It Was All So Unlikely: Wilfred McClay's Land of Hope
By Mark C. Schug
- A review of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the American Story by Wilfred McClay.1
American history isn’t what it used to be. Once it was common for a history textbook author to tell a good story. I remember as an eighth-grade student being horrified that my teacher was going to toss out a bunch of history textbooks. She asked: “Does anyone want these old books?” My hand shot up immediately. I loved the stories.
A New Alternative
Thanks to Wilfred McClay’s new book titled Land of Hope: An Invitation to the American Story we have a better alternative. It is a concise American history text with a traditional table of contents with 22 chapters. The book is primarily a political history. While many textbooks are encyclopedic, McClay is concise, clocking in at 459 pages. The text features an excellent selection of photographs in the middle and a few key maps. The story is told without interruption.
Land of Hope is appealing to young and old alike. The primary audience is students in grades 9 to 12. It’s a tough market to crack, but maybe Land of Hope can break through. Voucher schools, home schoolers, charter schools, and private schools might be interested. The book should also be used in undergraduate history courses and in professional training courses and workshops for K-12 teachers. The book is also a great read for adults who would like to brush up on their history.
McClay’s objective is to provide an “accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring account of their own country—an account that will inform and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” (xi)
McClay believes that historians have abandoned civic obligation. He wishes to provide readers with a tool to become responsible and engaged citizens. By citizenship, he means more than a civics class definition. He hopes that readers will gain “a vivid and enduring sense of one’s membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of one’s own nation.” (xi)
McClay believes that history at the high school level should serve as something like a rite of passage. Its purpose should be to enable students to become members of civil society by having a clear and balanced understanding of their cultural inheritance. Without resorting to an ahistorical interpretation of American exceptionalism, a major objective of McClay’s work is for students to develop a sense of patriotism that enables them to realize that in a flawed world, America is a remarkable nation. To some, this may be shocking. Patriotism today is not often a topic for conversation in polite society. It gives higher education folks the heebie-jeebies. It seems dangerously close to nationalism.
But these fears are misguided. Patriotism should be viewed as a natural part of human nature. It is an expression of the fact that we are all social creatures and seek harmony. We do not develop our sense of identity in isolation.
Adam Smith agrees. He argued that people are naturally patriotic. Smith might say patriotism is another expression of our mutual sympathy or our sense of “feeling with” that he explains in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, paragraph VI.II.36.
- The love of our country seems, in ordinary cases, to involve in it two different principles; first, a certain respect and reverence for that constitution or forms of government which is actually established; and secondly an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow-citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can. (231)
McClay devotes an entire chapter to discussing the culture of democracy. The epilogue lays out his case for patriotism.
The Context of American History Today
Land of Hope appears at a time when the context of American history in schools is bleak. American history today is characterized by widespread use of a radical left textbook, or of alternative modern textbooks drained of drama, written by committee and offering meager historical understanding.
Engaging texts that tell a good story are in short supply but there does seem to be interest in a story-telling approach. The late Howard Zinn authored the popular book A People’s History of the United States. Even though Zinn was a Marxist who is criticized for his inaccuracies and selectivity of facts, his book has sold more than two million copies. It is used as a textbook in many high schools and appears on the reading lists of numerous college courses. While Zinn is guilty of many sins, an inability to tell a good story is not one of them. His book has a clear voice and is highly engaging.
Books with a clear voice from national publishers have all but disappeared. The American Textbook Council (ATC) offers this bleak observation:
- Textbook choice for teachers has in recent decades shrunk to almost nothing. Text-light picture books and easy readers are now almost universal; content distinctions between books are minor, and at the K-6 level, almost indistinguishable.2
American history traditionally occupies six semesters in the social studies curriculum, although this may be eroding, especially in the early grades. It is traditionally taught at grades 5, 8, and 11. American history was to be taught early and often because it was regarded as fundamental to developing a national identity.
With such a strong presence in the traditional curriculum, one might expect that academic performance in the subject would also be strong. But that is not the case. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that student scores in history are the lowest among the four social sciences it tracks (American history, geography, economics, and civics). In 2014, a dismal eighteen percent of eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level in U.S. history.
Within this context, what does McClay bring to the table?
They Didn’t Know How It Would All Turn Out
One of the first obligations of a historian is to invite the reader to understand the past as the people who lived in the past saw it. This might seem obvious, but it is not. High school students today, and just about everyone else, know the general story of America. They know the Americans defeated the British in the American Revolutions. They know the North won the Civil War. They might recall there was a Great Depression in the 1930s. They know the United States fought in World War II.
Knowing how things turned out drains the drama out of the story. It is like knowing who the murderer is at the beginning of a murder mystery. It is easy to imagine a student concluding that it was all more or less inevitable. But that is not the case. At all times, the people of the past were facing choices with limited information. It was their present. Just as today, they could easily imagine things turning out badly. Imagine how separating from Great Britain must have looked at the time. The British were the strongest military power of the age. They had boots on the ground, a mighty navy, and an immense war chest. The Americans had an inexperienced, disorganized, seriously underfunded, ragtag army. And yet, they defeated the mighty British. The world turned upside down. It was all so unlikely. But students today think it was just inevitable.
- One of the worst sins of the present—not just ours but any present—is its tendency to condescend toward the past, which is much easier to do when one doesn’t trouble to know the full context of that past or try to grasp the nature of its challenges as they presented themselves at the time. (xiv)
Judgements can, of course, be made regarding the past but only after we try to see events the way they appeared at the time. This seems the approach any historian with a sense of integrity would consistently strive to achieve. McClay takes this all very seriously. Let’s look at one example.
