BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Alan Brinkley, why did you call your history book "The Unfinished Nation"?
ALAN BRINKLEY, AUTHOR, "THE UNFINISHED NATION" Well, there's several reasons, I think, that have to do both with the character of the United States and the character of historical writing. America is a nation of almost unparalleled diversity, I think. And as we certainly are aware today, with our present battles on multiculturalism, the task of melding a single nation out of all of the component parts of the American people is a very difficult one and, I would argue, an unfinished one.
America's also a nation that is constantly changing, regardless of diversity. It's growing; it's expanding; it's transforming itself constantly, and so it's an ever-unfinished society in that sense as well. And then the title was also a reference to the way historians view the past and the way in which historians are constantly redefining their own view of the past. The past, of course, doesn't change, but the way we look at the past changes and so the writing of history is also an unfinished process, and the title was meant to refer to all of those things.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite character in history?
BRINKLEY: Well, I'm not sure I do. I mean, I have people I admire greatly in history, and like most historians and like most Americans I admire Lincoln. I admire Jefferson. I admire -- maybe this is not quite so universal -- I admire Franklin Roosevelt and many people who are less prominent in history. I can't say that I have any single favorite historical figure.
LAMB: Do you have a period of American history that you like to mess around with the most?
BRINKLEY: Well, my own period -- the period in which I do my own research and writing is primarily the 1930s to the 1940s. And I've written a book about political dissenters in the 1930s. I'm just finishing a book now about New Deal liberalism in the late '30s and World War II. So the sort of middle third of the 20th century is the period that I've focused my own research on, primarily.
LAMB: Do you teach?
BRINKLEY: I teach at Columbia. I teach 20th century American history.
LAMB: To what year students?
BRINKLEY: To all levels, from freshmen to graduate students. And it's a real challenge to find a way of teaching history that reaches so many different levels of students.
LAMB: How do you do it?
BRINKLEY: Well, I try to make history as accessible as possible by linking it to -- particularly for undergraduates, by linking it to a series of stories that they can understand and by combining the storytelling quality of history with some effort at interpretation and analysis. I think also it's important in teaching to be very organized in your thinking and in the way you convey ideas. I mean, much of what you do in teaching at the university level is lecturing, which may be an unhappy quality of the university system, but that's the way it is. And students need to be able to take notes. They need to be able to organize what you say in their own minds. And so I think being precise and organized is very important in teaching as well, particularly in the lecture format.
LAMB: I heard a story about you -- and I know I'm going to step on a line or two, so I'll just try to get it out and see what your reaction to it is -- and this is from one of your former students. And I was talking to some folks one day and asked them if they could, you know, what they remembered from their days in school. And this particular individual said he remembered when you were teaching at Harvard -- and I don't know the circumstances -- that you were not going to stay at Harvard or whatever, and you had a limit to the number of students who were allowed in a classroom. And the moment that he'll remember was the day that -- say that there were 600 kids allowed in this class -- that you said you didn't care how many took your course and that something like 1,200 were there waiting for you when you arrived. Is that a true story?
BRINKLEY: Well, something like that. I had been teaching a course on America since World War II at Harvard for some years. Of course, I now teach at Columbia. And I had always placed a limit of 500 students on it -- roughly 500 students. And the demand was much higher than that, but the capacity of the room was not. My last year at Harvard I was placed not in the lecture hall that I had normally been in, but in Sanders Theater, which was the large, essentially it was a concert hall, the Harvard concert hall, which seats over 1,000 people. And so I didn't see any point in turning people away. And so I -- that's absolutely right. For the first time, I said that anyone who wanted to take the course could take it. And, in fact, exactly 1,000 people signed up for it in the end.
LAMB: Were you surprised when you showed up at the class?
BRINKLEY: A bit. I mean, I had been very surprised, when I first began teaching the course, at the size of the crowds. By the time this happened I had been having big crowds for some years and so I was a lot less surprised, but I've always been a little puzzled by why the course attracted such vast numbers of people.
LAMB: Did you ever ask the students why so many came?
BRINKLEY: Well, it's hard -- you know, it hard to ask 500 or 1,000 people and get an answer that would apply to more than a few of them. I think it was, in large part, that students are very curious about the recent past. And I know people at Harvard sometimes tried to make it sound as though it was simply me and my popularity that drew all these students, but I don't think that's really the case. I think people are very curious about the recent past. They tend not to know as much about it as they feel they should, partly because in high school courses teachers tend to run out of time sometime around World War II or even earlier. And also because these are events that are constantly referred to in public discourse today. And when people hear talk about the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement or the Korean War or the Great Society, Malcolm X, they want to know something about it and there are not very many easy methods of learning that in our culture.
LAMB: In your history book that we're looking at here, you have periodically what you call American voices and they're just one -- usually one page. And I'm going to hold one up because you just mentioned one of them. And this particular one here is some copy that was originally written or spoken by Malcolm X. Explain this technique in the book and why did you use this?
