656 pages, Harper, ISBN-13: 978-0060197896
“The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years.” With this statement, Walter A. McDougall begins Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585-1828 – the first of a projected three-volume history of the United States with new details and insights about colonial and early national history. McDougall marshals the latest scholarship and writes in a style redolent of passion, pathos, and humor in pursuit of truths often obscured in books burdened with political slants.
His work follows a novel approach to American history, showing as it does the selfish motives and misjudgments of important historical figures; thus, we have the explorer as hustler, the settler as hustler, the general as hustler, and the historian as hustler, too. That this concept can become a guiding conceit in the work of a conservative historian says much about how pervasive the social theories of Adam Smith and Bernard de Mandeville have become, but in McDougall’s view, it is precisely the openness of the nascent American society that enabled the growth of a republic that would come one day to dominate and transform the world. Just as in Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, the private vices of the early Americans ultimately produced the public goods that we enjoy today. Americans, McDougall notes, “have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by fair means or foul, than any other people in history.” They have enjoyed unmatched freedom, and, given the mixed stuff of human nature, freedom in action can be as often corrupting as it is ennobling. As he proceeds from the colonial era through the Revolution, the making of the Constitution, the Federalist-Republican disputes of the 1790s (perhaps the most bitter in our history), the complicated diplomatic relations with England and France that finally culminated in the War of 1812, and the nationalist-sectionalist tensions of the presidencies of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, McDougall reminds us that Americans mixed low self-interest and high ideals in ways so intricately intertwined that they cannot finally be separated.
In the end, McDougall’s great achievement is to have produced a book that can recommend itself to scholars and general readers alike. His 90-pages of small-print endnotes display a mastery of the massive scholarly literature and will be a source of delight to readers absorbed by historiographical debates. At critical points in his narrative he integrates those debates into his text, but without losing the flow of the story. He also has an unusual facility for assimilating into his traditional political framework a broad range of economic and social history that expands his focus without blurring it. McDougall’s American exceptionalism is free of moral grandiosity, and it is all the more persuasive for that. It tells the American truth unvarnished.