An Invitation to the Great American Story – Dr. Wilfred “Bill” McClay
An Invitation to the Great American Story – Dr. Wilfred “Bill” McClay
He lets hope guide the way … Dr. Wilfred “Bill” McClay is working to restore the soul of America. And that’s no easy feat. As misinformation about American history spreads across the country, he’s made it his mission to set the story straight. Dr. McClay discusses his motivations behind writing his latest book and its impact on readers with host Charles Mizrahi.
• An Introduction to Dr. McClay (00:00:00)
• For Audiences Everywhere (00:04:46)
• A Timely American Story (00:10:51)
• Bravery and The Revolution (00:18:55)
• An American Masterpiece (00:28:54)
• Context is Everything (00:35:33)
• Making History Fun Again (00:41:34)
• Historical Consciousness (00:47:26)
• The Battlefield of Information (00:56:04)
Dr. Wilfred “Bill” McClay is a professor, author and public speaker. After receiving a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University, he went on to teach at the University of Oklahoma — where he’s the G.T. and Libby Blankenship chair. In addition, he’s also the director of the Center for the History of Liberty.
Dr. McClay has written several works on American history throughout his career. His latest book, (below), recounts the informative and inspiring events that helped shape our country into the world power that it is today.
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BILL MCCLAY: I think we’ve lost a sense that the past is a resource. The past is not just something we edit to our predilection. When we do that, all we get back is the mirror of ourselves.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Professor Wilfred “Bill” McClay. Professor McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma and the director of the Center for the History of Liberty.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Dr. McClay’s latest book is: Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal said: “McClay has written a necessary book — the most balanced, nuanced history of the United States I have read in the past 50 years.” Land of Hope has close to 900 five-star reviews on Amazon — outstanding for a book on American history.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Professor McClay to talk about what motivated him to write Land of Hope and why he thinks it struck such a nerve with so many.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Bill, I’d like to thank you so much for being on the show. I have been anticipating this meeting. I read parts of your fantastic book, which I definitely want to get into. And once again, I want to thank you for being on the show.
BILL MCCLAY: It’s my pleasure, really. This is a great opportunity to talk with a highly intelligent reviewer, critic and observer. Have I flattered you enough?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Keep going.
BILL MCCLAY: OK.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, so you wrote a book — Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Now, I was looking through some of the reviews, and I want to share one with you. “In a time when America seems pulled in opposite directions, Wilfred McClay has written a necessary book,” and I quote here, “…the most balanced, nuanced history of the United States I have read in the past 50 years.” This is Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. You can’t pay enough for that. Why did he say that?
BILL MCCLAY: Well, modesty forbids me to say too much about that. Except, that’s really what I was trying to do. I was trying not to write a conservative, liberal or moderate book. I wanted it to be balanced. I wanted it to give some degree of respect and credibility to a variety of positions — not all of which I agreed with, but that I thought deserved hearing.
BILL MCCLAY: So, it’s not really an effort to establish an official version of American history. Although, it’s interesting that the criticism has all come from the left. It’s all coming from the left. It says: Well, yes, you do take account of slavery. You do take account of these things. But you don’t make them the center of things.” And that’s right. I don’t do that. And that’s really the nub of the disagreement that they have with me.
BILL MCCLAY: I want to acknowledge our faults, but I also want to acknowledge our glories. And I think that to include one without including the other is a terrible disservice to real historical understanding.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How do you start a book like this? Before you go on, I just want to tell you that I was sent this book by your publisher about two weeks ago. I put it aside. I had so many other books, and I was reading and going through. I happened to read the 1620 book by Peter Wood.
BILL MCCLAY: Terrific.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I had him on the show earlier. He said that people should read more about American history. And I said: “Could you give my listeners an example of something that you think they should read?” He looks around his bookcase and says: “Land of Hope.” It’s an outstanding history book.” So, how did you start writing a book like this?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’ve read a lot of history books. William Bennett and America: The Last Best Hope — he wrote a two-volume book on American history, which is very conservative and tells you a whole other side of history. Howard Zinn’s book — which sounded like it was written in Moscow. And then I read your book. I read parts of your book. And I want to get into some parts that blew me away. How do you sit down and play not near the baseline but right in center court? How do you go about doing something like that?
