History of the American People

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Overview

"The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures," begins Paul Johnson's remarkable new American history. "No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind." Johnson's history is a reinterpretation of American history from the first settlements to the Clinton administration. It covers every aspect of U.S. history--politics; business and economics; art, literature and science; society and customs; complex traditions and religious beliefs. The story is told in terms of the men and women who shaped and led the nation and the ordinary people who collectively created its unique character. Wherever possible, letters, diaries, and recorded conversations are used to ensure a sense of actuality. "The book has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America's past," says Johnson, "and I do not seek, as some historians do, to conceal my opinions."

Johnson's history presents John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Cotton Mather, Franklin, Tom Paine, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison from a fresh perspective. It emphasizes the role of religion in American history and how early America was linked to England's history and culture and includes incisive portraits of Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice Marshall, Clay, Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis. Johnson shows how Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt ushered in the age of big business and industry and how Woodrow Wilson revolutionized the government's role. He offers new views of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover and of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and his role as commander in chief during World War II. An examination of the unforeseen greatness of Harry Truman and reassessments of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush follow. "Compulsively readable," said Foreign Affairs of Johnson's unique narrative skills and sharp profiles of people.

This is an in-depth portrait of a great people, from their fragile origins through their struggles for independence and nationhood, their heroic efforts and sacrifices to deal with the 'organic sin' of slavery and the preservation of the Union to its explosive economic growth and emergence as a world power and its sole superpower. Johnson discusses such contemporary topics as the politics of racism, education, Vietnam, the power of the press, political correctness, the growth of litigation, and the rising influence of women. He sees Americans as a problem-solving people and the story of America as "essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence...Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint humanity."

This challenging narrative and interpretation of American history by the author of many distinguished historical works is sometimes controversial and always provocative. Johnson's views of individuals, events, themes, and issues are original, critical, and admiring, for he is, above all, a strong believer in the history and the destiny of the American people.

From the early settlers through the Founding Fathers and 19th-century industrialists to Nixon and Reagan, Paul Johnson recreates in A History of the American People the complete history of the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The author of Modern Times and A History of the Jews offers this remarkable new American history, a reinterpretation of the nation's evolution from the first settlements to the Clinton administration. It covers every aspect of U.S. history—politics; business and economics; art, literature, and science; society and customs; complex traditions and religious beliefs—and is told through the stories of the men and women who shaped and led the nation and the people who collectively created its unique character, as well as Johnson's engrossing narrative. "The book has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America's past," says Johnson, "and I do not seek, as some historians do, to conceal my opinions." A provocative interpretation of American history brought to life through individuals, events, themes, and issues.
Wall Street Journal
A magnificent achievement.
National Review
Vivid and memorable writing...proves that history can still be literature.
Newsweek
A masterly survey—readable, intelligent and, depending on your point of view, either annoyingly or endearingly cranky.
Los Angeles Times
A fresh, readable and provocative survey. He is full of opinions. . . And Johnson can be very wise.
New York Times Book Review
Arresting contentions and pieces of fascinating oddball information. . . The book also offers a rare opportunity to witness someone trying to make sense of all 400 years of American history and to discover what 'tremendous lessons' it holds for Americans and 'the rest of mankind.
Times Literary Supplement
His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics and dons put together. .
National Review
This is vivid and memorable writing. . . Proves that history can still be literature. .
Henry A. Kissinger
Paul Johnson's The History of the American People is as majestic in its scope as the country it celebrates. His theme is the men and women, prominent and unknown, whose energy, vision, courage and confidence shaped a great nation. It is acompelling antidote to those who regard the future with pessimism.
American Spectator
Challenges the present consensus. . . Monstrously energetic, greatly imaginative, large-minded and generous-hearted, occasionally grotesquely unfair, but almost always pointing in the right direction.
Library Journal
Johnson (Intellectuals; Modern Times) is used to tackling grand themes in his books, and this one is no exception. Even for the comparatively short period of American history, it is a daunting task. Still, Johnson does a good job of weaving together the story of American history. He takes more of a "social history" approach -- including presentation of a background for each period and discussion of the various social issues involved in each. The author also uses quotations from personal diaries and other historical documents, providing a refreshing change from the usual "battle & general" technique in retelling the American story. -- Mark Ellis, Albany State University, Georgia
Library Journal
Johnson (Intellectuals; Modern Times) is used to tackling grand themes in his books, and this one is no exception. Even for the comparatively short period of American history, it is a daunting task. Still, Johnson does a good job of weaving together the story of American history. He takes more of a "social history" approach -- including presentation of a background for each period and discussion of the various social issues involved in each. The author also uses quotations from personal diaries and other historical documents, providing a refreshing change from the usual "battle & general" technique in retelling the American story. -- Mark Ellis, Albany State University, Georgia
Walter A. McDougall
"The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures," begins Paul Johnson's remarkable new American history. "No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind." Johnson's book is a reinterpretation of American history from the first settlements to the Clinton administration. It covers every aspect of U.S. history -- politics; business and economics; art, literature and science; society and customs; complex traditions and religious beliefs. The story is told in terms of the men and women who shaped and led the nation and the ordinary people who collectively created its unique character.

