NOW AND THEN someone gets the idea of asking a few experts to put together a reading list for the president. And invariably someone else will find the idea laughable. But whatever the outcome on Tuesday, we might reasonably wish that our next president would make time for history lessons that would allow him to see the present moment in the long view of American history, outside the prepackaged lessons on offer in opinion magazines and op-ed pages. As it happens, there's a ready-made reading list perfectly suited for the purpose: a shelf of recent books, six altogether, each focused on a single year in American history. There's John Ferling's "Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800" (Oxford) and C. Edward Skeen's "1816: America Rising" (Kentucky); Andrew Burstein's "America's Jubilee: How in 1826 a Generation Remembered Fifty Years of Independence" (Knopf) and Louis P. Masur's "1831: Year of Eclipse" (Hill and Wang); William H. Rehnquist's "Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876" (Knopf) and James Chace's "1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs -- The Election That Changed the Country" (Simon & Schuster).
Note that most of the years chronicled here -- in contrast to, say, 1776, 1865, 1941, or 1968 -- are conspicuous for their lack of any evocative associations. (Quick, name one salient event from 1831.) But that very anonymity is their claim to our attention. Like a pollster's findings, useful because based on a random sample, these books -- wildly various in style, skill, and ideology -- offer a range of accounts more suggestive than any single-author magnum opus. Each offers a snapshot of America at a particular historical moment, emphasizing the distinctiveness of that slice of time while simultaneously claiming a deep continuity between then and now, a continuity that reveals some fundamental truth about our national character.
There are certain obvious parallels with our own time. Three of these books center on contested elections, in 1800, 1876, and 1912. And John Ferling, in his splendid book on the Adams-Jefferson showdown of 1800, makes it difficult to take seriously all the hand-wringing about "negative campaigning" circa 2004: Jefferson's Federalist foes described him as "a howling atheist," the "head of the French party in America" -- this at a time when war with France appeared imminent -- and, for good measure, the "greatest villain in existence."
A less obvious, but more profound, parallel is the recurring theme of deep anxiety about America's future. One of the salient points of Ferling's book is the extent to which Jefferson's victory was driven by fears that the legacy of the American Revolution had been squandered -- already! And C. Edward Skeen's account of 1816 reveals a sense of the fragility of the American experiment following the sobering experience of invasion -- in the War of 1812 -- heightened by the bizarre weather of this "year without a summer."
Still deeper forebodings were stirred in 1831, Louis Masur shows, by the predicted "Great Eclipse" (the actual event proved anticlimactic) and by the cholera epidemic that reached American shores late in the year. And Andrew Burstein's reckoning with 1826, "America's Jubilee," depicts a generation of Americans convinced that they would never measure up to the Founders.These lessons and all their kin are embedded in a running story, in which America herself -- a figure resembling Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Mr. Magoo -- improbably eludes one disaster after another, often seeming hardly aware of the narrowness of her escape. Here she is in December 1800, with the presidential election a tie between two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and no clear constitutional direction for the next step. Will the Federalists steal the election and return their man, incumbent John Adams, to the White House? Only a behind-the-scenes deal breaks the impasse, yet the result -- affirming Jefferson, who seemed (when the byzantine electoral system of the day was decoded) to be the people's choice -- keeps the fledgling democracy on its footing.
Here she is again in 1876 (in William Rehnquist's "Centennial Crisis"), when the Democratic presidential candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, has won the popular vote but the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, has won in the Electoral College -- or at least may have won, if the disputed electoral votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina are indeed in his column. Once again the Constitution provides no clear guidance. In the end, the matter is sorted out in the disputed states by a committee consisting of five House members, five Senate members, and five members of the Supreme Court. Though "Rutherfraud" is not universally acclaimed, the nation wobbles on.
Not that America invariably avoids disaster. That is the burden of Masur's book on 1831. He begins and ends with that year's solar eclipse, casting an ironic eye on the apocalyptic fears stirred by the impending event. And yet, if I read him right, he suggests that such fears were not mistaken but simply mislocated, projected on the heavens: Their real source was elsewhere, above all in the moral darkness of slavery but also in graft and corruption, profit for the few, insane materialism, despoliation of the land, all revealed in quick glimpses, anecdotes.
In short, Americans in 1831 had good reason to feel a sense of doom and dread. The ultimate disaster has befallen America long ago, Masur hints, perhaps in the original sin of its conception. This dark vision of American history is at the opposite pole from the feel-good patriotism of both parties' conventions this summer, and is equally unsatisfactory.In general with these books, the rule is trust the tale and not the teller. Their narratives are often richer than their interpretive frame.
James Chace's deft account of the election of 1912 and its wider context, for example, is full of sharply rendered incident -- from the assassination attempt against Teddy Roosevelt to the brawl that erupted on the floor of the Republican Convention when it became clear that incumbent William Howard Taft had the clout to exclude many pro-Roosevelt delegates. Chace (a longtime writer on foreign affairs who died earlier this month) is excellent on this and much more, not least in tracing the outcome of the events of 1912 -- including wartime President Woodrow Wilson's draconian suppression of dissent, which makes the Patriot Act look like an initiative of the ACLU. Yet the entire narrative is framed as the beginning of a conflict between noble Democrats ("progressive idealists," Chace calls them) and nasty proponents of "conservative values" who gained their ascendancy "with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
"If Chace is facile in framing his conclusions with reference to the present day, Andrew Burstein concludes his history of 1826 by suggesting that all our conclusions are fictions -- necessary fictions, you understand, but fictions nonetheless. This last gesture, however, with its whiff of Foucault and the seminar room, sits oddly with the book Burstein wrote. He is a marvelous raconteur whose zesty appetite for humanity in all its quirky guises is suggested by his chapter titles: "Eliza Foster Courts a Chivalrous Spirit," "Old Cheese Goes Up for Sale in Chillicothe," and so on. Asking what Americans were "trying to retrieve or restore as they celebrated on July 4, 1826," Burstein's book -- of all those assembled here -- goes the furthest in performing the magic of time travel, allowing us to see America as our ancestors saw it at a particular moment, their sense of almost unlimited prospects warring with a profound burden of belatedness.
And yet Burstein undercuts all this at the end. Contrasting romantics who believe we can genuinely know the past -- who suppose that our image of the canonical Founders, for instance, is anchored in objective reality -- with a sourly debunking "reformed, rational historian," Burstein chooses a third way, a willed naivete. As they contemplated the Founding era, our ancestors in 1826, Burstein writes, "looked as we looked for symmetry, only to find chaos." Yet instead of despairing, or priding ourselves on our freedom from the illusions of our forebears, we should proceed to do as they did, and make up a good story.
"Here, there, and everywhere, human beings are engaged with an unseen presence," writes Burstein in his closing peroration. "By conjuring the ghosts of the past, we seek life in ourselves." Once again, trust the tale -- which suffers from no embarrassment in aspiring to recover the past -- and not the teller.
Let us leave our president pondering what lessons he might take from all these episodes, and how the next chapter might unfold. It is easier to write history than to make it.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.