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A History of the American People by Paul Johnson

By William D. (Bill) Graves
September 30, 1999

Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times, Intellectuals, and other books, has written a masterpiece about America and its people. His A History of the American People (Harper Collins Pub., 1997) has been accurately described by the Conservative Book Club as “a single, sweeping volume so awesome in scope, so rich in fascinating detail, and so pulsing with sheer dramatic intensity that it instantly takes its place as the finest one-volume history of our country ever written.”

Johnson, who is English, is obviously not a “hate America-first” historian, but, as Michael Medved said, has an “undisguised love” for America. Eschewing “political correctness” throughout, he does not acknowledge the existence of hyphenated Americans, but writes of merely Americans. Johnson begins his work by stating: “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind.”

Blessings and Curses

One such lesson is found in America’s Christian foundations and the early adherence to God’s laws and the blessings flowing therefrom, followed by the erosion of those foundations and rejection of God’s laws and the curses flowing therefrom (a fulfillment of Dt. 28?). The former resulted from the efforts of the Calvinists on the Mayflower who pursued religious freedom and Puritans like John Winthrop, whom Johnson calls “the first great American.” Winthrop, a Christian first, implanted “firmly in American soil” (not democracy, but) representative government which was to be cultivated in conformity with Christ’s teachings. Winthrop believed and taught that man had liberty to do—not what he liked—but to distinguish between good and evil by studying God’s commands.

The first structure to be built in every early American township, Johnson says, was a church. He notes that the enlightened French visitor (1830s), Alexis de Tocqueville, in whose nation freedom and religion pursued opposite courses, was amazed to find that, in America, they were “intimately united.” Tocqueville saw “Christianity presented not as a totalitarian society but as an unlimited society.” Rather than separating religion and state, Americans regarded Christianity as “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

Nevertheless, Johnson observes that from the 1960s, the historic role of religion in America was obscured and downplayed. As in Europe, religion in America was increasingly viewed as an enemy of progress. Authorities, particularly the Supreme Court, worked mightily to reduce the role of religion in the affairs of state. At the same time, from 1960-90, while the U.S. population rose only by 41%, there was a 560% increase in violent crime, 200% in teenage suicide, 200% in divorce, over a 400% rise in illegitimate births, and a 300% rise in children living in single-parent homes.

Bringing Luxury to the Masses

Another lesson and much nostalgia is found not just in the blessings resulting from faith in and obedience to God, but in the great material progress resulting from a nation that coveted liberty under law and looked not to civil government for sustenance, but to God. Johnson states that “exactly 300 years after John Winthrop’s fleet anchored” (1630), America was producing, with only 6% of the world’s population and land area, 70% of its oil, nearly 50% of its copper, 38% of its lead, 42% each of its zinc and coal, 46% of its iron, 54% of its cotton and 62% of it corn—all M t h only minimal government regulation.

In a section entitled “Did the Robber Barons Really Exist?, “Johnson acknowledges that in the nineteenth century some of these men sometimes ran afoul of the law, particularly when they saw it as monopolistic, but because of them and their “unimaginable freedom to build and serve the public,” Americans enjoyed the largest and most modern railroad system in the world. Their innovations brought to railways comfort, modernization, safety, speed and drastically cut freight rates—a vital factor in the nation’s huge industrial expansion.

One business giant was Andrew Carnegie, who cut the price of steel rails from $160 a ton to $17. This produced enormous savings in every aspect of the economy “with consequential benefit to the public.” He sold his steel company for the unprecedented sum of $447 million at a time when most forms of taxing wealth, like the capital gains and income taxes, did not exist. Carnegie, who has been unjustly called greedy, generously used his enormous wealth to support education, science, and the humanities, as well as for 2,811 free public libraries, 7,689 church organs, etc. By the time he died at 84, he had disposed of virtually everything he possessed. Thus, Johnson saw Carnegie as “a more important man than any President from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt.”

The famed financial tycoon, J. Pierpont Morgan, is described by Johnson as in “no sense a robber baron,” but was, in fact, a devout Christian, who became an unofficial arbiter of behavior and standards in his day. Morgan also saved the country from several financial catastrophes by preventing a significant financial downturn from developing into a disastrous depression and intervened to enable the army’s payrolls to be met. At President Grover Cleveland’s request, he single-handedly stemmed the gold outflow from the United States.

Another creative man who took advantage of the great opportunities offered by nineteenth century America was Richard W. Sears (of Sears, Roebuck fame), who, through his mail order business, was, by relentless pressure on manufacturers, selling sewing machines in 1897 for less than $15.56, or three to six times lower than they could be bought in retail shops. He caused pandemonium by reducing the price to $3.05 in the same year. Sears extended the same principle to bicycles, baby-carriages, buggies, harnesses, wagons, stoves, cream-separators, and many other items.

