Inventing America


(First published in The Boston Globe, Oct. 27, 2002 )

Historians get only one crack at opening the undergraduate mind: American History 101-102. Three credits. Two semesters. What would you tell them, if you were standing in front of the lecture hall?

For three decades now, the public response to that question has been: Make sure to tell them about my particular little piece of history. World War II-era Japanese internment camps. The Underground Railroad. Early Hispanic settlement in the Southwest. The Holocaust. The Armenian massacre. The first female mill workers.

Each of these is an important tree; collectively, they have made it dangerously easy to lose sight of the forest.

‘Inventing America” is an effort by four eminent historians to put a theme back into the study of American history. America, in this presentation, is a nation unique in its tendency to explore and invent. The valor of these four professors deserves our admiration. After all, they have set themselves up as the butt of some rather easy punch lines.

Did you hear the one about the four MIT professors who tried to write a history book?

No, what was it about?

Science and technology.

An entire American history course with science, technology, and invention as the theme? Well, yes. And here’s the kicker: It works brilliantly.

The joke is a little unfair. Daniel J. Kevles spent his career at CalTech, not MIT, and Alexander Keyssar merely passed through MIT en route to Harvard. Still, the professors have a point. Innovation, Yankee ingenuity, the recurring urge to boldly go where no man has gone before, are the quintessence of American.

The power of this approach is best demonstrated in the chapters on the formation of the American government. The Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention are usually hard slogging, requiring that students grapple with complex ideas in their pure form. Constitution-making involved no sex, no money, and only the slightest whiff of gunpowder when the occasional political rally got out of hand. Few students find the ”Federalist Papers” exciting reading.

Pauline Maier breathes new life into this dull morass by changing the theme. Where Alan Brinkley et al. (”American History: A Survey”) began with ”The Assumptions of Republicanism,” a section that walks the reader through the ideology of representative government, Maier leads with a discussion of ”the process of redesigning government.”

The text actually gives no clue as to which of the authors took primary responsibility for which section, but it is a reasonable guess that Maier, the author of ”American Scripture” and ”From Resistance to Revolution,” took the lead when addressing constitutional issues.

By her account, in 1776 royal authority ”collapsed,” confronting Americans with the necessity of contriving a government based on popular choice. Everyone knew that the famed republics of the past – Athens, Rome, the English Commonwealth of the 1650s – had all failed. And everyone knew that most attempts at rule based on popular sovereignty had been prone to ”tumult and riot.” There were no successful models of republican government for Americans to copy. In the beginning, it was not so much a question of ”a republic, if you can keep it” as it was ”a republic, if you can invent it.”

In ”Inventing America” the process of Constitution-building becomes a series of solutions contrived to meet pressing needs for government and order. In Maier’s account John Adams still publishes his ”Thoughts on Government,” just as he does in every textbook. Here, however, he publishes in the context of early efforts to operate state governments as simple, unicameral legislative bodies with little or nothing by way of an executive branch. America listened to Adams’s explanation of the importance of constructing a careful constitutional balance among judicial, executive, and legislative functions because they had already attempted government by legislature, and seen it fail. Following Maier’s description of the trial-and-error process of inventing a republican form of government, the student is prepared to give serious attention to Adams’s ”Thoughts.”

Maier’s approach works because it replicates real life. Who, after all, spent much time contemplating the foundations of American democracy before Sept. 11? It was only when confronted with an actual threat to the principles that support our way of life that we set aside time to give some thought to just what those principles are.

Good though it is, ”Inventing America” is far from perfect, and far from free of the constraints of political correctness. In a perfect world, historians would write frankly about the origins of Mormonism, here we get only a mealy-mouthed reference to Joseph Smith’s claim ”to have discovered … a series of gold tablets. ”

Worse than the perhaps inescapable concessions to political correctness is the tendency to write economic history from the top down. Students are informed, for example, that the railroads were responsible for ”making Americans more time conscious.” Hardly plausible when the mass production of cheap clocks began two decades before the first train ran on the B&0.

The story of the American revolution in mass production and machine-tool technology is similarly skewed, with attention going to the government armories that Merritt Roe Smith has spent much of his distinguished career studying, instead of to the for-profit entrepreneurs who made the key innovations.

The power of ”Inventing America” is that it makes the past intelligible in ways that are useful for the future. Confronted with limitless acres of good farmland remote from any means of carrying grain to market, Americans did not become subsistence farmers. They built canals to connect their farms to the coast, and when England invented the steam engine, America invented the steamboat to make the great rivers navigable. If students take only one lesson from this text, it will be that even the most daunting problems can be solved.

But perhaps the most unusual thing about this text is that it is so well written that it can actually be read for pleasure. It is so well done that it may lead a few MIT students to go on reading history after they graduate. Or even induce an undergraduate or two to major in engineering with the goal of solving the problems America faces in the 21st century.