Wherever possible, letters, diaries and recorded conversations are used to ensure a sense of actuality. "The book has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America's past," says Johnson, "and I do not seek, as some historians do, to conceal my opinions." Johnson's history presents John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Cotton Mather, Franklin, Tom Paine, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison from a fresh perspective. It emphasizes the role of religion in American history and how early America was linked to England's history and culture and includes incisive portraits of Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice Marshall, Clay, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Johnson shows how Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt ushered in the age of big business and industry and how Woodrow Wilson revolutionized the government's role.

He offers new views of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and his role as commander in chief during World War II. An examination of the unforeseen greatness of Harry Truman and reassessments of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Bush follow. "Compulsively readable," said Foreign Affairs of Johnson's unique narrative skills and sharp profiles of people. This is an in-depth portrait of a great people, from their fragile origins through their struggles for independence and nationhood, their heroic efforts and sacrifices to deal with the "organic sin" of slavery and the preservation of the Union, to its explosive economic growth and emergence as a world power and its sole superpower. Johnson discusses such contemporary topics as the politics of racism, education, Vietnam, the power of the press, political correctness, the growth of litigation and the rising influence of women. He sees Americans as a problem-solving people and the story of America as "essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence.... Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint humanity."

"This challenging narrative and interpretation of American history by the author of many distinguished historical works is sometimes controversial and always provocative. Johnson's views of individuals, events, themes and issues are original, critical and admiring, for he is, above all, a strong believer in the history and the destiny of the American people.

"Paul Johnson's A History of the American People is as majestic in its scope as the country it celebrates. His theme is the men and women, prominent and unknown, whose energy, vision, courage and confidence shaped a great nation. It is a compelling antidote to those who regard the future with pessimism."
-- Henry A. Kissinger

"He understands something most academics today do not know or want to admit -- that the social and political history of the United States has been driven largely by a peculiar religiosity that in time made Americanism itself into a civic religion.... Though America's civic religion is his major theme, Johnson by no means ignores material civilization. His explanations of America's rapid industrialization after the Civil War and Great Depression of the 1930s are lengthy, learned and [to me] persuasive, and his digressions in such matters as urban planning are evocative.... He also makes due reference to the history of women, immigrants, blacks and Indians, and does so without the breast-beating cant that has become de rigueur for U.S. historians.... His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the postmodernist theorists, highbrow critics and dons put together." -- The Times Literary Supplement