These and other men, unshackled by government, literally brought luxury to the masses. Thus, Johnson asserts that “America had been founded by adventurers and preachers, and transformed into a republic by gentleman-politicians, but it was businessmen who made it, and its people rich.” Americans were, he said, in the latter 1870s, conscious that they were “the proud inhabitants of the world’s wealthiest country, enjoying living standards unprecedented in the history of humanity.”

Liberty, Property, Coca-Cola, and Jazz

A third vital lesson that modern America has forgotten is the vital relationship between liberty and property. Reflecting a consensus of the Founding Fathers, who required possession of real property as a pre-requisite to voting, John Adams said: “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.” Property ownership was considered so vital to the development of the country that the government (unlike today’s land-grabbing bureaucrats) was doing its best to insure that everyone (that is, humans)had some and virtually gave land away.

For example, under the 1862 Homestead Act, a farmer could buy 160 acres of surveyed land for $1.50 per acre after six months’ use, or for nothing after 5 years’ residence. B y 1909, this was raised to 640 acres and the time reduced to 3 years. Johnson writes: “Never in human history, before or since, has authority gone to such lengths to help the common people to become landowners.”

Johnson includes many little known facts and anecdotes about America. For example, to combat hard liquor’s evils, Coca-Cola, with a Calvinistic sales approach, became “The Great National Temperance Drink.” Its creator sold his interest for $283.29-—”the biggest steal since the Dutch bought Manhattan.” “Jazz,” “eagle-rocking,” and “boogie-woogie” were black terms for sexual intercourse. The famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright testified in a trial that he was “the greatest architect in the world.” When his wife told him modesty would have been more effective, Wright replied: “You forget, Olgivanna, that I was under oath.”

Exposing Other Liberal Myths

Johnson exposes decades of other liberal myth-making. For example:

  • The Founding Fathers, who established a republic, hated democracy.
  • To the Founding Fathers the Indians were not “noble savages” as they are to so many modern liberals. George Washington disliked the Indians and regarded them as volatile, untrustworthy, cruel, improvident, stalkless, and in every way undependable. He shared with every Founding Father a conviction that the interest of the Indians must not be allowed to stand in the way of America’s development or its citizens’ safety. They did both, and murdered many whites including children “who were seized by the legs and killed by battering their heads.” Women were scalped and those who were pregnant were opened while alive and the embryo infants let out of the womb.
  • The Founding Fathers would have been opposed to the virtual unlimited immigration we now have. Emphasizing the special Anglo-American relationship, Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the “prospect of the Englishness of America being watered down by new, non-English and non-white arrivals.” He feared a future world in which the white races, and especially the English, would be swamped. Neither Washington or Jefferson wanted unlimited or even large-scale immigration.
  • A secular saint of the liberals, the poet Walt Whitman, a homosexual, was the first American poet to make a virtue of obscenity.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pre-Civil War novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has become in the 20th century the foundation stone of anti-Americanism.
  • For 40 years, during which movie-making became a hugely successful industry, Hollywood had a “moral code,” now ridiculed by liberals and called “censorship,” prohibiting justification of adultery and fornication, nudity, denigration of clergy, and putting crime in a favorable light.
  • Woodrow Wilson “first introduced America to big, benevolent government” and statism.
  • The European land that FDR turned over to Stalin at the end of World War II (resulting in the Soviet occupation of much of Europe and the enslavement of millions) was not FDR’s to give.
  • The shameless cover-up and promotion of John F. Kennedy was “one of the biggest frauds in American political history.” The “laws of God and the republic, admirable in themselves, did not apply to the Kennedys.” JFK’s continuing health problems and repeated sexual dalliances were constantly covered up by a knowing liberal press. He shared a mistress with a notorious gangster. Both his college thesis, Why England Slept, for which he graduated cum laude, and Profies in Courage, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, were in fact written by others.
  • False Consumer Price Index calculations were responsible for a large percentage of the budget deficit for which President Ronald Reagan was wrongly blamed. Corrections show that solid growth in national wealth, wage rates, and family incomes, was achieved under Reagan.

Great Character Studies

Despite his overall great work, Johnson erroneously assumes the Enlightenment greatly influenced America’s founding1 and that Washington and Franklin were probably and possibly Deists respectively.2 Washington is, however, praised as a great leader and Johnson underscores the timeless vision of his Farewell Address in which, inter alia, Washington stressed the necessity of maintaining the integrity of oaths in courts of justice—a matter of too little concern to President Bill Clinton.

The account of Andrew Jackson’s military and political careers is fascinating reading. Johnson describes Jackson as one of those self-confident, strong-willed people who are not in the least disturbed if the overwhelming majority of “expert opinion” is opposed to their own deep-felt, instinctive convictions. Johnson is critical of Thomas Jefferson’s “ambivalent rule and character,” pointing out that Jefferson, a strict Constitutionalist, in the purchase of Louisiana, dismissed the Constitution’s provisions as “metaphysical subtleties.”

