Magazine article The Spectator

Faith in the Founding Fathers

Magazine article The Spectator

Faith in the Founding Fathers

Article excerpt

THE AMERICAN FUTURE The Bodley Head, £20, pp. 392, ISBN 9781847920003 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This is the most exhilarating book that has been written about America for at least eight years, although it depends on the premise that the influence of George W. Bush is over and that Barack Obama will be the next president.

Simon Schama is fortunate that this outcome looks more likely by the day. He has not been helped, on the other hand, by the suddenness of the financial drama which has overtaken the world's most powerful economy, and which calls into question some of the American future he describes. All the same, this intricate and ambitious account of American inspiration and of the heartbeat of the national character is as good an answer to those doubts as anyone might give.

Schama sets his ebulliently combative tone in the prologue, which begins: 'I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there' -- at the Des Moines caucuses on 3 January earlier this year, watching the first signs of Barack Obama's eventual victory over Hillary Clinton. It is an instantly engaging account, as he makes fun of his own reflex as the 'helpful professor', trying to warn the Hillary campaigners of the potential misinterpretation of their sign 'If the people are disinterested, move on!'). Having inserted himself in the narrative, as the wry but energetic commentator from a faroff country, part academic and part vivid reporter, he then launches into his analysis of the essence of the American spirit, weaving the immediate present with its earliest history.

He divides his account into four sections; it was inspired of him to begin with 'American War', given the doubts and divisions which are the legacy of Iraq and which, in similar form, troubled the new country from the start. As he argues, 'The United States had been born to refute the cynicism that a fresh start was not utopian, and that it was entirely possible to live as a republic of free men and yet be a moral force in the world.' The Cherokee, the British, the roots of the Civil War, and Vietnam all flicker by as Schama relates how America tried to pursue both ideals.

He quotes, as is now common in the context of Iraq, the congressional protests at President William McKinley's decision to annex the Philippines at the start of the 20th century, but to unusually devastating effect. 'You have no right at the cannon's mouth to impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence, your Constitution and your notions of what is good', argued George Frisbie Hoar, Massachusetts senator. …

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