Wall Street Journal
A magnificent achievement.
Newsweek
A masterly survey -- readable, intelligent and, depending on your point of view, either annoyingly or endearingly cranky.
National Review
Vivid and memorable writing...proves that history can still be literature.
Walter A. McDougall
"His [Johnson's] zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics, and dons put together."--University of Pennsylvania, The Times Literary Supplement
Henry Kissinger
"Paul Johnson's A History of the American People is as majestic in its scope as the country it celebrates. His theme is the men and women, prominent and unknown, whose energy, vision, courage, and confidence shaped a great nation. It is a compelling antidote to those who regard the future with pessimism."--
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060930349
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 1104
  • Sales rank: 150,069
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Johnson is a historian whose work ranges over the millennia and the whole gamut of human activities. He regularly writes book reviews for several UK magazines and newspapers, such as the Literary Review and The Spectator, and he lectures around the world. He lives in London, England.

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Read an Excerpt

A History of the American People

Chapter One

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. It now spans four centuries and, as we enter the new millennium, we need to retell it, for if we can learn these lessons and build upon them, the whole of humanity will benefit in the new age which is now opening. American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them? All nations are born in war, conquest, and crime, usually concealed by the obscurity of a distant past. The United States, from its earliest colonial times, won its title-deeds in the full blaze of recorded history, and the stains on them are there for all to see and censure: the dispossession of a indigenous people, and the securing of self-sufficiency through the sweat and pain of an enslaved race. In the judgmental scales of history, such grievous wrongs must be balanced by the erection of a society dedicated to justice and fairness. Has the United States done this? Has it expiated its organic sins? The second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all? Have the Americans got the mixture right? Have they forged a nation where righteousness has the edge over the needful self-interest? Thirdly, theAmericans originally aimed to build an other-worldly 'City on a Hill,' but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be a model for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

We must never forget that the settlement of what is now the United States was only part of a larger enterprise. And this was the work of the best and the brightest of the entire European continent. They were greedy. As Christopher Columbus said, men crossed the Atlantic primarily in search of gold. But they were also idealists. These adventurous young men thought they could transform the world for the better. Europe was too small for them—for their energies, their ambitions, and their visions. In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, they had gone east, seeking to reChristianize the Holy Land and its surroundings, and also to acquire land there. The mixture of religious zeal, personal ambition—not to say cupidity—and lust for adventure which inspired generations of Crusaders was the prototype for the enterprise of the Americas.

In the east, however, Christian expansion was blocked by the stiffening resistance of the Moslem world, and eventually by the expansive militarism of the Ottoman Turks. Frustrated there, Christian youth spent its ambitious energies at home: in France, in the extermination of heresy, and the acquisition of confiscated property; in the Iberian peninsula, in the reconquest of territory held by Islam since the 8th century, a process finally completed in the 1490s with the destruction of the Moslem kingdom of Granada, and the expulsion, or forcible conversion, of the last Moors in Spain. It is no coincidence that this decade, which marked the homogenization of western Europe as a Christian entity and unity, also saw the first successful efforts to carry Europe, and Christianity, into the western hemisphere. As one task ended, another was undertaken in earnest.

The Portuguese, a predominantly seagoing people, were the first to begin the new enterprise, early in the 15th century. In 1415, the year the English King Henry V destroyed the French army at Agincourt, Portuguese adventurers took Ceuta, on the north African coast, and turned it into a trading depot. Then they pushed southwest into the Atlantic, occupying in turn Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Azores, turning all of them into colonies of the Portuguese crown. The Portuguese adventurers were excited by these discoveries: they felt, already, that they were bringing into existence a new world, though the phrase itself did not pass into common currency until 1494. These early settlers believed they were beginning civilization afresh: the first boy and girl born on Madeira were christened Adam and Eve. But almost immediately came the Fall, which in time was to envelop the entire Atlantic. In Europe itself, the slave-system of antiquity had been virtually extinguished by the rise of Christian society. In the 1440s, exploring the African coast from their newly acquired islands, the Portuguese rediscovered slavery as a working commercial institution. Slavery had always existed in Africa, where it was operated extensively by local rulers, often with the assistance of Arab traders. Slaves were captives, outsiders, people who had lost tribal status; once enslaved, they became exchangeable commodities, indeed an important form of currency.

