similar way, conservatives of all generations need to confront a recent history that reveals that political victory is no substitute for the continuous and vigorous cultivation of a social and cultural order that forms the soul of each new generation, and that is capable of transmitting that culture. The recent progressive assault on American principles, culture, and values has been successful in part because conservatives lost their own connection to our past and became intoxicated with an ideological and abstract simulacrum of American conservatism.

In sum, we need to recapture our connection to our past, and Land of Hope allows us to do this. Its short and eloquent epilogue meditates on patriotism and the persistent question of American identity. For a creedal nation, and a nation of citizens who share a distinctive culture of self-rule, the question seems more pressing than ever. McClay keeps both—the creedal and the cultural—in view. He understands that we have lost the balance between them, and that to restore it requires knowing our history, internalizing it as our story. Only then can we recover what it is to live in a land of hope.