At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated a memorial to the more than 3,000 Union soldiers who had died turning back a Confederate invasion in the first days of July. There were at least a few ways that the president could have justified the sad loss of life in the third year of a brutal war dividing North and South. He could have said it was necessary to destroy the Confederacy's cherished institution of slavery, to punish southerners for seceding from the United States, or to preserve the nation intact. Instead, at this crucial moment in American history, Lincoln gave a short, stunning speech about democracy. The president did not use the word, but he offered its essence. To honor the dead of Gettysburg, he called on northerners to ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
With these words, Lincoln put democracy at the center of the Civil War and at the center of American history. The authors of this book share his belief in the centrality of democracy; his words, "of the people," give our book its title and its main theme. We see American history as a story "of the people," of their struggles to shape their lives and their land.
Our choice of theme does not mean we believe that America has always been a democracy. Clearly, it has not. As Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, most African Americans still lived in slavery. American women, north and south, lacked rights that many men enjoyed; for all their disagreements, white southerners and northerners viewed Native Americans as enemies. Neither do we believe that there is only a single definition of democracy, either in the narrow sense of a particular form of government or in the larger one of a society whose members participate equally in its creation. Although Lincoln defined the northern cause as a struggle for democracy, southerners believed it was anything but democratic to force them to remain in the Union at gunpoint. As bloody draft riots in New York City in July 1863 made clear, many northern men thought it was anything but democratic to force them to fight in Lincoln's armies. Such disagreements have been typical of American history. For more than 500 years, people have struggled over whose vision of life in the New World would prevail.
It is precisely such struggles that offer the best angle of vision for seeing and understanding the most important developments in the nation's history. In particular, the democratic theme concentrates attention on the most fundamental concerns of history: people and power.
Lincoln's words serve as a reminder of the basic truth that history is about people. Across the 31 chapters of this book, we write extensively about complex events, such as the five-year savagery of the Civil War, and long-term transformations, such as the slow, halting evolution of democratic political institutions. But we write in the awareness that these developments are only abstractions unless they are grounded in the lives of people. The test of a historical narrative, we believe, is whether its characters are fully rounded, believable human beings.
We hope that our commitment to a history "of the people" is apparent on every page of this book. To underscore it, we open each chapter with an "American Portrait" feature, a story of someone whose life in one way or another embodies the basic theme of the pages to follow. So, we begin Chapter 8 on the United States in the 1790s with William Maclay, a senator from rural Pennsylvania, who feared that arrogant northeasterners and "pandering" Virginians would quickly turn the new nation into an aristocracy. In Chapter 23, we encounter 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle, whose solo swim across the English Channel and taste for cars and dancing epitomized the individualistic, consumer culture emerging in the 1920s.
The choice of Lincoln's words also reflects our belief that history is about power. To ask whether America was democratic at some point in the past is to ask whether all people had equal power to make their lives and their nation. Such questions of power necessarily take us to political processes, to the ways in which people work separately and collectively to enforce their will. We define politics quite broadly in this book. With the feminists of the 1960s, we believe that "the personal is the political," that power relations shape people's lives in private as well as in public.Of the People looks for democracy in the living room as well as the legislature, and in the bedroom as well as the business office.
To underscore our broad view of the political, each chapter presents an "American Landscape" feature, a particular place in time where issues of power appeared in especially sharp relief. So, Chapter 2 describes the sixteenth-century Native American villages of Huronia, whose social spaces and sexual relations reflected distinctive ideas about individual freedom and female power. Chapter 21 details the contrasting understandings of democracy at the heart of the early twentieth-century battle over creating a new water supply for San Francisco by building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of California.
Focusing on democracy, on people and power, we have necessarily written as wide-ranging a history as possible. In the features and in the main text, Of the People conveys both the unity and the great diversity of the American people across time and place. Lincoln's "people" have shared a common identity as Americans; but at the same time they have been many distinctive "peoples." So, we chronicle the racial and ethnic groups who have shaped America. We explore differences of religious and regional identity. We trace the changing nature of social classes. We examine the different ways that gender identities have been constructed and reconstructed over the centuries. While treating different groups in their distinctiveness, we have integrated them into the broader narrative as much as possible. A true history "of the people" means not only acknowledging their individuality and diversity but also showing their interrelationships and their roles in the larger narrative.
Of the People also offers comprehensive coverage of the different spheres of human life—cultural as well as governmental, social as well as economic, environmental as well as military. This commitment to comprehensiveness is a reflection of our belief that all aspects of human existence are the stuff of history. It is also an expression of the fundamental theme of the book: the focus on democracy leads naturally to the study of people's struggles for power in every dimension of their lives. Moreover, the democratic approach emphasizes the interconnections between the different aspects of Americans' lives; we cannot understand politics and government without tracing their connection to economics, religion, culture, art, sexuality, and so on.
The economic connection is especially important. Of the People devotes much attention to economic life, to the ways in which Americans have worked and saved and spent. Economic power, the authors believe, is basic to democracy. Americans' power to shape their lives and their country has been greatly affected by whether they were farmers or hunters, plantation owners or slaves, wageworkers or capitalists, domestic servants or bureaucrats. The authors do not see economics as an impersonal, all-conquering force: instead, we try to show how the values and actions of ordinary people, as well as the laws and regulations of government, have made economic life.
We have also tried especially to place America in global context. The story of individual nation-states such as the United States remains a critically important kind of history. But the history of America, or any nation, cannot be adequately explained without understanding its relationship to transnational events and global developments. That is true for the first chapter of the book, which shows how America began to emerge from the collision of Native Americans, West Africans, and Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is just as true for the last chapter of the book, which demonstrates how globalization and the war on terror transformed the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. In the chapters in between these two, the authors detail how the world has changed America and how America has changed the world. Reflecting the concerns of the rest of the book, we focus particularly on the movement of people, the evolution of power, and the attempt to spread democracy abroad.
To underscore the fundamental importance of global relationships, each chapter includes a feature on "America and the World." So, Chapter 15 reveals how ordinary Europeans' support for the abolition of slavery made it impossible for their government to recognize the southern Confederacy. Chapter 20 shows how Singer, a pioneering American multinational company, began to export an economic vision of a consumer democracy along with its sewing machines in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In a sense, Singer had arrived at Abraham Lincoln's conclusion about the central importance of democracy in American life. The company wanted to sell sewing machines; the president wanted to sell a war. But both believed their audience would see democracy as quintessentially American. Whether they were right is the burden of this book.