345 of 383 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2000
I find it very disappointing that most people have a kneejerk reaction to Paul Johnson. It seems as though if you are a conservative you love him and if you are a liberal you hate him. I find this very unfair. Mr. Johnson is always entertaining and frequently thought provoking. After reading this book I have already bought biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison because Mr. Johnson has brought them to life and has caused me to want to learn more about them. For example, did you know that Mr. Edison would frequently sleep under the table in his workshop so as to be able to go right back to work when he woke up? Or that Calvin Coolidge once summoned some of his staff in the White House and then hid under his desk so that they couldn't find him? But this doesn't mean that this book is full of fluff either. Mr. Johnson also gives you much "straight" history and is not afraid to give you his opinions of the people and their policies. He clearly thinks that Jefferson, FDR and John Kennedy were overrated and Coolidge underrated, for example. He greatly admires Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Probably one of the great lessons of this book is that some distance is needed before a person or an event can be judged fairly. Years ago one heard almost only positive things about Thomas Jefferson. In recent years the pendulum has somewhat swung the other way especially where Jefferson's writings on slavery are now seen to diverge quite a bit from his practices in real life. But the beauty of this book lies in the uncovering of personality. We also learn that Jefferson had no sense of humor and that though he was a compulsive record keeper and wrote down everything that he bought and sold he had absolutely no idea of his financial situation, which was always getting worse, throughout his life. He liked to present himself as a common farmer but spent vast sums on fine wines and fancy clothes. He was a compulsive book buyer. He tended to get migraines when under pressure. He was a minimalist as far as believing in the power of the national government but did not hesitate to make the Louisiana Purchase. In short, like all interesting people he was inconsistent and quirky. I have dwelled on Jefferson but Mr. Johnson brings numerous historical figures to life in the same way. I found the last 100 pages of the book disappointing in its handling of events since 1960. I understand that many negative things about JFK have come to light in the last 20 years or so but Mr. Johnson has nothing positive at all to say about him. The space program, for example, is not shown in a positive light at all but as a Kennedy obsession about "competing" and "having to win". Likewise, Mr. Johnson has nothing to say about the serious personal flaws in the personality of Richard Nixon. It is clear that Mr. Nixon throughout his life got a very unfair deal from a lot of the press but is it not true that he was a bit paranoid about his perceived enemies and therefore worsened the situation? Mr. Johnson states as a blanket fact that Mr. Nixon knew nothing of the Watergate break-in beforehand. This is possible, but then Mr. Johnson has nothing at all to say about the coverup, which Nixon clearly did know about. The job of the historian is to present all sides of an issue and not to ignore unpleasant facts that do not support what you are trying to prove. It is also curious that Mr. Johnson makes no attempt to analyze whether or not the U.S. should ever have been in Vietnam. He faults the politicians for not listening to the military in saying that an all-out massive effort was needed or the war could not be won. In short, more discussion of both sides of the issue was needed. But if you forget the last 40 years or so, the bulk of this book is excellent.
128 of 148 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2006
While I wouldn't recommend that my students read only Paul Johnson's work on US History, I would definitely recommend that they read it in accompaniment to their texts. Johnson is rightly to be credited for providing a more balanced and optimistic view of the American people/government than is prevalent in the majority of publishing firms today. He does not shy away from criticism where it is due, but neither is he afraid to assert honor where honor is due--even if it means offending some politically correct ears.
While I agree that he can be classified as a conservative, I would also note that this is not a "conservative's conservative" book. By that I mean that people who are unabashedly Republican, Religious Right, etc., will not find unscrutinized support for their revisionist accounts of history. While Johnson does overlap with certain conservative appraisals of historical events and figures, he does so on a case-by-case basis, always aiming to support his evaluations with fact. In many instances, these facts are not widely known because they have been cut out from liberal textbooks. They are not, however, smelling of the party line.
Indeed, Johnson's book is fascinating for his historical scholarship, research, and deep analysis. His coverage of "forgotten" spans of time (i.e. Grant, Arthur, Hayes, Garfield) is welcome, as is his deft treatment of figures who are normally expansive in coverage (i.e. Lincoln, JFK). I found the 1860-1900 chapters to be personally most enlightening.
Johnson is especially great at noticing overarching themes in government and economic life. He is not a social or sociological commentator, which will relieve some of his more liberal readers. And in fact, I believe most people--liberal or conservatve--would gain an awful lot from his research and presentation if they read with an open mind.
