Books: Simon Schama's "The American Future"

Obama's America is facing some worrisome questions: whether to encourage the globe's best and brightest to flock to our shores, or to save American jobs for American workers. Whether the military should focus on bombing terrorists or building schools. Whether religious beliefs should dictate laws, such as on abortion and gay marriage. Whether the American dream of plenty has finally been exhausted. The issues are so daunting, it's easy to worry that the United States has never faced such insurmountable problems.

So leave it to a historian to remind us that even the Founding Fathers grappled with similar debates. In his new book, The American Future, professor and critic Simon Schama traces the four motifs of war, religion, immigration and American bounty as they stretch across our national history like Lincoln's mystic chords of memory, firing each generation's imagination—and, consequently, its politics. Some of the parallels that Schama unearths are striking: here's Jefferson, founding West Point to make sure its soldiers are as much engineers as warriors. Here are Texans grumbling about lazy immigrants on their land (back then, though, Texans were Mexicans and the invaders, white settlers); here's the wheat boom and bust; here's the argument over water torture of Filipinos in the Spanish-American War.

That we're still wrestling with these issues is positive, says Schama. It means that, despite its reputation as the U.S. of Amnesia, America manages to keep reinventing itself by drawing on the different versions and visions of the "great experiment" that is American democracy.