According to Zinn, the motivation of the men who wrote the Constitution was simple. In his view, the Founders aimed to provide a Constitution that protected the rich. That’s it. Zinn appears to completely ignore other complex motivations that influenced people who lived in the past.
In contrast, McClay opens his discussion of the Constitutional Convention this way: “The high intellectual and moral caliber of the fifty-five men who represented the respective states at the Constitutional Convention is staggering, particularly given how young they were, with an average age of forty-two.” McClay then goes on the explain the debates that took place and the compromises that were reached. They were at once humbled by the task at hand and yet filled with ambition. They wrestled with the competing interests of the states. The architects of our Constitution sought a scheme to preserve individual liberty and maintain the autonomy of the states while establishing a strong national government. McClay’s respect for the document and those that created it is on full display.
- As such, the U.S. Constitution is not merely our most weighty legal document; it is also an expression of who and what we are. Other countries, such as France, have lived under many different constitutions and the kinds of government over the centuries, so for them, the French nation is something separable from the form of government that happens to be in power at any given time. Not so for Americans, who have lived since the 1780s under one regime, a remarkable fact whose significance nevertheless seems to escape us. Yes, we do revere our Constitution, but we do so blandly and automatically, without troubling ourselves to know very much about it, and without reflecting on what the Constitution says about our national identify. (69)
Rarely do people get a chance to “reset” their government. While the Constitution can be regarded as a success, it was not perfect. The best opportunity to abolish slavery without the horror of the later American Civil War almost certainly occurred at the Constitutional Convention.
McClay notes that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, race-based slavery was deeply entrenched. How, on the one hand, could the same group of men develop a Constitution carefully designed to preserve liberty, equality, and rule of law and yet be blind to the injustice of slavery? There are several things to consider. Many of the Founders had hopes that slavery would fade away. This and the fear that the slave states would never agree to a Constitution that did not protect slavery led the Founders to be ambivalent toward the status of slavery. The delegates understood that the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation threatened the existence of the nation. It was a tough decision: a Constitution that allowed for slavery and that could save the republic or no agreement ending in a disastrous and ineffectual confederation?
McClay is clear-eyed about the problem. The contention by some that the United States was founded on slavery is wrong. The United States was founded on the principles of liberty based on the foundations established in Great Britain. Those principles would eventually carry the day but not without much delay and struggle.
McClay makes an excellent effort to be objective. Mainstream ideas are presented and discussed with care. The book has a gentle, even-handed give-and-take pointing out moments of agreement and disagreement. It is credible and legitimate; it engages in no flag waving and no flag burning.
Traditional textbooks also strive to be even handed but not with as much success as McClay. Coverage of the Progressive Era is a good example. Generally, traditional texts address industrialization after the Civil War with trepidation. A few words are offered in support of free enterprise and the amazing economic accomplishments of the period, but the story is overshadowed by coverage of “robber barons,” the growth of labor unions, strikes, income inequality, and urbanization. It reads like a parade of horribles. How could it ever get this bad?
This is all prologue for the arrival of the Progressive Movement—the good guys—who come to rescue us from the evils of unfettered capitalism. Traditional texts cheer the passage of legislation to establish government oversight over vast swaths of the economy, including the passage of antitrust laws, the Federal Reserve Act, the regulation of railroads, the passage of the 16th amendment (the income tax), and so forth. The not-so-subtle subtext is that Progressivism left a positive national legacy with no unintended consequences.
McClay, like the traditional texts, addresses the issues that were articulated by the Progressives. The Progressives were “educated, civic minded, religiously oriented, and morally earnest.” (243) He carefully explains the development of Progressivism as a complex and nuanced process.
Unlike typical American history textbook authors in the past few decades, McClay is not so ardent a cheerleader for elite experts managing our lives that he glosses over other aspects of Progressive behavior. Progressivism is marked by three serious flaws. First, while the Progressives claim to care deeply about the plight of the poor, they took it upon themselves to decide what was best to be done. The Progressives’ paternalism and condescension regarding the poor is off-putting. Second, Progressives had little time for racial and religious minorities. More than a few viewed the practice of eugenics favorably. President Theodore Roosevelt was no proponent for racial justice. President Wilson was a flat-out racial segregationist. Finally, Progressives distrusted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. President Theodore Roosevelt was impatient to get things done his way. He regarded relics like the Constitution and the rule of law as insufficient for the task of addressing the issues of the new twentieth century.
Here are three excellent reasons to get a copy of Land of Hope. First, it is simply a great read. McClay knows how to tell a good story. He does so with intelligence and with enthusiasm for his subject. He respects that readers will want to learn the good news and the not-so-good news about their nation and still walk away with a renewed feeling of respect for our political institutions.
Second, the book is unique today for its explicit goal of citizen formation. McClay puts it this way:
- This book is offered as a contribution to the making of American citizens. As such, it is a patriotic endeavor as well as a scholarly one, and it never loses sight of what there is to celebrate and cherish in the American achievement. That doesn’t mean it is an uncritical celebration. The two things, celebration and criticism, are not necessarily enemies. Love is the foundation of the wisest criticism, and criticism is the essential partner of an honest and enduring love. (423)
Finally, McClay provides readers young and old with a foundation to stand on. He reminds us at several points that the nation is not perfect. He observes that some of our heroes turn out to be flawed because “all human beings are flawed.” But is perfection how we measure success? Folks like Zinn imply that it the case. But people in America have hope. That is why they stay, and why others come.
 Wilfred M. McClay. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Encounter Books, 2019. Available at Amazon.com.
*Dr. Mark C. Schug is President of Mark Schug Consulting Services and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Dr. Schug taught for over 36 years at the middle school, high school, and university levels. Today, he works as a national consultant on economic and financial education and urban education policy.