Simon Schama on American history

On the eve of Barack Obama's election, Simon Schama spoke to Rob Attar about war, politics, race and religion and what it is that makes the USA unique

New US citizens celebrate after taking the oath at a US District Court for the Central District of California naturalisation ceremony, 2007. (Photo by Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Q: What do you think it is that sets America apart from the rest of the world?

A: There are two crucial things. The first is that the nation was the result of a kind of manifesto, or a statement of intent called the Declaration of Independence, with all the impossibly optimistic ideals embedded in it. In other words, everybody is entitled to liberty and equality without problems or contradictions. The Declaration has been a living document for Americans, who are much more soaked in history than Europeans in particular believe. So there is this sense that to be an American is to subscribe to a set of political ideas rather than simply a culture, a habit, a landscape or a way of life.

Advertisement

The second point about what makes America different is that it is a country that has always been founded on immigration and has actually welcomed immigration. That isn’t to say that America hasn’t violated some of its optimism about all nations being melted together. This aim has often been broken more than it’s been observed. In America, coming from somewhere else and still being a full American – a Polish American, an African American or a Chinese American – is possible in a way which can’t be taken for granted anywhere else in the world.

Q: How much of America’s history was shaped by the early European settlers?

A: I think they were important when it comes to ecstatic religion. This idea that America is a place of rebirth began with the Puritans in the 17th century but it also received a great jolt from people like Methodists John Wesley and George Whitefield who preached wildly and enthusiastically in the 1740s. In America you don’t just lose the chains of your old place of birth but you somehow have access to a particular kind of revelation. That concept has remained extremely strong from the 18th century.

When you see moments of ecstatic religion in America it has a very long inheritance from England. You have to go back to the wild, almost raving place that was Cromwellian England because a lot of early America was a kind of transposition across the ocean of Cromwellian England, when everybody in the country was in a fever of religious ecstasy. That’s where it all comes from.

European ideas of political liberty were influential at the more rational end of the spectrum. Before the War of Revolution, Thomas Jefferson went to his local circulating library and read-up documents about the Civil War and John Locke. He also read about the Commonwealth Men who had a political theory of contract whereby everybody contracts together to create a new political society of equals – that was very important.

Q: In the opening chapter of your book you quote a 2007 Dick Cheney speech where he said America “has never been a warrior culture”. Is that something you would agree with?

A: There is a very deeply embedded notion that America only goes to war in pursuit of self defence and for the liberation of others. I think that America, because of Jefferson, had a feeling that it never really wanted to be a martial culture.

Unlike Britain, which ripped its children away from their families and sent them to military training, or Prussia, where people were brutally conscripted, America always thought of itself as having citizen soldiers. It didn’t have a large army until the Civil War. That being said, the first loss of that innocence came in the Mexican War when an enthusiastic volunteer army did actually go into battle for rip-snorting expansionist reasons.

There are these two Jekyll and Hyde qualities in the way that America feels about war. On the one hand there is the notion of Alexander Hamilton that America must have a strong army and that it can’t be put in a position of relying on amateur soldiers or it will simply never be able to defend itself or assert its muscle in the world. On the other there is Jefferson’s view that if you have a cast of professional soldiers, if you have a huge military establishment, then you run the risk of crushing liberty.

Q: Which of the wars involving America has been the most crucial to its development?

A: That’s a tricky question. Obviously by definition the Revolutionary War was the premise of the country’s foundation. Then the Civil War was also very important. Left over from the Revolutionary War was the unresolved question of slavery and the terrible contradiction which Jefferson as a slaveholder knew all about: you promised equality but you lived off slavery. The Civil War and Lincoln’s unwillingness to procrastinate any longer on slavery was an extraordinary experience. Around 620,000 people died one way or another and the whole country was devastated.

The Civil War was shocking in its ferocity and it is very hard to think of any comparable conflicts in Europe. There were lots of wars of mass slaughter such as the First World War but no civil wars, except for the Russian revolutionary Civil War, that were anything like it. One would like to say that the civil war chastened America for a long time but it is equally true to say that by the end of the 19th century that memory of chastening carnage was fading away. Politicians like Theodore Roosevelt came along saying that war is a national tonic and we must embrace the virility of military exercise.