BRINKLEY: Well, I wanted to convey something of what made Malcolm X seem so menacing to so many white people and even some black people when he was alive, and also why he seems now so prophetic, in that the rage he expressed, the anger he expressed, the critique of American society he expressed is now a much more mainstream position, certainly, among African-Americans and even among many liberal and left-wing white Americans. So I think that's what I tried to do with almost all of these pieces of testimony from figures in American history that run through this book, is try to convey something, both of what made them seem important in their own time, if, in fact, they were important. And many of the people quoted here were very ordinary people who were not known at all in their own time, but Malcolm X obviously was -- is different -- and also why they seem important to us today.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
BRINKLEY: Here, in Washington.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
BRINKLEY: I went to the Landon School which is in Bethesda, a private boys' school. And then I went to Princeton -- I did my undergraduate degree at Princeton and I did my graduate work at Harvard.
LAMB: Do you remember when you first got interested in history?
BRINKLEY: Well, I think it's hard to grow up in Washington and not be interested in history. I mean, I think my interest in history grew up sort of alongside my interest in politics. And both of them, I think, were a result of growing up in Washington and growing up in a family that was very interested in public events. And I had good teachers in high school and in college who made history seem exciting to me and important to me. Actually, one of the things that most interested me in history as a possible career -- was taking a course in Princeton with the new head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sheldon Hackney, who was then a professor in the history department at Princeton and who taught courses in Southern history. And reading Southern history and Southern literature -- even though I'm not myself a historian of the South, primarily -- really gave me a sense of how powerful history can be and how important historical writing can be.
LAMB: What did your parents do for a living?
BRINKLEY: My father's a journalist and my mother was a journalist before she got married.
LAMB: Your father, David Brinkley.
LAMB: I asked that of Doug Brinkley, who was here doing a history book and he...
BRINKLEY: No, we're...
LAMB: ...said, “No, it's the other guy.”
BRINKLEY: ...we're not related.
LAMB: What impact did living around your father's profession have on you?
BRINKLEY: Well, I think it gave me an interest in writing. And there were -- it was a house full of books. And it certainly gave me an interest in politics and political people and I grew up around other journalists and political figures. It didn't make me a journalist, obviously, but it perhaps moved me into a field of history that is, as its critics often point out -- is perhaps closer to journalism than other fields. I'm not a medievalist, for example. Both my brothers are journalists. So I think growing up in my family, obviously, had an effect on the way I think and what interested me.
LAMB: We have a lot of journalists sit in that seat and a lot of academics, and there's always that dispute between history when academics write it and when journalists write it. Can you explain the kind of techniques that you have to use in a book vs. what a journalist does on history?
BRINKLEY: Well, I don't think it's a rigid distinction. And there are journalists who write very good history, and there are historians who write journalism from time to time, including me. I think the difference between journalism and history -- and I want to make a distinction between journalism and history and journalists and historians, because that's the distinction that's much fuzzier is a level of analysis, that in journalism the effort is to explain events in the context of today. And many journalists even writing history attempt to use history as a way of illuminating some very particular contemporary issue. There's also a tendency in journalism to emphasize story. And that's, I think, one of the reasons why so much popular history, the history that ordinary Americans and the general readership reads, is written not by scholars, but by journalists, because they have a real sense of narrative and story that among academic historians has been, I think, in many ways, sadly in decline for some years.
On the other hand, academic history, it seems to me, strives, at least, to reach a little deeper into stories than journalism does. And to link up the particular historical stories that we're telling with larger theoretical and analytical arguments that are going on within the profession and sometimes also within the society as well. I'm sounding very vague here and it's because there isn't any very easy way to explain the distinction. And it's not in any way a rigid distinction. As I say, some of the very best history, particularly of relatively recent events is written by people coming out of journalism, rather than out of the academy.
LAMB: In the back of your book -- and, first of all, let me see if we can get a good close-up here, Craig -- real close on this. But where did this come from -- the cover?
BRINKLEY: That's a painting in the National Gallery of Art of New York City in the late 19th century by Sloan, an American artist. And...
LAMB: Was it your idea?
BRINKLEY: No. It was found by the designer. I think it's a very handsome painting.
LAMB: The book was written -- it's a Knopf book -- written for what audience?
BRINKLEY: Well, it was written for two audiences. It's the trade edition, which you're holding in your hand, is published by Knopf and that's obviously aimed at a general readership. It's sold in bookstores and the idea is to tap into an audience of readers who are interested in a general history of the United States and don't find very many of them now. There's also another edition -- it's the exact same book, but another published by McGraw-Hill, which is meant for the college textbook market. And...
LAMB: How does that work, by the way? I mean, McGraw -- who owns Knopf?
BRINKLEY: Knopf and McGraw-Hill are completely separate.
LAMB: Both selling the same book?
