Saturday, August 8, 2015

The American Future by Simon Schama

This book was published in 2009 and it shows.

I’ll tell you what I mean by that, but before I do, let me try to do what Schama does skillfully in this very engaging take on American history. He doesn’t use this word, but as I read through the four sections of the book--American War, American Fervor, What Is An American?, and American Plenty--I came to think of them as the four paradoxes of America.

Here’s the first, perhaps best described in Schama’s portrayal of the conflicting views of two of the nation’s Founding Fathers.

For [Thomas] Jefferson, the republic was supposed to be a marvelous new organism utterly unpolluted by the atavistic habits and warped customs of the old. It would resist the tendency that states, even those boasting parliamentary pedigree like Britain, had of sliding inexorably into oligarchic corruption and tyranny. And that meant it would have no need for professional armies of any size and should indeed always suspect their potential for political mischief. Pay no heed to jaded lessons from the past that insisted that states, like men, could never wean themselves from their habitual savagery. The United States had been born to refute the cynicism that a fresh start was not utopian, and to prove that it was entirely possible to live as a republic of free men and yet be a moral force in the world. War was at once the functional need and customary habit of aristocracies and despots. Do away with the latter, and you did away with the former. The coming French Revolution and Jefferson's own witness of it in Paris only confirmed his belief that the mighty shift from despots to democracies would obviate the habitual need for war--except as a last resort to defend liberty.


[Alexander] Hamilton heard what he considered all this naive Jeffersonian optimism and rolled his eyes. Let Jefferson indulge himself in philosophical entertainment if it amused him, but let him not do so, Hamilton thought, at the expense of American security. It was childish folly to pretend that the political virginity of the United States would be sufficient protection against the predators who prowled the oceans and swarmed across continents with armies numbering tens, hundreds, of thousands. Had not Jefferson and the gentlemen who thought in his fashion observed what had become of the professedly peaceful pretensions of the revolutionary “Republique une et indivisible,” the “grande nation” that, while disclaiming conquest as the obsolete sport of tyrants, somehow managed to occupy--and plunder--most of western Europe? Their war to “defend liberty” had become a transparent pretext for empire.

The first three paradoxes will follow this pattern. Two traditions--in this case, one that eschews standing armies and military culture, and one that projects military might and strength--both in conflict with each other, and both unquestionably American.

And Schama chooses to demonstrate this first paradox through the on-going clashes of professional and citizen soldier ideology that manifested during the American Civil War. Montgomery Meigs, the Union Quartermaster General who first laid out the plots at Arlington National Cemetery, is his protagonist in this historical tale, and it is a rich tale indeed.

Now the real toil began, the work that would ultimately win the war for the Union as the Confederacy would be out-supplied rather than out-fought. Meigs knew that blundering generals could lose wars, but smart, resourceful ones could never win them without consistent and swift supply. Time and again, the availability of food, clothing, draft animals, and artillery horses--as much, if not more than the munitions themselves--made the difference between success and failure, both in particular battles and whole campaigns.

This is a view of the war that your humble amateur historian has never taken before, but Schama goes on to make a persuasive case.

Take underwear and soap, for example. Diarrhea and dysenteric infections like typhoid made short work of armies, on the march and in muddy camps. Toward the end of the war Confederate armies in Virginia had no more drawers to supply men whose underthings had been reduced to foul shreds and rags. And in both armies lack of hygiene could kill more men than shells and grapeshot. And without proper footwear, there could be no victories. By the summer of 1864 the Confederates had run out of horseshoes, so they ripped the shoes from dead animals and shot any sick or broken-down horses to get at the shoes. Much of their infantry were themselves shod in rawhide moccasins, if they were lucky, or not at all. It was said that you could tell where rebel soldiers had passed by the bloody footprints on the ground.

Imagine that. No really. Imagine that. An army of men marching barefoot, leaving bloody footprints on the ground.

Their best hope was to take Union prisoners, for whom the first order was to get their shoes off and transferred to their desperate foes. If that happened they were in luck, for Montgomery Meigs had assumed each Union soldier would need four pairs per year, and since he anticipated (correctly) long rugged marches, specified at the outset that footwear be hand-stitched, rather than the wood-pegged shoes that could be got from factory production. This kind of provision took longer, tried the patience, but it won campaigns. In fact the battle that has been seen (not altogether accurately) as the most decisive of the war, Gettysburg, came about almost by accident when Lee’s army in Pennsylvania were searching for footwear and ran into the army of General Meade! Later that year Lee actually curtailed his plan to attack Meade because of “the want of supplies of shoes, clothing, blankets … I was averse to marching them [his troops] over the rough roads of that region at a season too when frosts are certain and snows probable unless they were better provided [to] encounter … without suffering.” Lee had read enough about the Napoleonic wars to know armies never won with frost-bitten feet.

