“A History for Peter” Shows Us What It Means To Be American

April 15, 2019

The A History for Peter series is a set of three narrative books that cover American history from the mid-fifteenth century through the beginning of the Cold War. These books are dedicated to author Gerald W. Johnson’s grandson, Peter. Each includes a touching forward addressed specifically to Peter. All throughout the series, Johnson retains this same style – that of a kindly grandfather recounting history lessons to his grandchildren.

These books were first published in 1959 and 1960. Two of them had the distinction of being named Newbery Honor Books in 1960 and 1961. The three individual books in the series are America Is Born, America Grows Up, and America Moves Forward. America Is Born covers the discovery of the New World through the Revolutionary War. America Grows Up begins with the Constitutional Convention then goes all the way until World War I. Lastly, America Moves Forward covers both World Wars and concludes in the early 1950s with the end of President Truman’s tenure in office.

These books are intended for children ages 13-18 for independent reading. Slightly younger children could also listen to them as read-alouds in families that wish to read and discuss these books together.

America Is Born

​The first volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the discovery of the New World to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.Ages 13-18

Focusing on the arc of American history

Gerald W. Johnson pairs his retelling of events with reflections about the ideas that stood behind them. This, to me, is one of the best aspects of the series. Johnson chooses the details he includes carefully and focuses more on the trajectory of American history and its broader themes than on the many particulars of one era or event. For that reason, this series serves as an excellent complement to a less narrative and more dates and facts driven history book.

What does it mean to be an American?

Johnson, particularly in America Is Born, also discusses the origin of several essentially American ideas as well as the preconditions that led to their genesis. In doing so, he invites the reader to consider “what does it mean to be an American? How do the people of America differ from the people of other nations?”

He himself posits that being a citizen of the United States means something more than simply being born on American soil. In fact, he argues that being born in America by no means indicates that a man or woman is a true American, citing examples of American-born men who were more British than American, as well as examples of men born abroad who shaped America into the country we know today.

This same idea reappears in America Moves Forward during the World Wars, where Johnson depicts the fierce loyalty of immigrants who moved to America from Europe. Johnson believes that devotion to the ideals and government of the United States should bear much more weight than one’s nationality at birth.

America Grows Up

The second volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the writing of the U.S. Constitution to America’s declaration of war on Germany in World War I. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.Ages 13-18

An assumption of positive intent

Throughout the series, Johnson does his best to depict both sides of conflicts and to emphasize that each man was doing what he believed to be right at that time. He does not avoid or shy away from making moral judgements, but he also writes under the assumption that all men desire and work toward the good as they understand it. Whenever possible, he extends charity toward his subjects and encourages his readers to do the same. This assumption of positive intent is an important lesson for all of us, and for children in particular.

Six Presidents as the anchors of American history

Many history books focus on wars or notable eras to create divisions and chapters in their narrative. Some American history books even devote a chapter to each administration. Johnson, however, takes an alternative route.

To anchor his narrative, Johnson relies on six presidents: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spends considerable time talking about how each shaped America and brought about substantial and lasting changes. Of course Johnson mentions the other presidents, as well, but he does dwell predominantly on the individual contributions that these six made in establishing and developing our nation. 

Democracy as an on-going project and the United States as a global force

Another idea that Johnson addresses directly in this trilogy is that of American democracy as an on-going project. By design, the work of democracy will never be finished, and Johnson devotes considerable time to discussing this idea. And throughout all three books, he draws attention to changes in the American government that correspond to changes in the American people. He also encourages his readers to be active participants in the political process.

On the same topic of democracy as on-going and dynamic, Johnson does a particularly good job of addressing how America transitioned from being a relatively detached independent nation to its current status as a global force for democracy. Of course his books end in the mid-twentieth century, but in his lengthy treatment of Woodrow Wilson, Johnson illustrates just how the global political climate in the early twentieth century made it impossible for America to do anything but assume a position of leadership in the civilized world. To me, this transition is one of the most fascinating eras of American history and Johnson definitely does it justice.

