A concise and still-inclusive history of America—from Cahokia to the 2008 presidential election—by accomplished British historian Reynolds (International History/Cambridge Univ.; Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century, 2007, etc.).
The author, an evident admirer of the cohesiveness of America’s vast, multicultural experiment, shapes this teeming history around three themes: empire, liberty and faith. He uses empire not in terms of possessing an empire—in the sense of Old World imperialist powers Britain and France battling for supremacy while the United States prided itself from its founding as an “anti-empire”—but based on Thomas Jefferson’s use of “empire of liberty,” wherein the opening up of the American continent invited a free movement of peoples under a strong federal government. Jefferson’s detailed “template” for Western acquisitions allowed territories to be gradually incorporated into the union, essentially creating an empire, but neutralized under the strictures of the Founding Fathers and protected by what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. The migration west invited economic opportunity, a melting pot of religious and cultural heritages and a “new style of mass politics” that tested the strength of the federal government, especially in terms of slave-holding versus free states. Reynolds looks at the enduring “redemptive impulse” of evangelical Protestantism throughout America’s history, and how this crusader mentality infiltrated politics, for better (Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission) or worse (Reagan’s “evil empire”). Within this complex history—“rarely simple, often messy, and sometimes appalling; yet also full of surprises, frequently epic, and on occasion wonderfully uplifting”—the author inserts human-interest stories, diary entries and speech excerpts. Though the final portion of the narrative feels rushed, Reynolds does as fine, fair job of covering the civil-rights struggles of blacks, women and Native Americans.
An evenhanded distillation of America’s story from a singular outside observer.