Paul Johnson: a History of the American People
What are the most important, meaningful, and interesting things you learned in your reading of the Preface & Part I of Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People”? What do you think of the author’s perspective? Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People” serves as a concise summary of the foundation of the United States of America, a nation that has had more impact on the world today than perhaps any other. Johnson’s work starts from the earliest beginnings of Europeans in America and traces the evolution that our nation has experienced up to the modern time.
Johnson highlights some of the fundamental differences between American history and that of practically all other nations. Unlike other countries, we have original documents dating back to the origins of the United States that explain who was responsible for what in the creation of our state. Furthermore, the United States, unlike any other country at the time, was founded on the principles of equality, liberty, and democracy. Finally, Johnson explains that there are still many black marks on the history of the United States, open for all to see, that we must correct for if we are to continue as a model for the entire world.
For practically all countries today, we don’t have a full account of their history. We might have some sort of documentation of how things were centuries back; however, we know very little of what happened. It is only the more modern times that are well documented and can be studied in great detail and accuracy. The United States is a very notable exception to this rule. We have detailed recordings of everything that went on during the creation of our nation and the steps that led up to it. Practically all of the Europeans that ventured to the New World kept journals of what they found and what they thought of it.
Many of these primary-source documents are heavily biased, but they still serve as very useful guides for trying to understand things as they were. Columbus recorded in great detail what he observed upon reaching America; the French, Portuguese, and English were no different. Practically everything was recorded for the purpose of informing those sponsoring the missions what sort of conditions and successes had been found. Today, we have access to the very thoughts of those who founded each of the American colonies; we can analyze not only what they did, but why they did it, and what the primary difficulties they faced were.
Likewise, we have access to all of the Federalist Papers and the original United States Constitution; both are instrumental in understanding the founding of our country. Secondly, the United States itself was founded upon the principles of freedom, equality, and liberty. In the decades leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, the colonists were growing increasingly irritated with the “tyranny” that they saw coming out of the British monarchy and parliament. One of the primary complaints coming from practically all levels of American society was that the Americans were suffering at the hands of the British.
Many of the colonists felt that having to pay taxes to the British without representation in the British government or British protection against the American Indians was simply unjust. Furthermore, they were strongly against the mercantilist policies and rules of the British government that, they believed, attempted to exploit the American colonies solely for the benefit of Britain. Thus, when the delegations from the individual colonists gathered together to form a new nation, there primary concerns were preventing tyranny and ensuring that ordinary people would have a say in their government.
They certainly didn’t believe that everyone should have a say, as initially voting was restricted to white males who owned property, however, they still felt that government should be in the hands of the governed. Furthermore, unlike the British or French, or Russian governments, where the nobility usually received preferential treatment before the crown, in America everyone was to be legally equal. There would, of course, be class differences, but the law would apply the same way to everyone, regardless of whether they were wealthy or poor.
One of the most important points that Paul Johnson makes in the opening sections of “A History of the American People” is the initial behavior that the colonists had was not always respectable, or even tolerable. Johnson discusses the process by which the land for the United States was acquired and emphasizes the issues with it. He points out that practically all nations are formed through war through the seizing of territory and resources that previously belonged to others. The United States followed a similar trajectory, however, only to a much greater extent.
While, for example, Germany was formed through the consolidation of numerous individual states in what was the Holy Roman Empire, the native population was, at least for the most part, ethnically German and sufficiently nationalistic to see a consolidated Germany, even if it involved fighting to bring about, as in their self-interest. The United States, by contrast, was formed rather differently. Prior the arrival of the Europeans in America, there was already a variety of advanced cultures that were simply annihilated by the advancing Europeans.
Kicking the native population off of their land and killing them when it was deemed necessary is certainly impolite at the very least. Furthermore, once the Europeans established themselves in America, they started bringing Africans over as slaves. Slavery has always been an evil institution, and was mostly abolished in Europe at the time that America was founded. The American settlers, however, realized the immense profits that they could accumulate through the use of slave labor, and weren’t, despite their religion, above slavery.
They adhered to a religion that preached tolerance and kindness, yet, at the same time, enslaved millions of Africans under absolutely awful situations. Paul Johnson argues that, going forward, we must take steps to correct for these past misdeeds of our society. In this regard, he is absolutely correct; as a young nation, the United States made a variety of unacceptable choices, which, while they were deemed acceptable at the time, can no longer be tolerated. We must take action to correct for these misdeeds.
Johnson argues that the foundation of the United States was the “greatest experiment ever attempted”. He sees the United States in a very positive light, highlighting the unusual degree (at least for the time) of freedom and equality that it offered. In particular, he mentions several very unique aspects of the American people: unlike most other nations, for better or for worse, the earliest origins of the American people are recorded and detail and readily available.
From these, we can see that the United States, unlike most other countries of the time, was founded upon the principles of equality, tolerance, and freedom (if not for everyone, at least for many). Perhaps most importantly, however, he argues that many mistakes were made in the founding of the United States, and if we are to serve as the same model for the world that we have been for most of the past century, we must take active steps to correct for these early mistakes.