GIVE ME LIBERTY: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea.
By Richard Brookhiser. Basic Books. 304 pages. $28.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
— Patrick Henry
“Nationalism is a given in human society. It supplies feelings of belonging, identity, and recognition. It binds us to our neighbors, tells us who we are, and makes others notice us….The unique feature of America’s nationalism is its concern for liberty.”
— Richard Brookhiser
Since Colonial times, Americans have expressed their national spirit in many ways. In “Give Me Liberty,” Richard Brookhiser examines 13 documents that have defined the national spirit of America.
Each rise in national spirit has been different, and each has involved “pro-us/anti-them” attitudes, with the “them” changing as social and economic circumstances changed. By examining the documents that define American governance, Brookhiser takes the conversation out of the realm of emotions and helps us understand the essence of our national psyche.
The survey of documents begins in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. Unless you are descended from Rip van Winkle, you will have heard about the celebration this year of the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Virginia General Assembly. This was the beginning of elected representative government in the American colonies.
Religious liberty had its beginnings in New Amsterdam (now New York) where Peter Stuyvesant ruled the colony on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. Stuyvesant ignored rules from the homeland to allow residents who were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church to worship as they pleased in their own homes.
Even though Stuyvesant frequently overstepped the company rules by “arresting Lutherans and keeping out Jews,” he was directed to observe the company policy of allowing private services of dissenters. Enter the Quakers.
Quakers were (are) egalitarian by nature, and the trappings of a formal European church were not for them. Stuyvesant discouraged Quakers from settling in his colony. Some did, and one who lived in Flushing (now in Queens, New York) made a formal remonstrance to Stuyvesant citing the town charter’s provision to provide “the free libertie (sic) of conscience” of worshiping as they saw fit. So in 1657, we see the seeds of the First Amendment freedom of worship and the right to petition government.
Brookhiser discusses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Monroe Doctrine and the Gettysburg Address — foundational documents of our democratic republic.
He also shows us the value of the trial of John Peter Zenger (freedom of the press), the Seneca Fall Declaration (equality for women), Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” (welcoming immigrants), the Cross of Gold Speech, FDR’s Arsenal of Democracy Fireside Chat and Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech.
Brookhiser has provided scholarly insight from his many biographies of our Founders and accounts of the events that created the mind-set that guided the Framers and others who created the documents and the practices and the lore that shape the nature of our liberty, and he has woven a rich tapestry that should function as a propaedia for the study of American history and governance.
Brookhiser offers a vehicle for building a basic understanding of the United States — a collection of profiles that should ignite the spark of national pride and patriotism. “Give Me Liberty” is an exceptional study of America’s “exceptional idea.”
THIS AMERICA. The Case for the Nation.
By Jill Lepore. Liveright Publishing Corp. (W.W. Norton & Co.). 150 pages. $16.95.
“Nations are made up of people but held together by history, like wattle and daub lath and plaster or bricks and mortar.”
— Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She makes a strong case for studying the nation in order to make it stronger. She explains the difference between patriotism and nationalism and celebrates the former over the latter.
Lepore’s message supports the need for us to know our heritage and the documents and ideas that define our collective national culture. She eschews the desire of nationalists to find enemies within and seek to expunge them.
She advocates a new Americanism that gives equal weight to our successes and our failures — a true national identity that will allow us to ignore those who demonize some citizens and even other countries.
In order to avoid the degradations visited on us by unpatriotic opportunists posing as patriots, according to Lepore, all of us must look at our past mistakes (slavery, racism, etc.) and by admitting those sins affirm the foundational truths of our country’s origin. She gives us marching orders:
“For all the agony of the nation’s past, these truths remain [we are equal as citizens and we are equal under the law]. Anyone who affirms these truths and believes that we should govern our common life together belongs in this country. That is America’s best idea.”
In order to follow Lepore’s advice, we must know and understand the documents explained in Richard Brookhiser’s “Give Me Liberty.”