Which American president was described by his top general as nothing more than a well-meaning baboon? Abraham Lincoln,who thought no better of General George McClellan. Convinced that a vast Confederate army lay in wait for him,McClellan hesitated to march on Richmond,Virginia,the rebel capital. If General McClellan does not want to use the army,I would like to borrow it for a time, sighed Lincoln. When McClellan at last started creeping towards Richmond,he was embarrassed to discover that some of the imposing gun emplacements that had scared him were only painted logs.
David Reynolds,a Cambridge don,has written a one-volume history of the United States,from the mound-builders of the 11th century to the challenges facing President Barack Obama. With so much ground to cover,the pace is inevitably frenetic,and the book includes little material that one could not find elsewhere. Lincolns sigh,quoted above,is a bit of an old chestnut. But it tells us something about the great president’s character. In the same way,Mr Reynolds’s book provides an entertaining and fair-minded introduction to American history.
One of his main themes is the discord between lofty American ideals and mucky American reality. In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence,for example,Thomas Jefferson accused King George III of waging cruel war against human nature itself by allowing the slave trade. This was strange stuff,coming from a Virginian slave owner, deadpans Mr Reynolds. He also captures the messiness of American history rather well. Texans celebrate the heroes,such as Davy Crockett,who fought for independence from Mexico. One of the freedoms they craved was the freedom not to be Catholic. Another was the freedom to own slaves. Texas was an independent country for a while-its old embassy in London is now a wine shop near the head office of The Economist. Back in Washington,Congress was slow to accept Texas into the Union because it feared reopening the question of whether new states should be slave ones or not,thereby upsetting the delicate balance between North and South in the Senate.
Mr Reynolds rejects the notion of American exceptionalism. The United States is an empire,assembled by conquest,much like any other,he argues,although Americans distaste for acquiring overseas territories has,for the most part,prevented it from colonising other nations. This point tends to be taken for granted by Americans and disbelieved by others. George Bush,for example,was genuinely surprised that so many Iraqis assumed he was planning to occupy their country for ever. His vice-president had hoped to start pulling out within a month of toppling Saddam Hussein.
This book is weakest when grappling with current events. In discussing the recent housing boom and bust,Mr Reynolds inexplicably fails to mention Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,the government-backed lenders that did so much to inflate the bubble. And his lament about campaign costs-that the need to raise lots of money makes it hard for outsiders to compete for high office-sounds odd given Mr Obamas swift ascent from nowhere.
Mr Reynoldss analysis of Americas racial struggles,in particular,is fair and nuanced. As a historian,he sees how far the country has come. Where others see angry fragmentation today,he sees an American miracle,a country that has held together better than any other of comparable size or diversity. By 2050,he notes,whites will be a minority. But by then,the great divide between white and non-white will have become meaningless because of inter-mixing. As someone else put it: Obama is 2050.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009