Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story
Wilfred McClay is the Blankenship Chair in the history of liberty at The University of Oklahoma. McClay won the prestigious Merle Curti Award for his book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America. McClay’s new book, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story is the subject of the following interview.
David George Moore conducted the interview. Some of Dave’s teaching videos and interviews can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Note to Jesus Creed community: Earlier this year I read These Truths: A History of the United States by Harvard historian, Jill Lepore. It is a big and sprawling book with many keen insights. Professor McClay’s book, however, is now my favorite survey of the United States. It is about half the length of Lepore’s, but covers the necessary bases with balance, great writing, and things that all conscientious Americans will want to ponder further.
Moore: You do a terrific job of showing both the brilliance and fragility of our country’s founding. Looking back, we tend to think everything was inevitable, but you gently disabuse us of that notion. How does appreciating the fragility of our country’s founding better equip us to be good stewards of the legacy we have been given?
McClay: Thank you, Dave, for your kind words. I appreciate them. As to your question, I think it’s absolutely vital to convey a sense of this fragility, and indeed of the fragility and vulnerability of everything in life that we hold dear. The enemy of good stewardship is a bland and complacent sense of historical inevitability, or an assumption that the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy are somehow the default position of the human race. But nothing about the country was inevitable: not its freedoms, not its prosperity, not its faults. None of it. And none of it will be preserved if we don’t understand that we need to work very hard for its preservation.
Moore: In his 2005 Jefferson Lecture, the eminent historian, Donald Kagan says that “if he [the historian] follows the rules, carefully establishes the facts and reports them in their true chronological order and does no more, he is still not a historian but a chronicler. It is not enough to record a certain level of events each year, however accurately. The historian must select a topic of importance. Even a narrative history must organize and arrange events in such a way as to reveal their significance most effectively. He must try to explain why things happened as they did and what may be learned about human affairs and behavior in general from the events he has studied. In this respect his work must be philosophical.”
Interact a bit with what Kagan said, and how did it affect the way you approached writing Land of Hope?
McClay: I absolutely agree with Don Kagan’s description of what we historians do. There is an element of genuine creativity involved in the making of an historical narrative, even if it only is involved in the arranging of elements that are given to us by the record. But of course it is more than that. We have to discern the guiding themes that emerge from all the facts, and bring them out in stark relief, so that the reader will see them clearly. There are always dangers in that, the chief one being the danger of falling into an arbitrary kind of creativity, getting the proportions of things wrong, misinterpreting key facts, that sort of thing. But still, one has to understand the right moment in the process to raise those questions. What I always say to students who are launching into a major project, such as a capstone research paper or the like, is that they should NOT approach it with an open mind. Decide on something, decide what you believe about the argument you’re going to make, and then look for the evidence to sustain it. But then—and this is the absolutely crucial point—look assiduously for DISCONFIRMING evidence. Look for bad news. Have the strength, the integrity, to question your own thesis even more rigorously than any opponent is likely to do. And if the news is bad, then you have to yield your thesis, and revise and rethink on the grounds of what you’ve found out.
In other words, a starting hypothesis is necessary to get the process going, to get the mental engine to turn over, to propel you forward. A barefoot walk through green fields of data will just give you stained feet. Have a thesis as a way of organizing your inquiry—but also have the willingness to admit when your thesis is being disconfirmed by your evidence.
Moore: I just taught a course on how to disagree in a more agreeable manner. In light of that, I was struck by the irenic posture of Washington in his First Inaugural Address where he calls for all sides to have their say, irrespective of their political views. How can we see this kind of irenic spirit resurrected in our own body politic?
McClay: Well, at the risk of sounding like an athletic-shoe commercial, we need to just do it! Of course, looking to Washington as an example entails some difficulties. Washington was truly the indispensable man in the formation of the United States, and it seems clear that the deliberations in Philadelphia about the shape of the presidency were decisively influenced by the confidence of all present that Washington would BE that president, and would carefully establish the practices and precedents that would define the office. As he did.
