America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I): From the Age of Discovery to a World at War

America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I): From the Age of Discovery to a World at War

4.2 13
by William J. Bennett

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America, how well do you know your history?

  • Who quelled a coup d'etat by putting on a pair of reading glasses?
  • Which U.S. senator was nearly caned to death on the Senate floor?
  • Which first lady refused to serve alcohol in the White House?
  • What famous inventor was called to find the assassin's

…  See more details below


America, how well do you know your history?

  • Who quelled a coup d'etat by putting on a pair of reading glasses?
  • Which U.S. senator was nearly caned to death on the Senate floor?
  • Which first lady refused to serve alcohol in the White House?
  • What famous inventor was called to find the assassin's bullet in President Garfield's back?
  • Which successful candidate for president insisted on telling the truth about his sex scandal?
  • Which beloved ex-president raced with death and poverty to write his best-selling memoirs and which famous humorist came to his rescue?
  • Which president carefully read the trial notes of 303 condemned Sioux warriors and spared all but 38 from the hangman's noose?
  • Which "four-eyed" future president beat up a drunken bully in a saloon?

In his Farewell Address, Ronald Reagan said if we forget what we have done, we will forget who we are. This book, written by one of Reagan's most loyal lieutenants, responds to Reagan's heartfelt call for an informed patriotism.

We all need to know more about this land we love. In this gripping tale of a nation, our country's past comes alive. Here is the story of those we chose to lead us and what they did with the awesome power we gave them. Join Bill Bennett for the great adventure. America's teacher will lead you on a voyage of discovery.

What others are saying:

"William J. Bennett artfully and subtly makes connections between our past and current events, reminding us ... that we are intimately and immediately connected to the extraordinary Americans who have bestowed upon us our great heritage.... [T]he importance of America: The Last Best Hope probably exceeds anything Dr. Bennett has ever written, and it is more elegantly crafted and eminently readable than any comprehensive work of history I've read in a very long time. It's silly to compare great works of history to great novels, but this book truly is a page-turner.... Prepare to have your faith in, hope for, and love of America renewed."
-Brad Miner, American Compass

"The Role of history is to inform, inspire, and sometimes provoke us, which is why Bill Bennett's wonderfully readable book is so important. He puts our nation's triumphs, along with its lapses, into the context of a narrative about the progress of freedom. Every now and then it's useful to be reminded that we are a fortunate people, blessed with generations of leaders who repeatedly renewed the meaning of America."
-Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

"For too long Americans have been looking for a history of our country that tells the story of America's triumphs as well as its tragedies. Now Bill Bennett has come forward with America: The Last Best Hope, which tells the story-fairly and fully-from 1492 to 1914. Americans who have been reading recent biographies of the Founding Fathers will love this book."
-Michael Barone, US News&World Report

"Bill Bennett's book will stand as perhaps the most important addition to American scholarship at this, the start of the new century. For the past fifty years American historians have either distorted American history or reduced it to a mess of boring indictments of our cultural and political heritage. With this book Bennett offers to Americans young and old an exciting and enjoyable history of what makes America the greatest nation on earth.
-Brian Kennedy, president, The Claremont Institute

