Behold, America review – the fight for the American dream

Sarah Churchwell’s enthralling study of US political history reveals a nation in a state of constant war with itself

Long before the revolution, there were two Americas, implicitly at odds. The first, sponsored by Walter Raleigh, was fiery, maverick and piratical, based in Virginia, the colony named for Elizabeth I. These freebooters would become the Americans who opened up the frontier to the south and west. The second America, to the north, was inspired by the chillier steel of New England’s Puritan settlement. In 1630, its thin-lipped ideologue John Winthrop declared that this new society should welcome “the eyes of all people upon us” and shine as a beacon of hope – “a city upon a hill”.

Almost four centuries of conflict between the Raleigh and the Winthrop versions of America – one red-blooded and nativist, the other liberal, humane and egalitarian – reached a bizarre climax on 16 June ...