We have a glut of text and trade books on American history. But what we don't have is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that will offer to intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land's roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.
The existing texts simply fail to tell that story with energy and conviction. They are more likely to reflect the skeptical outlook of specialized professional academic historians, an outlook that supports a fragmented and fractured view of modern American society, and that fails to convey to young people the greater arc of that history. Or they reflect the outlook of radical critics of American society, who seek to debunk the standard American narrative, and has had an enormous, and largely negative, upon the teaching of American history in American high schools and colleges.
This state of affairs cannot continue for long without producing serious consequences. A great nation needs and deserves a great and coherent narrative, as an expression of its own self-understanding; and it needs to convey that narrative to its young effectively. It perhaps goes without saying that such a narrative cannot be a fairy tale or a whitewash of the past; it will not be convincing if it is not truthful. But there is no necessary contradiction between an honest account and an inspiring one. This account seeks to provide both.
Wilfred M. 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. His book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America was awarded the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history. Among his other books are A Student's Guide to U.S. History, Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, and Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. He was appointed in 2002 to membership on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and served in that capacity for eleven years. He is a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, which is planning events for the nation's 250th anniversary in 2026. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Academy of Education. He is a graduate of St. John's College (Annapolis) and received his PhD in History from the Johns Hopkins University.