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Editorial Reviews

Alan Wolfe
Liberal readers will be wary of his explicitly nationalistic history. They ought instead to recognize what a tribute to liberalism this book is. Precisely because he is so proud of his country and wants to celebrate its greatness, Bennett calls attention to all those movements toward liberty and equality that enabled the United States to expand its ideals and strengthen its citizens. The fact that so prominent a conservative as Bennett accepts nearly all the major reforms of the 19th century suggests just how much the current American consensus remains a liberal consensus.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Bennett, a secretary of education under President Reagan and author of The Book of Virtues, offers a new, improved history of America, one, he says, that will respark hope and a "conviction about American greatness and purpose" in readers. He believes current offerings do not "give Americans an opportunity to enjoy the story of their country, to take pleasure and pride in what we have done and become." To this end, Bennett methodically hits the expected patriotic high points (Lewis & Clark, the Gettysburg Address) and even, to its credit, a few low ones (Woodrow Wilson's racism, Teddy Roosevelt's unjust dismissal of black soldiers in the Brownsville judgment). America is best suited for a high school or home-schooled audience searching for a general, conservative-minded textbook. More discerning adult readers will find that the lack of originality and the overreliance on a restricted number of dated sources (Samuel Eliot Morison, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager) make the book a retread of previous popular histories (such as Boorstin's The Americans). This is history put to use as inspiration rather than serving to enlighten or explain, but Bennett does succeed in shaping the material into a coherent, readable narrative. (May 23) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Bennett (The Book of Virtues), President Reagan's second-term secretary of education, has taken on the gargantuan task of chronicling America's history in the hopes, he says, of helping Americans see past today's cynicism and find pride and enjoyment in their country once again. In the first of two projected volumes, he strives to present America's history in a balanced and reasoned manner, and in this he pretty much succeeds, paying attention to the good in American history while also acknowledging the bad. Basing his work not on original research but on some of the best secondary sources available as well as notable period writings, Bennett does a good job of presenting historical events in a fair and even light. One of the work's strengths is Bennett's inclusion of considerable information on the personal characteristics of the men and women he covers, as well as more unusual events, such as Thomas Jefferson and the gift of the "Mammoth Cheese." Such details make history come alive for general readers and students. Bennett does not break new ground or analyze why history unfolded as it did, but he does present American history in an optimistic and engaging manner. Recommended for all public libraries.-Lisa A. Ennis, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This exhaustive political and military history is well organized, with an excellent table of contents, 13 chapter titles that include dates, and each chapter divided into sections with headings for easy scanning. The chronological narrative covers familiar content, and Bennett writes in a conversational tone. In each chapter he sets the stage, relates events in detail, sprinkles in quotes from personages or literature of the time, and then shifts into editorial mode on such issues as slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and child-labor practices. He humanizes the "main characters" with physical descriptions and anecdotes. This lively book acknowledges mistakes and shortcomings, yet patriotically asserts that the American experiment in democracy is still a success story.-Sondra VanderPloeg, Tracy Memorial Library, New London, NH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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AMERICA The Last Best Hope

Volume I: From the Age of Discovery To a World at War 1492–1914
By William J. Bennett

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2006 William J. Bennett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4185-3109-6

Chapter One

Westward the Course (1492–1607)

America comes into view slowly for Europeans, just beyond the western horizon. Led by Christopher Columbus, a series of brave and ruthless explorers race to make new discoveries and lay claim to vast regions. Spain seeks empire, as does Portugal. Having freed the Iberian Peninsula from seven hundred years of Muslim rule, they nonetheless retain a dread practice of the Moors—human slavery. France and England come later, settling respectively in Canada and along the Atlantic seaboard. These latecomers, the English, challenge Spain's far-flung empire, eventually seizing control of the seas from their former Iberian masters. Despite fears of the unknown—disease, privations, wild animals, and sometimes hostile natives—the Europeans are irresistibly drawn to the possibilities of new life in the New World.

I. Columbus: "The Christ Bearer"

Bartholomeu Dias's two sailing ships limped back into Lisbon harbor in December 1488, bringing startling news: he had succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The sea route to the riches of India and the Spice Islands of Asia lay open to the seafaring Portuguese. Among those waiting in Lisbon for Dias to bring his report to his king, John II, was a tall, red-haired sea captain from Genoa, Italy, named Christopher Columbus. Dias's triumph would mean more years of disappointment for the Italian mariner. If India could be reached by going east, the king would have little interest in financing Columbus's great enterprise—a westward voyage to the Indies.

