A Question of Character
Two new books look at some of the individuals who made America great.

By Brendon Miniter

History is in part a tale of grand passions and great ideas–of conflict, politics and war–but it can also be a quieter chronicle of particular people following their own sense of purpose or, to use an old-fashioned word, virtue. In “A Patriot’s History of the United States,” Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen remind us what a few good individuals can do in just a few short centuries.

The virtue of the Founding Fathers, the book suggests, was in part religious. We’ve long been told that they were deists, believing only in an uninvolved God. But nearly half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had seminary training or a seminary degree. Their God could act providentially, and their religious beliefs helped to shape their faith in republican government and the natural law that, in their view, underlay its principles. John Adams remarked that the American Revolution “connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

One theme of “A Patriot’s History of the United States” is the American character itself, which seems to produce principled leaders when the nation most needs them. We are given a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, of course, peppering his speeches with biblical references and stubbornly taking charge in the difficult years of the Civil War–even riding, unprotected, through the chaotic streets of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Va., after its capture. But the authors do not fail to include as well vivid portraits of Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas, who eloquently, if futilely, staved off a sectional crisis with the Compromise of 1850.

Not that “A Patriot’s History”–a fluent account of America from the discovery of the Continent up to the present day–is concerned only with the nation’s sober moments. Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, we are told, brought so many jobseekers to Washington that the city’s saloons ran out of booze. After his swearing-in, Jackson famously invited the rabble into the White House, where they proceeded to “raise hell.” For all its boisterous beginnings, Jackson’s administration came at a turning point in the history of the republic. In 1832, Jackson dispatched the Navy to South Carolina to quash an effort to “nullify” federal tariffs within the state, thereby asserting federal supremacy and presaging the constitutional struggles that would lead to Fort Sumter three decades later.

FDR is another leader who rose at his nation’s time of need. These days he is in the news because Social Security, begun in 1935, was part of a sweep of New Deal programs that are still with us today. Messrs. Schweikart and Allen show how many of them were crafted on the spot to meet immediate political demands or to form a dominant Democratic coalition. Social Security, although it is now treated as sacrosanct, began as a program to give a pension to the elderly (who hadn’t paid in) at a time when the New Deal was stalling.