Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter A. McDougal

In today’s polarized landscape of 24-hour news cycles and a seemingly never ending culture war it is rare to find a work of history that has depth and balance. It is doubly hard to find a work worthy of recommendation to young people and adults alike that won’t immediately threaten to send them into a deep sleep. All too often the works of “history” touted by today’s publishers are either thin polemics posing as history or massive dry tomes that lack a compelling narrative. Walter McDougal’s recently released Freedom Just Around the Corner: A new American History 1585-1828 is an enjoyable exception to this trend. It is a well written, historically balanced, and intellectually stimulating overview of the people, places, and ideas of the first three hundred years of American history.

McDougal is that rare bird: an impressive scholar who can nonetheless write for the intelligent general reader. He has written books on such large topics as the space age and the Pacific Ocean while his engaging history of American foreign policy, Promised Land, Crusader State, remains a relevant and thought provoking caution to those tempted by an over-enthusiastic Wilsonian internationalism. Freedom Just Around the Corner is part one of a planned three part history of the United States. Rather than simply recounting past events in a textbook style, McDougal blends narrative, cultural, and intellectual history to tell the story of the people that populated this new world (and those they eventually displaced); describe the places they encountered and the communities they created; and illuminate the ideas and beliefs they brought with them and those that developed once they were here. With insightful and creative descriptions of people, places, and ideas McDougal provides an excellent foundation for understanding how this country developed and why.

In a unique introduction McDougal looks at American history through the lens of novels like Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and O, Pioneers! Using these works McDougal develops “the hustler” as the quintessential American character. He quickly stipulates, however, that he doesn’t intend to use this characterization in only a negative way but views it as encompassing both the negative and the positive:

Melville was stingingly right to portray Americans as hustlers in the sense of self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventers. But if he meant that is all Americans are he was wrong. They are also hustlers in the positive sense: builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers, and a people extremely generous. Needless to say those qualities, not their baser ones, were what justified Americans’ faith in themselves, their nation, and their nations’ destiny among nations.

However thought provoking this introductory literary review might be it is a bit distracting and only loosely connected to the real meat of the rest of the text. But while the theme of “American as hustler” begins to fade, the basic idea underneath it nevertheless rings true at the end. It also points to one of the important strengths of the work. McDougal is not interested in demonizing or in whitewashing American history, but instead is interested in understanding this remarkable people and their history. In this he does point to a certain American exceptionalism:

What is novel about Americans, as their novelists repeatedly teach, is not that they are better or worse than people of other places and times (100 percent of whose genes they share), but that they are freer than other people to pursue happiness and yet are no happier for it. Therein lies the source of American’s disappointment. Only free people can disappoint and be disappointed by the discovery that worldly ideals cannot be advanced except by worldly means. That raises the historical question: how did it happen that Americans managed to seize such freedom, conceive such ideals, achieve such success, and yet grieve over such disappointment?

McDougal spend the next 500 pages answering this intriguing question and in the process illuminates the physical, spiritual, and intellectual roots of this nation.

There is far too much information packed in this work to allow me to summarize. But one chapter stood out as an example of its promise: the fifth chapter entitled Germans, Four Sorts of Britons, and Africans, and subtitled People and Cultures of the Thirteen Colonies to 1750. It is a masterful combination of cultural, intellectual, and social history with aspects of sociology, geography, and even ethnology. I found the section on the “four sorts of Britons” particularly fascinating even thought I have a strong German heritage. McDougal identifies these groups as roughly: the Puritans of the New England, the Quakers of the Delaware Valley, the Cavalier culture of Virginia and the Carolinas, and the Scotch-Irish borderers who settled the frontier. The cultural, intellectual, and spiritual outlines the author draws of these critical people groups is fascinating and educational in and of itself, but it also lays the foundation for understanding the ensuing westward migration – and its resulting history – as the colonies pushed outward into the continent. In coming to understand the habits, ideas, and beliefs – the mental furniture if you will – of the colonial settlers one can then go on to better understand the history that followed. Migration patters, political actions and reactions, social relations, and even economics are illuminated by these brief but pointed descriptions.

McDougal goes on to tell the story of the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and the awkward steps towards building a stable nation. Each chapter is another interesting building block weaving people, places, and ideas into a coherent narrative history. As noted above, and for all of the reasons above, Freedom Just Around the Corner is an excellent work to recommend to students and adults, history buffs and general readers, Americans and people from around the world; in fact anyone interested in knowing and understand more about this fascinating country would do well to read it. Highly readable, entertaining, and educational books are rare these days. This is one to savor and enjoy while we eagerly await the next volume.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).