The Portuguese had been inching along the coast of Africa for a century. Unlike their neighbors in Spain, who spent most of the fifteenth century fighting to rid their country of the Muslim Moors, Portugal had been united, seeking. Prince Henry the Navigator had established a world famous school at Sagres to bring together all the elements of seamanship, mapmaking, piloting, and navigation. Prince Henry sent out as many as fifteen expeditions to Africa's Cape Bojador, just south of the Canary Islands. His captains all returned claiming that the shallow waters and fierce currents made that point impassable. Finally, Prince Henry ordered Gil Eannes to sail beyond the cape. Eannes did so in 1434 by sailing west into the Atlantic before heading back to Africa's coast. He had at last passed the dreaded cape. This same Eannes ten years later would bring back the first shipload of two hundred African slaves. Gomes Eanes de Zurara, a Portuguese contemporary of Eannes, wrote that desperate African mothers would "clasp their infants in their arms, and throw themselves on the ground to cover them with their bodies, disregarding any injury to their own persons so that they could prevent their children from being separated from them." Zurara tried to lessen the horror of these scenes by assuring readers that the slaves were "treated with kindness and no difference was made between them and free-born servants of Portugal." He said they were taught trades, converted to Christianity, and intermarried with the Portuguese. Still, he gave us insight when he wrote: "What heart could be so hard as not to be pierced by piteous feeling to see that company?" And the presence of light-skinned Africans among them suggested that some, at least, had been bought in markets from "the ubiquitous Muslim salesmen."

Slavery was an inescapable part of African life. Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, was the king of Mali (currently part of Niger). He sold fourteen thousand female slaves to finance his journey to Cairo in 1324. The Arabs were always "seizing our people as merchandise," complained the black king of Bornu (in present-day Nigeria) to the sultan of Egypt in the 1390s. With the extension of Islam into West Africa's "Gold Coast" came an increasingly vigorous trade in black slaves. The Christian Portuguese emulated this practice. Three hundred years before adoption of the U.S. Constitution, decisions made in Europe and Africa would have great and terrible consequences for a nation as yet unimagined and a people still unnamed.

Portugal's efforts gained momentum when the Muslim Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. This meant that city-states like Genoa and Venice would have to deal with the Turks for such prized goods as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. And it would drive the Atlantic kingdoms outward.

Columbus had had to plead for King John II to give him a safe passage to Lisbon because he feared arrest for his debts. Columbus was surely capable of directing such a venture as he proposed. He had traveled as far away as Iceland and Britain and throughout the Mediterranean at a time when most mariners never ventured outside the sight of land. Still, Columbus spent years unsuccessfully appealing for support for his great project.

One thing Columbus did not have to contend with was any notion that the earth was flat. Although a popular misconception, in truth all scholars at that time knew the earth was a sphere. What they did not know was the circumference of the earth. Here, Columbus radically miscalculated. He thought that Japan lay only 2,400 to 2,500 miles west of the Canary Islands.

Columbus heard Dias make his report to Portugal's king and returned, empty-handed, to Spain. These were years of great frustration for Columbus as Spain's monarchs—Ferdinand and Isabella—concentrated their attention on driving the Moors out of the Iberian peninsula. Finally, in 1492, the Spanish rulers succeeded in freeing their country of seven hundred years of Moorish domination. Ferdinand and Isabella saw their victory as a gift from God. They styled themselves "their most Catholic majesties." Columbus's devout religious faith clearly helped him in his appeals to them for aid. He took seriously his first name, which means "bearer of Christ." He pleaded for the chance to carry Christianity to the lands beyond the sea.

With three small ships, called caravels, Columbus set sail from the port of Palos on 2 August 1492. Favored by fair winds and clear skies, the Niña, the Pinta, and his flagship, the Santa Maria, made excellent time. Even under such favorable conditions, Columbus's Spanish sailors soon began to grumble. With steady winds carrying them west, how would they return to Spain? And when the little flotilla entered a dense patch of sargassum (gulf weed), the men fretted about getting stuck in the thickening growths. Most troubling of all, perhaps, was the fact that they were Spaniards and the Capitán General was not. Columbus was Genoese, and centuries of foreign occupation had led these sons of Spain to be deeply suspicious of outsiders. Columbus had to deceive his sailors by keeping double logs of the ships' daily distance covered. Even by his false account, however, the men could tell that they had gone farther west than anyone had ever gone before, and farther west than they had been led to believe they would have to go in order to make a landfall.

