Anne Hutchinson, Cotton Mather, Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, among others, are all presented in a fresh perspective. Wherever possible, letters, diaries, and recorded conversations are used to ensure a sense of actuality.
This is an in-depth portrait of a great people, from their fragile origins and struggles for independence, to their heroic efforts and sacrifices to deal with the "organic sin" of slavery and the preservation of the Union, to their explosive economic growth and emergence as the world's greatest superpower.
©1997 Paul Johnson; (P)1998 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
"Johnson is a lively writer (more so than nearly all other historians), and May's reading is sensitive to Johnson's wit and sharp comments....Her reading is lively, crisp, and sharp throughout." (AudioFile)
"A magnificent achievement...brilliantly combines broad sweep with extraordinary detail." (Wall Street Journal)
Paul Johnson always seems to have an optimistic view of our history. He writes with the pride of a new immigrant. Of course we have had some low moments, look at slavery or McCarthyism, but he looks at these as issues we have worked our way through. The narrator is a little annoying (or I would have given it 5 stars) but I found I could ignore her voice and concentrate on what she was saying
Richard Nixon regarded as the greatest politician and leader after Jefferson was surprising. Even the Nixon family would not have written this. File under historical fiction.
I am the author of two books on global issues, who listens to at least a hundred serious non-fiction books a year.
This is the best and worst of conservative history. Conservative histories tend to focus on elites, the "great men" as movers of history. In this case, it means we get lengthy biographies of American Presidents and other outstanding historical characters. These biographies are often fascinating, and they make for an interesting listen. And there is much to be learned about the nature of daily life and the whole of society through the select biographies of great individuals. Further, we can learn much about foreign and domestic policy by reading about the character development of the people shaping those policies.
The problem is that these biographies, as with the biographies in all conservative histories, are by definition select. We only hear about the common man and woman through the early life experiences of a common man or woman who became great. I say man or woman, but these biographies are almost always those of men, white men, and usually white men with money and power. We hear almost nothing of Native American, Civil Rights, or immigrant union leaders; little of the people of the American frontier; little of the life of slaves and black people; little of Mexican-Americans or the culture they built before we took their land; little of the environment; little of the urban poor. This means that Johnson provides a highly distorted view of American history. It fails to attune us to the feelings and motives of the real people that matter most. We do not see American history from all points of view, and thus this history, while seeking to be comprehensive, is deceptively biased. And even as Johnson brings to bare great powers of analysis, his history is in the end shallow.
The tendency in reading or listening to this sort of history is that we ignore not only the common people but the deeper socio-economic forces that move history. We miss the meaning of say the Great Migration or the upturn in crime in the mid-1960s. We miss the deeper motives behind the social movements of the left and right alike, the populists in the late nineteenth century, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the mass unionization of the twentieth century. What's worse, insofar as reading history deepens our empathy for the people about which we learn, history like this trains us to empathize with elites. Others tend to look like irrational bit players. Worse still is the danger that, having read such histories repeatedly, we will come to care more for elites.
Johnson's emphasis on the biographies of great men cannot be teased apart from his political conservatism. And this conservatism is on full display when we arrive at the twentieth century. To the extent that reviewers of this work, on Audible and Amazon alike, know their history well, they will be disturbed by Johnson's biases at earlier and earlier dates. This is political history in the worst sense of a political hit job. He goes after Woodrow Wilson, Hoover, FDR, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. He lauds Harding, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. If you know your history well, you will note that Hoover was actually quite liberal in many ways and Truman quite conservative. Liberal and progressive Presidents get bad reviews; conservatives get good reviews. If you don't think your own views will be biased through those of Johnson, I believe you overestimate the powers of your conscious mind. The problem is not that Johnson points out the many ways in which FDR lied and deceived in order to get his way; the problem is that this is Johnson's main focus on FDR. If you are biased against lying and deceiving Presidents and biased in favor of those who are smart, who care for the common people, and exhibit the qualities of institutional genius, you will most likely come away nevertheless frustrated by FDR. This is biased history at its worst.
This political bias makes Johnson's coverage of the twentieth century annoying. Of course, a conservative seeking ammunition may find all of this useful. But we should go to history not for ammunition that might support our current views but rather to learn new information and perspectives and thereby transform those views. In this regard, Johnson fails. But he is such a good writer and insightful in the domains he does cover that I give him three stars.
For a vastly more insightful and authoritative account of foreign policy making elites (Presidents, Secretaries of State, Congressional Leaders, etc), check out George C. Herring's "From Colony to Superpower." If you want bias in the opposite direction, with an emphasis on feeling for the marginalized, check out Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States." Many on Amazon think the two make a complimentary pair.
Personally (or perhaps I should say impersonally), I tend to give more credit to the impersonal forces of geography, resources, economics, institutional development, and political policy in moving history. If you do as well, read this work with caution.