BILL MCCLAY: First of all, I’ve been teaching this stuff. People who see me know that I didn’t start doing this yesterday. I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. And a lot of that time, I’ve taught the introductory course in American history in whatever institution I’ve been a part of. I always wanted to do that because I wanted students to get a larger sense of American history — the trajectory or meaning of it. And it’s not just, as Henry Ford said, “One damn thing after another.”
BILL MCCLAY: For a lot of us that a history course — one damn thing after another. In Howard Zinn’s case, it’s one damnable thing after another. But I’ve been at this a while, and I’ve formed some fairly coherent views about American history and its various controversies.
BILL MCCLAY: I started out with a sense of the whole. As you know, authors generally write the titles for their books last — and with a good deal of help from the publisher often who says, “With a title like that, the book won’t sell. Do it this way.” I’ve had some of my titles tinkered with by publishers who generally knew better than I did.
BILL MCCLAY: But in this case, the title was the first thing because I thought: “What do I want to convey, above all, to young people?” And that’s really my audience. I don’t want to scare your audience off, but this is really a textbook. It’s it doesn’t look like a textbook. It doesn’t feel like one. It doesn’t read like one. But I really meant it for the instruction of young people — juniors and seniors in high school or college students. It is being used in college classes.
BILL MCCLAY: What was the one thing I wanted to get across? We’ve changed in lots of ways, but America always been about aspiration. We are an aspirational nation. We are a nation made up of people who do not believe that your lot in life is what you were born into. You can go places. You can do things. You can rise. You can fall. It’s sort of up to you to do what you can. That seems to be so fundamentally American. And it’s not just that we have offered the conditions — material condition like relatively inexpensive land and all that. But it’s the outlook. It’s the morale of the country. It’s the psyche — the soul — of the country. It’s about hope.
BILL MCCLAY: So, I loved Land of Hope as a title. I wrote it out and pinned it to my computer monitor. And there it stayed for the rest of it. Then, it was just a matter of parsing out … In a lot of ways, my chapter sequence is fairly usual. There’s nothing radical. But there are some things that are subtly different. I called the chapter on the American Revolution: “The Revolution of Self-Rule” because I wanted to emphasize that aspect of the American Revolution.
BILL MCCLAY: There are lot of debates. Was it about natural rights, or was it based on religion? Was it based on the radical Whig ideas? Or, was it economic? Was it a revolution of the American elites against the English elites? Was it a social revolution — like the French Revolution? All those debates are out there. But I wanted to emphasize that it was about ruling ourselves. That’s one thing I think is irreducibly true.
BILL MCCLAY: I end the chapter with a wonderful interview from a very elderly patriot who’s asked: “Why did you fight in the war?” They go through all of these different things — the Stamp Act and tax on tea. He said: “No, we didn’t care about any of that.” So, they asked: “Why did you fire those shots in Lexington and Concord?” And he said, “Look, young man, we had always ruled ourselves. And the redcoats came to try to end that. We weren’t about to let that happen.” I think that’s a very important strain of American history that sometimes gets lost in all of these debates about what the revolution was about. It was simply about the right to rule ourselves.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: At this juncture in time, why did you feel such a need to put out a book like this?
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, good question. There was a proximate cause. The Advanced Placement tests are administered by the College Board — a private, nonprofit organization. It administers the AP U.S. History test, which increasingly — partly by design — is becoming a national standard. That’s another story. But in 2014, they revised the standards for Advanced Placement testing and the preparation of advanced placement courses.
BILL MCCLAY: And it was a quite shocking overhaul in which political history — the story of how the nation came to be, the wars involved, the debates over the Constitution and that whole sequence of events — was radically deemphasized in place of transatlantic economic history. There was an emphasis on the slave trade and the triangle trade. And the names “George Washington” and “James Madison” did not appear in these guidelines.
BILL MCCLAY: So, a number of us came together and drafted a letter. About 200 people eventually signed in protest. We pleaded with the College Board to reconsider its changes. And they it did retract a lot of it — most of it, in fact.
BILL MCCLAY: In fact, Dan Henninger wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal saying: “OK, conservatives, you got what you wanted. Now, shut up.” I vow to no one in my admiration for Dan Henninger — especially after that quote that you read. But on this, there was something else going on. The textbook publishers had already revised the text in light of the revisions of the AP standards.
