Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fast women, fast horses, and Jesus . . .

I used to hate American history.

No, that's too strong. I would've hated it if I'd had to study it, but I didn't have to, so I didn't hate it. Rather, I shared McDougall's earlier opinion, one that he still held -- if I recall -- when I knew him at Berkeley:

I used to disparage American history as a relatively provincial field of research. (Freedom Just Around the Corner, XII)

But even that degree of engagement with it was only if someone prompted me to pronounce judgement, which didn't happen too often since I moved in circles similarly disposed toward my views.

Mostly, I was indifferent. I simply had no interest in the American past. Studying American history was fine for other folks, but I was interested in the real past in all its glory, and America didn't have that.

Indeed, a mere 400 years ago, the United States of America did not exist.

That, however, is precisely the point. Only 400 years ago, this complex American civilization of some 300 million people that dominates the globe simply did not exist.

And that is interesting:

For if historians aim to explain change over time, then the United States is the most swiftly moving target of all, because nowhere else has more change occurred in so short a span. (XII)

Merely 400 years ago, it didn't exist, yet it:

today hosts the mightiest, richest, most dynamic civilization in history -- a civilization, moreover, that perturbs the trajectories of all other civilizations just by existing. (XI)

This dawning realization brought McDougall to conclude that:

The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years. (XI)

Ironically, it is not a place that the Founding Fathers would have expected. Rough Jacksonian frontier democracy of men who liked boozing, brawling, and praying quickly overtook the more genteel visions of America's founders, whose emphasis upon proper education, concern with Greek and Roman history, appeal to enlightened views of Deism, and adherence to nobless oblige elitism were all being relegated to history:

Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson had imagined the American experiment coming to all sorts of bad ends. They never imagined the Federal City overrun by frontiersmen who cared nothing for history and loved only cheap land and credit, whiskey, tobacco, guns, fast women, fast horses, and Jesus. (497)

"Not," adds McDougall, "necessarily in that order" (497).


Post a Comment

<< Home