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Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585-1828

Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585-1828

by Walter A. McDougall

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A powerful reinterpretation of the founding of America by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian.

The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years," states Walter McDougall in his preface to Freedom Just Around the Corner. With this statement begins McDougall's most ambitious, original, and


A powerful reinterpretation of the founding of America by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian.

The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years," states Walter McDougall in his preface to Freedom Just Around the Corner. With this statement begins McDougall's most ambitious, original, and uncompromising of histories. McDougall marshals the latest scholarship and writes in a style redolent with passion, pathos, and humour in pursuit of truths often obscured in books burdened with political slants.

With an insightful approach to the nearly 250 years spanning America's beginnings, McDougall offers his readers an understanding of the uniqueness of the "American character" and how this character has shaped the wide ranging course of historical events. McDougall explains that Americans have always been in a unique position of enjoying "more opportunity to pursue their ambitions䳨an any other people in history." Throughout Freedom Just Around the Corner the character of the American people shines, a character built out of a freedom to indulge in the whole panoply of human behaviour. The genius behind the success of the United States is founded on the complex, irrepressible American spirit.

A grand narrative rich with new details and insights about colonial and early national history, Freedom Just Around the Corner is the first instalment of a trilogy that will eventually bring the story of America up to the present day, a story epic, bemusing, and brooding.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
This unusual book by Walter A. McDougall is the first of what will be a three-volume history of America. If this volume, which covers the period 1585 to 1828, is any indication of the promised whole, the trilogy may have a major impact on how we Americans understand ourselves … Together with the prose, which is fast-paced and full of shrewd judgments, what is most impressive about McDougall's narrative is the range of sources he has used. Few articles or books, it seems, have escaped his grasp. His synthetic history is a justification for all those specialized and often unread monographs that pour from the presses year after year. McDougall doesn't just cite them or pull some colorful anecdotes from them; he has an extraordinary capacity to capture their central point or argument. His endnotes are sometimes almost as informative and entertaining as the text itself. — Gordon S. Wood
Michael Bechloss
So original is McDougall's approach that you can read any five pages of this book and feel that you are encountering the American story through fresh eyes. This quality will make the volume compelling even to those who may not feel that the joys and dangers of hustling are the most important thing to know about early American history.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Anyone aspiring to write a multivolume history of the U.S. reckons with illustrious predecessors, especially the histories of Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter (the latter never completed). But those histories were interpretive; they had a particular slant on the past. McDougall's is more explanatory. It provides up-to-date understanding of much that happened in our early history but without a sharply etched point of view. It's thus a bit like a textbook, struggling to keep readers' attention on all it packs in. Fortunately, in this regard it succeeds wonderfully well. Briskly written, deeply researched, fact-filled and satisfyingly wide in its coverage, it's mainly a history of the public attributes of the colonies and early nation-the ethnic and racial groups (including Native Americans), its states, religious denominations, political parties, wars and institutions. There's little social history here or the history of ideas and culture, little about subjects like women, gays, historical myths and memory. But no single history, not even in a projected three volumes, can cover everything. McDougall's particular strength is that he keeps individuals front and center: the work is alive with humans and their struggles and achievements. Pulitzer Prize-winner McDougall (for The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age) says at the start that his theme will be the conditions that made for Americans' world-known "hustling" behavior and mentality. Fortunately, he quickly drops this line. There's a better and more fitting word for people's desire to better their lot: ambition. That's what this book has in full measure. Maps not seen by PW. (Apr. 2) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The theme of this engaging and fresh book, the first of a projected three volumes in Pulitzer prize-winner McDougall's new history of the United States, echoes a famous Woody Guthrie folksong of the 1930s: "The Policeman Is a Dodger"-or, as we would say now, a hustler. The explorer is a dodger, the settler is a dodger, the general is a dodger, and the historian is a dodger, too. This approach to American history-showing the selfish motives and misjudgments of important historical figures-used to be the province of muckraking journalists and left-wing historians. That it can become a guiding conceit in the work of a conservative historian says much about how pervasive the social theories of Adam Smith and Bernard de Mandeville have become. In McDougall's view, it is precisely the openness of the nascent American society that enabled the growth of a republic that would come one day to dominate and transform the world. As in Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, the private vices of the early Americans ultimately produced the public goods that we enjoy today. As always, McDougall's writing is spellbinding.
