“A History of the American People” by Paul Johnson


indexThough I decided long ago to maintain some degree of skepticism where any historian is concerned, I enjoy and trust Paul Johnson above the rest. His epic study, “A History of the American People”, comes to mind in a special way.

Divided into eight parts, it begins with Colonial America.  Most of us, I think, have only a vague grasp of this period.  We might picture darkly garbed puritans, witches and witch-trials but little else. Johnson sharpens and expands the view.  He does the same within each of the parts that he deals with, any one of which can be read on its own.

“A History of the American People” is almost a thousand pages long. But readers who do not want to tackle the whole thing can choose a topic of interest from among the eight parts. Civil War America, for example (Part Four), is under a hundred pages long but is packed with engrossing information about the people and events that were involved in this specific period of America’s past.

Johnson touches on nearly every significant force, good and bad, that has been in play throughout America’s history. The political leaders are dealt with extensively but not exclusively. We also learn much concerning the country’s artists, writers, thinkers, entrepreneurs and inventors. Readers could spend a lifetime pursuing the endless array of individuals and topics that come up in Johnson’s book.

However, as he admits near the start: ‘Such a fact-filled and lengthy volume as this is bound to contain errors.’  What I picked up—in Part Eight—was not so much factual errors as a lapse into excessive bias. Here, Johnson slams JFK in a noticeably one-sided manner. He could, admittedly, call attention to something else he stated near the start: ‘The book has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America’s past, and I do not seek, as some historians do, to conceal my opinions.’ So be it, and for the most part—though not always—his opinions are congenial to my own viewpoint.

I came away from this history with a deepened understanding, love and respect for my country. Johnson’s book has drawn my attention to so many things: for example, the religious character of the American Revolution (versus the anti-religious character of the French Revolution); or the sheer beauty and size of the land; the many and varied literary accomplishments of Americans; our military might and courage; our tremendous wealth combined with an earnest willingness to aid those in need. Concerning this latter point, Johnson describes President Truman’s push to assist those who were poverty-stricken elsewhere in the world. Over $150 billion was directed toward this end.  Johnson writes: ‘This effort, in absolute or relative terms and from whatever viewpoint it is regarded, was wholly without precedent in human history, and is likely to remain the biggest single act of national generosity on record.’