Professors and teachers across America should cancel their fall book orders and replace their current textbooks with Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope. McClay, the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, satisfies the promise made in the title of his latest work. In it, he invites everyone to learn how ideals drove America’s creation and success.
In 24 short chapters, McClay draws readers into the story of America while doing something refreshing and democratic: Rather than condescend to his readers, he assumes that Americans who can read plain English can also understand complex ideas when they are competently explained. He corrects or leaves out many old, politically motivated lies that have calcified and become clichés in our national story. Instead of writing his own politically motivated “corrective,” he simply tells the truth in context.
McClay gets the biggest questions right. The first half of the book tells the unsettling truths about what happened to the people of America once they governed themselves. They fought a revolution to preserve an existing culture of self-government and further distinguished themselves by proclaiming their shared ideals. They governed themselves under a Constitution designed to put those ideals into action. When tested by slavery, expansion, immigration, and the challenges of democracy, Americans made the constitutional order work. When their brethren rebelled in order to create a government on a different basis, Americans preserved the system of ordered liberty as understood by the Founders. It is quite a story indeed.
The second half of the book outlines how American political culture withstood the challenges of modernity and the various forms of totalitarianism that grew in response to it. McClay properly explains American exceptionalism as neither isolationism nor imperialism, but rather as an understanding that the most important aspect of American foreign policy is proclaiming rights and demonstrating self-government. More striking, though, is what is missing from McClay’s account — most of the glaring errors and old lies one would find in competing American history books.
McClay does not assert that the free market and the stock-market crash of 1929 caused the Great Depression, that FDR and the New Deal brought about an economic recovery, that isolationists in the United States caused Hitler to come to power in Europe because they had ignored the brilliant and far-sighted Woodrow Wilson. He does not claim that the regulatory state could create equality of condition. He further does not blame the United States for causing the Cold War because we had mistreated Stalin, not recognized the Soviet Union, or discontinued Lend-Lease aid after the war. He does not rewrite all of American history in order to justify the creation or continued existence of the United Nations or any contemporary political agenda.
One could argue with a few of McClay’s choices. Because he wrote the book from the perspective of an American, some of his word choices when describing the Civil War era are needlessly cautious. His assertion that Samuel Tilden “won the popular vote” in the disputed presidential election of 1876 is technically correct when one considers the votes counted. In order to place that fact in its proper context, though, we should also remember the thousands or tens of thousands of black votes that would have been cast for Rutherford B. Hayes in a fair election (these voters were suppressed by a campaign of terror). McClay accurately describes the rise of “scientific” racism but fails to point out its political implications in the late 19th century. He is too generous to Woodrow Wilson, whose haughty arrogance surpassed that of even the most self-important of his contemporaries and whose seething bigotry stood out in a time when racism masqueraded as science among genteel, educated progressives.
Sticking close to his thesis and covering so much material in an introductory manner allows McClay to sidestep most controversies. Land of Hope is not a book of final answers designed to win meme wars or give ammunition for sick burns on Twitter. But it admirably serves many other functions.
The American political tradition awaits revival. Too many commentators and writers have accepted the conclusions of social science that what divides Americans is partisanship and ideology. In a society where only 10 percent of Americans know that the right of political assembly is protected in the First Amendment, for instance, is our problem really that Americans know so much about political theory, politics, and governance that we have become a country divided by those things? Let us instead draw the plain conclusion demanded by facts: We are divided by our ignorance. In response to citizens’ lack of knowledge, politics has become tribal and reactionary. In the context of this cultural problem, Land of Hope is not simply a good book — it is essential.
McClay makes assumptions and choices that will strike normal people as common sense but might be interpreted as dangerous radicalism by leftist academics. For instance, he believes that it would be a good thing if Americans had “an accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative account of their own country.” He believes that citizenship bestows both privileges and responsibilities, that every American is a full member of “one of the greatest enterprises in human history,” and that our political history is the fundamental basis of what makes America a land of hope.
Leftists often accuse conservatives of willfully ignoring any dark chapter in our country’s history. Certainly no thoughtful conservative would do so. As Calvin Coolidge once explained, any act of truth-telling is an act of patriotism, because our system of government is based on a true understanding of human relationships. Truth and freedom were and are inseparable. If the Founders correctly identified how human beings could govern themselves in a system of ordered liberty (and they did), then conservatives should never have a reason to fear the true story of America. “Searching self-criticism” is foundational, and in its proper context it is a hopeful exercise.
That context is this: The Founders organized themselves and fought out of hope. They did not create slavery but laid the foundation for ending it. Subsequent generations immigrated here out of hope. Americans fought and died in wars out of hope. As Lincoln understood, “liberty to all” and the “promise of something better” drove people to work and unleash their creative energies, whereas nobody would fight or strive over a “mere change of masters.”
Land of Hope is a monumental achievement. It will stand for generations as an excellent introduction to varied and complex ideas. It is a work of wisdom and maturity. I cannot help but feel a personal debt of gratitude to McClay for it, although I have never met him. The students at the college where I teach are mostly poor, and most of them have brown skin. But they are not stupid and they are not lazy. They have been told for most of their lives — by people claiming to help them — that the system is rigged, that the past is nothing but a record of oppression, that they should not want to participate in our sick society, that racism is the answer to racism, and that freedom exists only to crush the weak. Yet something inside them has always led them to believe that those ideas are wrong.
Hope brought them into my classroom. Hope keeps them going when they’re surrounded by people who not only are not supportive but are actively working to undermine their plans. They read Hamilton. They identify with his ideas regardless of such matters as the passage of time and the color of his skin — or theirs. They know that America is a land of hope. Now they finally have the American history book that they have always deserved. And by that alone, McClay has performed an extraordinary act of patriotism.
This article appears as “To Inspire and Instruct” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.