Wednesday’s Book Review: “People of Plenty”

People of PlentyPeople of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character. By David M. Potter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.

I first read this book while in graduate school now more than thirty years ago and I found it stimulating enough to carry around with me ever since. I recently found it on a shelf of my books and decided to reread it to see how it holds up. It does, but perhaps not in the way originally intended. At a fundamental level this is a work of consensus history. That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and the people that made it up somehow “better.” Its advocates questioned the ideas and people who challenged those cherished principles, seeing in many of them strains of authoritarianism, anarchy, and narrow- and simple-mindedness of all varieties. Much of this approach, and certainly such was the case with the best of the consensus school historians such as Potter, advocated a pragmatic liberalism that many believed was in constant jeopardy from forces of fear, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.

Potter begins with a discussion of history, its meanings, what it might illuminate and what it is ill-equipped to explain, and in the process bounds promise of historical analysis in seeking to understand the American character. He reminds his readers—and many historians should well take heed of this when they venture into areas that are not fundamentally about the actions of humans—that “The very term ‘history’ means, in fact, human history, and the whole record of history is, in a sense, an account of dynamic external forces operating upon men and of the reactions and responses of men to these forces” (p. x).

He then goes on to discuss the issue of abundance—economic and otherwise—that has fundamentally shaped the American character. Freedom from want for the vast majority meant that other democratic institutions also flourished. He insists that we understand “that democracy paced the growth of our abundance and abundance broadened the base of our democracy” (p. 141). Absent those interlocked imperatives and the United States might have become a very different place. Indeed, I’m sure that based on what I see in this work that Potter would have been disturbed by the increasing economic, as well as opportunity, divide between the highest and lowest of those in American society.

The remainder of the People of Plenty lays out how this sense of abundance has contributed to and interrelated with the American character. He has chapters on the quest for equality, the ideal of democracy, the concept of an American mission to redeem the world, the experience of the frontier and Turner’s famous thesis, and the impact of consumerism and advertising. Potter’s final paragraph in the book offers a telling summation: “the presence of the force of this factor [economic abundance] are recognizable with equal certainty in the whole broad, general range of American experience, American ideals, and American institutions” (p. 208)

Does the experience of American abundance drive the manner in which the American character has evolved? Probably, but there are other nations with similar abundance whose character is strikingly different. What accounts for that difference? Moreover, has the issue of abundance so apparent to David M. Potter in 1954 been altered in the last 60 plus years? If so, might this issue still be a useful interpretative framework for studies of this subject? As powerful as Potter’s thesis is, as a remarkable as his analysis is in this book, does it still work well as an explanation of why Americans are the way they are?

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