Review: Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope

Land of Hope is a survey of American history written from a conservative perspective. Despite this, it is far from propagandistic, avoiding that tendency which has become vogue in the age of Howard Zinn.

What Land of Hope derives its conservative perspective from is its focus, rather than its presentation. It avoids painting America in an overly glossy light or arguing to justify its failings, but it draws out the strengths of the American political system.

As a broad survey of American politics, Land of Hope moves quickly, though not so quickly that it neglects important details. Its coverage of the Progressive Era is an example of how McClay can draw out threads in a way that assesses the ideas, culture, and practices of a particular point in time. While he opposes many of these developments and highlights their flaws, he presents them in an even and balanced way as part of America’s developmental history.

A Brief History

To my knowledge, it is only in history that we can term a 500-page book brief, but Land of Hope is that sort of book. It straddles the line between textbook and popular history, providing enough information to let readers draw their own conclusions and build a picture of the sequence of events.

However, one way in which it differs greatly from a traditional textbook is in its strength as an engaging text. McClay takes a laser focus to his subject. Repetition is rare, used only as a tool to provide readers with reminders of events or to emphasize importance.

McClay covers American history from pre-colonial times to the modern day. Someone familiar with the history of any given section will notice omissions of figures who are on the fringes of mainstream historiography, but the strength of the book stems from its ability to capture the spirit and key events of each period.

The Conservative View

While it’s probably fair to say that McClay’s goals are conservative, he is careful not to embellish or gloss over history.

A good example of this is in his approach to the Civil War. He points out that the arguments that emerged as common knowledge about American history are justifications after the fact.

McClay goes to great pains to point out that the Union’s interest in the Civil War was not the abolition of slavery from the very beginning, using examples from Lincoln’s own public statements and correspondence and other contemporaries. He also builds a case that the Confederacy’s arguments that they were simply seeking independence don’t match their own actions in the years prior to the Civil War, when they were using the law to force citizens in free states to conform to their desires.

Despite this, McClay never treats his subjects as Zinn-like cynical and self-interested villains. Even when they engage in acts which McClay himself openly considers immoral and abhorrent, he gives them the dignity of an examination. When they cannot live up to the standards of today, they do so based on their failings and not the desires of a storyteller to create figures in a play.

Rather, he points out that what we hope for our heritage as Americans to be is largely a projection. We should not expect others to be less flawed and compromising than we are, and he accurately disabuses people of the hero worship that surrounds many figures.

McClay makes it clear that many of America’s great failings are because of the unwillingness of people to take action that they know is necessary. For instance, Jefferson’s writing against slavery does not comport with his actions in holding slaves.

His approach clarifies that while Jefferson would have had difficulty in emancipating his slaves, it would have been the only principled action to take.

The Overall Picture

One weakness of modern historians is that they often try to construct narratives where none exist, and while McClay desires to show America as an institution that has shifted and changed over the years to become what it is today he does not provide the comic book simplicity of a Zinn.

Rather, McClay focuses on the big ideas, but does not force them to conform. For instance, he does not pretend that the Progressive Era involves the same thrust for liberty as the Revolutionary War, though he raises the point that the progressive political philosophy operates on what we might now consider a Rawlsian approach to liberty.

This is far superior to the modern critical theories, and necessary to provide a view of American history as something that is both distinctly American and tied to the currents of the world at large.

A good comparison here would be to compare McClay to Rothbard. Rothbard takes an almost Hegelian approach to the struggle between liberty and power in Conceived in Liberty, but McClay does not enforce dichotomous structures on his presentation of history.

The strength of McClay’s approach is its clarity. Because it abandons the pretense of a march of history and draws on his strengths as a writer rather than embellishment and flourishes, Land of Hope doesn’t need to fabricate a story to keep a reader going.

Overview

I’d strongly recommend Land of Hope as an introduction to American history.

Because of its length relative to its breadth, it’s not a book that goes into details, though McClay does a good job of keeping a perspective that can make it fresh for people who have some background in history but want an overview for a refresher.

One of the original purposes of the book was to create a textbook that would be suitable for classrooms as an alternative to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. While it’s clearly got some conservative leanings, McClay’s work comes from an examined patriotism rather than blind nationalist fervor, and is free of many of the shoddy historical practices that plague Zinn’s work.

I listened to Land of Hope on Audible, and while the audio is good, I often wanted to reference things in a way that’s more feasible in text. I’d recommend it on Kindle (affiliate link). It’s three dollars over there right now, so that’s a heck of a bargain for a book of its caliber.

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