BILL MCCLAY: People noticed this, and they started to say, “Well, we really need another textbook.” They would come to say to me: “We did another textbook.” And I would say: “I agree with you. I hope you find somebody to do it.” I didn’t really want to. But several people — chief among them was Roger Kimball, a publisher of Encounter Books and a real dynamo of a person — managed to persuade me to do it. I couldn’t believe it myself. When I hung up the phone, I thought: “My God, what have I done by agreeing to this?”
BILL MCCLAY: But I’m so glad I did it because it gave me the opportunity to pull together what I’d been doing for 30 years and distill it down to a very essential core. It’s not the last word. And I’ve called it: “an invitation to the great American story” it’s an invitation to a party. It’s not the whole party itself. As an invitation, you want to be enticing. You want people to want to come. And then, you want them to take part in a larger conversation. It was a “come on in” to American history.
BILL MCCLAY: So much of what young people are taught about American history is negative now. Not all of it is false by any means. It just lacks perspective. That’s what I’ve tried to provide — perspective on our national failings — our national sins — that are real. I would add, and I often do in the book, that these are not just national. These are not just American sins. These are human sins. These are human failings.
BILL MCCLAY: Something I don’t do in the book very much but I did a lot as a teacher is when I start to hear students talking about America’s failings, I will sort of wind my way into asking them the “compared to what?” question. “Tell me [about] another country that was doing better at this time?” They usually don’t know enough to answer the question. But if they do know something, they know that nobody was doing better. It’s unfair to compare American history to a standard of perfection that no other people and nation would be expected to meet.
BILL MCCLAY: But if we compare ourselves to other nations and the opportunity that we offered — even though, admittedly, that opportunity was often less than complete. There was racial and ethnic discrimination. There was also discrimination against Catholics and Jews. It was not all that long ago. I think that people who remember that sort of thing are kind of nonplused by the claim that they are part of a plot of white supremacy.
BILL MCCLAY: Actually, the record of the country’s sins is much more diverse than that! And we need to know all that. We do need to know all that. But we need to see it in the proper perspective. That’s the thing that I think is missing.
BILL MCCLAY: I’ll just say one other thing, quickly. My students are absolutely thrown when I say two things about slavery. First of all, the United States is not the only nation in the history of the world to have slavery. Slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history. The history of the human race is a brutal, ugly thing. We are, comparatively speaking, a shining light on that. And the second thing is that there are more people enslaved in the world today — three or four times the number — than were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Again, we require perspective. We don’t often offer that. I think that’s a shame.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. When you say “your students,” are these college students?
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, and they’re very good schools here in Oklahoma. I have to tell you: We have great students.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think they’re coming to the game without much of a background. They’re really coming to universities with a watered-down version of what made this country great. And professors like you — who are few and far in between — they’re fertile ground. They’re really fertile ground to listen to anybody. They really do want to learn.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’ve always loved American history — especially the Revolutionary War period. I’ve read as many books as I can on it. I find it so fascinating that these were men who were faced with amazing challenges, and they were the “landed gentry” of their time. Instead of going into business — or in addition to business — they felt that public service was a calling. And they created something new. They were taking on a world power. So, to be judged by 21st century standards about what they were doing at the time is just ludicrous. It’s absolute insanity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No other nation — at that point in human history — had ever been founded on the view that all men were created equal.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And these were men in their 30s, right?
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, they were in their 30s and 40s. They were very young.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Washington was 41 years old. Franklin was the old man with gout in his 80s. But you had Jefferson, who was 33, and John Adams, who was 36. These were young men who were just a few years older than your college students. And they signed their names to a document that they would have been hanged for in the pursuit of creating a new society based on freedom.
BILL MCCLAY: That is one of the things that seems absolutely miraculous. I have to say that part of it may well have had to do with the tradition of self-rule that was well established for more than 150 years in Virginia. There were institutions of self-government. When people have the opportunity to interact politically — and develop both the skills of politics and the education and outlook to think about its principles — then you get The Federalist Papers. And the anti-Federalist Papers, too.
BILL MCCLAY: The Federalist Papers are not necessarily always of the same consistent, high quality. But as reflections on the meaning of political life, the limitations to which we are prone, and things you have to allow for in thinking about politics, they were very wise. They were very prudent. They were not wild-eyed, utopian revolutionaries — even Jefferson could be a bit wild-eyed.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I found out by reading The Federalist Papers, for example, or Madison … When he was assigned to come up with an idea, he ordered whole sets of books from France on the Greek form of government. This five-foot man sits and reads all of that. I’m not a historian. I would probably get a D in your class. But in their writings, they would be so reflective. They were so wise and mature beyond their years. It reflected how they saw the whole picture. They didn’t just see their own interests.
