About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Amazon Review of American History: A Very Short Introduction

American History: A Very Short Introduction
Paul S. Boyer
2012, 184 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

American History: A Very Short Introduction provides its reader with as comprehensive a look at American political, social and cultural history as is possible in under 200 small pages (the standard format for the “Very Short Introduction” series, whose books are not only short but small as well) and in a well written manner. Virtually every event, person of significance and movement in American history receives at least a mention, which must have been a difficult task to accomplish given the strictures. What it does not do, however, is provide consistently up to date scholarship or a proper sense of proportion of America’s triumphs to failures. It also contains a few errors and some of Boyer’s interpretations of events will provoke disagreement with those who do not share his political leanings.

Boyer essentially begins with the English settlement of North America, dispensing with the pre-Columbian native peoples, Leif Ericson and non-English Europeans in only a few pages. The colonial period is one of the book’s strengths as Boyer explains the development of the English settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth and the social development of the New World as different from that of the Old. The events leading to the Revolution are also nicely cataloged, and Boyer takes us from the post-Revolutionary war period through the Gilded Age in a fairly conventional manner.

Some of Boyer’s interpretations of events rely on dated scholarship, however. A simplistic search for foreign markets accounts entirely for the Spanish-American War. His account of the New Deal places the stock market crash in the role of catalyst of the Great Depression failing to mention the role of monetary policy, which is at the core of today’s economic understanding. He also dredges up the traditional misconception that Americans’ fondness for coffee dates from the Boston Tea Party and incorrectly cites the date of England’s Glorious Revolution. Boyer also cites a famous utterance by Andrew Jackson in defiance of the Supreme Court that is considered apocryphal.

Although explicitly Boyer strives for objectivity he does not always achieve it. His account is generally well balanced through Reconstruction, but his leftward leanings emerge shortly thereafter and his interpretation of events from the Gilded Age to the present too often becomes predictable and selective. Progressives are, unsurprisingly for a University of Wisconsin professor, lauded and nearly every legislative enactment of the New Deal and Great Society is given space. Like many historians, though, Boyer mistakes these enactments as achievements in their own right, and rarely analyzes whether they, in fact, accomplished their goals. For instance, he credits President Clinton with welfare reform but never asks why a Democratic president would see the need to reform it in the first place. His characterization of today’s Tea Party as an offshoot of the religious right ignores the firestorm that occurred a result of policies that were perceived to “bailout” the impecunious (whether on Wall Street, in the housing market or the auto industry) at the expense of those who had behaved in a fiscally responsible manner in the Tea Party members’ views.

Boyer concludes by cataloging America’s many challenges and faults as he finds them today. Nonetheless, he concludes that “when the balance is drawn, America’s record of achievement in advancing human well-being may ultimately outweigh the rest and prove a more lasting measure of national greatness than transient imperial power, military might, or a mere abundance of ephemeral material goods.” The reader will likely need consult another book to understand, however, why that is.

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