A British View of American History

the american future

The American Future: A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama.

Simon Schama

Random House (2008)

Book Review

Written for a British audience, The American Future attempts to define the quintessential American national character by tracing historical movements that have shaped US society. The five political movements Schama considers most important are 1) the gradual rise of a professional military officer class, 2) the role of evangelical religion in the movement to abolish slavery, 3) the brutal imperialist war against Mexico and the Philippines, 4) the forced displacement of the Cherokee and four other Native American nations under Andrew Jackson, and 5) the development of large scale irrigation in to open the Southwest desert area to agriculture.

For me the primary value of this book is all the historical gems Schama includes that you never learn about in high school. For example:

• The founding of West Point military academy with its Jeffersonian emphasis on philosophy and civil engineering, as opposed to military tactics. Jefferson believed a sound liberal education for US military officers would help ensure the US never went to war except to defend liberty. Congress consistently refused to fund a US military or naval academy until an undeclared war with France broke out in 1796.* Over a period of ten months, the French seized 300 US merchant vessels. When Congress eventually authorized funding for West Point, its primary purpose was to train the Army Corps of Engineers, who built the levees, bridges, damns, dykes and forts that enabled westward expansion. They also drained the swamp in Washington DC and built the Capitol and other important federal buildings.

• President Lyndon Johnson’s role, in 1964, in blocking the credentialing of Mississippi’s Freedom Democratic Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, after the Mississippi Democratic Party declared their support for the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. This blatant white cronyism would provide major impetus to the growing black power movement.

• The profound religious intolerance that persisted in the US even after the 1780 adoption of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing separation of church and state. ** In Massachusetts, Sunday church attendance was compulsory until 1833 – until 1840, blasphemy could be punished by one year in prison, public whipping or the pillory. In Maryland Jews weren’t allowed to vote or hold office until the state passed the Jew Bill in 1820.

• Anti-immigrant feelings, especially against Germans, Irish, Mexicans and Chinese were so intense during the 19th century that there were frequent riots in which immigrants were lynched or had their homes set on fire. An 1855 riot in Louisville would have affected my great grandfather, whose family arrived in the area after immigrating from Germany in 1840.

• President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1902 National Reclamation Act, which led to the construction of 600 dams (including Grand Coulee and Hoover Dam) in thirty years. These would provide irrigation to millions of acres of desert in California and the Southwest. This project would include the diversion of the Colorado River to supply Southern California’s Imperial Valley, which supplies nearly half the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed by Americans, as well as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and parts of Mexico.


*Prior to reading this book, I had no idea the US and France had been at war (with each other).

**The early view of the Bill of Rights was that it only pertained to the federal government and didn’t apply to state law.

A Natural Solution to Drought

In the video below, Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton challenges the energy intensive system of water management employed in the southwestern US and California.

He gives the example of the canal off the Colorado River, which presently transports water 300 miles to Tucson. Increasing evaporation has made the water so saline that it’s useless for irrigation – except for golf courses. A sinking water table means massive energy is required to elevate the water prior to transporting it. In fact, providing water to Tucson is the single biggest consumer of electricity in the state of Arizona.

Lawton contrasts this energy intensive approach to water management with a system of swales* built in the Sonora Desert 80 years ago under the Works Project Administration (Roosevelt’s New Deal job creation program). After 80 years, the swales are full of lush grasslands and trees that have self-planted.

This low-energy design approach, which works with nature rather than against it, can be used to transform any desert region into productive food forests.

The video has been censored from YouTube, but you can see it at http://www.geofflawton.com/fe/73485-an-oasis-in-the-american-desert

In the second video Lawton takes viewers through a food forest he built, by constructing swales, in the Jordanian desert.

*A swale is an artificial ditch on contour used to slow and capture water runoff by spreading it horizontally across the landscape, thus facilitating runoff infiltration into the soil