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Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
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A New American History, 1585-1828

A-FreedomJust"The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years," argues McDougall in the first of his projected three-volume history of America. A Renaissance time traveler, he claims, would recognize all other civilizations dating from 1600 except North America. What distinguishes it is the Americans’ "penchant for hustling"—the ability, like Cornelius Vanderbilt, to exploit freedoms to the hilt. Focusing on presidents, farmers, and engineers, McDougall offers a new history of early America, from the founding of the English colonies to Andrew Jackson’s presidency. These years, he argues, engendered vast inequalities like slavery, but also formed "the mightiest, richest, most dynamic civilization in history."
HarperCollins. 638 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0060197897

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"Just the title, inspired by a line from Bob Dylan’s song Jokerman, is a clue that the history buff picking this book up is in for something different. … The chapter on the framing of the Constitution should be required reading for anyone of any political or philosophic stripe who wants to tack on amendments or pass legislation to alter its meaning to fit a biased agenda." Claude Crowley

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"If this volume … is any indication of the promised whole, the trilogy may have a major impact on how we Americans understand ourselves. … [McDougall] cynically, or he would say realistically (since cynicism suggests a moral judgment that human nature might be different), accepts, even celebrates, all the bribery, land-jobbing and double-dealing as the consequence of Americans’ having so much freedom." Gordon S. Wood

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"This is, in short, grand, satisfying American history. … It returns us to the big themes–freedom, empire and, perhaps above all, Yankee ingenuity." Lauren F. Winner

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"[The characters] range from the truly indispensable, such as George Washington, to the lesser known, such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge, godfather to both the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Gazette. … It’s a tribute to McDougall’s literary skills that even some of his footnotes make for good reading." Len Barcousky

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"McDougall is fascinated by the early Americans as ‘hustlers’—a term he uses repeatedly—and he shows himself well aware that hustling did not always make this a better country, which is demonstrated in his treatment, for instance, of slavery, tobacco and what happened to the Native Americans. … So original is McDougall’s approach that you can read any five pages of this book and feel that you are encountering the American story through fresh eyes." Michael Beschloss

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Having just completed my own textbook of U.S. history, I am fully aware that the key to a book of this kind is selection. Unfortunately, McDougall’s single-minded preoccupation with hustling leads him to leave out those who do not fit into his predetermined framework." Eric Foner

Critical Summary

It might be unfashionable these days to embrace "American exceptionalism." Yet that’s exactly what McDougall, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, has done, to great acclaim. In revealing "who and why we are what we are," he has written an imaginative, evenhanded, and masterful history that shows the freedoms—and high costs—of our hustling nation. His impressive research covers all the major events of our first 200 years, plus some; he entertains with humorous, passionate writing. Only historian Foner—competitive, perhaps?—criticizes Freedom’s top-heavy approach and inadequate interpretations. The general consensus: Freedom is an important contribution not only to its field, but to all Americans.

Also by the Author

AS-HeavensEarthThe Heavens and the Earth A Political History of the Space Age | Walter A. McDougall (1985): * 1986 Pulitzer Prize. An in-depth look at the political, social, and economic drivers behind the race into space between the United States and the Soviet Union.