How can we summarise the history of the United States? Let me try …

My review of “A Little History Of The United States” by James West Davidson

This is not just a short account (300 pages) but it is conveniently broken up into 40 brief chapters and the writing style is very accessible, even conversational, with an emphasis on personalities and stories rather than dates and statistics. The overall tone could be said to be liberal or progressive.

Following the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by the Norseman Leif Erikson around 1000 AD (actually what is today Newfoundland, Canada) and the ‘rediscovery’ by the Italian Christopher Columbus in 1492 (actually somewhere in what is now called the Bahamas), Europeans paid little attention to North America for 140 years (1542-1682) which Davidson calls “a huge silence in the history books”.

In a sense, therefore, the story of the United States itself does not really get going until the French explorer Jean-Baptiste de La Salle’s trip down the Mississippi River in 1682. Very early in the narrative of the nation, two tensions emerged: that between a central authority and localised autonomy and that between the notion of liberty and the practice of slavery.

Following the American War of Independence from 1775-1783 (“a quarrel that turned into an uprising [that] spiraled into a full-fledged rebellion”) and the rapid expansion of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, President Andrew Jackson’s forced acquisition of substantial Indian lands, and the spoils of the U.S.-Mexican war of 1846-1848, these twin tensions led to the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

Davidson reminds us that the civil war death toll of some three-quarters of a million was more than died in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the U.S.-Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, and World Wars I and II combined. 

Following a period known as Reconstruction, the country was beset economically by one major panic or depression after another: 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873-1879, 1882-1885, 1893-1897, and most infamously the Great Depression of 1929-late 1930s. Then – and now – American politics has divided into two views of how economic wealth is allocated in society: what Davidson characterises as “luck or pluck”.

So-called progressives took the view that the federal goverment had to intervene to support the most deprived in society. This led to the ‘square deal’ of President Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson. But more recent experience has been much more conservative and free market.

This little history is brought up todate with brief accounts of the emergence of the U.S.A. as a superpower, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the Soviet empire. 

Davidson concludes his story by reminding readers that: “Two big ideas echo through American history, circling and ever returning: freedom and equality”.

The lines between these two concepts have been redrawn again and again: the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 (the valuation of slaves), the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (the admission of Maine as a slave state and Missouri as a free state), the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (effectively a repeal of the Missouri Compromise), and the Compromise of 1850 (the status of territories acquired in the Mexican-American War). He insists that “the lines never held”

And today the lines still have to be redrawn. If freedom means the freedom to be unequal, how unequal? And what is the role of government in ameliorating such inequalities? These are questions for every nation but perhaps most especially for the richest nation in the history of humankind. 


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