A US history emphasizing people, places; The Vineyard of Liberty, by James MacGregor Burns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 703 pp. $22.95.
With the solid accomplishment of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy biographies in his portfolio, James MacGregor Burns has now turned his attention to a three-volume history of the United States. His perspective is unmistakable - people, and places are the essence of good history.Skip to next paragraph
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There is a procession of notables who personalize and humanize this first volume. Political, intellectual, economic, and cultural ''power wielders'' form Burns's all-important ''first cadre.'' At the next level are the influential state and metropolitan political leaders, editors, preachers, and heads of various special interest groups -- the ''second cadre.'' Closest to the people are the grass-roots activists, the ''third cadre'' who ''serve as crucial transmission links between the upper echelons and the mass public.''
But as important as the people are, the places where they act, wield power, and make their contribution are considered as well. The narrative of this first volume opens in western Massachusetts, the site of Shays' Rebellion. The scenes shift to events in settings where the drama of American history unfolds -- Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Washington, the Kansas-Nebraska Territory, and at the conclusion, Antietam Creek, flowing red with ''vintage blood.'' It is all a mosaic, an artistic whole made vivid by colorful description.
The focus of the narrative also includes the places where history is made over a period of time: the formidable textile mill at the elbow of the Charles River in Waltham, Mass., where 500 ''mill girls'' labor from dawn to dusk, or the 941-acre plantation of the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones on the coast of Georgia, where slaves move into the fields at sunrise to harvest the master's cotton or rice crop. There is also Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond, Robert Fulton on the Hudson River, and Thomas Dorr challenging the status quo in Rhode Island. Collectively the scenarios are a lively re-creation of the diverse elements that constitute the American ''experiment.''
But diversity, colorful detail, and rich biographical sketches are only part of Burns's strategy. This volume is essentially a study of the ''vineyard of liberty.'' The framers of the federal Constitution were engaged in creating a document that, to use the author's words, would provide ''liberty with order, liberty with safety and security, liberty of conscience, liberty of property, liberty with a measure of equality, but above all liberty.''
In time a second constitution, a ''party'' or ''people's'' constitution also developed. It is as deserving of careful scrutiny as the federal Constitution. ''Born'' outside the establishment, it became ''a collection of laws, institutions, regulations, usages, understandings, (and) traditions. . . .''
As Burns reassesses America's past, charting the nation's commitment to liberty, he provides fresh, vivid, and creative insights into the first 60 years of US history. He believes that the framers of the federal Constitution, schooled in experience, quite literally, thought their way out of the problems that they saw confronting the country in the 1780s. His chapter, ''The Majority That Never Was,'' examines three minorities - blacks, women, and the migrant poor - to establish what is frequently overlooked, the essential ''commonality'' of their grievances. And no one in recent memory has provided us with such a multidimensional assessment of the Whig Party. By constantly redefining and redescribing the shifting tides of Whiggery, Burns gives that party a more positive role in the political history of the pre-Civil War era. And although relatively inconsequential, it is refreshing to learn that Mary Todd married a local lawyer name Lincoln, rather than the other way around.
The ''Vineyard of Liberty,'' together with the promise of two more volumes dedicated to rehumanizing American history, is truly a signal of spring in this winter of historical scholarship.