BILL MCCLAY: No, that’s right. And I think that’s one of the real calumnies against them — the notion that they were solely interested in feathering their nests and creating a regime that would be favorable to them. I think that’s clearly not the case. And some of them took enormous risks.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they lost fortunes because of it.
BILL MCCLAY: Yes, yes. I think the greatest miracle of that time period is Washington himself. I’m more and more impressed with him as time goes on. It’s hard to imagine that we would have made it without him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I read Ron Chernow’s book, Washington: A Life. And before that, I read McCullough’s book on 1776. I heard an interview with David McCullough, and they asked something along the lines of: “What fascinated you about the Founding Fathers?” And he said something that made me think: “Wow, they didn’t get sick!” You think of what they lived through.
BILL MCCLAY: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Washington at Valley Forge and his wife Martha cleaning up the feces and human waste between the tents. The dysentery. Oh, my goodness. And they didn’t get sick! It’s fascinating!
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about a lot. And I’m sure you have, too. It seems like very successful people often have physical constitutions that are extraordinary. They only need three hours of sleep. I remember reading that about Henry Kissinger and thinking: “Wow. If I only needed three hours sleep, think of what I could do with the additional five!” I’m not sure if anybody has ever really studied that — the role of the resistance to disease or robust health that conquers all.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: For example, John Adams’ family … His daughter had breast cancer. They were getting a vaccine for smallpox. There were real sicknesses there. Most people died in their 40s and 50s, and these men lived into their 70s and 80s. And Franklin had gout but still lived a pretty long life.
BILL MCCLAY: Yes. Again, it’s something universal. I think that when you think of people like Alexander the Great and so on — these are prodigies of strength and resistance to disease.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You brought up Washington. Several times throughout his military [career], he was within a whisker of getting killed.
BILL MCCLAY: He dealt with all sorts of reversals — going back to the French and Indian War…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: A fiasco.
BILL MCCLAY: Let’s say it was very unsuccessful. And yet, he was indomitable. He was absolutely indomitable and selfless in a certain way. He was very conscious that he was the first president and that he would be setting precedents in his presidency that would quite possibly extend beyond himself. So, he thought about everything. He thought about appearance. He wasn’t just a substance guy. He was an optics guy. He cared about optics.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He just sat at the constitutional convention. He sat quietly on the side. Just a grimace or a smile could change the whole argument in the room. He walked in a uniform back in the day. He was he was really a clothes horse. He looked the part. He was 6’1. But at any given point, if he was killed, everything would have been different.
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah. And the fact that at the Constitutional Convention, there was a willingness to go along with the idea of a strong presidency. It was clearly because all the delegates present knew that he would be the man. They trusted him as they would not have trusted anybody else. We were so blessed and fortunate to have had such a leader. He was a real believer in civic virtue, which is another aspect of my book. I try to get people to see that there are some ways in which we have to be good and active citizens for our nation to restore itself to a republic.
BILL MCCLAY: Washington was absolutely wedded to these ideas. Twice, he had Addison’s placato performed for the troops — which I mentioned in Land of Hope. That was meant to be inspirational. It was sort of their Chariots of Fire kind of story that inspired them and got them get them going. He had the ability to be an inspirational leader more in the example that he gave in his oratory — which was often a little bit leaden. Although, his farewell address is one of the great speeches of American history.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t a white supremacist who was trying to further his interest in the slave trade.
BILL MCCLAY: I think it’s fair to say.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That was said tongue-in-cheek. For those who were listening, if you can see our facial expressions, it’s totally a joke. What gets me — what has my mouth hanging open — your history textbook, has 964 five-star ratings. And people are writing! This a textbook! It’s a beautiful book. It’s an outstanding history book — a masterpiece. This book should be rated 10. It’s hard to put it down. It’s engaging. What do you think? What nerve did you strike? I want to tell you my opinion in second. What nerve did you strike in Americans that made them have a love affair with this book?
BILL MCCLAY: Oh, gosh. I hope you’re right — that they’re having a love affair with the book. I do get a lot of mail. It’s very humbling, really. But there were times where I was sitting around with some of my colleagues who all thought, “Why are you doing this?” This is writing a textbook. At best, it doesn’t really count for anything. And at worst, it’s sort of a discrediting thing among academics. And to write with the general public in mind, is often also … I don’t tend to hang out with people like that, but they’re everywhere in academia.
