The 'Hustlers' Who Started America

Historian Walter McDougall admires the founders’ ideals—but with a wink rather than a woke scowl or a reverent gaze.

By Jason Willick

July 2, 2021

There are two interpretations of 1776 that matter in 2021. Call them the Whig and the woke.

The Whig version is a story of progress. It interprets the founding as an imperfect expression of political ideals that have come steadily closer to realization over time. That’s more or less the vision that many red states are trying to salvage with measures against “critical race theory” in K-12 schools. Florida’s Board of Education enacted a rule last month that public-school teachers “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Such mandates are a response to woke history, which takes a darker view. Instead of arguing that “this country has not been living up to its ideals,” says the historian Walter McDougall, the woke “believe this country does not have any ideals,” or at least any worth striving for. Rather than trace how the past’s aspirations reverberate in the present, woke history selectively imposes modern politics onto the past.

Mr. McDougall, 74, stands apart from this increasingly salient divide. In a Zoom interview from his home in suburban Philadelphia, he says that in their zeal to pass judgment, the woke “either don’t know how to think historically or they don’t want to think historically.” But he’s also wary of popular interpretations of history that tell Americans “they’re exceptionally virtuous” which he says is “either naively silly, or it is downright dangerous.”

That outlook informs his two volumes of American history through the Reconstruction period, “Freedom Just Around the Corner” (2004) and “Throes of Democracy” (2008). “I granted the high ideals which the American Founding Fathers stood for,” Mr. McDougall says, “but I also did so with a wink”—as distinct from the woke scowl, but also distinct from the Whig’s reverent gaze. He says that the American colonists were “scofflaws” and emphasizes that “the genius of the American people is that so often their corruption is creative.”

In other words, Mr. McDougall doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the fallenness of the founders—but in contrast with the woke, he attributes it to their being human, not white or male or wealthy. He also celebrates the power and success of the institutions they created, but unlike the Whigs, he chalks it up to the fortuitous result of crafty self-interest, not “American exceptionalism.”

Mr. McDougall, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, describes himself as “a generalist,” one of the few remaining in academia. He wrote his dissertation on interwar relations between Germany and France, and later books covered the North Pacific region and the U.S.-Soviet space race. “The Heavens and the Earth” won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in history.

This broader perspective informs Mr. McDougall’s account of the founding. American historians, he says, often “have tunnel vision, and they try to look at the outside world as just the outside world, and America is either trying to hide from it or change it. In fact, the United States has always existed within a system of states.”

To put early America’s role in the 18th-century world in perspective, he notes that only a small fraction—4% is an oft-cited estimate—“of the Africans who were enslaved and carted across the Atlantic Ocean ended up in what became the United States of America,” an order of magnitude less than Brazil. The Declaration of Independence, he emphasizes, “was a war measure. The Continental Congress declared independence in order to attract French help.”

And the American Revolution “was a thoroughly international war,” involving not only Britain and the colonists but also France and Spain. “The climactic battle in the war, the siege of Yorktown in 1781, was won by the American side only thanks to 1½ French armies, one commanded by Rochambeau and the other commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette, plus a French fleet from the West Indies under Adm. [François Joseph] de Grasse, which sailed into the [Chesapeake] Bay and blockaded Cornwallis’s fort from the sea.”

Unusual for a scholar his age or younger, Mr. McDougall experienced war firsthand. He graduated from Amherst College in 1968 and fought in Vietnam. On the ground he saw that “our tremendous firepower and mobility simply were inadequate to rooting out the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.” The experience taught him “how huge bureaucracies in general operate, whether they are military or civilian,” he says. “The irrationality and the unfairness and the arbitrariness of big bureaucracies really sunk in to me. I think that I understand institutions, historically, much better, because of that experience in the Army.”

He’s keen to point out that early Americans savvily manipulated institutions, often with salutary outcomes. “Almost nobody’s heard of James Wilson, ” Mr. McDougall says. He sees Wilson—a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later a Supreme Court justice—as one of the most important founders. His contribution wasn’t as much to the substance of the Constitution as “the system by which ultimately the Constitution would be ratified.”

Mr. McDougall calls the Constitution’s adoption “an act of political creativity that was achieved through not entirely above-board means.” The Philadelphia Convention was initially advertised misleadingly, as merely an effort to amend the Articles of Confederation. “The convention was stacked” with like-minded delegates and “the ratification by the states was in many cases rushed through.”