54 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2006
I am an unabashed admirer of Howard Zinn, but I am tremendously impressed with Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. I read this book while attending graduate school, years after reading Zinn's fascinating People's history of the United States. Johnson's interrogation of the polemic characters, social movements, and various ideologies provides readers with a brilliant but conservative perspective that is trenchant and well-detailed. Although I consider myself a moderate liberal, I was intrigued on how Johnson describes certain historical figures, For instances, unlike Zinn, Johnson reveres business potentates, such as Rockefeller and Drew, for their philanthropic activities in the late ninetieth century. He is exceedingly critical of Thomas Jefferson, but he adulates Andrew Jackson for his gallantry during the Battle of New Orleans. I recommend students, scholars, general readers, and history buffs, to read this thought-provoking book with Zinn's People's History to procure a well-balanced understanding of American history and the people and ideas that shaped this great nation.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2006
Paul Johnson's History of the American People is a great response to Howard Zinn's work. Johnson's offers a conservative take on much of the events and people that Zinn criticizes harshly. The book is a fairly optimistic work, speaking to the resilience and ingenuity of the American people. I particularly enjoyed reading his unique takes on the value of the Nixon and Coolidge presidency and his criticisms of JFK. Paul Johnson has an interesting perspective on American history, as he did not learn about as a child growing up in England. He appproaches American history with a certain zeal not found in other historian's works. I really enjoyed reading the book after reading Zinn's work.
90 of 112 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2005
Paul Johnson's book "The History of the American People" is quite entertaining and full of dizzying facts and anecdotes from history. The major problem with his work, though, is how Johnson confuses the presentation of history and fact with his own opinion and, frequently, extreme interpretations. As the previous reviewer commented ("He Should Have Stopped at 1960"), something happens in the book as the latter half of the twentieth century is approached. The earlier history of America he presents with vibrancy and, I suspect, even-handedness. I did note his celebration of the alleged "Robber-Barrons" and liberal economics, as well as a conspicuous absence of sympathy for unions and the legitimate concerns over labor abuses. He appears to subscribe to the "Great Man Makes History" school - the little man is often overlooked. It was, however, not until his discussion of the 1960's and beyond that his blaring biases become evident. According to Johnson, Kennedy and Clinton could do no right, Reagan no wrong, Nixon is a misuderstood hero, the press is the great liberal villain, and all the ills of American society can be traced to misguided liberalism. He presents the usual smorgasborg of conservative thought as utterly blameless. He picks and chooses historical facts which confirm, but never challenge, his biases.
The truth is that I did enjoy this book, albiet with growing dissappointment in latter chapters. While Johnson does descend considerably into strident ideology at the end, nonetheless he is an eloquent and multifaceted writer. In his defense, he does acknowledge in the preface that he makes no effort to conceal his opinions in this text. I reccomend this book for two purposes: (1) for those wanting a readable and insightful account of American History prior to the 20th Century; and (2) for those desiring an articulate though unoriginal insight into the commmon conservative dogma that has, for better to worse, come to dominate the beginning of the 21st century.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 1999
Johnson is a great writer of history. Even after reading his History of the American People, however, his finest book remains Modern Times. HOTAP is a comprehensive, one volume US History that is well written and interesting to read. Few important things are omitted (e.g. baseball), and Johnson's perspective as an English historian who has a great respect for America is an interesting one. He reminds us of the vital contributions made by business leaders at the end of the 19th century and debunks the "Robber Baron" myth, tracing the bogus historiography responsible for that term. The book is marred by small factual errors. A couple examples are his confusing two confederal generals with the same last name and his misattribution of the quote: "The American people be damned" to Commodie Vanderbilt rather than his son. The next edition will assuredly correct these, but Johnson should have had the book fact checked first. Among Johnson's observations (which have obviously raised the ire of some readers below) of importance is the impact of religion on American history.