On the other hand, when Sherman got to Savannah in December 1864, waiting for his army (that had been decently supplied in the first place) were 60,000 fresh shirts, drawers, and pairs of socks, 10,000 greatcoats (the assumption being that some at least of the original distribution would have survived the march through Georgia), 10,000 waterproof ponchos, and 20,000 blankets. There were also three full days’ rations for each man, ready to go. Meigs had shipped all these supplies south, partly in the ironclad armed transport vessels whose fleet he had designed, and had stored them on Hilton Head Island just off the coast. Just in case Sherman made a last-minute change of plan and continued to march south, Meigs had also sent an equivalent supply to Pensacola in Florida.

I’ve observed the following sentiment before, but allow me to let Schama make the same conclusion I often do about the Confederacy’s chances of winning that war.

Against this performance, the overstretched Confederacy, for all its own miracles of mobilization, had no chance.

But let's get back to the four paradoxes of America. Here’s the second one, again expressed by Schama in the views of two of the Founding Fathers.

The fight to keep matters religious and matters of state apart, to institute toleration and equal rights for those of all beliefs or none, was not, for [Thomas] Jefferson, nor for his friend James Madison, a revolutionary afterthought. It was the revolution just as much as the institution of democracy itself. In 1776 what was it that he described as “the severest contest in which I have ever been engaged?” The battle against the British in Massachusetts? No, the overthrow of a church establishment. What was the first political campaign Madison fought? The defense of dissenters in Culpeper County. If the two of them were around today and needed a flag to wave at the zealots who slaughtered New Yorkers on 9/11, the Statute of Religious Freedom would replace the Stars and Stripes. Read this, they would say, and you will read America. Jefferson’s authorship of the bill (and the much better known Declaration of Independence and his creation of the University of Virginia) were the achievements he wanted inscribed on his tombstone.


To those for whom [John] Adams, a Unitarian, albeit with a Calvinist cast of temper, represents a beacon of New England liberalism, it may come as a surprise to find him so adamantly on the side of Christian public politics. But the importance he assigned to this issue is apparent from the fact that it takes up articles II and III of the Massachusetts constitution … Article II states that “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe.” In other words, no American could consider himself a right citizen unless he had fulfilled that duty of public worship.

There’s more.

It was in article III, however, that Adams got down to serious business. His premise was, and it is expressed as if unarguable … that “the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality.” Since “these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality … to promote … and secure the good order and preservation of government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with the power to authorize and require the several towns, parishes, precincts and other bodies politic or religious societies [as if they were interchangeable], to make suitable provision at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all such cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.”

So there it is. Again, two traditions--in this case, one that seeks to separate church from state, and one that bases government on Christian piety--both in conflict with each other, and both unquestionably American.

And like the first paradox, and perhaps more so, it is an argument that rages to this day. As Schama notes:

As I write this, the junior senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, whose Web site declares him to be a member of the Muskogee New Community Church, is holding up the passage of an AIDS-assistance bill through Congress on the grounds that it includes provision for health education that pays insufficient attention to abstinence. This is purest John Adams in his Massachusetts 1780 mode, decreeing any thought of political action uncoupled from religious morality to be a reprehensible abandonment of civic responsibility.

Personally, I tend to lean to the Jefferson side of this debate. Especially his view that it is dogma, not religion, that is the true enemy of liberty.

… Jefferson, in common with the Enlightenment philosophies, believed that adhesion to unexamined and irrational beliefs had been the greatest cause of contention and slaughter in the world, for there could be no arguing with those who asserted from revelation alone. Nothing about our own epoch would be likely to shake Jefferson from that view, though doubtless he would be dismayed that the human race had somehow failed to shake off its thralldom to myth. Dispose of those myths, he argued, and you would neutralize the carnage. If only mankind could somehow be persuaded to hold only those beliefs that could withstand the empirical scrutiny of reason, there was a chance for some sort of universal consensus on the characteristics of the divine that did, or did not, make sense. Then men might at last forbear from imposing their particular monopoly of revealed truth on others.


Let's move on to the third paradox of America, perhaps best expressed not in quotes from two Founding Fathers, but in Schama's own tight prose.

So while people in Belfast and Leipzig were reading Tom Paine and Crevecoeur and imagining the social miracle by which the most oppressed peasant or laborer could be transformed in America into a free citizen, those who would greet them from the seats of power on the other side of the ocean were having serious second thoughts about the immigrant romance and looking for ways to weed out the more, from the less, acceptable newcomers. This cautionary approach to immigration would remain deeply lodged in the American mind, even as its public image was one of indiscriminate embrace of the unfortunate.