BILL MCCLAY: I remember saying one night — tongue in cheek — “It’s not clear whether or not Caesar Augustus actually commissioned the Virgil to write the Aeneid.” That’s debatable. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that he certainly knew about it and approved of it. It’s a great foundational story of Rome. And I thought: We don’t really have these sorts of fairy tale versions of American history that leave out — or edit — some of the negative details about our history.
BILL MCCLAY: I think people rightly say: “I can’t go for that because I know better. I know we had these things.” What they want is a way to honestly affirm their country because they know that it’s worthy of affirmation. They know it in their hearts. But they also know that we are on a downward trajectory. There’s such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself that you’re a certain way, then there’s no coming back from that self-understanding.
BILL MCCLAY: I’m not saying that this is a self-exalting myth. It has to be true to be believable. It’s important to be critical, but it’s important to have that criticism grounded in appreciation — and one that’s based on a real assessment of how fortunate we are to be part of this.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I like that response. For me, what I found so engaging with your book is your love, reverence and admiration for the system of government we have for the actors throughout history who built what we have now. It really shines through while you’re being critical.
BILL MCCLAY: That’s what I tried to do. It’s a love of people in their fallibility. I had a class this past semester in which we were reading Tocqueville’s work — Democracy in America — plus his work on the French Revolution. It’s a very interesting class.
BILL MCCLAY: I had one student who was, from the very beginning, determined to dislike Tocqueville because he thought Tocqueville didn’t condemn everything that the student thought ought to be worthy of condemnation. And I said: “Don’t you think it’s an important enterprise to try to understand how institutions that you find lamentable arise — whether they arise out of a pure, unadulterated evil operating the world — which is very rarely the case — or the mixture of motives that real people have?”
BILL MCCLAY: I think he finally came around by the end of the semester. But it was hard at first. I thought to myself how much he resembled some of the worst tendencies of this current generation — at least the ones we see in the streets who think that they have the right to pass judgment on Robert E. Lee, Confederate generals and even Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass [is] the great Black abolitionist — a man of incomparable strength and moral focus. To pull down his statue … We pulled down Columbus, who was a complicated figure but not a villain.
BILL MCCLAY: That’s one of Howard Zinn’s gifts to us — the villainization of Columbus. I try to encourage my readers to understand the people of the past in the context of their times. Jefferson — by our standards — was a very confused man who couldn’t quite pull the trigger on renouncing slavery even though he believed it was wrong. And that’s not to say he believed in racial equality. That’s another matter. But he was a man of his time but also in advance of his times in a lot of ways. We need to allow for that.
BILL MCCLAY: I remember that I had the great privilege of speaking at the White House on Jefferson’s 270th birthday — or something like that. In the speech, I quoted John Lewis — the civil rights leader who recently died but was still going strong at that time — and said: “With Jefferson, it was so important to us. Yeah, of course we knew about his biggest slave hold. But that wasn’t what mattered to us. What mattered to us were his words. His words were the fountain from which we drank, and every generation thereafter can drink from [it], too.”
BILL MCCLAY: I think that’s absolutely right. And if John Lewis says it, I think people ought to listen — people who care about issues of racial justice and equality. We need to understand that everybody has elements and a dark side. All of us fall short. As the Bible says: “All have fallen short of the glory of God.”
BILL MCCLAY: It’s in that context — nobody’s accused me of being nonjudgmental in my book — but not passing judgment. Not being the executioner. Not saying: “We’re going to ban Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because we don’t like a word that appears in it” — even though the book is, and was in its time, was a great advance in racial understanding. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is the latest book of Twain’s that they’ve been going after.
BILL MCCLAY: We are immensely impoverished by the loss. I know people who wouldn’t think of teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn now because of the controversy. It [happened] in the past, subsided and then erupted. To use the term that’s now in fashion, we should “cancel” anything that offends our present sensibilities.
BILL MCCLAY: It’s a very strange view of the past. The past is something that we should tailor — the way you tailor the backdrop of a painting or photograph. Or the way you tailor your Facebook page so that it creates a reality that’s more pleasing to your present sensibilities. Well, the past is what it is. And a lot of it is ugly. A lot of it is horrifying. But it’s the only laboratory we have, so to speak, for looking at what human beings are capable of doing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well said. You’ve devoted your life to educating — especially history. Why is it that when you mention history, most people’s eyes glaze over?
