The Americans: The Colonial Experience
The Americans: The Democratic Experience
“How in the world did we get from the Federalist Papers to the edited transcripts?” This question by a member of the House Judiciary Committee is both improper and proper to consideration of these volumes by Daniel Boorstin. Improper because he has not been concerned with the aspects of the American past which might bear on the question; and proper because he has composed a history of “the” American experience in which these aspects are omitted on grounds of principle rather than of mere selectivity.
Boorstin is a prolific and fluent writer, serious and dignified, perceptive, cultivated, and wide-ranging; he has enjoyed both popular success and the highest forms of professional recognition. With the publication of The Democratic Experience he has completed his magistral work, The Americans; and in Democracy and Its Discontents he has presented simply the main themes which inform his understanding of the American past and present.
Like the society it describes, The Americans is unique and somewhat unconventional. It is not a detailed account of great and familiar political events. Instead, it addresses the questions of how America became the most dynamic, expansive, productive, affluent, and equalitarian society in history and what this has meant for the quality and texture of everyday life. The task is a difficult one. It is not like tracing the “growth” of an institution, but of making sense of a society in which old landmarks are being forever erased, the pressures of expansionism take a thousand varied forms, and familiar measures of time, space, and achievements seem inadequate. There is also a special difficulty of composing the history of a society in which the rhythms of life are linked to the stepped-up tempos resulting from modern science, technology, and largescale production. Such a society is constantly devouring its past. The historian’s task becomes even more formidable if he should claim, as Boorstin does, that, despite the awesome structures of power and its grossly inequitable distribution, the results have promoted “community” and “the democratic experience.”
Boorstin attempts to overcome these difficulties by metaphors, some deliberate, others unintended. He uses the metaphors of “process” and “flow” to supply meaning and continuity to our history. Thus, from its beginnings, America followed the form of an ever-widening stream of energy, opportunity, expansion, innovation, and movement; an outpouring of new forms—of homes, settlements, diets, vocations, knowledge, language, law, production, and organization. It has been a continuous process of “breaking down barriers” of class, status, skill, knowledge, and culture. The process of America has been infinite and futurist. We might however add that while “process” may lend an impression of continuity between the landing at Jamestown and the landing on the moon, it may also promote mystification by smoothing over discontinuities, spiriting off the casualties, and deodorizing the scent of radical evil.
The endless flow of goods, opportunities, and new desires is the foundation of “democracy.” Democracy, according to Boorstin, means giving “everything to everybody,” and so everything is produced in order that it can …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.