BRINKLEY: YeS. And it was a deal between the two publishers. McGraw-Hill is the principal publisher of this book and Knopf reached an agreement with -- my others are non-textbook books with Knopf so that, perhaps, was one reason why Knopf was eager to do this. But there was an agreement between the college division of McGraw-Hill and the trade division of Knopf that McGraw-Hill would publish a college edition and Knopf would publish a trade edition.
LAMB: Is it hard to sell a book for 40 bucks?
BRINKLEY: Well, I haven't seen the sales figures, but I suspect it is. But it's a big book and heavily illustrated.
LAMB: What's McGraw-Hill charge for it?
BRINKLEY: Well, it's hard to say because their pricing system for textbook marketing is very arcane and I don't really even know what -- it varies from place to place, depending on how many copies are being sold and...
LAMB: In the back you have, as a matter of fact, some statistics that could probably solve a lot of arguments that we have right here at this immediate area when we do call-in shows and that, about numbers of people that vote and the number of people that, you know, breakdown of the population and the different kinds of people that live in this country. At least let me ask you why you put these in. First of all, you put the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the back of the book. Any other reason than the obvious for publishing them?
BRINKLEY: Well, I assume it's obvious. I think those are documents to which readers of American history and students of American history need and -- or want constantly to refer -- the Constitution, in particular. And I don't know of any general history in the United States that doesn't include those at some point.
LAMB: Then you have the presidential elections and the thing I found interesting was the list of those that ran for the presidents -- the different years -- but the percentage of the voter turnout.
LAMB: And as a matter of fact, you go back -- I think the first one you've got listed here is John Quincy Adams, where it shows that only 26.9 percent voter participation. That's far and away the lowest?
BRINKLEY: Well, it is. And the reason that is that in the early 19th century there were so many restrictions on voting that great numbers of people -- I mean, there were obvious categories of people who could not vote and, in fact, weren't even counted. Women are not even counted in those figures because women couldn't vote until -- couldn't vote universally until 1920. But there were also property requirements and other restrictions on the franchise. And one of the reasons for putting those figures in there is to show the dramatic changes in the levels of turnout from the 1820s onward, as some of these property requirements were removed and white men, at least, were permitted to vote, largely without restriction.
BRINKLEY: And then in the 20th century, of course, the issue of voter turnout is one that still concerns us and I think it's interesting and important to know how the voter turnout has fluctuated since the end of the 19th century.
LAMB: The voter turnout in 1860 for the Abraham Lincoln year was 81.2; earlier than that, the William Henry Harrison was 80.2. And then you come forward, you know -- in the 1900s you had as high as 65 percent with William Howard Taft and I think that's about the highest on that page, there; you dip down -- though, Warren Harding was only 49 percent turnout; Coolidge was 48 percent turnout. And then you come into a period where it's in the 60s all through.
BRINKLEY: Well, that's an interesting story.
LAMB: What -- explain all that.
BRINKLEY: First of all, there was a big change in the level of voter participation starting around the turn of the century. And the reasons for that are debated among historians and probably more complicated than I should try to explain here, but they involve the declining importance of parties in American life in the early 20th century. One of the things that made the early 20th century such an age of reform, as it's often called, was a sense that the political parties had acquired too much power in American life. And so there were assaults on parties from all sides and in many different forms. And many of the features of political life today that we sometimes find useful or troubling, the referenda questions on state ballots, the non-partisan elections in some cities for mayor, even such little things as moving some local elections to off years -- mayoral elections in New York, for example.
Right now we're beginning a mayoral campaign which was deliberately moved to a year that was not a presidential year to limit the power of parties because the assumption was that parties wouldn't be able to turn out the vote as effectively for a -- simply for a local election as they could for a national election.
So a whole range of reforms and also a different political style emerged in the 20th century, which made parties less important, and once parties became less important, voting became less important. People didn't vote in such large numbers in the late 19th century because they were more politically aware and knowledgeable than they are now; it was because they had a sort of emotional bond with their political parties. It was comparable to the bonds that people often have with their families, with their churches or their communities. And that bond was weakened in the early 20th century, and that resulted in this slide in the total number of people voting, that began early in the century and has continued in fluctuating ways since then.
Now the other point you note is the declining voter turnout in the 1920s and then it rebounded in the '30s and for a while, beyond that. And that, although I'm not sure that this is the only explanation, but I think the primary explanation is that in 1920 women got the vote for the first time and so they're included in these figures. And for the first few elections women were not accustomed to voting, not yet registered to vote in large numbers and so many potential voters -- female voters -- just didn't vote for the first few national elections. And then, by the time women became absorbed into the electorate about the same level as men, you find the voter turnout returning to, more or less, the same level that it had been in the period just before women's suffrage. You can make the same case, actually, about voter turnout -- declining voter turnout since the early 1970s. That's when 18-year-olds began to vote. And voter turnout rates dropped precipitously as soon as 18-year-olds were enfranchised. And they've remained low because 18-year-olds still don't vote in high numbers.
