Simon Schama’s American history

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

The American Future is a labour of love by the British historian Simon Schama, who clearly admires America. This is a loving exploration of American history highlighting the dreams and ideals that created the country and continue to animate it.

Schama also notes the darker currents — of racism, for example, that led to segregation, xenophobia and colonial adventures like the occupation of the Philippines during which US forces tortured Filipino freedom fighters with impunity.

But America has never lacked voices condemning prejudice and inhumanity. From the abolitionists fighting against slavery to Mark Twain’s condemnation of the Philippines adventure to the Freedom Riders and other civil rights workers, America has never been short of idealism and tolerance.

This is the America that Schama celebrates. The book begins with an eyewitness account of Obama’s victory in Iowa.

Schama describes the joyous scene. It did not happen overnight. He describes how a grizzled white farmer who had once supported Kennedy campaigned for Obama – and how a high school senior seeing the big group of Obama supporters on the caucus floor switched his support from Hillary Clinton to Obama. 

Schama catches the wave of American idealism that periodically throws up a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, an Obama.

Civil War

The idealism takes its toll. Schama describes the bitterness and enormous cost of the Civil War.

American Civil WarImage via Wikipedia

The Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC, where more than 300,000 people are buried, is a memorial to fallen heroes.

But it was once home to the Confederate general Robert E Lee. He was the son-in-law of George Washington‘s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who built the house.

It was turned into a graveyard by Lee’s former friend, Montgomery C Meigs, a fellow West Pointer and engineer who had helped build the Capitol building before the war.

Meigs, who served as the quartermaster-general of the Union army, could not forgive Lee for joining the rebels. Turning it into a graveyard made the house uninhabitable, writes Schama.

Meigs’ own son, who died in the war, was buried there – and so was he, long after the war.

Schama also writes about the black churches and black colleges as well as white pastors who took up their cause. We encounter heroic abolitionists who went from town to town, braving mobs and speaking against slavery.

We see midnight prayer meetings in swamps and forests where slaves pray to Jesus, careful to keep their voices low. They had to meet in secret because their owners feared slave gatherings would lead to uprisings such as Nat Tyler’s rebellion.

But there were also planters who allowed their slaves to attend church.

Schama tells the whole story, depicting a rich cast of characters. There are early feminists – black and white – and gospel singers, some of whom went on European tours and entertained Queen Victoria.

This is what makes the book invaluable. It tells us so much we didn’t know — in pacy, colourful prose.

The immigrant experience

 We also meet the Chinese workers who helped build the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. Once the work was done, and America linked by rail, the authorities wanted no more of them. 

The Exclusion Act tried to keep out the Chinese as “unassimilable aliens”.

But still they came, disguised as Mexicans! They would arrive in boatloads in San Francisco Bay, where they would change to steamers, travel to Mexico, and from there sneak overland to America, taking the same routes used by illegal Mexican immigrants today.

Schama writes about other immigrants as well and what they had to face.

The foreigners were not always welcome. Jefferson wanted America to be an English-speaking, homogenous society and looked at the Dutch and the Germans with unease, writes Schama. Yet the immigrants came and were eventually absorbed into America.

Quest for happiness

Significantly, people talk and write about the American Dream – not the British Dream or the Chinese Dream. There has to be something about America.

Schama ends his book by describing a cheerful inmate in a mental hospital who is planting windmills in the garden. The man tells Schama he expects a powerful wind will one day send the windmills whirring madly, lifting the hospital and the garden off the ground and blowing them to a land where they will all be happy.

He is mad. But the happiness he is seeking is what has peopled America. And the greatness and prosperity America has achieved shows it is not an insane quest after all.

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