From the Very Beginning; Hopeful Analysis of America's History

Article excerpt

Byline: Brendan Conway, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The first volume of Bill Bennett's sweeping "America: The Last Best Hope" is notable for its accessibility and memorable writing, which is no accident. This workmanlike narrative of early U.S. history is not just the artful conservative volley in the culture wars one would expect it to be (though it certainly is that; Howard Zinn would disapprove). It is also a genuine contribution to popular history, beginning like some old-fashioned textbook with Columbus and narrating the story of the United States up to the onset of World War I.

Mr. Bennett wrote the book firstly "for hope" because, as he explains, he thinks that "our conviction about American greatness and purpose is not as strong today" as it was in the age of Jefferson, Lincoln or even Kennedy. Historians, Mr. Bennett writes, have taken to describing America not just "warts and all," as Oliver Cromwell famously put it, but "as nothing but warts." Among the aims: "[T]o encourage a new patriotism a new reflective, reasoned form of patriotism." No faux objectivity here.

For more than 500 pages, at a clip of just under a year per page, Mr. Bennett writes from the perspective of a nation not "the people" telling the stories behind the creation of modern America. This is an act of synthesis in which Mr. Bennett relies on a range of great historians, including contemporaries like David Hackett Fischer, giants of previous eras like Samuel Eliot Morison, statesmen-authors like Winston Churchill and popular historians such as David McCullough. Synthesis frees Mr. Bennett to deliver the kind of big-picture historical analysis from which civic-minded people can draw strength.

In bursts of 30-40 pages, Mr. Bennett spins memorable tours of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian exploration of the Americas and their contact, mostly brutal, with native populations; of the arrival of Pilgrims, Puritans, Dutch, English mercantilists and others; of the entrenchment of slavery in the New World; of the American Revolution and the colonial era which preceded it; of Andrew Jackson's ascendancy and the emergence of popular democracy; and so forth through Civil War, Reconstruction, industrialization, the Gilded Age, the age of Roosevelt and ending with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the eve of the Great War.

The brisk pace occasionally yields for the telling anecdote like the near-torching of Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia home over the loathsome Stamp Act; George Washington's several brushes with death on the battlefield; the story of Nathan Hale, the first American spy, hanged by the British in New York in 1776; the moving anti-slavery intellect of Abraham Lincoln in the 1854 Lincoln-Douglas debates; lynchings and the rise of discriminatory "black codes" in the South following the Civil War; the sinking of the Maine and the "splendid little war" that wasn't so splendid, among other vignettes. …