America: The Last Best Hope: Volume I: From The Age Of Discovery To A World At War, by William J. Bennett
William Bennett is most familiar as a moderate choice for Secretary of Education during Reagan’s presidency and for his role against drugs during the elder Bush’s presidency. His academic background is in political science, which does give him quite a bit of expertise in writing this particular work, given that it is definitely a work of political history. One of my big concerns about this particular volume was that Mr. Bennett was not trained as a historian and might be unequal to the task of writing a comprehensive history about the history of the United States. Where the author particular succeeds is in knowing his limitations and in seeking to bolster his work with a large variety of sources, which he freely cites. Most notable among these are the citations of Harry Jaffa’s excellent works on Abraham Lincoln’s political thought. There are no borrowed feathers or plagiarism to be found here (see the note above).
Given that the majority of the subject material of this book ought to be familiar to anyone who took an AP or college US history course, what makes this book worth reading? For one, this book is full of wit and humor. The understated and dry sense of humor that this book has in spades makes this book an enjoyable read, for it is a long one (about 425 pages of text, aside from notes and indices, for volume one alone). There are even some times where the jokes hit a little bit too close to home, such as the author’s quips about Samuel Tilden not being an impressive leader because he wasn’t married. If you like your history leavened with a lot of humorous commentary, this is a good book to appreciate on those grounds. That alone would be reason to read this book.
There are other reasons, though, to read this book. There will be a strong contingent of readers attracted to the virtuous perspective of the author, who is remarkably consistent in his moral stances, and opposed to populist grandstanding (populists, from Andrew Jackson to Andrew Johnson to William Jennings Bryan fare poorly in this volume) as well as corruption and exploitation. Bennett has a political worldview very similar to that of Harry Jaffa in upholding both freedom as well as equality. Given that I have the same sort of political worldview myself, it was appealing to see an American history that sought to be fair-minded and was written from a clear but sympathetic moral worldview to my own. Obviously, there will be readers who do not share that worldview, but those who are in general agreement with the author will find a lot to appreciate about American exceptionalism presented not as a jingoist appeal to imperialism but rather as a moral obligation that we never entirely attain but that we are constantly reaching towards.
For these reasons, and others, this book is a worthwhile read that has no doubt found a large audience and that is worth reading despite the large number of books about this general subject. Although the book comes heavily seasoned with moralism, it is a moralism that is sound and very needed in our times. As Mr. Bennett says, “To rescue the future, we must remember our past.” This is history written with a purpose–to fight against the cynicism and moral corruption of our times, to give us a better standard to aim to in the crisis of our age. Whether that purpose is ultimately successful or not, and I am not the most optimistic of people, this book is a noble effort that deserves high praise. We must, after all, give credit where credit is due.