50 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 1999
First, I agree with an earlier reviewer who pointed out errors. As a Civil War buff, I also noticed that Johnson confused generals Albert Sidney Johnston and Joseph Johnston. Also, although extremely comprehensive, the book was not thorough on military history. However, the book covers political, social, economic, and religious history so well that there was little room for the history of great battles. One military campaign I thought he covered particularly well, however, is the Tet offensive which he pointed out was a tactical military victory turned into a defeat by a hostile press. Johnson has a very clear political point of view. That's OK, however, since he thoroughly and (for the most part) accurately covers historical events. Two examples of great in depth coverage are first: his treatment of the Great Awakening in the colonial period. This religious history far exceeds that of most (if not all) one volume surveys of American history. Secondly: Johnson provides a great survey of Black popular contributions to culture in the development of ragtime and jazz. Despite his almost unforgiveable "Johnston" error, I rate this book highly and recommend it without qualification.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 1999
To all the tenured radicals libeling America as the enemy of humanity, this book is a decisive refutation: America _is_ humanity. This book follows the familiar Johnson formula of telling history: An adverbial phrase summing up a generation's attitude here, a half-page biographical sketch illustrating a trend there, and so on, with plenty of astringent value judgements inviting further investigation. Yes, there is "bias" here, but it is a corrective one. Of course he goes overboard in spots--one can agree that Nixon was unfairly smeared by liberals his whole career without excusing him entirely of wrongdoing, as Johnson does. But it was news to me that many of the people baying Nixon's heels themselves covered up wrongdoing by Lyndon Johnson in the '60s. And it's good to have it made plain that there was indeed a Kennedy conspiracy--to get him into office, not out. Throughout, many of the ills we deplore nowadays are shown to have been with us since the beginning--the endless Presidential campaign is as old as the early 1800s, for instance. And Johnson's ventures into mass-psychologizing are funny. Or unsettling, depending. Particulary novel in a modern history book is the way that agitators and radicals are nearly absent here. Instead, pride of place is given to ordinary working people and the industrialists and inventors who drove the astonishing engine of progress and innovation that America became after the Civil War. Johnson well understands that complainers are present in every age, but that such a sunburst of accomplishment is a rarity. All in all, an informative, entertaining and inspiring read.
39 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2005
Whenever I have told new acquaintances that I have a degree in history, they have typically groaned. They all hate history, they tell me, because it is just names and dates. Besides, the text books in school were extraordinarily dull.
Of course, history is not about names and dates, it is about people and ideas. It tells us how we came to be who we are. Paul Johnson has written that kind of history in a style that is informative, lively, and entertaining. The book is eccentric at times and opinionated -- this is the first book I have ever read that portrayed Harding in a positive light. The book is never dull.
A number of reviewers have criticized this book because it is conservative. I suppose that if your perspective on life is that anyone whose political perspective differs from your own could not possibly produce a work worth interacting with or enjoying, this will be a problem. For those sufficiently confident in their beliefs to engage an informative book and decide what they will agree or disagree with, this is a great read.
One reviewer seemed surprised that a conservative criticized Joe McCarthy: I suggest he should get out more.
I would also recommend a couple of other Johnson books I have read: "Modern Times" -- a world history since World War I -- and "Intellectuals" -- a saucy look at the lives of several intellectual leaders of the 20th century.
25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 1999
Paul Johnson's "History of the American People" recalls the narrative historical style of Herodotus. Without such a classical approach, any attempt to write on such a broad topic as three hundred years of American history would be doomed to pedantry; as it is, Johnson has created a powerful, readable work that recognizes the importance of many strands of American life -- not simply politics, but art, industry, architecture, music, and religion. With this in mind, the few factual errors of which so much has been made say more about the sloppiness of the editor than the abilities of the historian.
I've read a number of reviews complaining that this book only focuses on America's leaders. Either these readers have never actually read the book or the capability of politically correct True Believers to see only what they believe exceeds even my fevered right-wing-conspirator's imagination. My reaction upon reading this book was that here, finally, was a history that realized the liberal historian's dream of "history with the politics left out." Does a political history devote two pages to Tiffany glass? Does a chronicle of Dead White Senators rhapsodize endlessly on Scott Joplin or Louis Sullivan?
Senator Ted Kennedy once remarked that in America, all change begins at the ballot box. While acknowledging the power of democracy, this book suggests that the most significant changes in out national life have begun elsewhere, when free citizens are left free to invent, to build, and create. That said, even I have to admit that as Johnson's narrative takes him to the period which he himself has experienced, his partisanship shows a bit -- not nearly as much as an ostensibly "objective" textbook might, but conservatives are rightly held to a higher standard. Where much is given, much is expected.
Even so, however, what partisanship does creep into the narrative is nowhere near as sharp as some of the above reviewers (who seem only to have encountered Johnson's book in photocopied handouts in Washington State University's remedial history class) would have us believe. Wilson and especially Truman are given far too easy a ride, in my opinion, although I might ascribe this to a Briton's gratitude at those presidents' role in saving Europe. Johnson's treatment of Reagan, while ultimately positive, does make more of his weaknesses than would a true hagiographer. Johnson, like Walter McDougall and Stephen Ambrose, is a readable treasure among historians. We should encourage him. Buy two copies!