A History Of The United States, by Cecil Chesterton
Although I am more familiar with the writings and thinking of the author’s brother, this particular book is a considerable achievement as a history of the United States from the point of view of a sympathetic English Catholic observer whose political worldview is close to that of Lincoln and Douglas and pitched at those populist commoners who would have voted for Jackson and who mistrust visionary reformers and drastic social change. Finding a book like this written in the contemporary age would be extremely rare because the author is neither a lost cause revisionist nor someone who is enamored of the power of activists and governments to encourage and foster progressive ideals. Quite frankly, this book would be considered in poor taste by contemporary standards, as the author forthrightly discusses his fears about the influence of leftist and cosmopolitan Jews in American society and states the belief that freed blacks were not fit for civil rights in the Reconstruction period. These are not opinions that would be welcome in contemporary historiography, but by and large the author is quite insightful about the American political experience and this work is certainly one that is aimed at mainstream white audiences of the time, and perhaps to some extent even today.
In terms of its contents, this book is about 250 pages or so and is divided into eleven chapters that cover the period from the founding of the English colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard to the period after reconstruction with very short comments about World War I and a prescient discussion of Germany as an atheist and inhumane regime that appears to be a prophetic look at World War II and its horrors, which is all the more striking since the author himself died in World War I fighting for the British. Beginning with a discussion of the colonies (1) and the struggle for independence (2), the author turns to the development of the U.S. Constitution and its appeal to the people (3) as well as the mantle of Washington that created a good deal of stability in the early republic (4). After that the author explores the political power of the Virginia dynasty (5) as well as the age of Jackson (6), in which the author shows himself to be generally sympathetic to Jackson as a populist leader. This leads to a discussion of the Mexican War (7) and its aftermath as well as the slavery question that roiled the United States during the 1850’s (8). A chapter is then take up with secession and the Civil War where the author shows himself sympathetic with Lincoln’s more moderate tendencies (9), after which there is a distinctly negative view of Reconstruction (10) and a forthright discussion of the problems of immigration and industrialization (11), after which the book ends with an index.
This book is a singular effort, at least that I have seen, in that it is perhaps the first example I have seen of a serious history of the United States that is written from the populist perspective. For all of the praise of Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, this book far better represents the hopes and fears as well as the struggles and achievements of American democracy during the period before World War I and especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. To be sure, this book does not always speak positive things about such populist views, but it is an honest and sincere attempt on the part of a sympathetic outsider to examine America’s politics and to reflect upon how it is that a nation can seek to preserve its liberty from corrupt and unaccountable elites that are always trying to gain power through one means or another. If you want to understand the sort of mindset towards American history that would be held by a great many of those who are right of center but by no means extremist, this book provides an insightful look at a conservative populist account of America’s early history, and it is an account worth reading and pondering over.