LAMB: The other thing on the list that you notice sticks right out -- first of all, the only person in history to get more than 50 million votes -- and I may be -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is Ronald Reagan. And that right beside it is -- you know, electoral vote -- he got 525. Only 13 for the other side. He just seems to stick out there as a tremendous vote-getter. Well, how...
BRINKLEY: Well, obviously...
LAMB: ...how do you read that?
BRINKLEY: ...he was. Now the absolute number of votes -- that he was the only person to get 50 million votes says more about the fact that the population was growing and he got a much smaller percentage of the vote -- or at least a significantly smaller percentage of the vote -- than Richard Nixon did in 1972 and that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in 1936, Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But given our contemporary political malaise as I think it might rightly be called and the difficulties that almost every president since Lyndon Johnson has had in getting and sustaining popularity, Ronald Reagan does stand out as a striking anomaly. Now he had his problems, of course, in his second term. But he's really the first president since Dwight Eisenhower, I think, who managed to leave office with a reasonable level of popularity. And of course, he's the first president since Eisenhower to serve two full terms.
LAMB: You know, we always see from time to time the listing, by academics, of the best presidents in history. How do they do that?
BRINKLEY: There's a poll that some historians launched -- I forget when, I think in the early '60s -- that sent around to members of the -- I think it's through the Organization of American Historians, which is the largest professional organization for historians who write about the United States, as opposed to, you know, Americans who write about France and Germany and other places. And these polls have been published in the Journal of American History and elsewhere from time to time over the last 30 years or so. I've always been somewhat skeptical of them. I'm not sure that historians are in any better position to judge who was a good or a bad president than anyone else. I mean, their judgments are just as political as any other person's judgment would be. But they're interesting, nevertheless. And what's particularly interesting is to see how the reputations of presidents rise and fall in polls.
LAMB: Would you list, in order, I mean -- and not all, obviously, all 42 -- or all 41 individuals -- but who are your top five?
BRINKLEY: Who are my top five? Well, I've never been asked, actually, to do this. It's been a while since any of these polls have been conducted and I don't remember ever having been polled on this subject. I think, like most historians and like all the polls that have been conducted, the top four or five -- and not necessarily in this order -- for me, as I say, for most scholars, it would probably be Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt. Beyond that it gets harder. And it's a question of balancing different elements of presidencies against one another. Woodrow Wilson, I think, was a very great president in many ways and a terrible failure in other ways. Harry Truman, I admire in many ways, and but also strongly disagree with many things he did.
LAMB: What about the four or five worst in history, in your opinion?
BRINKLEY: Well, I would have to say -- and I'll leave out the very recent presidents because I don't think I would be judging them by anything more than my own polemical standards, but I think probably you'd have to say that the worst few presidents were the ones immediately preceding the Civil War, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce -- now granted, it was a terrible time to be president and in crises that were extraordinarily difficult to solve. But they were -- Buchanan, particularly -- were strikingly ineffective presidents in the face of extraordinary problems.
And I think there have been probably worse and less competent men who have been president then James Buchanan: For example, Warren Harding probably was the least capable man to be president, but he didn't do as much damage. He didn'tface the same level of challenges. And that, I think, has to be part of your evaluation, just as it does when you're trying to find great presidents. Theodore Roosevelt always complained that he would not be remembered as a great president because he didn't live in times that cried out for greatness. Now some might disagree and some do argue that he was a great president. But certainly Franklin Roosevelt seems to have a greater claim to greatness, not necessarily because he was a better man than Theodore Roosevelt, or a smarter man or a more capable man, but because he lived in times that rewarded leadership to a greater degree than his cousin, Theodore, did.
LAMB: Another thing that you do throughout the book -- and I want to get back
to some of those numbers because they're interesting things to ask you about -- is you have, periodically, two pages called Debating The Past. And I'll hold this up here. This particular one is about the Civil War. What's the point of this?
BRINKLEY: The point is to help readers to understand that while -- in reading this book, they're reading a narrative and they're reading a fairly straightforward story told by me and presenting history as if it is a fixed set of events and facts and interpretations; that, in fact, the ideas that they're reading in this book are challenged by historians.
Now I try to give some sense of -- even in the text itself that not everything is cut and dried in history, and that there are disagreements about most issues. But I don't think anything can do that as effectively as simply showing the ways in which historians disagree with one another and have always disagreed, and the way in which historical interpretations tend to reflect the time in which they are written, the backgrounds of the people who are writing them. And that's what these little essays debating the past are trying to demonstrate.
LAMB: On the Civil War, you say there are revisionists today that disagree with the original theory that it was accidental, unnecessary -- “the work of interested or fanatical agitators.” That was one theory. And the other one, “irresponsible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.”
