Out of Our Past is sort of a survey book on American history, and sort of not. Unlike the typical textbook that might be assigned in a conventional freshman American history course, it doesn’t attempt to cover all the “main” topics or most “important” topics—the sort of basic things that most people would say educated Americans should know about their own country at a minimum—and it doesn’t focus on presidents and the other most famous, influential people.
It does indeed cover American history from colonial times on, but the author picks and chooses the issues he wants to address, rather than trying to be comprehensive. In part these choices no doubt reflect his interests, including perhaps things he feels are too often neglected in conventional histories, but he also cites a unifying principle of the book, which is that he’s seeking the strings that connect the contemporary United States (well, I suppose not contemporary anymore, as the book was written in the ’50s, and the edition I have was updated in the ’80s, but not too long ago anyway) with its past. That is, what explains why we and our country are the way we are?
To give an example from early in the book, in colonial times, aside from slaves and indentured servants (and women and children for that matter), the percentage of colonists who owned land in vast, sparsely populated America was stunningly high. Land was practically free for the taking. Social mobility was much, much greater than in most societies. The colonists had a reputation (for which they were praised by some and criticized by some) as highly devoted to material and social advancement, as the available opportunities made the attainment of such dreams quite realistic.
From this beginning came many American traits that have persisted throughout the history of the country. There’s the democratic ideal, that no one is truly better than anyone else. There’s the assumption that at the very least as an American you can and should own your own house. There’s the so-called “American Dream,” that you can achieve anything you set your mind to—the notion that “Any child, however humble, can grow up to be president.” There’s the idea that the default should be to constantly work and strive, and there’s the suspicion toward those who lack that type of ambition. There’s the materialism and greed that is still celebrated in some circles and lamented in others. There’s the jealous guarding of property rights—the notion that you should be able to do anything you want with something you own—as at least the equal of other, more personal rights.
It’s not that all these things are necessarily still the reality, but they remain part of the self-perception of Americans. These are the things we tell ourselves make us special, even as some of them become more of the nature of myths.
For instance, social mobility has certainly taken a body blow with the alarmingly increasing gap between rich and poor in recent times, and the way the 1% have used propaganda and other means to engineer things so that it is almost impossible for them to have meaningful competition in their efforts to remain in the 1%, but Americans still talk about their country as the “land of opportunity” as if that reflects a self-evident truth. Or if they do acknowledge some gap between reality and the ideal, they insist that we could certainly get back to our destined special status if only we instituted more progressive policies, or, conversely, returned to some laissez faire, libertarian golden age.
The author makes plenty of interesting points about American history, only a few of which I’ll mention, to keep this from getting too long. Here are a few things I took from my reading of this book:
• The Puritans really weren’t all that Puritan. They weren’t viciously anti-sex, anti-music, anti-fun, etc., at least not to an extent that stood out compared to other groups back then. The Protestant work ethic attributed to them (and Quakers, Calvinists, etc.), though, was real. Religion pushed many people in colonial times to work hard and achieve material success. Certain types of ostentation were frowned upon, but being wealthy in and of itself was not.
• Though the author’s approach is not to focus on the “great men” of history, it’s remarkable how often Benjamin Franklin’s name pops up. In addition to his best known activities in connection with the Revolution and the early days of the Republic, he’s notable for his contributions to science, journalism, social commentary, business, and seemingly almost every other significant human activity.
• Despite its reputation as an anti-tax war, taxes at the time of the Revolution were extremely low, significantly lower than they’d been a hundred years earlier, which was already lower than the taxes in England. They were also not particularly unfair. England had always footed the bill for defending the colonies from the French, Spanish, Indians, etc.; the slight tax increases before the Revolution were intended to recoup some small fraction of this from the Americans. Then when there were protests against any such taxes to pay part of the costs of war, England typically backed down anyway.
So the colonists weren’t exactly oppressed. The only tyranny was potential, that perhaps in the future if England continued in charge instead of the colonists running their own affairs it could in theory oppress the colonists, but that’s a pretty thin reed for a revolution.
Really the Revolution came about because enough generations had passed that the colonists felt less and less English. They now felt more of a natural loyalty to America than England. This was accentuated by the fact that communication and interaction between England and its far-flung colonies was so minimal in the 18th century. America was entering adulthood and was ready to be independent of its parents. The stuff about taxes and other grievances were pretenses; America would have broken away soon regardless.
It really wasn’t much of a revolution, as revolutions go. That is, there wasn’t any kind of massive upheaval in who was calling the shots. True, there was no longer an authority across the Atlantic to answer to, but for the most part the same individuals who wielded power in the colonies before the Revolution—the political office holders, the wealthy, etc.—still wielded power after the Revolution. There was no social transformation remotely equivalent to, say, the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution.
• Until the time of Andrew Jackson, the presidential veto was only used as the president’s declaration that he regarded a bill as unconstitutional and thus could not allow it to become law. By tradition at least, it was not supposed to be used when a president simply disagreed with the substance of a law.
So in that sense the veto was more like the Supreme Court’s judicial review. One wonders if the Supreme Court could evolve in the same direction—striking down laws when the justices think they are bad policy and not just when they think they conflict with the Constitution. Some would argue the Court already routinely does that, but I think that’s more the exception than the rule, and they never do it explicitly (whereas presidents don’t have to pretend that constitutionality is the only thing that’s relevant to vetoes).
