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Steven Sarson, Barack Obama: American Historian

Marcus Walsh-Führing

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1Steven Sarson, Barack Obama: American Historian

2London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pp. 357. ISBN 9781350032330.

3Marcus Walsh-Führing

4In the current bipartisan political climate, the ideological foundations of the United States government are under attack. Citizens across the country that support principles and laws in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been disenchanted by current events and yearn for a time where the country’s common creed is upheld: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In his book, Steven Sarson presents a historical and empirical account of former President Barack Obama’s intellectual understanding of the evolution of American political thought and the societal cleavages that have occurred. As such, Barack Obama: American Historian offers a comprehensive analysis of the former President’s writings and experiences as a lawyer and politician that demonstrate his legal and normative understanding of slavery, Jim Crow, liberty and private property, and foreign affairs.

5Sarson describes Obama’s ideological background by analyzing speeches and writings to highlight the main themes in American history that have formed his world view. In doing so, the author demonstrates that Obama’s understanding of American history is sometimes at odds with historical accounts. For example, in the Audacity of Hope, Obama says, “The Pilgrims came to our shores to escape religious persecution and practice without impediment to their brand of strict Calvinism” (40). However, Sarson demonstrates that, in the 1600s, the United States was a pluralistic society that represented numerous Christian sects most of which were not escaping tyranny. To explain Obama’s motives for naming the escape from tyranny from British rule as the main reason for immigrants to come to the Americas, the author suggests that Obama demonstrates and articulates that the pilgrims created an inclusive community throughout American history which represented the beginning of a deliberative democracy. Furthermore, the author illustrates how Obama addresses America’s “original sin,” slavery, its challenges and institutional effects on society. In his March 7, 2015 speech for the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Obama expressed his belief that there is a lack of inclusion from society in regards to the African American community. He pointed out that this is a direct contradiction to the principle that all men are created equal and refers to the Constitution by stating, “the rights of citizens, those deemed to all members of America’s political community” (167).

6As the rights of all American citizens are paramount to Obama’s understanding of the functioning of government, what is even more important is the role of government in the competition of ideas in society. Obama’s understanding of the government’s role in regulating the marketplace is based on an activist approach, e.g. New Deal policies, in protecting citizens from the marketplace through industrialization. For example, in his inaugural address, Obama quoted John Quincy Adams’ avocation for “laws promoting the improvement of the agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing, the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and found” (223).

7Barack Obama: American Historian provides an account of historical events as described by Obama and challenged by political polarization that has threatened the ideas and principles created by the Founding Fathers. Despite the anti-democratic rhetoric from the Trump administration’s nationalistic agenda that has created a new international political outlook, the author argues Obama’s belief that American exceptionalism is based on how its institutions implement and adapt the principles from the founding documents to create a “more perfect union.” In conclusion, the book discusses how President Obama’s political ideology and his writing are part of a bigger narrative that has unfolded since the start of the Republic. While Obama’s understanding of America’s history incorporates intellectual thought across the political spectrum, it were the leaders in the Joshua generation (e.g. John Lewis, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and C.T. Vivian) that allowed him to “regularly historicize himself.” Even though these civil rights leaders were instrumental in Obama’s career as community organizer, the book stresses that Obama’s writings incorporate his experiences from his upbringing in a multicultural environment that have shaped his world view.

8Sarson provides a comprehensive survey of President Obama’s historical understanding of the developments of the United Sates. The author concludes that Obama’s pragmatic understanding of the Constitution is based on his belief that the United States is always in the process of creating a more inclusive community based on the common creed in the Declaration of Independence. The analysis of his writings is well researched and is a comprehensive historical critique, which would benefit readers of all levels. Historians that are interested in President Obama’s understanding of the role of the United States in the world will also benefit from reading Barack Obama: American Historian.

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Marcus Walsh-Führing, « Steven Sarson, Barack Obama: American Historian », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2018-4, Online since 07 March 2019, connection on 23 October 2020. URL :

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Marcus Walsh-Führing

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