Threatened with mutiny by his crew, Columbus was forced to promise his captains on October 9 that if they failed to sight land within three days, they would all turn about and head back to Spain. The captains were Martin Alonso Pinzon, commander of the Pinta, and his brother, Vicente Yanez Pinzon, who led the Niña. They were Spaniards, from a Palos shipping family, and gave Columbus help without which he could never have succeeded. Fortunately for Columbus, stiff breezes sped his ships' way and his crew began to see clear signs of land ahead. Flights of migrating birds covered the moon. Tree branches with still-green leaves floated by, giving assurances of land just over the horizon.

Suddenly, gale winds and rough seas confronted the expectant mariners on the night of October 11. Determined, Columbus refused to shorten sail. Early in the morning of the twelfth, the cry came from Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Pinta—"Tierra! Tierra!" Columbus gave orders to stand off the shore to avoid reefs and shoals and, finally, to shorten sail. At dawn, they began their search for a safe place to land.

Columbus, the "admiral" as he was now called, put out in a longboat from the Santa Maria and headed into shore. It carried the royal flag of Castile (a great province of Spain) and the banner of the expedition, which was a cross of green surmounted by a crown, all on a white field. The brothers Pinzon joined the shore party in their own ships' boats. The men knelt in the sand, prayed, and gave thanks to God for their safe passage. Then Columbus named the island—a part of today's Bahamas—San Salvador, Holy Savior.

Soon, Columbus and his men were exploring—and naming and claiming— other islands in the Caribbean. When natives appeared, docile, nearly naked, and eager to trade with the Europeans, Columbus named them Indians. If not India proper, he was certain he had landed somewhere in Asia—though the language and manners of the people did not correspond with anything travelers since Marco Polo had reported of the Orient.

Significantly, many of the Indians wore small, gold nose rings. Columbus had had to assure his seamen that the voyage would be worth their while. They were not the ones who would receive the glory, they knew. Nor would they achieve high office or status for the great discovery. Gold would have to suffice, and Columbus soon felt the pressure to find suitable quantities of the precious metal.

Equally significant, natives also introduced Columbus's men to tobacco and taught them to inhale its smoke. Tobacco use was ubiquitous throughout the Americas, and the Spaniards found smoking pleasurable. Here, in the earliest hours of the encounter between Europeans and native peoples, the exotic leaf loomed large. It would eventually become the cash crop for a number of American states and a major financial interest for more than five hundred years.

On an island he would name La Isla Española—The Spanish Island (or Hispaniola), Columbus found more Indians eager to trade. Importantly, these Indians seemed to have plenty of gold.

So willing, so easily plied with cheap trinkets—like little brass hawk's bells worth only pennies in Spain—these Indians were vulnerable to the Spaniards in many ways. They could be dominated as slaves and put to work mining gold. What's more, the native women seemed sexually open. To sailors who had had no contact with the opposite sex for months at a time and who had little fear of venereal disease, the sensual enticements proved irresistible. Syphilis has been traced to this first encounter of Columbus's men and the aboriginal peoples of the Caribbean. A contemporary of Columbus, Bishop Las Casas, thinks Indians who came back to Barcelona from the first voyage gave the disease to "women of the town," a euphemism for prostitutes, who then gave it to Spanish soldiers. From there, it spread throughout Europe and the world. The Indians, on the other hand, contracted smallpox and measles from the Spaniards; these diseases devastated populations with no previous exposure and built-up immunity.

When the Santa Maria wrecked on a coral reef off Hispaniola on Christmas Day 1492, Columbus's men offloaded supplies, trading truck and food. A local chieftain, or cacique, named Guacanagari ordered his people to help retrieve the cargo of the stricken flagship. Columbus noted in his journal that the Indians guarded his supplies, taking not so much as "a lace point." From the timbers of the wrecked vessel, Columbus built a fortress he named La Navidad—Christmas—that became the first European habitation in America. And when he prepared to return to Spain, he had little trouble recruiting volunteers to stay behind. The prospect of gold proved a powerful incentive.

