Looking for Heroes

The Vineyard of Liberty Volume One of “The American Experiment”

by James MacGregor Burns
Knopf, 741 pp., $22.95

We Americans, unlike many Europeans, have tended to see our history as the product of conscious intentions and purposeful leadership. We have not usually thought of ourselves as caught up in large impersonal forces sweeping us along to destinies we have not chosen. Which is to say that we generally have not had a tragic vision of our past. But there is in our history one notable exception to this—the Civil War. Of all the great events of American history only the Civil War has been viewed as tragic. Only such a bloody, fratricidal conflict was awesome enough to seem to be beyond traditional American political management. Yet as unaccustomed as we are to being imprisoned by circumstances, it is not surprising that some of us have been unwilling to see even the Civil War as the result of inexorable forces beyond human control. Consequently, that war has become the only major event in our history that has aroused among historians a continual debate over whether it was inevitable or avoidable. The Civil War has become a kind of test of America’s ability to govern its fate.

In 1858 Senator William H. Seward sought to describe the differing views his fellow Americans had of the crisis between North and South and in doing so anticipated the two major interpretations that subsequent historians would make of the Civil War. Some people, said Seward, think the sectional conflict is “accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral.” But Seward believed they were mistaken; the sources of the conflict were deeper than that, and in a memorable phrase he said so: “It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.”

The question of the irrepressibility of the sectional conflict, defined by Seward at the outset, has been around for a long time. Indeed it lies at the heart of this new book by James MacGregor Burns—the first in what will be a three-volume narrative survey of the history of the United States, with the larger title The American Experiment. Burns is a distinguished political scientist, and so he is well aware of the uncontrollable power of those impersonal, circumscribing “forces” that are, as he says at one point, “the product of millions of tiny decisions” by countless individuals. Yet Burns has also hobnobbed with presidents and even run for Congress. He has written prize-winning biographies of FDR and JFK, and he has developed a particular fascination with what he believes is the power of extraordinary political leaders at crucial moments to transcend and transform the impersonal forces of history. The tension between these differing views of the historical process—between irrepressible, deterministic forces and free-acting, controlling political leadership—runs through Burns’s volume, and lends interest and drama to what would otherwise be a very old-fashioned political narrative of the history of the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War.

Because Burns is covering such a large span of time and so many …

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