Yes, as Schama so well describes in his part called What is an American?, America is a nation of immigrants that both talks poetically about huddled masses and teeming shores, and at the same time agitates to build walls along its Southern border. Two views in opposition with one another, but both with firm American foundations.

The part is well-named, for What is an American? is such an excellent question to ask if you want to get into an argument with someone about immigration. My cynical self tends to agree with this sentiment:

“Americanism,” Grace Abbott says, following Horace Kallen, is a shibboleth, a weak-minded convenience, and she quoted the anthropologist William Sumner approvingly when he commented that what it often amounts to is a “duty to applaud, follow and obey whatever ruling clique of newspapers and politicians command us to say or do.”

But there is a more serious side that the chest-thumping patriots either seem to ignore or are incapable of perceiving.

“We are many nationalities scattered over a continent with all the differences and interest that climate brings. But instead of being ashamed of this … we should recognize the particular opportunity for the world’s service. If English, Irish, Polish, German, Scandinavian, Russian, Magyar, Lithuanian and all the other races on earth can live together each making his own distinctive contribution to our common life, if we can respect those differences that result from a different social and political environment and the common interests that unite all people, we shall meet the American opportunity. If instead we blindly follow Europe and cultivate national egotism we shall need to develop a contempt for others, to foster the national hatreds and jealousies that are necessary for aggressive nationalism.”

Those are the words of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a Frenchman known for his pro-American writings during the time of the American Revolution, and I think he may be on to something.

And, finally, here’s the fourth paradox of America. This one, unlike the other three, is not revealed in the opposing views of people with equal claims to the American tradition. This one can be summed up in one short sentence.

It’s not over, then, the American sense of a national entitlement to plenty, in which no one gets shortchanged and the next generation is always better off than the last.

Why is it a paradox? Because, of course, it’s not true. It’s just something Americans have been taught to believe.

If you want one word to describe the American state of mind, it would be “boundless”; the beckoning road trip, the shaking loose of fetters. Natural limits--mountains, rivers--have been there to be wondered at and then, in short order, crossed, forded, mapped, left behind.

It’s an innate sense of entitlement to plenty and success that survives in the face of the evidence of deterioration and scarcity that surrounds us. After all...

It was native ingenuity, planted in the most unforgiving soil, that could deliver a yield. Taming the untamable Colorado River with the stupendous Hoover Dam produced a water supply in the arid western desert copious enough to supply populous cities and intensive farming. In Imperial Valley, California, one side of the All-American Canal is a dunescape so barren that it could (and often does) serve as Hollywood’s version of the Sahara; on the other are fields so abundant they produce green beans, asparagus, and strawberries for the supermarkets, and alfalfa for the cattle feedlots, all year round. Never mind that the reservoir of Lake Mead that delivers water to those cities, and farther downstream, the farms, is at 50 percent of capacity; all will somehow be well. The taps of Los Angeles running dry? The solution, a farmer, waxing indignant at the thought of selling some of his surplus water to the cities of Nevada and California, told me, is right on “their” doorstep: desalinate the Pacific!

This not a conflict of opposing views. It is a conflict with reality itself.

So there you go, four paradoxes, and four unique prisms through which to view American history, all entertainingly told by a visual historian (see postscript below). So, why do I say that it shows that the book was published in 2009?

Here’s why.

The American story has always been a dialogue between Jefferson’s unbounded faith in heroic individualism and the obligations of of mutual community voiced by Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But the supremacy of self-interest, of which corporatism was its manifestation writ monstrous, is for the moment at any rate well and truly over, the casualty of its wildest ride. The Enron and Madoff frauds, both breaktaking in scale; the criminally tardy response of government to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the abandonment of the people of New Orleans to their fate for days on end; the shaming sense that the American people were sold a bill of goods in Iraq, and that the country’s “reconstruction” was merely an opportunity for outsourced freebooting have buried the era of “best of luck, pal.” Instead, an alternative America has been recovered, one that was actually there all along. In this America, “government” is no longer the enemy of freedom but its guardian, no longer the bogeyman of enterprise but its honest conscience and forthright guide , no longer shrouded in furtive entanglements but vigorously transparent. A government that need not blush at its claim to be “for, of, and by the people.”

No honest historian could have written such a paragraph at any other time than early 2009. By linking this new American future--or this restoration of this best of America’s paradoxical past; take your pick--to the election of Barack Obama, time will do little more than mock Schama’s naivete. For, of course, Obama is no less a corporatist that his predecessors. Indeed, I believe history has shown and will continue to do so that the president--and, more specifically, the forces that identify and elect him--are now hopelessly corporatist.