BILL MCCLAY: I think this goes back to the idea of story. I think history is, in the deepest sense, a story. Since the 19th century, we’ve had this idea that history could be a science. And we can use scientific techniques to understand the past and reveal aspects that we didn’t know were there.
BILL MCCLAY: I have a colleague who has done amazing work on how plagues. It was very timely. He published a book on the role of plagues in bringing about the decline of the Roman Empire. [It was published] right as COVID was about to hit. There’s a lot of research about the eradication of native populations in the New World. It was mostly due to disease and not rapacious white European settlers who wanted to kill anyone with red skin. And that all has to do with science that we understand now that they didn’t have a clue about at the time.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If I could interject — Peter Wood’s book talks extensively about Cortez and a lot of things that are misconceptions today. We thought we knew what we’re talking about, but we missed the boat on that.
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah. Science can help us with these things. But ultimately, the way we — as human beings — know the world is through narratives, stories and sequences of events. How did we get here? What was the path? What was the nature of the journey? Where did it begin?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Bill, let me interrupt you for a second, if I may. History is full of fantastic narratives. They’re movie scripts. Yet, so many student’s introduction to history is — they suck out all the nutrients, and instead of a succulent steak, you’re eating oiled-over broccoli that sat on the counter for three days. Why is that?
BILL MCCLAY: I think that a lot of historians think you really have to gain a command over a certain factual sort of armory of basic knowledge — almost rote learning before you can start to think about interpreting the past. There’s something to that. We have students who don’t know whether the Civil War came before or after the First World War. And then you feel like: “Wow, you’re in trouble here.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Some of them have no idea which side won.
BILL MCCLAY: Yes, right — even the revolution. So, that’s true up to a point. But I think you have to catch them. You have to tell the story in a way that catches them. I’ve been working on a young readers edition of Land of Hope for fifth and sixth graders. That’s when most young people take their first course in American history.
BILL MCCLAY: I’m finding that it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. You have to simplify. You have reading level issues. It’s really hard to talk about why Andrew Jackson opposed the Bank of the United States without getting int things that fifth graders are not going to understand. I remember that I didn’t understand all that stuff when I studied it.
BILL MCCLAY: But how can you tell them something that’s not dumbed down? I’m the enemy of dumbing down. How do you do that in a way that still grabs them, is accurate, and doesn’t lead them in a false direction. So, when they study it again in 11th grade, they won’t say: “McClay was making all this stuff up. He was ignoring this. This is all false.” You don’t want to do that. You want to be as true and complete as you can be given the level you’re at.
BILL MCCLAY: A lot of times, you can do more than you think you can. To me, it’s been much more of a challenge than scholarly writing. Then, you can explain yourself at length, get all the subtleties out there and feel that you’re being very complete.
BILL MCCLAY: When you write for younger audiences, you have to catch them. Some of that can be done with stories and gimmicks. But a lot of it’s just in the way you tell it — the sweep of it. With Land of Hope, I’ve always tried to have this sense that there’s a momentum. There’s a way in which what’s happening at this time depends on — and refers back to — what was happening at an earlier time. It gets people thinking about being in a continuum of time.
BILL MCCLAY: A big lesson that I say this all the time to my classes is that history teaches us two things. Things have not always been as they are now. And, by extension, things will not always be as they are now.
BILL MCCLAY: They sound like really silly, stupid assertions. That’s especially for Millennials and this highly mediated generation, where everything is about what’s happening right now. “[This person] is the greatest hip hop artist of all time” — “all time” going back three or four years. There’s no sense of how rooted we are in a long, long journey. It’s exhilarating when you realize you have and can cultivate a connection to people decades or centuries ago. You can understand them as their contemporaries might have.
BILL MCCLAY: I think history is a work of the imagination. I talk a lot about what I call “historical consciousness.” It’s a term that students find very off-putting, so I don’t use it that much. When I took my kids to the battlefield of Antietam — which, by the way, I think that’s the best and most haunting of the Civil War battlefields. Unlike Gettysburg, which is kind of done to death, Antietam is relatively unspoiled. You can walk down that sunken road and think about all the death and mayhem that took place there.
BILL MCCLAY: Anyway, let’s just say I go to Chattanooga or someplace like that with my children. They’re running around, and they see they see the same things that I’m seeing. But what I see when I look at it — and someone who was a specialist in the Civil War would see even better — is everything that had gone before — all the things that happened a century and a half ago in that place. That’s when you have a historical consciousness.
