Re: What forces have shaped America most?

David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachian Professor of History at Stanford University. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic analysis with social history and political history. Kennedy has written over ten books; his first, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), won the John Gilmary Shea Prize in 1970 and the Bancroft Prize in 1971. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) and won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his 1999 book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Other awards include the Francis Parkman Prize, the Ambassador's Prize and the California Gold Medal for Literature, all of which he received in the year 2000. Kennedy was educated at Stanford and Yale. The author of many articles, he has also penned a textbook, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, now in its thirteenth edition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

David Kennedy: Particularly if we ask the question, “What does American history have to offer to the rest of the world today?” What are the experiences that have characterized life in this society in the last several centuries that might provide guidance to other peoples going forward? I do think it’s something in the realm of how people of very different historical, and cultural, and religious, and so on backgrounds have managed to . . . if not exactly make common cause, at least make space for one another. I think we can get over-romantic and mythologize the idea of how we are one people. I think our genius is we are a lot of different peoples that have managed to get along with one another reasonably well over historical time. That record is not perfect either by any means. But that’s the genius of the American experience, it seems to me, or part of the genius. Another part of it, I believe, is again the rather peculiar relationship – at least in the framework in the history of the western world – that we’ve had between political society and civil society. That is the role of government and the role of just citizens in their own individual capacities. It’s a distinctive feature of American history from the beginning right down to the present, that the public, or political, or state sector is much smaller than it is in the societies that we usually compare ourselves with. One rough and ready index of that is the tax burden in the United States, which took the sum of all taxes and all public revenues – state, local and federal – in the United States is about 30 percent of gross domestic product. And most of the west European countries that we typically compare ourselves with, and from which we are culturally and historically derived . . . that percentage is usually in the 40 to 50 percent range. So again, it’s just a crude indeed of how, in the balance between state and society, or the political realm and the civil realm, we’ve maximized or maintained a larger civil realm than other societies. Among other things, that means that we’re kind of looser, more porous, and some would say an even undisciplined society than others. And that’s maybe the price that we pay for this. But it has . . . For whatever price we’ve paid, it has liberated enormous energies amongst the people that constitute American society. And it’s what makes us so dynamic, and such a source of innovation – not only technological innovation, but cultural and institutional innovation. This is, you might say, the payoff that we get for the kind of chaotic . . . sometimes loose and undisciplined society that we have. I think it was George Santayana – he taught philosophy at Harvard at many years. I think it was he who said that the American society is like a treeless prairie constantly swept by a tornado. That we’re just a wide open, “let her rip” society in many ways, at least compared to the west European societies that we typically compare ourselves to. Recorded on: 7/4/07


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