BRINKLEY: Well, the revisionists, just in the lingo of the profession, have tended to be the people who see the Civil War as a great and avoidable accident, a product of what one historian called, “a blundering generation.” And the more traditional view has been that it was an irreconcilable conflict born of irreconcilable differences between the North and the South, particularly on the issue of slavery.
This is not an issue, frankly, that historians debate very much right now -- the causes of the Civil War. Historical controversies sort of rise and fall and the issue of the causes of the Civil War just doesn't seem to interest historians very much anymore, but it probably does interest the American people a lot more than it interests us. And I thought it would be interesting to readers to see the way in which historians, over time, have disagreed on this issue and still, to some degree, disagree about it when they choose to argue about it.
LAMB: What techniques do you use to keep students interested? Or do you care about whether they're interested or not?
BRINKLEY: Of course, I care about whether they're interested. If they're not interested, they're not learning. Do you mean in my teaching or in writing this book?
LAMB: No. When you teach. I mean, how big are your classes at Columbia now?
BRINKLEY: Well, Columbia's a much smaller college than Harvard and my classes there are much smaller. I've had, I don't know -- 150, 200 people in -- I've only been at Columbia two years so I don't have any vast pile of data to draw from. But the course I taught most recently, which was last spring, had about 200 students.
LAMB: And what techniques do you use? I mean, how many times do you meet them? How long are your classes?
BRINKLEY: Well, these large courses are lecture courses and they meet twice a week at Columbia for an hour and a quarter. Most places it's 50 minutes. So that's an additional challenge, is trying to keep people in their seats for over an hour. One thing I try to do, given this longer class period that I have now, is to spend some of the time in each class responding to questions and trying to provoke discussion. It's not easy to do that in a large group, but I think it creates a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere and it also breaks down the sense that students often have in a lecture course, that there's this sort of barrier between them and the instructor. The instructor's a kind of performer standing up at the front of the room and is completely unapproachable.
LAMB: How long were you at Harvard?
BRINKLEY: I was at Harvard -- well, in various capacities, I was at Harvard for about 13, 14 years, first as a graduate student and then as a member of the faculty.
LAMB: Have you taught anywhere besides Harvard and Columbia?
BRINKLEY: I taught at MIT for a few years right after I got out of graduate school and before going back to Harvard, and then I taught at the City University of New York graduate school for several years, just before I came to Columbia.
LAMB: Do you notice a change in the student over these last 15 years?
BRINKLEY: Well, I do and it's hard to know how much of it is a change that reflects the different universities I've been teaching in and how much of it is a change that reflects the different times in which I've taught, but yes, I do. When I first started teaching -- when I was a graduate student in the mid-'70s and began teaching -- there was still, I think, among college students -- at least at Harvard -- a very visible residue of the '60s left, and a kind of skepticism and a questioning. Students were certainly much less radicalized than they had been when I was in college in the late '60s. But the questions that they asked tended to have been shaped by the controversies of the '60s -- the Vietnam War, which, of course, continued until, in one form or another, until 1975.
By the early '80s, that element in the undergraduate student body seemed to me to be shrinking and students asked different kinds of questions. And it's not that they were less skeptical, but they were skeptical about different things. And it would be too simplistic, I think, to say that students became more conservative in the 1980s, although I think that happened. But they became less interested in ideology, I think, and less attracted to ideologies than students in the '70s had been. And I don't know whether that's changing again now or not. You know, our political climate seems to be changing, although in what direction is hard to say, and students will change along with it. But I'm not sure at this point how to characterize any change in the '90s.
LAMB: Have you ever been involved in government or politics?
BRINKLEY: No, no.
LAMB: Any interest in doing that?
BRINKLEY: Well, I'm certainly interested in government and politics. I don't have any particular interest in holding government office nor has anyone asked me to do so. But my field is primarily political history and so, obviously, I'm very interested not just in the history of politics and government, but in what's going on in politics and government today.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
BRINKLEY: I do. I have a wife and a two-year-old daughter.
LAMB: One of the things I didn't see in this book is a dedication. Is a book like this -- I mean, do most of your books have dedications to them?
BRINKLEY: Yes. I think because this book was aimed at in part, at a sort of college textbook market, for which dedications are not normally included, I didn't think to include one. I wish, in a way, I had put one in, but I didn't think of it.
LAMB: You point out in the beginning that this is a -- you did a much longer series of writings about history with some of your colleagues, Richard Current, Frank Freidel and Harry Williams.
BRINKLEY: Right. This book emerged out of a much longer book that I have been the principal author of for -- oh, about 12, 13 years now, which is a more conventional college textbook called "American History: A Survey," a rather prosaic title for which I'm not responsible, which I inherited, in effect, from the three historians you mentioned -- Frank Freidel, who was my adviser at Harvard and who passed away earlier this year; T. Harry Williams, who's a famous Civil War historian; and also biographer Huey Long at LSU, who died in the '70s; and Richard Current, who's a Lincoln scholar and -- among other things, who is still very much alive, and still writing and publishing. But I took the book over from them in, I guess, 1980, and I've been the only author of that book since then -- the only active author. And that's not a book that I think a general readership would tend to read because it's, first of all, much longer than this. It's almost twice as long as this book. And it has much more of the apparatus of a textbook threaded through it.