Library Journal
McDougall (history, Univ. of Pennsylvania) offers the first part of a projected trilogy on U.S. history, seeking to avoid "the extremes of condemnation and celebration of the American past" and to depict America as a marketplace of goods and ideas. He proposes that the country was shaped by five factors: geography, technology, demography, the federative impulse, and, perhaps most important, its reality-based mythology, e.g., its civic religion, the stated respect for public virtue, and the relative compatibility of its diverse faiths. Undergirding this volume is McDougall's delineation of the American people's propensity for "hustling," a character trait that variously represents resourcefulness, deception, reinvention, and opportunism. Influential hustlers include the bogus "Baron von" Steuben, who nevertheless developed the Continental Army, and Methodist Francis Asbury and Roman Catholic John Carroll, who effectively adapted their creeds to the American mosaic and became great promoters. The author puckishly suggests that this country might be so successful because it allows freedom of corruption for all, thereby reducing social tensions. This narrative history, concluding with the election of Andrew Jackson as president, benefits from McDougall's fine prose and often breezy style. While indeed dramatizing a diverse story, his book still represents a top-down emphasis on famous people and events over social history components. General history buffs as well as undergraduate students will appreciate this book.-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
American history as epic: the first volume of a projected trilogy by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. "The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years," writes McDougall (Promised Land, Crusader State, 1997, etc.) in an opening salvo, adding that the continent "today hosts the mightiest, richest, most dynamic civilization in history." But McDougall is no mere booster: attempting to steer a middle course, as he puts it, between the leftist histories of Howard Zinn and the rightist ones of Paul Johnson, he qualifies such statements letter by letter, carefully explaining why they should be received as true. North America, he writes, was a glittering prize, sought after for many reasons, one of them the European hunger for new farmland at a time when the agricultural market was rapidly growing and England alone had seen a "fourfold increase in prices for foodstuffs between 1540 to 1640." That the English won this prize over the French and Spanish would have profound effects for subsequent world history. McDougall builds a sturdy narrative out of telling incidents and details: the arrival of English settlers by the thousands in the Virginia colony in the early 1620s, prompting an Indian uprising and a royal lawsuit alike; the prevalence of "smuggling, bribes, and fraudulent bookkeeping" in the economy of early New England, and competition for jobs with moonlighting British soldiers as yet another reason New Englanders resented the crown; the enticements offered to workers on the Erie Canal, adding up to not only the handsome wage of 80 cents a day, but also "a shot of whiskey every two hours, and all the eggs, pork, potatoes, and bread theycould eat." Throughout these details McDougall steadily works large themes, such as the "English notion of a racial hierarchy justifying expulsion or enslavement of lesser breeds"-an ideology Americans eagerly adopted in centuries to come. A first-rate history, freshly told, with every promise of becoming a standard text.

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Read an Excerpt

Freedom Just Around the Corner

A New American History: 1585-1828
By McDougall, Walter A.

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0060197897

Chapter One

American Archetypes

What Some Great Novels
Tell Us About Ourselves

"At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared ... a man in cream colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis. His cheek was fair, his chin downy, his hair flaxen, his hat a white fur one, with a long fleecy nap. He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger." He and the crowd proceeded to climb the ramp onto the steamboat Fidèle, bound from St. Louis to New Orleans. The stranger, all eyes upon him, paused beneath a "Wanted" poster on deck warning of a "mysterious imposter." Not long before, notorious gangs of cutthroats terrorized travelers on western rivers. But the predators these days were swindlers: "Where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase." The stranger then produced chalk and a slate and wrote for the crowd to read: "Charity thinketh no evil, Charity believeth all things, Charity never faileth." Two doors down, beneath the smoking saloon, a barber hung on his shop door a placard of contrary sentiments: "NO TRUST."