The Niña and the Pinta departed 18 January 1493 from Samana Bay for the return trip. Columbus was not what we would call a capable navigator. The sextant and accurate chronometers were still centuries away. But he was an extraordinarily good mariner, with a keen sense of water and wind. He knew how to recognize currents and signs of land. His early calculations had placed Cuba at the same latitude as Cape Cod. Fortunately, he knew enough to correct that. Most of the return voyage passed uneventfully until, on February 12, the two ships sailed into a fierce winter gale. The admiral and Vicente Pinzon took turns guiding the Niña's helmsman. Each wave threatened to capsize the little vessel. There was no hope of rescue in such seas. Columbus's men vowed to make a pilgrimage to the nearest shrine of the Virgin Mary if they survived the storm.

When they sighted land in the Portuguese Azores, it took three days before Columbus could come to a safe anchorage near a village called Nossa Senhora dos Anjos (Our Lady of the Angels). True to their vow, Columbus's men hurried to the local church, but while praying at the altar in their nightshirts as a sign of penitence, they were arrested! Portuguese authorities suspected the Spanish seamen had been sailing to prohibited parts of the African coast. With his crewmen in jail, Columbus—still aboard ship—threatened to bombard the town if they were not freed. Fortunately, the captain of the port finally arrived after being delayed by yet another storm and was sufficiently persuaded that Columbus and his men had indeed come back from the otro mundo—the other world—and had not been poaching on Portugal's rich African preserves. He generously provided them with supplies before their departure. The incident—almost a farce—nonetheless shows the extreme lengths to which the Portuguese were willing to go to protect their monopoly on the growing slave trade.

Setting out for the mainland in the Niña, Columbus again encountered severe storms. When he finally saw land again, it was at the mouth of Portugal's Tagus River. Menaced by a Portuguese warship, he applied for permission from the king to land. King João II—who had twice refused to support Columbus's great enterprise—not only granted the permission and ordered the ship's resupply, but he summoned the admiral to report to him at a monastery thirty miles away. Some of the king's jealous courtiers, realizing at last what Spain would gain from this amazing discovery, secretly advised him to have Columbus assassinated. When the Indians who had joined the crew showed the king a crude map of their islands made from beans, João cried out, "Why did I let slip such a wonderful chance?" Despite the king's disappointment, no attempt was made on Columbus's life.

Even on leaving Portugal, Columbus's claim to be the discoverer of the New World was not secure. Martin Alonso Pinzon, captain of the Pinta, had missed most of the storms west of the Azores and thus the delays they caused in Columbus's return. Having arrived first, he sent word across Spain of his coming and asked Ferdinand and Isabella for permission to report directly to them. But the monarchs replied that they would hear the news first from their Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Meanwhile, Columbus made up for lost time and docked in Palos harbor shortly before the Pinta arrived. Columbus would not be robbed of the credit by his Spanish sea captain. Within a month, a broken Pinzon died at his country house near Palos.

In April 1493, Columbus came to the Alcazar, the royal palace, to formally make his report to Ferdinand and Isabella. He knelt before the king and queen, but they arose and gave him the honor of a seat at Isabella's side. The Indians were presented, and the assembly was awed not only by gold jewelry but also by such oddities as the parrots that had never been seen in Europe. Less impressive were the "spices" Columbus presented, for the fabled riches of the Indies were not to be seen in his collection of common American plants. Then the company adjourned for a Te Deum at the chapel royal. The last line—O Lord, in Thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded— moved the brave mariner to tears.


Excerpted from AMERICA The Last Best Hope by William J. Bennett Copyright © 2006 by William J. Bennett . Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Dr. William J. Bennett is one of America’s most influential and respected voices on cultural, political, and educational issues. Host of the top-ten nationally syndicated radio shows, “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America,” he is also the Distinguished Fellow of the American Strategy Group. He is the author and editor of more than twenty-five books, and lives near Washington, DC.

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America The Last Best Hope Volume I: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My professor is teaching us using this book. Its fantastic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read. It is not often that a history book is this entertaining!!
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