Advocates orchestrated the timing and composition of state ratifying conventions. “That there would be state conventions at all, as opposed to just letting the colonial assemblies vote on the Constitution,” Mr. McDougall says, was also a canny innovation by the Federalists. Wilson “showed other states how to do it by immediately organizing the Pennsylvania convention and rushing it through to ratification.”

Does recognizing the Framers’ political hardball undermine the majesty of their achievement? “No, not at all,” Mr. McDougall says. “How many good bills go down to defeat, even if the procedure by which a Parliament or a Congress considers the bill [is] entirely open and above-board? How many good laws never happen, how many very bad laws do happen?” The Constitution’s system of separated powers, he says, was a “very wise, prudential and British way of going about it—that’s something the French Revolution absolutely ignored.”

Mr. McDougall’s skeptical attitude toward political idealism owes something to his friend David Eisenhower, the former president’s grandson and a Penn communications professor who is knowledgeable about ancient history. Mr. McDougall says Mr. Eisenhower drew his attention to “Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric, and how orators of any kind, but especially politicians, can manipulate their audiences.” The historian noticed that “one of the kind of clever tricks that Americans play on themselves is to want to feel good about doing well, but not telling yourself that’s what you’re doing.” He calls that hustling, “in the better sense of the word, but also the pejorative sense of that word.”

A modern example is the embrace by wealthy, powerful institutions of socialist and other radical politics. “The most nauseating fact about wokeness is that Big Business is 110% on board,” Mr. McDougall says. “The cultural elites have made a marriage of convenience with the economic elites” in a perfect distillation of “feeling good about doing well,” the American tradition of self-promotion that Mr. McDougall traces to the colonial era.

Another example: An interviewer, “I think it was maybe a radio talk show, asked me about this phenomenon of the Americans as hustlers, and to apply it to our present day. And I said, ‘Well, look around you—politicians, businessmen, so-called radical leaders, they’re all hustlers!’ And the radio host said, ‘You mean someone like Donald Trump ?’ ” This was just after “Throes of Democracy” came out in 2008. “I said, ‘Absolutely, he’s the perfect example, no question about it.’ ”

The political successes of both Mr. Trump and his woke antagonists reflect a fracturing of what Mr. McDougall calls the “American civil religion.” The common understanding of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses is that they separate religious faith from political practice. “I argue exactly the opposite,” Mr. McDougall says. “What the First Amendment did was to establish a civil religion.” With sectarian faith officially a private affair, the nation needed a “spiritual force” to give government legitimacy. A lesson from history, Mr. McDougall says, is that “if you could enlist religion on behalf of your state, that is going to be a great source of power.”

America’s civil religion is a “shape-shifting faith” that articulates the nation’s core values. It survived schism in the 19th century over slavery and emerged more vigorous. Mr. McDougall traces a fundamental change to the Progressive Era, when Protestantism was “buffeted by the discoveries in the natural sciences, from Darwin to geology, archeology, paleontology,” the realization that “the world’s much older than the Bible claims, and all the rest.” Protestants “rejustified their faith . . . on the basis not so much of the inerrancy of the Bible but on the social mission that Protestant Christian churches ought to promote.”

President Trump identified the American civil religion “too closely with sectarianism, essentially with evangelical Christianity,” Mr. McDougall says. With wokeness, a different kind of progressive aspires to remake the American civil religion, a process that includes reinterpreting its scriptures and defrocking saints. But “heresies” in the civil religion don’t announce themselves. As Mr. McDougall explains, “you pick one or two pieces of doctrine out of your religion or out of your faith, and you try to build up a whole new worldview out of these pieces of doctrine—but you keep calling the religion by the same name.”

Thus the woke displacement of America’s liberal tradition can take place insidiously, with institutions barely realizing how far and how fast they are abandoning its tenets. Emphasize selective episodes in American history, decontextualize or distort others, and the founding principles can be made to look like a lie. Mr. McDougall associates himself with an observation from the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, who wrote that “America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” He notes that the “civil-religious volume in the presidential inaugurals has been getting louder and louder,” though no 21st-century president has been able to marshal a durable majority behind his interpretation of the faith.

Is there hope for a restoration of consensus? Mr. McDougall believes the U.S. is in a “long cusp, in which Americans are very confused about what their national destiny is.” Yet “the hustling nature of Americans, that is really bred in the bone going all the way back to colonial times,” has always “mitigated somewhat their high principles.” Perhaps the same churn of creative self-interest is also what has enabled those principles to endure.

Mr. Willick is a Wall Street Journal editorial page writer.