Thus began a great American novel. It described one day -- April Fools' Day -- on board a Mississippi steamboat, and its publisher contrived, for publicity's sake, to release it on April 1, 1857. Reviewers panned the book (one called it nothing but "forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by personages who might pass for the errata of creation"). But some critics think The Confidence-Man to be the greatest novel by Herman Melville.

Melville's satirical allegory holds up a mirror to the American people. They are "natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters." They include fine ladies, philosophers, and land speculators, soldiers, black slaves and quadroons, Mormons, Jews, Papists, and Baptists, jesters, teetotalers, and Yankee peddlers: "in short, a piebald parliament" of "that multiform pilgrim species, man." All seek to hustle each other or, if charity gets the best of them, be hustled in turn. Melville doubtless got the original idea from a story run by the New York Herald in 1849. It told of a respectable-looking fellow who talked people into lending him their pocket watches for some innocent purpose, whereupon neither man nor watch would return. The reporter coined the term "confidence-man" for the rascal, likening him to the brokers downtown who urged passers-by to "take a flyer" touting some hot stock issue. "His genius has been employed on a small scale in Broadway. Theirs has been employed in Wall street. That's all the difference." A friend of Melville even suggested that the con-man's success "speaks well for human nature, that, at this late day, in spite of all the hardening of civilization, and all the warning of newspapers, men can be swindled."

Ever since borrowing money against Moby Dick's royalties, which proved disappointing, Melville was "damned by dollars" and in need of commercial success. At the same time, he was tormented by the disparity between Americans' acquisitiveness and the Calvinist values he acquired in youth. The economy in the 1850s boomed on the strength of the California Gold Rush, land speculation, railroad construction, and the Cotton South, but far from becoming the New Jerusalem of millenarians' dreams, the nation was a sink-hole of corruption. In northern eyes the southern slavocracy was almost Satanic, while Southerners were quick to believe that in the industrial north (as a New Yorker confessed), "public men are all rogues, honest men are driven from the polls -- the ballot boxes are in the hands of ruffians -- the very men who are elected ... are so many swindlers, stock-jobbers, liars, even forgers and robbers." It was a "plundering generation."

So Melville took the risk of telling the truth, as he saw it, about the tricks Americans played on themselves in their effort to worship both God and Mammon. His Confidence-Man, variously likened to a jester, traveling sales-man, "genial misanthrope," P. T. Barnum (who published his scandalous auto-biography in 1855), the Devil, an angel, and the Second Coming of Christ, is a master of disguise and persuasion. Though some passengers prove tougher to gull than others, he eventually employs their own fear, greed, or fancied virtue to pry open their wallets, exposing in the process every conundrum and lie -- about slavery, Indians, business, industry, and frontier religion -- Americans preferred not to acknowledge. In the opening scene the Con-Man is that silent prophet dressed in white and quoting St. Paul. In the next he impersonates a crippled Negro beggar, worse off in freedom than he was under slavery. In the next he gulls a Methodist clergyman into contributing to the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum. "I have not heard of that charity," says the preacher. "But recently founded," the Con-Man replies, and pockets his coins.

As the day progresses the Con-Man appears as a global philanthropist aiming to quicken the missionary impulse "with the Wall street spirit," a director of the Black Rapids Coal Company whose "exclusive" shares passen-gers beg him to sell, an herb-doctor hawking miracle cures, an agent of the Philosophical Intelligence Office (an employment bureau), and a wounded veteran of the Mexican War. In each case the Con-Man's glib sophistry strips his victims of the psychological raiment cloaking their vanity, while the victims in turn have occasion to mock Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe, abolitionists and slavers, topers and teetotalers, industrialists and agrarians ...


Excerpted from Freedom Just Around the Corner by McDougall, Walter A. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

A professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter A. McDougall is the author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth and Let the Sea Make a Noise. . . . He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two teenage children.

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