BILL MCCLAY: The better example — and this is another thing that changed my life — is that one of my friends in college was the nephew of a man named Henry Hope Reed. And Henry Hope Reed was one of the great architectural historians of New York City. He was also curator of Central Park. I came to know him as “Uncle Henry.”
BILL MCCLAY: I was visiting my friend once on the Fourth of July, and Uncle Henry came by and said: “Hey! How would you like me to take you on a tour of Lower Manhattan?” So, we did this. I had no interest in history at that point — especially American history. We went down to Battery Park and kind of started from there.
BILL MCCLAY: Uncle Henry was an incredibly energetic guy. We walked through lower Manhattan for about six hours. We would go by a building and pause. He’d say: In this year, such and such lived here. This happened here. It was remodeled in 1919.” He had this sense of the place. I couldn’t see it in Rome, Madrid, Jerusalem or someplace like that. He had this very keen sense of the presence of the past. The past was still imminent in these buildings. And the more you knew, the more you felt that imminence. I think that’s something we need to cultivate in ourselves — that sense of the historical imagination. It’s what I call “historical consciousness.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I totally hear what you’re saying. When my kids were young, I took them to Brooklyn Heights. There’s a plaque where it stands now. I see the battle of Long Island playing out. Kings Highway coming here. Your back is against the wall, and you have the East River. That is unbelievable. You could see the ships coming. And every time I’d go there, they’d go: “Okay, we got it, dad. We want to go on the swings.” And I just look at her and say: “You’re Washington. What do you do? Your back is against the water. You’re losing.” Then a fog rolls in, and here’s what he does. I told them: “But what about the ships?” And I said: “There happened to be a wind up the East River.” They ask: “Was that a miracle?” I said: “If it wasn’t for that, the game would have been over. We would have lost.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s just fascinating. I think that a lot of teachers teach it from the book, and they don’t live it. And it’s a shame.
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I’ll give you another example of something that happens. It can really help when you find a way to connect history with the experiences of young people. That’s always been true. I think it’s truer than ever now. I taught in east Tennessee, where the TVA — the Tennessee Valley Authority — had an enormous impact on that region. There were lots of stories of people who were displaced from their land. There are a lot of stories that have never [been] told.
BILL MCCLAY: But anyway, when we were covering the New Deal in class, I said: “Go home, and talk to your parents, grandparents or great grandparents about what they remember about the TVA and the effects of it. For a paper assignment, you can write about that.” It’s astonishing. At graduation, one family told me: “You changed our family! All of the sudden, my son wanted to know about these things from his grandparents. And they started having these amazing conversations about not just the TVA but about the New Deal, Roosevelt, Prohibition, and all sorts of things.”
BILL MCCLAY: All of the sudden, they discovered that they had a connection to this. And the grandparents were thrilled! Instead of their kids being like alien creatures — for whom ancient history was Britney Spears — they felt the connection to the past, too. It’s wonderful when you can come up with things like that.
BILL MCCLAY: The best is immigration. Because no matter where you live — especially now — you’re going to run into people who either have had the experience of immigration, they’re second-generation immigrants or they know people. And connect that with larger currents of American history — especially where you have a longer record. The 19th century immigration of the Russian, Jewish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Irish — of course the Irish go back to the 1840s…
BILL MCCLAY: Then there are all sorts of stories, including some of these stories about prejudice and how difficult it was to make their way. The country was not always welcoming. And all of that’s part of the story. But I would say to kids: “If you have someone in your family who is close to the experience of immigration, talk to them about it, and tell us about it.” Even in east Tennessee, there was enough of that. You could really make some hay with it. Suddenly, the past was something that was alive.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I hear you. I just wish more teachers would do what you’re doing to make the history connect, more alive, and more enjoyable. They’re competing with something that no one ever had before — the internet. There are so many distractions. So, it has to be good. It has to be great. I think your book is a first step.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I hope others pick up your cue after they see how successful and well-received your book has become. I hope other historians of academia come out of their shells and say: “There’s a big world out there, and we really have to go to battle.” The battlefield is going to be won with information. We see that it’s being lost now. It’s being lost with misinformation — to the point of fantasy and crap being made up with the label of history. It’s so terrible for this country, its citizens and our kids.