I would think that wouldn’t happen, or if things did move in that direction there would be considerably more resistance to it as too much of a power grab from an unelected body.
In a different sense Congress is moving that way too though. There used to be more respect for procedure and for institutional integrity, especially in the Senate. The filibuster was to be used only in rare circumstances, not necessarily just over constitutional concerns, but for only big things worth taking a stand on principle over. Now the Republicans use it against anything they disagree with. Really it goes beyond that; when there is a Democratic president, they use it even on routine things they don’t object to just as a way of making things run as inefficiently as possible and the economy perform as poorly as possible so the president will look bad and get the blame.
So maybe that’s the natural direction of development of such things: initially there are limitations based on procedure and principle, and over time things get more politicized and an “end justifies the means” ethic prevails.
• The policy of Manifest Destiny and really most of the U.S. wars and foreign policy throughout the country’s history are as blatantly wrong as the things people get worked up about when other countries do them. Manifest Destiny is no more justified than the Nazis’ Lebensraum, or Israel’s attempts to create irreversible facts on the ground with their illegal settlements, or any other conquest or expansion you care to name. To someone looking back hundreds of years from now with no dog in the fight, I don’t think the U.S. is going to seem any better motivated in its policies than most countries would in the same position with the same advantages. Well, maybe marginally better because in a democracy people with more liberal sensibilities (you know, those idealistic, weak, bleeding heart, pacifistic, effeminate types) can have some small influence on policy, but mostly the U.S. finds a way to justify doing whatever most favors those with the most power and money—peace and human rights and moral considerations and all that be damned.
• Slavery corrupted the political system in the South, making it more and more tyrannical. Freedom of speech and of the press were compromised to block and censor anti-slavery expression. Society became more insular, with churches splitting off and new colleges being formed with the explicit intent of keeping Southerners from leaving the region for their education. A professor was fired from a Southern college for merely saying he intended to vote Republican. (Republicans were the less racist party then; how things change.) Only one political party could operate openly; Lincoln’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Southern states in 1860. Everyone had to march in lockstep on the issue of slavery, or pay the price for not doing so.
• The prevailing view of Reconstruction is that it was unjust and a failure due to massive corruption. In fact there was nothing unique about its corruption; it pretty much fit with the times in that respect. Think of how corrupt the Grant administration and big city political machines were back then. And as far as being unjust, the Jim Crow system that replaced it was surely much more unjust.
Really Reconstruction was not sustained because the North didn’t have the stomach to force the South to change. Most people in the North were lukewarm at best toward blacks—they only seemed liberal compared to those who would countenance actually owning human beings as slaves—and before long a kind of moral fatigue seemed to set in. The Civil War had in part been a moral crusade, but now that the war had been won and slavery abolished, it was time to reconcile and move on, not get lost in the minutiae of how blacks were faring beyond that they weren’t slaves anymore.
History repeated itself a century later. After the 1960s successes of the Civil Rights Movement, a pretty good percentage of mainstream whites went back to sleep on the issue. With little black kids no longer getting attacked with hoses and vicious dogs on the evening news every night, an attitude set in of “We passed all those laws for you, there’s at least one black on every TV show, there’s even a Black History Month; now leave us alone and stop complaining.”
It’s like people who think the problem of hunger is solved, or at least not their concern, if they volunteered at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Don’t bother them the other 364 days.
• It’s something of a mystery why socialism never took root here, compared to the nations of Europe. The author suggests that people in this country have never been very class conscious, in part because class can more easily change throughout one’s life than is the case in most countries (though the degree of such social and economic mobility varies, and at times is more myth than reality). People aren’t all that eager to stick it to the class they see themselves—or at least their children—ultimately joining. They think of themselves in terms of religion, race, ethnicity, political opinions, etc. before class status.
Plus there hasn’t been as much suffering in this country; people haven’t been as desperate. Even if the rich gamed the system to some extent and got more than their share, the non-rich weren’t left behind entirely to where they had nothing to lose. When things did get substantially worse—during the Depression—policies were enacted to lessen the suffering at the bottom, resulting in most people not being all that inclined to fight for an alternative system, of the Left or Right.
• We think of anti-immigration movements today as consisting mostly of bigots, or at least of conservatives trying to ward off the political consequences of allowing in millions of people who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, but things have not always been like that.
At times immigrants have been more likely to vote for the more conservative party, due to their tendency to be more socially conservative than the general population. At those times there was if anything more opposition to immigration from the Left. The nativist Know-Nothing party of the 1850s, for instance, was probably oriented more toward the Left than the Right.
Not every group that opposed immigrants necessarily wanted to keep them out entirely. Some groups favored a compromise position where immigrants were welcome to come to America, to work, to pursue the American Dream, but they wanted it to take significantly longer to be eligible for citizenship and to be allowed to vote. They were willing to take their chances on them voting after they’d had the opportunity to become Americanized; they just didn’t want them voting right from when they got off the boat, when they’d probably support whatever candidates advocated the same religious taboos and such.
Out of Our Past also contains plenty of information about the migration to the cities, the changing role of women in society, the changing nature of American families, and more. It’s arguably out of date in some respects by now—I don’t think there have been any editions since this one from the 1980s—but I think there is still plenty that a reader could learn from it.