»  Boston Globe

July 5, 1998

  Whence the English Americans Came, and What They Wrought

A survey of some books on U.S. history


On the weekend of the Fourth one's thoughts turn naturally to the history of these United States, and to one's own lamentable failure to read as much history as a good citizen (or, in my case, intending citizen) should. But quality is a fair substitute for quantity, so here are some of the best from my own shelf, a mix of history general, history ethnic, and historical biography.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the colleague who turned my attention to David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed. First published nine years ago, I think this can now safely be declared a classic of American historical writing. It is a book to which I return again and again for insight and explanation. Fischer shows how the British Isles came to pre-revolutionary America in four great waves, bringing four quite distinct notions of liberty: the Puritans of East Anglia (1620-1640), the Distressed Cavaliers of south-west England (1642-75 … they were distressed at having finished second in the English Civil War), the Quakers of the North Midlands (1675-1725) and the so-called "Scotch-Irish" — Protestants from Ulster who poured into the backcountry of colonial America in the middle decades of the 18th century.

In our imaginations, the dominant figures in the early history of this land are the dour Puritans of New England and the bewigged Cavaliers of the tidewater South, the latter especially prominent in historical paintings of the independence struggle. In fact it was the Scotch-Irish who were politically more important in the long run. Fischer shows that if, for example, you classify the Presidents by their ancestry, the largest group — eighteen when Fischer wrote, nineteen with the present incumbent — are descended from Scotch-Irish settlers.

The fuller story of this wild, warlike people (as well as having a fair claim to the Presidency, they supplied an overwhelming majority of America's greatest soldiers) is told in James G. Leyburn's The Scotch-Irish. They were twice migrants: from the desperate poverty and squalor of the Scottish lowlands to the plantations of Ulster in the seventeenth century, then from Ulster to America in the eighteenth. Leyburn shows how the first was almost a dress rehearsal for the second; the raids of the dispossessed Irish against the Ulster settlements, for example, provided excellent preparation for fighting off American Indians in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Ulster Protestants practically define themselves by their hostility to Irish Catholics, yet the causes of the great Protestant migration would be familiar to any Keegan or O'Rourke: hunger, rack-renting, and religious persecution. In the time of Queen Anne (1702-14) the Church of England was unusually energetic, and determined to impose religious conformity on all Her Majesty's subjects — on the Presbyterians of Ulster as well as on Catholics and other dissenters. Presbyterian ministers were turned out of their pulpits, churches boarded up, marriages declared invalid. Four successive years of drought added to the general misery, and in 1717 more than five thousand Ulstermen departed for America. In the following sixty years some quarter of a million followed them — the largest of Fischer's four migrations. If you think it was exceptionally stupid of us English to thus alienate the Crown's fiercest group of loyal subjects in Ireland, you are right. I do not think the word "brilliant" has ever been used to describe any English policy in Ireland.

Paul Johnson's A History of the American People offers a wider view. I have been reading Paul Johnson for nearly as long as I have been reading; since his days as editor of the left-wing London weekly New Statesman, back in the Sixties. Johnson practices that style of prose prescribed by George Orwell, "as transparent as a windowpane." His books practically read themselves. Nor is there much point in complaining, as some American reviewers have, that Mr Johnson's account of U.S. history is opinionated. The author simply nods agreement: "Yes; I am a didactic historian." A devout Catholic (his people are Lancashire recusants), Mr Johnson believes that history points a moral, and that part of the historian's job is to illuminate that moral.

We gather that Mr Johnson is not a fan of the current President, though he uses no adjective stronger than "lackluster"; but he allows that Mrs Clinton is "an outspoken and venturesome lady." This is an area in which he can speak with high authority, being a friend of Margaret Thatcher, and having also written a very fine biography of Elizabeth the First. It is dangerous ground for the non-American commentator, however. Abroad, one of the most durable stereotypes of this country has been the bossy American female. Large numbers of us are brought up to believe that American men slink about in terror of their overbearing womenfolk. (When, as a schoolboy in England, I asked a teacher why Americans said "back of" instead of "behind" and "rooster" instead of "cock," he replied — as if it was a fact known to everybody, like the multiplication table — that American culture was controlled by a cabal of hysterical old maids.)

Anyone seeking support for this stereotype could turn to Carl Anthony's recent biography of Florence Harding, wife of the twenty-ninth President. This was one formidable lady. "I got you the Presidency," she declared bluntly to her cowering husband; and Mr Anthony leaves one in no doubt she was right. He also shows where that spirit came from. The first thirty years of Florence Harding's life were one long baptism of fire and ice, the ice surely coldest on Christmas Eve 1882, which she spent huddled with her baby in an empty house she had broken into, her lover having left her two days before, and with little sympathy to expect from her irascible and unforgiving father. Florence — Harding called her "the Duchess" — clawed her way back to respectability, giving piano lessons at fifty cents an hour before fixing her sights on mild, amiable Warren. The product of an almost unnaturally happy family, Harding was perhaps the least complicated man ever to serve as Chief Executive. The poor sap didn't stand a chance against Flossie, who soon had snaffle and bridle securely in place. From the White House she campaigned for feminism and racial equality (the three Republican Presidents of the 1920s were all admirably progressive by contemporary standards).

Harding's Vice President and successor was the ineffable Calvin Coolidge, the only Chief Executive born on the Fourth of July. (Was he also the only Vice President so born? Somebody must know this.) I can offer no better recommendation for holiday reading than Robert Sobel's crisp new biography of this odd, subtle man — as the author observes, "of all our Presidents … the one who couldn't care less what we thought of him." This recommendation is made with, of course, perfect impartiality. And a happy July Fourth to all!