America The Last Best Hope: Volume 1: From the Age of Discovery To a World at War 1492—1914, by William J. Bennett. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006.
This is the first book in a two-volume survey of American history. The second, published a year later, is reviewed elsewhere on this website. Both bookswere written by William J. Bennett, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education.
In his second annual message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln told the legislators: “We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth.” Lincoln’s view of what the American experiment in democracy means to the world gave Dr. Bennett the title for his work and the main theme of his narrative. America The Last Best Hope presents a patriotic, optimistic assessment of the history of the United States.
In his introduction to this first volume, Bennett states that he wrote this work primarily to help his readers “reclaim some of the hope and conviction” in their nation which some of them have lost. While acknowledging “great wrongs” in the American past, Bennett contends that the story of the United States is, on the balance, a positive and inspiring one. He follows this introduction with a highly readable overview of the American experience, from the European exploration of the New World to the outbreak of World War I.
Through most of his text, Bennett gives conventional explanations of the large questions in our early history. The American Revolution was caused by colonial opposition to taxation without representation. The delegates in Philadelphia wrote the Constitution because the national government under the Articles of Confederation proved too weak. While Americans today find many Jacksonian values abhorrent, in his day Andrew Jackson acted as a genuine champion of the ordinary citizen and a forceful defender of the Union. The fundamental cause of the Civil War was Northern opposition to the spread of slavery into the western territories. Bennett discusses the standard milestones leading to the conflict: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown’s raid, and the Election of 1860. He identifies the usual turning points in the war: Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Atlanta, and the Election of 1864. The author’s treatment of Reconstruction focuses primarily on political events in Washington, D.C., rather than social and economic developments in the South.
There are at least two exceptions, however, to this pattern of traditional interpretations. The first concerns the origin of the first two-party system. Bennett ably discusses the divisions of opinion over Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan and over other domestic questions, but he does not directly connect them to the rise of the Republicans and Federalists. Far more important in the creation of the two parties, in his view, was the dispute over whether American foreign policy should favor France, as Thomas Jefferson wanted, or Great Britain, as Hamilton did. Bennett suggests that “the beginning of America’s two-party system” can be traced to what was perhaps “the most important dinner party in American history.” At this gathering in 1791, Jefferson was shocked to hear Hamilton and John Adams praise the British government and partisanship arose for the first time, over foreign affairs (pages 152-153).
Bennett’s other break with conventional thinking comes when he charges that historians have underestimated the presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes through William McKinley. He argues that James A. “Garfield and [Chester A.] Arthur rose above questionable conduct in their pasts to set a fine example in the White House. America’s other presidents in this period—Hayes, [Benjamin] Harrison, and [Grover] Cleveland—were honorable, diligent, and serious-minded” (pages 473-474). Elsewhere, Bennett depicts McKinley as a dignified chief executive.
Every American should be familiar with the history of their country. William J. Bennett’s America The Last Best Hope offers a useful starting point. Well illustrated and engagingly written, it is full of colorful personalities and fascinating details. America The Last Best Hope opens a doorway to the rich heritage of the United States.