“A History for Peter” Shows Us What It Means To Be American
by Rebecca Ripperton
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.
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.
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.
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.