This book came about for two reasons. It came about out of a sense among the college textbook publishing people with whom I work that there was a growing market among students and faculty for shorter and more readable histories, that the big textbooks that are so much a feature of academic life are now coming to be too big for many students, partly because a lot of professors like to assign collateral reading and they don't have time for people to read so much of a textbook. And for other reasons as well.
Then the other motive behind this book was the sense that there might be a market among a general readership, too, for a relatively succinct -- this is not a short book by any means, but compared to college textbooks, it's a relatively succinct history of all of all of American history. Historians -- academic scholars don't write these kinds of syntheses anymore for any purpose other than textbooks. Textbooks are really the only kind of synthetic writing -- broad synthetic writing that historians do anymore. And since most textbooks have multiple authors and most textbooks are market-driven, rather than driven by the interests and interpretations of the authors, they tend to have a kind of fragmented quality that doesn't make them particularly interesting to general readers.
I wanted, in this book, to take the kernel of a textbook, this act of synthesis that historians engage in, and turn it into something that would be more readable and more accessible, both to students and to general readers. And how well I've succeeded, the readers will have to decide, but that was the idea.
BRINKLEY: And so I stripped out a lot of the detail that instructors expect in big textbooks and I tried to make the narrative flow more smoothly. And I tried to make it a little more interpretive then textbooks generally are.
LAMB: In the back, you list under every chapter -- in a bibliography -- all the books that were suggested that you can go get more detail on. Unfair question, possibly, but have you read all those books?
BRINKLEY: Oh, of course, not. I mean, there are thousands of them, hundreds, at least, and perhaps thousands of books back there. No, that's really -- those are not footnotes. Those are not sources I have used. I have read many of them, but not anywhere close to all of them, probably not even a majority of them.
But it's an effort to give students an idea of what books are available to them if they want to learn more about the areas in which they're reading in such concise form in this book.
LAMB: In the back, as we talk again -- I mean, we talked earlier -- there are charts. And another chart that you have back here is -- I lost my place -- is population of the United States. And because of the way it's configured, it's hard for the audience to see it on the screen, but the thing you can easily report here is that -- of course -- every year the population -- every 10 years has gone up. The percentage of increase this last time, around 1990, is one of the smallest in history.
I mean, over the years -- it was up in the 30s in the early years, and it was only 9.9 percent increase in 1990. Next to that is the population per square mile. That's gone from 4.5 in the early days, up to 70.3 population per square mile; Percent of urban vs. rural, that keeps going up. In the early days it was 5.1; it goes all the way up to the highest it's ever been, to 77.5 percent of urban to rural. Percentage of white and non-white: That started out at 80.7 percent white in the United States, back in 1790, and it went all the way up to -- where at one point -- back in the '50s, it was 89 percent;
back now down to 80.3, where it was in the beginning. One more here and I'll let you get your response to all this.
The median age -- the earliest year recorded was back in 1820. It was 16.7. That was the median age. And it has gone all the way up now to the highest point in history, to 32.9. What does all that tell you about what's happening in the country?
BRINKLEY: Well, it tells us many things, I think, and maybe the best way to answer that is just to explain why the figures like that seem to me to be useful in a book like this.
I think when we tend to focus in our discussion of contemporary public events -- and to some degree, also in our discussion of historical events on people, on events, on things that are easily visible. And it's easy to forget that, underlying what is happening to us today and what's happened to America throughout history, is a series of profoundly important demographic changes in the size of the population, the structure of the population, the geographical and spatial distribution of the population. And while it's very hard to draw direct connections between those changes and the specific events that we tend to focus on when we're writing history, it seems to me -- and to many other historians -- very clear that these large structural and demographic changes have at least as much to do and probably much more to do with the way our history evolves than what presidents have done at any particular time, or what any particular leader or group has done or institution has done.
And, obviously, putting numbers like that in the chart in a chart in the back of a book doesn't do very much to explain their significance. But I've tried, in the text of the book as well, to make reference to these demographic changes and I wanted to make it possible for readers to get a sense of how dramatic some of these changes were.
LAMB: The next page is -- I think there may be an opportunity for you to comment on why. It's employment from the year 1870 to 1990. And in 1870 there were 12.5 million people employed in the United States, and it's gone up steadily to 124.8 million people. Next to it, though, its male-female employment ratio, back in 1970, was 85 percent male; 15 percent female, all the way now to where it's the closest it's ever been. It's 54 percent male; 46 percent female. And then in the next column -- and I'll hold it up so the audience can see, is the number of people in unions -- the percentage of people in the United States in unions. It keeps going down, and you can see in 1990 it's gone down to as low as 16 percent of the workers that are part of unions, there in that column.