The author made a lot of assumptions from assumptions, especially in dealing with Native Americans. The natives of North America were not primitve and few. The numbers before the European diseases wiped them out down to the few (before any major settlements from Europe arrived) were in fact quite large. There were even abandoned settlements where European settlers just moved in. See the book "1491".
It was, however, very interesting to hear US History from a woman with a British Accent. I wich it had had less scope and more detail.
Not written by a historian but by a journalist
I enjoyed her
I have previous read many biographies on the people he discussed and he makes too many errors in facts.
I suggest listening to some of the teaching company histories or individual biographies on some of the people mentions. This is really a history of great men not about the American people per se.
Written in sweeping, thoughtful prose. It's not just a history of America, but of the interaction between America and the world in which it developed in each generation. The reader is a bit boring. A less formal and more relaxed voice would read better, in my view.
Obviously a commitment given its length but well worth it. So well written and read!
The comments about the author skewing towards a conservative bent were unfair. His views were not the story.
The author's fair and evenhanded treatment of our history. Johnson is an Englishman, and this makes his views more interesting of course -- irrational perhaps, but true. This is probably why Alexis de Tocqueville's study of America so fascinates.
Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" was a book I read some years ago, and the compulsive readability of that history reminds me of this book.
She is at all times clear and concise. She uses accents sparingly and to good effect. And her own British accent is both pleasing (silly isn't it, how we Americans LOVE British accents!) and appropriate, given that it reflects the author himself.
Yes, but not really practical, given how long this book is!
Some reviewers accuse the author of "bias". This is spurious, given that ANY history that is not just an utterly dry recitation of dates and events requires the author to make judgements and -- after offering evidence -- express opinions.
That said, I guess there is no denying that those who regard FDR and JFK to have been flawless demigods; angels in human form descended from heaven to bless our poor republic with their holy powers my have some slight difficulty with the judgements expressed in this book.
In addition, those who consider Richard Nixon to have been a demon in human shape, an enemy of all that is right and good and pure, may in a similar fashion take exception to Paul Johnson's view of things.
On the whole I found the book a wonderful breath of fresh, politically incorrect air. Johnson shows America "warts and all". The damned evil of slavery for instance -- that original sin that so twisted and tortured the first hundred years of our republic (and whose death agonies haunt us still, right up to this day) -- is dealt with unflinchingly, with no excuses entertained, but without hyperbole.
The history of the American Indians (and yes, Johnson calls them INDIANS throughout the book, with no apologies) is likewise treated. The author does not at any time excuse injustices done against this people (or rather plural: PEOPLES, a very important fact to understand) but neither does he engage in the condescending business of elevating them to the status of utterly wise and flawless citizens of the Earth, in tune with nature and without any human weakness. That attitude is nothing more than a modern version of "the noble savage".
In short, this book is thought-provoking and endlessly engaging. You do not have to agree with everything the author thinks to enjoy this book, and profit from it.
I've read hundreds of history books, most having to do with America history and this is probably as good of a single volume as you'll come accross. There is almost no fluff and it moves along at a fairly good pace even if it is almost 50 hours long -- personally I would have loved a much longer book but then it wouldn't be a single volume any longer. Since I've read so much already on the subject there wasn't a ton of new information here for me, but for most people I highly doubt this would be an issue.
There is very little in the book I disagree with and the author, although a conservative, remains most balanced throughout. I felt he might have been a bit harsh on Andrew Jackson and JFK, but even then my disagreements where only in matters of degree, not in terms of the author being wrong. Also I feel he might have downplayed Reagan a bit - the author gives him credit but maybe not in the way I would. Regardless it's very interesting to hear a different take on something from someone that is more detached than myself.
Since the author is not an American he does seem to come of as detached on issues like slavery, north and south and Republican and Democrat. This is why the book is GREAT. He is a conseravtive but isn't pushing a political party - he's doing what writers of history should do and that is tell the story of what has happened from his point of view instead of pushing an agenda.
As for the reader she does a good job. To be honest I've heard her on various other books and at times I have a problem with the accent in that it just bothers me after hours of listening. I did warm up to it however and she really does do a good job - the issue with the accent is my own which is why I believe a 4-star rating is fair.
If you want to learn as much as possible about American history -- if you want to know what really happened and not the PC nonsense that is taught in school -- or if you just want a refresher on why America is good - this is an excellent book.
I cannot think of when I would ever say that I’m “indebted” to an author. Certainly I appreciate the many of the authors of books I’ve read and have been impressed by their talents and the works they have created. However, the emotional reaction that I have after reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People is one of gratitude and indebtedness. With the continued assault on our history with pop culture and political correctness it is refreshing to hear a well researched history that has not been tainted or biased as so much of what is promoted as history today. Johnson does not tell a one sided story, rather he tells a balanced version with a great deal of background perspective that both strengthens the credibility of the material as well as gives the reader a great deal of insight that most history books miss. I have already recommended this book to many of my friends and recommend it to anyone who wants to hear a fascinating story of the American people. I am indebted to Paul Johnson.
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