So yes, Washington’s great stature helped him to reconcile factions; and the moment he was out of the office, the factions fell to fighting, and we had the first party system, and the tumultuous election of 1800. But Jefferson gave a magnificent inaugural address in 1801 that did much to smooth the waters and reassure those who feared that he was a closet Jacobin. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural may have come at the end of a bloody war, but it had profound elements of reconciliation in it, and had he lived….well, we can never know, but it seems possible that he could have guided the nation’s Reconstruction down a more felicitous path than it ended up taking. More recently, Jimmy Carter made a wonderfully gracious gesture to Gerald Ford, after defeating him for the Presidency, by thanking him for all the ways he had healed the country in a difficult time.I would say, though, that such gestures are unlikely to be forthcoming if there’s a perception that they will be scoffed at by the other side. George W. Bush had a strongly conciliatory tone to many of his speeches, but those accents did not register on the other side. Indeed, I don’t think either of the presidencies since his have shown much willingness to present the other side with laurels; nor has the opposition, in either case, been the sort of loyal opposition that would see such conciliation as anything other than a sign of weakness. So, we are locked into a polarizing struggle. I think one place to begin to weaken this state of affairs is to double down on the defense of responsible free-speech rights, rather than intensify efforts to suppress (or even criminalize) dissident opinions. But I think we need to return to the Founders’ notions of what constitutes speech. That’s a complicated matter, about which I intend to write some things in the near future, so I’ll keep you posted on that.
Moore: The balancing act between rights and responsibilities is a tricky one. Who do you see in our nation’s past that has been an exemplar in keeping rights and responsibilities properly aligned?
McClay: I think almost any of the members of the Founding generation understood rights and responsibilities as conjoined with one another, and that “liberty” entailed the exercise of both. The hypertrophy of rights and “rights talk” independent of individual and civic responsibilities is one of the most destructive developments in our national life over the last 70 or so years, and we won’t be able to sustain a liberal democracy without reining that in. We spoke about speech above, and one of the points I’d make is that we have free speech for a reason, as part of our public deliberation about matters of public moment, and NOT merely as an individual expressive liberty. In other words, free speech entails both liberty and responsibility, and the two things go together.
Moore: The horrors of war are going to be part of any responsible history of our country. Without getting into all the legitimate differences Americas have over what wars are worth fighting, what do you believe are some appropriate ways for how all citizens ought to relate and respect those who guard their liberties? Since WW II, us non-military folk have been increasingly removed from the military which does not seem like a very healthy relationship.
McClay: Yes, you’re right, and this is a matter of great concern. One of the ways that Nixon ratcheted down the war in Vietnam was by abolishing the draft and moving the nation toward an all-volunteer professionalized military force. It was a politically astute move, pragmatically speaking, but it was something that most of the Founders would have abominated, as a violation of the republican principle that there should be no standing armies, and that the proper soldiers for a republic were citizen-soldiers. Even if you don’t accept that principle, it is not healthy for us to have divorced the practitioners of the martial virtues from the great body of our society, in which a kind of antinomian and undisciplined freedom, and an orientation toward the values of the marketplace, tend to prevail. Both sides of that divide suffer from that division, in the form of misunderstanding, mutual suspicion, even disrespect. I am not sure whether I could support reinstituting the draft or establishing some form of universal national service; I see a lot wrong with both ideas. But something needs to be done to increase the sense of our commonalities that bind us together as a nation.
Moore: Howard Zinn wrote the uber popular, A People’s History of the United States. Would you unpack some of the biggest ways Land of Hope is different.
McClay: I think most responsible historians would agree that, considered as history, Zinn’s book is a cartoonish exaggeration that ends up functioning almost as agitprop. But it is interestingly written and presents an easily grasped narrative account of American history as a ceaseless melodrama pitting the black hats against the white hats, the haves against the have-nots. But it is not a full or balanced account, and it shows little or not appreciation of the remarkable accomplishments of our nation. I take a different tack, although if I am “the anti-Zinn,” as some have called me, I am only in the sense that I reject the simplifications and easy moralism of Zinn’s account. I don’t deny the faults in our past, but I try to put them in a larger and longer perspective and urge the reader to recognize that all of us are flawed, just as every historical enterprise is flawed.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers take from your book?
McClay: Well, first would be the hope I’ve just expressed, that we could learn to approach the past without condescension, and in fact with a sense of gratitude for all that we owe to the imperfect people who preceded us. I also have threaded through the whole book the theme of “a land of hope,” which I hope the readers will pick up on: the idea that America cannot be understood without reference to the principle of hope, the notion that we are not prisoners of the conditions of our birth, as the peasants and but that we can transform our lives, going as far as our hard work and imagination and determination can take us. That is not to deny that it has not been a land of hope for everyone, and in fact, as I often say, being a land of hope can often mean being a land of disappointment, since our expectations for ourselves are high, and when we fall short of them, it is a mighty fall indeed. But that is all part of the larger story, and perhaps what I hope for most is that readers will recover a sense of grand sweep of that larger story, one of the greatest stories in all of human history, a story of which they are a part.