epub The Americans, Vol. 2 epub

by Daniel J. Boorstin

Pragmatic attitudes allowed Americans to thrive after the American Revolutionary War. Within a century, the bickering coastal colonies transformed themselves into “a continent nation.” This is the second book in the trilogy by Daniel J. Boorstin about the intellectual history of the United States. In his first volume, Boorstin focused on the role of pragmatism in allowing colonial America to thrive. In this second volume, which covers the time period from the American Revolution to the Civil War, Boorstin recounts how pragmatic concepts of community andunity allowed Americans, by continually rearranging themselves into new and temporary communities of self-interest, to forge a national community.

First Theme: Americans continually formed new communities that searched for prosperity rather than perfection. American growth was fueled by temporary communities of people searching for prosperity. They had the constant but fluid hope that something better might turn up.Americans rejected idealism and perfectionism to keep thinking, growing, moving, and making money.
Example 1: New England Versatility.
New Englanders “greatest resource was resourcefulness” as exemplified by their entrepreneurial success with cod fishing and factories. The lack of specialized workers was a blessing in disguise for America because it made room for the generalists who were willing to think outside the box. Important innovations were made because “Americans did not know any better.” The American genius was less for invention than for experiment. New England versatility shaped twotendencies in American civilization: 1) machines, not men, became specialized; 2) general intelligence and open minds were more valuable than trained hands.

Example 2: Pioneers.
American searched for new communities as they headed west to conquer a continent and they did not wait for government to prepare their way.However, the rugged individual is a myth. Communities formed before there were governments to care for public needs or to enforce public duties.

Example 3: Boosters.
“Boosters” are people who promoted new settlements and towns. Rather than building walls to keep strangers out, boosters attracted new citizens and enticed them to leave the comfortable East for the chance at Western community and prosperity.

Example: Southerners.
In contrast to other fluid communities, the South, with its deep roots was like an island. “No other part of the nation became more conscious of its identity or more passionately asserted its homogeneity.” Belief in uniformity tended to create uniformity. The south became the most unreal, most powerful, and most disastrous oversimplification in American history.”
In the second half of the book, Boorstin enlarges his focus from smaller groups of community to the national community.

Second theme: Americans forged a national community out of “a common vagueness.”
Other nations had been held together by common certainties, but Americans were united by a common vagueness.
What does Boorstin mean by “vagueness?”
Example 1.American Land was Vague.
Nothing did more to keep the American open to “happy accidents” than the seemingly endless amount of land.
Never before had so populous a modern nation lived in so ill defined a territory.

Example 2:American Language was Vague.
“The new riches of an American language were
not found in the pages of an American Shakespeare or Milton but on the tongues of Western boatmen, town boosters, fur traders, explorers, Indian fighters, and sodbusters. America had no powerful literary aristocracy, no single cultural capital, no London. And the new nation gave the language back to the people.”

Example 3: American Symbols Were Vague.
America formed a nation before it had “a national spirit of the kind which elsewhere had created nations.” In the Old World, national symbols and popular heroes had commonly been “a byproduct of a long history of wars and of the struggle for nationhood.”Americans created their own symbols, and the first example was the mythologizing of George Washington, “who attained a stature in death which he had never attained in life.” Washington became all things to all Americans.

Example 4: American Governance was Vague.
American pragmatism ensured diffusion of administrative authority. In the federalist system, political unity was left to political parties, which focused practical energies and enthusiasms. Political parties thus became one of the most effective nationalizing influences in American life.
Compared to other nations that existed through a story of “unification,” the national history of the United Sates is one of “accretion.”Gradually, the government of the United States “reshaped to incorporate the needs, the motives, and the aspirations of the newly added units. As each new state was added, the whole political frame was slightly altered. This is one reason why there has never been a successful violent political revolution in the United States. Involution has made revolution superfluous.” That is until the Civil War, which is the starting point of the next volume.

My Conclusion
Boorstin history reads as a celebration of pragmatism, compromise, and community. I find his explanation and evidence appealing and, despite the age of these three books (written in 1959; 1965;and 1975), there is much knowledge that could be applied to the current political dysfunction in the Untied States of 2013. In my reading of history, Americans have never been so divided since the beginning of the Civil War, so I end with this haunting and foreboding quotation of Boorstin:
The diffuseness of American life broke down dogmas and blurred distinctions. Ideology was displaced by organization. Sharp distinctions of thought and purpose were overshadowed by the need to get together on nearly self-defining common purposes. So long as problems of American political life remained compromisable, the political parties were the great arenas of compromise. When this ceased to be true, the nation itself would be on the brink of dissolution; and the political parties; like the nation itself, would have to be reconstructed.

I have read and reviewed all three books in Boorstin’s American Trilogy:

Volume 1: The Colonial Experience
(Pragmatism and pursuit of self-interest form successful colonies from the wilderness to the American Revolution.)Winner of the Bancroft Prize for History;

Volume 2: The National Experience
(Pragmatism and pursuit of self-interest form a nation from the American Revolutionary War from to the Civil War.)Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize for History;

Volume 3: The Democratic Experience
(Pragmatism and self-interest form a Democratic Superpower from the Civil War to the publication of the book in 1974.) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.

February 20, 2013

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