The Portuguese entered the slave-trade in the mid-15th century, took it over and, in the process, transformed it into something more impersonal, and horrible, than it had been either in antiquity or medieval Africa. The new Portuguese colony of Madeira became the center of a sugar industry, which soon made itself the largest supplier for western Europe. The first sugar-mill, worked by slaves, was erected in Madeira in 1452. This cash-industry was so successful that the Portuguese soon began laying out fields for sugar-cane on the Biafran Islands, off the African coast. An island off Cap Blanco in Mauretania became a slave-depot. From there, when the trade was in its infancy, several hundred slaves a year were shipped to Lisbon. As the sugar industry expanded, slaves began to be numbered in thousands: by 1550, some 50,000 African slaves had been imported into Sao Tome alone, which likewise became a slave entrepot.

A History of the American People. Copyright © by Paul M. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter


Chapter One

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. It now spans four centuries and, as we enter the new millennium, we need to retell it, for if we can learn these lessons and build upon them, the whole of humanity will benefit in the new age which is now opening. American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them? All nations are born in war, conquest, and crime, usually concealed by the obscurity of a distant past. The United States, from its earliest colonial times, won its title-deeds in the full blaze of recorded history, and the stains on them are there for all to see and censure: the dispossession of a indigenous people, and the securing of self-sufficiency through the sweat and pain of an enslaved race. In the judgmental scales of history, such grievous wrongs must be balanced by the erection of a society dedicated to justice and fairness. Has the United States done this? Has it expiated its organic sins? The second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism--the desire to build the perfect community--be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all? Have the Americans got the mixture right? Have they forged a nation where righteousness has the edge over the needful self-interest? Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly 'Cityon a Hill,' but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be a model for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

We must never forget that the settlement of what is now the United States was only part of a larger enterprise. And this was the work of the best and the brightest of the entire European continent. They were greedy. As Christopher Columbus said, men crossed the Atlantic primarily in search of gold. But they were also idealists. These adventurous young men thought they could transform the world for the better. Europe was too small for them--for their energies, their ambitions, and their visions. In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, they had gone east, seeking to reChristianize the Holy Land and its surroundings, and also to acquire land there. The mixture of religious zeal, personal ambition--not to say cupidity--and lust for adventure which inspired generations of Crusaders was the prototype for the enterprise of the Americas.

In the east, however, Christian expansion was blocked by the stiffening resistance of the Moslem world, and eventually by the expansive militarism of the Ottoman Turks. Frustrated there, Christian youth spent its ambitious energies at home: in France, in the extermination of heresy, and the acquisition of confiscated property; in the Iberian peninsula, in the reconquest of territory held by Islam since the 8th century, a process finally completed in the 1490s with the destruction of the Moslem kingdom of Granada, and the expulsion, or forcible conversion, of the last Moors in Spain. It is no coincidence that this decade, which marked the homogenization of western Europe as a Christian entity and unity, also saw the first successful efforts to carry Europe, and Christianity, into the western hemisphere. As one task ended, another was undertaken in earnest.

The Portuguese, a predominantly seagoing people, were the first to begin the new enterprise, early in the 15th century. In 1415, the year the English King Henry V destroyed the French army at Agincourt, Portuguese adventurers took Ceuta, on the north African coast, and turned it into a trading depot. Then they pushed southwest into the Atlantic, occupying in turn Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Azores, turning all of them into colonies of the Portuguese crown. The Portuguese adventurers were excited by these discoveries: they felt, already, that they were bringing into existence a new world, though the phrase itself did not pass into common currency until 1494. These early settlers believed they were beginning civilization afresh: the first boy and girl born on Madeira were christened Adam and Eve. But almost immediately came the Fall, which in time was to envelop the entire Atlantic. In Europe itself, the slave-system of antiquity had been virtually extinguished by the rise of Christian society. In the 1440s, exploring the African coast from their newly acquired islands, the Portuguese rediscovered slavery as a working commercial institution. Slavery had always existed in Africa, where it was operated extensively by local rulers, often with the assistance of Arab traders. Slaves were captives, outsiders, people who had lost tribal status; once enslaved, they became exchangeable commodities, indeed an important form of currency.