America Moves Forward

The third volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the middle of World War I to the end of the Truman presidency. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.Ages 13-18

American citizenship’s responsibilities and privileges

Lastly, Johnson constantly underscores the strong connection between the American government and the American people. Over and over he emphasizes the twin ideas that the government is an extension of the people and that United States citizens are responsible for their government on account of this symbiotic relationship. However, Johnson emphasizes these ideas in a way that is engaging, rather than moralizing. In stressing the responsibilities and privileges that are unique to our nation, he makes democratic involvement feel exciting. As a result, this series could be a great introduction for young people to American citizenship and all that it entails.

Where to find these books

​After being out of print for ​decades, ​these three titles are now available for sale, only at the Yesterday’s Classics website, by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Purchase Gerald W. Johnson’s booksfrom Yesterday’s Classics

America Is Born

America ​Grows Up

America ​Moves Forward

Lincoln’s Lyceum Address

February 21st, 2019

To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we are featuring two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” which was originally published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address”) which Abraham Lincoln delivered on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois. You can read the first post in the series here.

In researching great American speeches, it is no surprise that – of former U.S. presidents – Abraham Lincoln has perhaps the longest list of notable speeches under his name. His situation in history partially explains this fact. Lincoln championed the abolition of slavery and we remember him for his fierce efforts to save the union. Accordingly, he enjoyed countless opportunities to make inspiring and memorable speeches. 

Yet Lincoln is one of the greatest orators this country has ever known not simply because of the circumstances he faced. Instead, we remember him as a great orator because of the moral conviction he carried throughout his life and for his gift of giving words to that conviction. Lincoln’s perseverance also serves as an example to anyone who faces challenge. He refused to abandon what he knew to be right, even when half of the country opposed him, and even when the fate of a nation hung in the balance.

Why study Lincoln’s Lyceum Address?

Lincoln’s speech The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (i.e. the Lyceum Address) is certainly not one of his most well-known or frequently studied speeches. However we are highlighting it because it is one of his earliest speeches and because it is an important one. Lincoln delivered this speech just before his 29th birthday to a lyceum, or school for boys, in Springfield, Illinois. He had recently passed the Illinois bar and was in private practice as a lawyer. (And, as an interesting side note here: Lincoln was an entirely self-educated legal scholar. He is also one of approximately 25% of U.S. presidents who have no formal educational degree. Lincoln learned, he has said, through reading.)

The Lyceum Address illustrates Lincoln’s lifelong dedication to the preservation of the union and his early opposition to slavery. This speech also addresses a number of the same issues as Washington’s Farewell Address. Both Washington and Lincoln worried over the irreparable effects of division within the nation. And, in the Civil War, the dangers of the geographical factions that Washington warned the people against became manifest. Washington and Lincoln also shared the belief that, although diverse in their ways and beliefs, the America people needed a unified democracy in order to function properly and to prosper.

Discussion questions and essay prompts

As we did for the Farewell Address, we’ve included a list of prompts to use as writing or discussion prompts. If you think of other important questions that we didn’t list here, please feel free to leave them in a comment below. Ours are as follows:

  • Why does Lincoln believe that American citizens pose a greater threat to themselves than that presented by any foreign nation?
  • What are Lincoln’s reasons for believing that we should concern ourselves with the indirect consequences stemming from disregard for the law? What are these consequences, and why are they of greater significance than the more direct effects?
  • Who and/or what does mob rule most endanger?
  • Does Lincoln believe that there is ever a time in which it is appropriate and acceptable to disobey the laws? Do you believe that he is correct?
  • Assuming that it is impossible to eliminate, how should we direct ambition in a society? How do we employ those who would “pull down” our government, when there is “nothing left to [do] in the way of building [it] up?”
  • What roles, respectively, do passion and reason play in government? Is Lincoln correct when he says that in the future, passion will necessarily be the enemy of the American people?
  • What does Lincoln mean when he calls for us to transform “reverence for the laws” into a “political religion?” What other examples of “political religions” can you think of?
  • Are Lincoln’s claims that the love of the law should be as a political religion and that passion is to be treated as an enemy reconcilable?