What do you read into those numbers?
BRINKLEY: Well, I think the division between male and female employment speaks for itself, and that's been one of the most stunning social changes in our recent history. And I suspect that number will continue to narrow. I don't know that it will ever reach parity, although it might. But it speaks, I think, to the enormous impact that feminism and other social forces that have driven women into the workplace have had in the last 50 years or so. The percentage of people in unions, I guess that also, more or less, speaks for itself. I mean, you say it continues to go down and that's true in the last 30 years or so, but there's also a period in the 20th century when it went steadily up and reached a peak shortly after World War II.
LAMB: The highest percentage here was in 1940, when 20 percent of the population were members of unions.
BRINKLEY: And I think that speaks both about the institutional problems of early institutional successes that unions have had and the institutional problems they've had since then. And maybe more to the point, it speaks to the relative importance of the industrial sector of our economy in recent years, and one of the reasons that unions have declined so dramatically in recent years is that industrial jobs, where unions are most likely to be effective, have declined as well.
LAMB: Early in the book, you quote -- I don't know if I can find it -- Gladstone, the famous Brit, as saying -- it's either about our Constitution or about this country as being the greatest ever created. Can you remember that?
BRINKLEY: The Constitution, I think, is what Gladstone was referring to and I actually don't remember the precise quote that you're referring to, but there is an important theme in American history and we see this certainly today in debates about what the Supreme Court should be doing and what the Constitution means. One of the things that made the United States so different from England, politically, after the American Revolution, was that we chose to write down our Constitution. The English constitution, which is much venerated in England, is an unwritten document. It's simply an understanding of the way things work. And the first generation of citizens of the United States, the revolutionaries, and their successors who wrote the Constitution, believed that one of the things that had created the difficulties between the United States and England and that had corrupted English society in a way that made the Revolution necessary was precisely the fact that the Constitution was unwritten and, therefore, could be corrupted and perverted by venal and self-interested leaders, as they believed the king and some of his ministers had been.
So creating a written Constitution for the United States was one of the crucial things that separated the United States from England. Having done that, Americans tended to give to this document a kind of veneration that, in many ways, survives to this day, although perhaps not as strongly as it once did. And the Constitution was described as sacred, the framers of the Constitution were remembered as the "Founding Fathers" -- that's a phrase that really didn't come into currency until the 1920s -- but were treated almost as demigods by later generations.
During much of the 19th century, when the federal government was very weak and American society was very provincial and fragmented, the veneration of the Constitution was one of the few things that gave Americans a sense of themselves as being part of a single nation. In the 20th century that veneration has survived in many ways, but it has also started to be challenged, and we now see, on the one hand, people insisting on using the Constitution as a bulwark against social changes, social and cultural changes, insisting on interpreting it through the idea of original intent; and others who argue that the Constitution is a very flexible document that was meant to respond to changes in the times. And then there are others now who say that the Constitution itself is archaic, that it's saddled us with a government that may have worked very well in the 19th century but is not working well in the 20th century.
LAMB: I found the quote. William Gladstone says, page 147, “The US Constitution -- the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
BRINKLEY: Well, that was a view widely shared by Americans and perhaps still is. It's hard to argue with the idea that -- I mean, I'm not sure I'd use quite the superlatives that Gladstone uses, but it's hard to argue that the American Constitution has been an extraordinarily successful experiment. I mean, a government that was created at a particular moment by a group of men that has survived now for almost 200 -- well, a little over 200 years. And for all the problems that our government has today, it's still a remarkably stable political system. And one has to be impressed. Now there were flaws in the Constitution, some of which we have corrected over time through amendments and some of which remain uncorrected. But it's hard to think of another moment of state building, of Constitution building in the history of human civilization that has created so successful a political system and so enduring a one.
LAMB: You said earlier that your father is a journalist and your two brothers are journalists. Where do they work?
BRINKLEY: My brother Joel works for The New York Times. He's an editor in the Washington bureau and prior to that was The Times correspondent in Israel. And my brother John is the Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News, which is a Scripps-Howard paper.
LAMB: Now when you all get together, you're the only historian in the family. Do you find that you look at the world differently?
BRINKLEY: Not particularly. I think many people like to believe that when one becomes an historian, one has a perspective on the world that is different and, therefore, of particular value to everyone else. And I make no effort to disabuse them of that, but I think to some degree it's a myth. I don't think that my view of contemporary events is any more knowledgeable or perceptive than that of my brothers, maybe less so. I think I know more about history than they do, but they probably know more about today than I do.
LAMB: You said earlier that one of the things you find when you teach students about the 20th century is that there's a lot that they don't know. What are the things that you can remember that most surprise your students about the early 20th century or even later, in the '40s and and '50s?