What I think the Civil War did was inject into the national bloodstream a deep sensibility that wars represent the tearing apart of families. If you talk to veterans of the Second World War, or of Vietnam or of the Iraq war, there really is the sense that you had better make sure that the wars you fight are for a damn good cause and that they are about America’s defence or else you’re sacrificing your own children needlessly.

Q: What have been some of America’s most pivotal elections?

A: The 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was incredibly important. That absolutely was first principles, about whether or not a libertarian form of democracy should prevail over the obligation to centralised power. Jefferson had to defend himself against a vicious campaign which said that to vote for him was to vote for no god. Jefferson was accused of being an atheist when in fact he was a deist, which is very different.

The 1860 election was colossal, as were the primaries. It was essentially about the issue of whether compromise could be cobbled together on slavery, or whether someone like Abraham Lincoln could draw a line in the sand, which he did.

The elections of 1932 and 1936 were also important. People on the Republican side lament the election of 1936 in particular as introducing a creeping form of socialism through Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover went down to a derisory defeat in 1932 and we often forget what a powerful, influential, intelligent and actually rather humane man Herbert Hoover was. However he was standing for a kind of liberal laissez-faire economics that just couldn’t hack it amid the economic pain of the time. However, Roosevelt only became the father of big interventionist government after he was elected. He was very careful beforehand not to present himself as some slightly more American version of Lenin or the Labour Party.

I’d say the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan election of 1980 was huge. Carter has had such a raw deal from history. He had many shortcomings as an executive, but in some cases like energy policy, I think he will be vindicated. Reagan’s triumph at this election introduced a dominion of conservative received wisdoms which lasted until it was buried by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Q: How do you think America sees its role in the world and how much has this changed over history?

A: Here I’ll start with Thomas Jefferson again. We go back to him and back to him but the more you read of him the more astonished you are by the power of his thought. Jefferson believed the whole point of the American Revolution was not just to do something with the territorial landmass – to make it the land of liberty – but to be a new kind of nation in the world. At the same time Jefferson, like George Washington, wanted to avoid entangling alliances and did not want to brandish the sabre. But he thought that somehow by America’s sheer force of moral example it would create liberty all around the world. Jefferson couldn’t think of America’s position in the world as standing pat, he thought that America’s chance of flourishing was as a benevolent liberator.

Alexander Hamilton was much more of a pragmatist. Hamilton was always more concerned about safeguarding American interests and about a fiercer, more raw execution of power. The retired generals I spoke to all think that America somehow clings to Jeffersonian ideas but is trapped inside a Hamiltonian big power reality.

I don’t know whether you’ve read Eisenhower’s farewell address or not, but from a military president and someone whose whole background was the army, it was one of the most eloquently poignant warnings in all of America’s history. The whole thrust of what Eisenhower had to say about the military industrial complex was truly extraordinary. It went back to Washington’s farewell address in saying that American liberty has to watch out that the warrior aspects, the institutionalised aspects of American military power, aren’t self perpetuating.

The remarkable fact about America is it has this debate over and over and over again. It just doesn’t let its military hest run away with itself and you have the other side of America – philanthropy, the Peace Corps, the sense of its mission to humanitarian benevolence, as with Africa for example. Even the Bush administration has been incredibly good, simply if you count the dollars, in the amount of aid channelled to Africa. This sense of missionary humanitarian benevolence isn’t to me so much hot air. It is a genuine part of the way Americans think about their place in the world.

Q: Has the rest of the world misunderstood America?

A: I don’t know how much American history is taught in British schools anymore, if any, since most of the modules are Hitler and Henrys. It is a complicated history, not a simple history. It’s a thrilling history and it’s a very disturbing history in a lot of ways but it does require people doing their homework and reporters going to places other than Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington. It’s a society made up of micro-republics called states and regions. Many of these are extremely unlike each other and have different racial, religious and cultural characteristics. The USA is a real federation of differences, despite the fact there is a KFC in every town.

Simon Schama is university professor of history and art history at Columbia University, New York. He is also an acclaimed author and TV presenter.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the October 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine