The Americans and the History That Made Them

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.

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TRANSCRIPT

Topic: “The Americans and the History That Made Them”

 

David Kennedy: I’m working on a book, the working title of which is “The Americans and the History That Made Them”. And the title has a little bit of a barb in it, if one stops and thinks about it. In fact my publisher and editor would prefer that the title would be “The Americans and the History They Made”, because that title would suggest the triumphalist account about how we built a nation, and isn’t it great and so on.

And I don’t deny that story, but the larger point I’m trying to make which is implied in that title, “The Americans and the History That Made Them”, is that this society and the peoples that have lived in it have been permitted certain kinds of pathways of historical development that weren’t necessarily available to others, and that we played out our story within very certain, specific historical concepts that have made us the particular people that we are historically construed.

So the first sentence in the book sums up the entire matter. And it goes like this; more or less like this: America was conceived in the Renaissance; born in the Reformation; came to the age of independence at the height of the Enlightenment; grew to maturity in the century of the Industrial Revolution; and came into the fullness of its powers in the century of total war.

So the idea is there are five major stages of historical development that are common to the western world as a whole: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and so on. And there are five big themes here – the America of the imagination, how people have just made sense out of the whole American project . . . both Americans and others; religion; politics; the economy; and its closely attended phenomenon, immigration and foreign policy. So each of these themes has a specific, chronological anchor in a recognizable era in the history of the western world as a whole; but the American story in those larger contexts, those successive contexts, doesn’t conform to the larger pattern necessarily, and the particularities and the peculiarities of the American story that interest me.

 

July 4, 2007

 


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