BRINKLEY: Well, it's hard to say. I mean, I don't have a pipeline into my students' mind in what does and does not surprise them. I think back to my own experience as a college student studying history and I think what surprises people most often are things they learn that contradict sort of popular conventional wisdom.
I mean, history is referred to constantly in our public conversations, not always very reflectively, but it's, you know, today we refer constantly to the legacy of Vietnam, to the legacy of the '60s, or a Munich analogy. And I think what surprises students is how much more complicated and contested these legacies are than the glib way in which they're used in contemporary politics would have led them to believe.
I think what also surprises students is that people who are remembered popularly in black and white as the heroes of recent history or the goats and villains of recent history, are also more complicated and interesting, usually, than they would tend to believe. People are very surprised when I talk about Franklin Roosevelt and surprised to find out, first of all, how much of the New Deal didn't work, how much of it was abandoned even before Roosevelt died; how complicated Franklin Roosevelt was and how complicated his ideology was. And that's just one example.
People are surprised when I talk about Richard Nixon, who is not a figure whom I admire. But nevertheless, I think there are many extraordinarily impressive things about Nixon's career and about his presidency. And people are very surprised to discover, for example, that it was Richard Nixon, not a Democrat, who proposed the only really profound reform of the welfare system since 1935, the family assistance plan, which was never passed, but it was presumably a conservative Republican who's the only president ever to have proposed a guaranteed income as the basis of our welfare system.
LAMB: When you lecture, do you speak extemporaneously or do you speak from notes? Do you have audio-visual aids or...
BRINKLEY: I don't have audio-visual aids. I do have notes and I speak from the notes sometimes, and I speak extemporaneously at other times. But I do like to work out pretty carefully what I'm going to say before I stand up to say it.
LAMB: When you test a student, what system do you use?
BRINKLEY: Well, I tend to ask people to write essays and I tend to give them fairly broad, sort of interpretive statements to respond to, and ask them to find examples and illustrations to support their argument. So I don't ask specific questions very often. I don't think history is a process of memorizing names and dates and it should not be, although -- of course,it's important to know some names and dates. I think understanding history means learning how to think about history and how to marshal the so-called facts that you know behind an argument, an interpretation. And that's what I encourage students to try to do.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite or favorite historians that you look to -- people that you either have modeled your own writing after or people you would go pick up off the shelf and read yours -- if you had time?
BRINKLEY: Oh, well, there are many historians whom I admire and whom I always read when their books come out or -- some of them, of course, are no longer living or no longer writing. I mean, I hate to make a list because I -- at the risk of offending the people I leave off it, but one historian whom I've always deeply admired is Richard Hofstadter, whom I never knew, who died in the early '70s, but who taught at Columbia, as I do. And even though his books now seem, in many ways, very dated and present interpretations that most historians, including me, largely disagree with now, he I found to be an extraordinarily inventive and creative historian, an historian who was willing to take chances and, using interdisciplinary methods, an historian who wrote beautifully, who tried to make his writing important not just to scholars, but also to other readers. I can't say I've modeled my career on Richard Hofstadter and, you know, I mean, I should be so lucky as to be as great an historian as he was, but he certainly has had an influence in the way I've thought.
I'm a great admirer of C. Vann Woodward, who is, of course, still very much alive, still writing and is a friend of mine and whose -- reading his work in college -- his work on Southern history had a big impact on me and on the way I thought about history. And I think I'll stop there. I mean, there are many others whom I admire, but I...
LAMB: What's next?
BRINKLEY: Well, I'm finishing, I hope in the next month or so, a book that I've been working on -- that I worked on alongside this one for more years than I'd like to admit, about the way in which liberals -- New Dealers -- in the late '30s and the 1940s redefined what they thought the government should do. And it's a book about what came after the war to be known as “New Deal liberalism” took the form it did, which in many ways is very different from the form it had in the early and mid-'30s, when the New Deal itself was most active. So that's what I'm working on at the moment. And then I'm also just starting a biography of Henry Luce, the founder and publisher of Time and Life and Fortune.
LAMB: Why Henry Luce?
BRINKLEY: Well, I think -- I mean, there are lots of reasons why I'm doing it, but what I think makes him interesting to me is that it's about opportunity to look in a very precise way at some of the intersections between politics and culture. I think the magazines that Luce created and that he guided so directly through most of his life had an enormous impact on American culture and also were enormously reflective of at least some strains of American culture. Luce was also very active in and, at times, influential in politics. And the combination of those two things made him interesting to me. I think politics and culture have tended to be treated as very separate areas and I think anyone watching our politics today has to be aware that they're not separate at all; they're inextricable. And so I hope, in this book, to be able to explore that connection.
LAMB: Our guest has been the author of this book called “The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. Professor Alan Brinkley is at Columbia University and we thank you very much for joining us.
BRINKLEY: My pleasure.
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