Abraham Lincoln, whom Johnson describes as “a kind of moral genius,” is praised (while overlooking his abuses of power) for his strong Civil War leadership and for ultimately seeking God’s guidance in his war decisions. Calvin Coolidge, whom Johnson describes as “like the great Queen Elizabeth I . . . (he) was a supreme exponent of masterly inactivity,” is given high marks. So too was Harry Truman whose principles, Johnson says, were based on the Bible.

Economic Disaster and the New Deal

Johnson contends that, had the U.S. government adhered to the non-interventionist policies of Presidents Warren Harding and Coolidge, the Great Depression might well have been averted. In July, 1921, one of the sharpest recessions in American history was over and the economy was again booming. The Harding Administration had done nothing except cut government expenditures by 40% to bring under control the spending of the monster state that had emerged under Wilson. Wages were allowed to fall to their natural level.

Johnson says the Great Depression occurred because bankers. Wall Street experts, and academic economists did not understand the system they had been so confidently manipulating. The y had tried to substitute their own well-meaning policies for what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” of the market and it had wrought disaster. “By allowing the Depression to let rip,” Johnson says, “unsound businesses would quickly have been bankrupted and the sound would have survived.” The federal intervention of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt prolonged the Depression, which Johnson shows did not end until World War II started.

A member of FDR’s brain trust said “the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.” H. L. Mencken, a New Deal opponent, said it was a “political racket,” a “series of stupendous bogus miracles,” with “constant appeals to class envy and hatred,” treating government as “a milch-cow with 125 million teats.” The War rescued the New Deal from oblivion.

McCarthy and Communism

It is one of the cruel absurdities of American history that Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who fought courageously to expose the Communist menace in American government, has been slandered by liberals as much more of a traitor to America than the Communists he helped expose. Regrettably, Johnson uncharacteristically joins in by asserting that “the only consequence of [McCarthy’s] activities was to cause trouble and distress for a lot of innocent people. . . .” On the contrary, James J. Drummey has shown that this is not true.3

For example, of the 110 names McCarthy gave to the Tydings Committee, 62 were State Department employees. Proceedings were started against 49. Eventually 81 left government due to dismissal or resignation. Actually, McCarthy only scratched the surface. In 1953, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee reported that Communist penetration of the U. S. Government extended from the lower ranks to the top levels. Nearly 4,000 government employees were dismissed in 1953-54. Drummey says “there were no innocent victims of McCarthyism.”

Nevertheless, McCarthy’s enemies continued their assault on him until the Soviet Union’s collapse brought the unsealing of secret Soviet records which revealed the full extent of the U. S. Communist infiltration. As a result, the London Observer reported a few years ago that “Historians are now facing the unpleasant truth that [McCarthy] was right.” Moreover, even liberal Washington Post columnist Nicholas von Hoffman acknowledged that McCarthy was “closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.”

The Liberal Elite and Judicial Activism

A surprising contribution is Johnson’s discussion of courts wherein he asserts that the Framers adhered to the Blackstonian admonitions that equity was to be used as a corrective only where the law is deficient and that equity without law makes “every judge a legislator.” This changed as a result of the “sinister legacy of Gunnar Myrdal,” a disciple of Nietzsche. Myrdal wrote An American Dilemma, which had a profound impact on the liberal intelligentsia. He advanced the notion that “the masses are impervious to rational argument” and that the enlightened elite must make equitable decisions on their behalf for their own good. Supreme Court Justices became enamored with Myrdal’s approach, which hastened Brown v. Board of Education and the advent of judicial activism.

A History of the American People is one of those hooks the reader will wish did not end. It is a feast for those who love America and an educational expose for those brainwashed by liberal myth-making. It could have been entitled, “The America We Lost, But Must Regain.”

  1. R. J . Rushdoony has shown than an American Enlightenment is a myth and that America’s “essential waywardness must be read in terms of Arminianism, not in terms of the Enlightenment or its subsequent developments,” Rushdoony, “The Myth of A n American Enlightenment,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. III , Summer, 1976, No. 1, 69, 71.
  2. In claiming that Washington “was probably a Deist,” Johnson fails to point out that Washington had referred to Jesus Christ as the “Divine Author of our Blessed religion,” John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, (Grand Rapids, MI [1987]), 138. Washington told the Delaware Indian Chiefs: “You do well to wish to learn about our arts and ways of life, and above all the religion of Jesus Christ,” Washington, “Address to Delaware Chiefs,” The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources: 1749-1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington DC, 1936), 15:55. Harvard historian Perry Miller, an atheist, said “Deism is an exotic plant that never struck roots in American soil.” Miller, Nature’s Nation, (Cambridge, MA, 1967), 110. Franklin, while possibly a Deist when young, very undeistically told the Constitutional Convention that “God governs in the affairs of men.”
  3. James J. Drummey, “The Real McCarthy Record,” The New American, May 11, 1987; See also William F. Buckley and Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies (Chicago, IL, 1995).

Topics: American History, Business, Culture , Economics, Education, Government, Justice

William D. (Bill) Graves

Bill Graves is an Oklahoma City lawyer and a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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