The Magazine

UNAFRAID OF GREATNESS

Mar 16, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 26 • By NEWT GINGRICH
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Paul Johnson

A History of the American People

HarperCollins, 921 pp., $ 35


Paul Johnson has written perhaps the most important history of the American people in our generation. He raises the key question about America and its nature: "Is this in fact a learned civilization and are there characteristics and traits unique to the American people that make them, because of their cultural experience in becoming Americans, different from other people?" And he not only answers the question, "Yes," but he provides a remarkable framework of historical study to support his case.


Let me confess at the outset that I am a Paul Johnson fan. Now sixty-nine years old, he remains a prolific columnist for the London Spectator and other British publications. And he remains as well an indefatigable writer of big, compelling books covering wide swaths of history -- his mammoth History of the Jews, for instance, or his Intellectuals, in which he surveys the development of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers. His thousand-page account of the birth of our age in Modern Times may be the most provocative and thoughtful history we have in this century. As a former socialist who came to adopt far more conservative values, he has not only been a great adviser to Margaret Thatcher, but he has brought a unique talent for understanding left-wing thought to his explanation of conservative values and conservative attitudes.


And let me confess as well that, like Paul Johnson, I believe America is a great country filled with good people, that we are a unique, learned civilization, and that there is something different about being American: People are born Chinese or European or African, but we learn to become Americans.


In his latest large tome, A History of the American People, Johnson is, as usual, clear, forthright, and daring. He takes his epigraph straight from Shakespeare: "Be not afraid of greatness" -- certainly one of the most politically incorrect comments on America by a contemporary intellectual. He begins his preface, "This work is a labor of love," and he goes on to close it with the words: "I do not acknowledge the existence of hyphenated Americans, or Native Americans or any other qualified kind. They are all Americans to me: black, white, red, brown, yellow, thrown together by fate in that swirling maelstrom of history which has produced the most remarkable people the world has ever seen. I love them and salute them, and this is their story."


If only for this reaffirmation of American uniqueness and the existence of a genuinely American civilization, Paul Johnson's book would be worth reading, but it shows, in addition, a remarkably insightful understanding of the core elements that have powered this civilization. Johnson understands the role of religion in America: the importance of religious thought, the Declaration of Independence's assertion that "We are endowed by our Creator," the sense that America is directly endowed by God and responsible to God. It permeates his book in a way that no modern liberal understands -- which is why modern liberals are blocked from ever completely understanding America.


In addition to grasping the core religious framework of this country, Johnson understands the second tradition that lies at the heart of our history: the tradition of individual democracy, grass-roots populism, anti- authoritarianism, and anti-government sentiment. Johnson correctly identifies the origins of the American Revolution in the religious impact of the Great Awakening, but he notes as well that while the American colonists paid remarkably few taxes, they resented every single penny. The modern anti-tax movement can trace its roots directly back to a knowledge present even in the colonial period: the knowledge that every penny and every power government gets comes at the expense of personal freedom and personal opportunity. This tension between the individual and the state is deeply embedded in classical American civilization, and those who reject it demonstrate just how distant they are from the American tradition.