And what was that about “vigorously transparent”? Ask the White House Press Corps how they think Obama compares to Bush when it comes to access and transparency.

And yet, Schama is capturing something real here.

Until somewhere around midnight, when at a fell swoop, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio all went blue, and a great cork popped from the pent-up city. Block parties improvised, Washingtonians usually not given to dancing in the streets did just that. Hip-hop and salsa ruled on the damp sidewalks of Adams Morgan. All around the cities of the United States, an effusion of relief and almost incredulous glee poured through crowds, as if the country that had not quite dared to believe that it could be possible for someone so unlike the usual specifications for occupancy of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would nonetheless be taking of residence there, come 20 January. At long last, the ignominious betrayal of the American promise, inherent in slavery, had been effaced; the moral vileness of segregation wiped clean. Perfect strangers in Washington coffee shops and diners high-fived and hugged. Around the world, disbelief was swamped by joyous relief. The America the world wanted but assumed it had forever lost had returned. The Statue of Liberty was no longer a bad joke. Conceding, John McCain looked happy for the first time since he accepted the Republican nomination and went out of his way to garland the victor with heartfelt appreciation, as if he had been secretly wanting to do that for some time. Even the incumbent, whose presidency was being repudiated, understood that America had suddenly become better for what had happened and had the decency, in so many words, to say so.

Something real because we really did feel that way in November 2008. The fact that now, in August 2015, so little of that hope and vision has come to fruition doesn’t invalidate the fundamental premise that, at that moment in time, so much more seemed possible.

Maybe that’s the fifth paradox of America?

Postscript: A Visual Historian

Schama is very much a visual historian. Author of one of my favorite books, Rembrandt’s Eyes, in which the full color photos of so many of Rembrandt’s works are essential to understand Schama’s historical and biographical narrative, it’s a shame more photographs couldn’t be used in The American Future to augment Schama’s often delightful prose. With the handy internet as my guide, here’s my feeble attempt to correct the error.

Montgomery Meigs commissioned a death-likeness of his son that would be much smaller than life-size. A mere three feet or so from head to toe, raised on a low plinth, the sculpture lies hidden from general view, tucked into the shallow space between his mother’s tomb and the path.

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Apart from the conduit itself, two stunning bridges had to be built: the first a single-span 220-feet masonry arch (then the longest in the world) with a rise of fifty-seven feet thrown over Cabin John Valley ...

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... the second an iron bridge that was both aqueduct and viaduct 200 feet long over Rock Creek (both still wonderfully extant).

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In particular he designed the astounding Pension Building, a brick-and-terra-cotta galleried temple of immense scale and grandeur. Decorating the facade is a great frieze by the sculptor Caspar Buberl, representing scenes from the war, which include more than tough infantrymen on their march, but also supply wagons and their teamsters, at least one of whom Meigs typically specified must be a liberated slave. Seen in profile cracking a whip over his mule team, it’s one of the great images in American public sculpture.

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He sent General Arthur MacArthur (West Point) to the Philippines, and the conflict settled down into a horrifying slaughter: Filipinos picking off infantrymen; Americans wreaking revenge by burning villages and crops, and treating villagers, whom they usually called “niggers” or “gu-gus” (after their coconut oil shampoo), as subhuman. Since it was said to be difficult to distinguish between native guerrillas and noncombatants, the massacre of villagers in any area thought suspicious became commonplace and even expected. Torture of prisoners to extract information, especially the “water cure” because routine. Water was poured through a funnel in quantities to distend the stomach and give the prisoner a sense of drowning. If the torturers didn’t get to hear what they wanted, soldiers would jump or stamp on the prisoners’ stomachs to induce vomiting, and the process would start all over again. Naturally, photographs were taken of the torture. In one of them a soldier stands watching from a few feet away while his comrades administer the cure. With one hand he leans on a pile of rifles; the other is on his hip at his belt. His left leg is crossed jauntily over his right, and on his face is the unmistakable beginning of a smile. Albert Gardner of the 1st Cavalry actually specialized in songs that made the business into a jolly rigmarole: “Get the old syringe boys and fill it to the brim / We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him.”

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The worst of all arrived on 14 April 1935 when an estimated 300,000 tons of flying dirt darkened skies all the way from eastern Colorado to Washington, D.C., where Franklin Roosevelt’s soil conservation specialist Hugh Bennett was about to testify before a congressional committee on restoring the integrity of the shortgrass prairie before nothing was left of it. On Friday the 19th, Bennett made his appearance announcing, as the sky over Washington turned dirty copper, that they were about to witness what had killed a whole age of farming. As the storm dirtied the windows of the Capitol, Bennett, nature helping his case, announced, “This, gentleman, is what I’m talking about. There goes Oklahoma.”

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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