A new History Channel documentary on the history of the United States is a cause for both great excitement and anxiety. As a historian who believes that history is too often written only for the consumption of other professionals, the debut tonight of History’s 12-part series “AMERICA: The Story of US” strikes me as a laudable attempt to use the tools of television and historical narrative in a way that will reach millions with the story of the United States. However, a series that openly declares that it wants viewers to “feel like they are on a rollercoaster ride through American history” and touts the use of CGI reminds me that there also is a good chance that the process of understanding American history could literally be reduced to a cartoon.
However, I am going to err on the side of high hopes and join viewers for several reasons. First, the approach to the series is certainly in the spirit of the economic culture defended in the Declaration of Independence, which is much a reflection of the thought of Adam Smith as John Locke . The producers state that they will emphasize American entrepreneurship and technological innovation over political and governmental history. We sometimes forget that the Founders were enraged at Parliament’s ever-increasing hold on colonial trade and that the American Revolution was as much a tax revolt as a war for political rights. Some of the grievances listed in the Declaration such as “He (George III) has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance,” or accusations that the king had combined with Parliament to pass laws “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” bring home the economic purposes of both the document and the establishment of a sovereign state capable of granting its citizens economic freedoms. As Milton Friedman once said, “Economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom” and this series seems to recognize a vital idea that was present at the founding and the source of much of what is best in the American experience.
Secondly, the line-up of commentators included Daniel Walker Howe and Henry Louis Gates. Howe is the author of the superb What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, the 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in U.S. history and an installment in the Oxford History of the United States. One of the main themes in Howe’s narrative is the antebellum period was marked by efforts to improve ordinary people through economic development for both moral and material reasons – Jeffersonian ideals, to be sure, that were seized upon by many Americans ranging from the reformers of the Second Great Awakening to future president Abraham Lincoln. Before his scuffle with a local cop, Gates was better known as one of the nation’s best scholars of American black culture and history, as well as an intellectual who delivered the 2002 Jefferson Lecture, the highest honored bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. His rejection of black separatism, respect for the Western canon of history and literature, and uncompromising call for inclusion of black authors in the canon produced critics on all sides of the academe, but I consider those facts marks of a great mind unwilling to be swallowed alive by political correctness, which is now the mother’s milk of the current academy. The presence of those two impressive scholars indicates the series will be more than computer-generated slow-mo musket shots and American triumphalism. (However, Donald Trump is also listed as one of the commentators. That will be interesting.)
As they say in TV land, check your local listings for broadcast times tonight.