The Portuguese entered the slave-trade in the mid-15th century, took it over and, in the process, transformed it into something more impersonal, and horrible, than it had been either in antiquity or medieval Africa. The new Portuguese colony of Madeira became the center of a sugar industry, which soon made itself the largest supplier for western Europe. The first sugar-mill, worked by slaves, was erected in Madeira in 1452. This cash-industry was so successful that the Portuguese soon began laying out fields for sugar-cane on the Biafran Islands, off the African coast. An island off Cap Blanco in Mauretania became a slave-depot. From there, when the trade was in its infancy, several hundred slaves a year were shipped to Lisbon. As the sugar industry expanded, slaves began to be numbered in thousands: by 1550, some 50,000 African slaves had been imported into Sao Tome alone, which likewise became a slave entrepot. A History of the American People. Copyright © by Paul M. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 25 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2008

    Should be required reading

    An excellent history of the development of this nation supported with many quotations and documented sources. The reader's interest is held by the almost novel-like writing style. It is, in deed, history as literature. It is more than a chronology of famous personages and memorable events. It includes the place of music, art, literature, education, architecture, religion, migration, immigration, regional development, and more, in the evolution of the country. For those who think of history as nothing more than a tired list of dates and names, this refreshingly paints a picture of a people, culture and values. After reading cover-to-cover, keep it handy as a credible and trustworthy reference.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2007

    A reviewer

    I read this book for a history course in college. Although Johnson shows his preference for conservative politics, he still presents an accurate accound of American History. It is interesting to see the view of Johnson as he is from England, and got a different portiat painted in England. He seems to have fallen in love with America and the American way of life.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 22, 2010

    This is the One You Want

    I have been a student of History for over 50 years and believe that I have a good grip on American History. Paul Johnson's History of the American People is the best I have ever read. He assiduously avoided the mythological aspects of every subject, staying with the facts and objective analysis.

    His writing style is lucid, straightforward, and very easy to read. I can't remember a single time when I had to go back and reread a sentence. That's out of almost a thousand pages.

    I will give you every negative thing I found (2 of them). He very occasionally covers a subject in less depth than usual. With the history of the American People as his task, that is unavoidable. It takes nothing from the book as a whole.

    He allowed himself to include some of the popular negative aspects of the story of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Most of the important facts are there, but some of the "myths" are there also - unique in this book.

    That's it. The rest is all excellent. If you want to do more than just read about American History, and want to learn about how it all comes together, this is the book for you. A+ easily.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2000

    About Time the Story was Done Right!

    Finally, A one volume history of America that sets the politically correct on their heads...The perfect counter balance to the works of Howard Zinn! Bravo

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2013

    Best treatise on American History

    You will find no political correctness, apologetics or pulled punches. Just a hard look at our history from the viewpont of an outsider Englishman trying to answer the question, "Did they really succeed at building thier City on a Hill?" And if so, how did they really get there. Must read for all Americans, they won't teach you this stuff in school.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 24, 2010

    A Must Read on American History

    History is my passion and Paul Johnson has captured a tremedous amount of history into a very readable book. It sould be a required book for every high school student.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 2, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    great read

    I have truly enjoyed reading this book. It is well written as well as being informative.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2012

    Best one volume us history I've read

    great us history. Johnson is at his best in this book. Understands the importance of people in history. Should be a required text.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2008

    Negative

    johnson seems to on y spend time discussing the bad parts of our past, not the positives. It is very similar to Zinn's take on everything. I am afraid I would never recommend this to anyone.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 21, 2010

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