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, I agree. It’s very unfortunate. There are people. You mentioned Ron Chernow and David McCullough. There are people who are doing great things. Look at Chernow’s book on Hamilton. It resulted in a Broadway musical. But most college professors don’t have the talent, energy and drive that Ron Chernow has. It takes a lot to work that way. I think he might have had a visiting lectureship or something like that. But I don’t think he’s an academic at all. McCullough is not.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He was never trained as a historian — which makes him so good!
BILL MCCLAY: Yes. He’s virtually impossible to reach, by the way. He has no email. I don’t think you can even call him on the telephone. He lives on Martha’s Vineyard, and there’s a post office box. I have an address for him, and I’ve corresponded with him a couple of times.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think he writes all of his books on an Underwood typewriter.
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s a beautiful thing. Since we’re winding down here, I just want to make one point. I think we’ve lost a sense that the past is a resource. The past is not just something we edit to our predilection. When we do that, all we get back is the mirror of ourselves. It’s as if you go to the window to look out, but the window is like a one-way mirror that reflects back to you. That’s what happens when we consciously construct the past in the image of what we want the present or future to be. We shouldn’t do that.
BILL MCCLAY: At the same time — it may sound a little bit contradictory, but I don’t think it is — I’m very concerned about the version of American history that young people are learning — and how demoralizing it is to them. It gives them the sense that they have no future. I’m struck by the statistics that are out there. For example, the one that grabs me is that the rate of suicide of young people between the age of 10 and 24 over the last 10 or 15 years has gone up 60%.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: During last year, it soared!
BILL MCCLAY: We don’t really have the full toll yet, but it’s going to be awful. And the lingering effects of that are going to be awful. I mean, kids have been deprived of a year of their lives. Some parents have done a great job. But wow.
BILL MCCLAY: Leaving COVID aside, how much of this sense that there’s no future worth living for comes from the 1619 Project, which teaches that America has encoded in its DNA a sort of contagion of anti-Black racism. It is at the core of our being. And if it’s in your DNA, it means that — short of some sort of engineering of the human person — we will always be this way. We will always be guilty.
BILL MCCLAY: That’s a demoralizing prospect. It’s demoralizing for white kids. It’s demoralizing for Black kids, too. I think we have to stop it. That is antithetical to what it means to be an aspirational nation. To be a land of hope is a spiritual matter.
BILL MCCLAY: We are abundantly blessed with material resources — and have always been. So is Brazil. But we have other things here that they haven’t had in Brazil. That’s why Brazilians and Africans are coming here more and more. And they don’t understand! I don’t know whether you get the African cab drivers where you live. I seem to get them all the time. They always say: “What is all this?” They don’t get it. They don’t understand what BLM and other movements like that are really about. For them, coming to this country has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I once had an Uber driver just a few months ago. He was taking me to the airport, and he was from one of the Eastern European countries. I don’t want to name one because I’m going to be wrong. I always strike up a conversation. Here you are driving me. We’re having a conversation. In a sense, you’re in your own business as an Uber driver. I asked: “What do you love best about this country?” And he said: “I go to the faucet, I turn it on and I get clean water.”
BILL MCCLAY: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What more can one say, right? We have clean water and sanitation and our bellies are full. Everything else is gravy.
BILL MCCLAY: There’s a lot to be said for those things. But we always want more. We want to do more. We want challenges.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s why he’s driving 15 hours a day. He was here for only four or five year. He borrowed a car. He worked his way up. And he was so proud that he now owned that car, and he was able to be his own boss. Forget that he was making $14 an hour. It didn’t matter because he didn’t see himself doing that for the rest of his life.
BILL MCCLAY: He’s accumulating capital, and that’s going to go into something else. And bam! He’s going to be the guy being driven around by somebody else.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Ha, 100%. Wilfred “Bill” McClay, I want to thank you so much. The book is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. It’s on Amazon for about $20 dollars. It’s now on Kindle. I see that your publishers are having to sell for $3.
BILL MCCLAY: It’s outrageous!
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You can’t get a cup of coffee for less than $3 in New York. I want to tell you that just reading one chapter is refreshing. It makes you feel good to be an American. I think you’ve done an amazing job. Bill, I wish you continued success.
BILL MCCLAY: Same to you. It’s been a pleasure. It’s an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Hope we can do it again.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Likewise. Thanks so much, Bill.
BILL MCCLAY: All right, bye.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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