An Epitome of Liberty

 

Give Me Liberty:
A History of America’s Exceptional Idea
By Richard Brookhiser
(Basic Books, 2019)

Some years ago, I was asked to write a magazine article about the Nobel Prize in Literature. My editor was a lovely man, possessed of great charm and considerable brilliance. Nonetheless, his editing left me quite distressed. The source of my displeasure was that he had made significant changes to the story without my knowledge or approval.

The thrust of the article was that, in its early years, the Nobel largely ignored the novel as an art form, instead favoring poetry and history. Thus, the Prize Committee passed on Tolstoy, Zola, and Twain. The first two winners were the minor French poet Sully Prudhomme and the deservedly forgotten historian Theodor Mommsen.

In my article, I said that the Nobel Committee increasingly seemed to be going in the other direction, overlooking exceptional historians for minor novelists. Contrasting the extraordinary quality of many recent works of history with the relative paucity of first-rate contemporary fiction, I suggested several historians of whom the committee might wish to take note. My objection to the editing of my piece lay in the fact that my editor substituted a different roster of authors from those I had identified. Paul Johnson and Richard Brookhiser were among those excised. In their place were other, in my view lesser, writers.

I was reminded of that experience as I read Brookhiser’s latest work, Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea. Brookhiser is one of a crop of current historians who have shown themselves to be more canny and psychologically acute than acclaimed novelists of the moment. These writers for a general audience are direct competitors to the novelists in that they are conscious of the storytelling aspect of their art. One might include in this number not only Johnson and Brookhiser but Ian Kershaw, Robert Caro, Simon Sebag Montefiore, and Jean Edward Smith.

To that group, one might add certain academic historians who have chosen not to focus upon individuals but on illuminating issues and time periods. A roster of the best would include Niall Ferguson, Bernard Bailyn, and James M. McPherson. They followed a remarkable cohort of outstanding scholars who recently passed on, Bernard Lewis and Eugene Genovese foremost among them. All are surely more deserving of attention than the nontalents that the book sections of our remaining newspapers tend to focus on.

It is a curious thing, but when the cognoscenti live through periods of literary excellence, they are rarely conscious of the efflorescence. That is happening now. Not many histories written in the nineteenth century are still worth reading. Most are hopelessly dated. Those that endure—like the works of Prescott, Parkman, and Michelet—appeal because of their literary excellence above all else. It really is true that historical research was a more difficult activity in the past and that this was a major obstacle to the production of lasting works. It is far easier to gain access to necessary records and data than it was even thirty years ago. Take Fritz Fischer’s heralded investigations of the Prussian state archives: while such research was novel and strenuous when he undertook it in the 1950s, it is nearly routine today.

In that sense, we have to marvel to an even greater degree at the achievements of Plutarch, Livy, and Tacitus, or, more recently, Solzhenitsyn. Simply to learn the material needed for their writing was a remarkable accomplishment. Brookhiser had the good fortune to commence his career when reliable information on the Founding Fathers and annotated volumes of their correspondence and other papers were ready at hand. So he has not had to travel across empires to acquire this. But that does not devalue his books. There is no substitute for a good style, judgment about people, and a grasp of politics and morals. Brookhiser possesses all these, and he vouchsafed his mastery of his subject even though he is not an academic but rather a professional journalist.

Like the other volumes composed by this National Review senior editor, Give Me Liberty is economical, engaging, lucid, and smart. Having written a series of superb short biographies of the key figures of the early republic, Brookhiser has now charged himself with the task of composing a series of epitomes on the topic of liberty and its singular relation to our country. Appearing in a moment when socialism is gaining new adherents, Give Me Liberty is both timely and valuable. He tells his story through a series of historical documents connected to crucial events that helped us gain our present freedom.

His tale of how the American notion of personal liberty emerged is inclusive—one might well say ecumenical. While the author has long been a conservative partisan, he offers his readers no right-wing agenda here. At the same time, there is no radical nonsense. As such, and as delightful to read as it is, it ought to be taught in schools. At the very least, one hopes American high school teachers will pull out chapters and give these as excerpts to their students. There could hardly be a better means by which to teach them how vital freedom is and how much it is bound up with the story of our nation.

Studies in Character

Brookhiser begins with three events from the colonial period: the creation of the Jamestown General Assembly in 1619, the Flushing Remonstrance in 1657, and the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735. The first is the founding instance of representative self-government in the New World, the second the first case in which a religiously inspired colony accepted the premise of nonsectarian Christian worship, and the third introduced a broader notion of freedom of the press. Brookhiser tells each of these stories with considerable flair, showing how the events fit into their own time and place and how they have affected ours. In the process, he creates a series of vivid characters.

Especially memorable among this gallery is Andrew Hamilton, the Philadelphia trial lawyer who passed on his usual handsome legal fees so he might speak on a point of special interest at the somewhat distant remove of Manhattan Island. There he startled his listeners by conceding that Zenger, a publisher, had depicted the royal governor in an unflattering light, thereby committing the crime of seditious libel.

Hamilton’s purpose—to strengthen the principle that one ought to be allowed to “speak truth to power,” as some might have it today—was audacious, as it acknowledged that his client was guilty of the offense for which he had been charged. Having admitted this, Hamilton demanded that the jury reject a widely accepted statute, setting a new standard for freedom of the press.

Retelling the story of the Flushing Remonstrance, Brookhiser depicts the heroism of pious Calvinists who defended the practices of their Quaker neighbors against New York’s powerful mayor, Peter Stuyvesant. This is one of the author’s main themes: the outcome of these cases was not inevitable, and achieving an expanded concept of personal liberty necessitated a measure of dauntlessness from folk who were neither rich nor influential.

Brookhiser’s next half dozen subjects concern the construction of the political order and the freedoms that derive from it. These are fruits of the Declaration of Independence, the founding documents of the New York Manumission Society, the U.S. Constitution and the Monroe Doctrine, the meeting of the Seneca Falls Convention, and the Gettysburg Address. The most provocative of these sections may be the one on the Monroe Doctrine.

Although often depicted in history classes as a shameless claim of hegemony by the Western Hemisphere’s most powerful state, Brookhiser relates the actual facts: James Monroe’s cabinet seriously entertained the notion of making a joint statement with Britain, and the purpose of the declaration was not to promote ourselves but merely to deter further colonization of weaker nations by stronger ones.

In succinctly relating the events of the Seneca Falls Convention, the author shows how its call for women’s suffrage and its purposeful imitation of the Declaration of Independence were almost as much of a surprise to the meeting’s participants as to those outside. He also makes good use of his own upbringing in the “burned-over” district of New York to provide proper perspective on why this upstate region has proved to be a frequent wellspring for unconventional political concepts and eccentric religious sects.

Brookhiser’s final four chapters deal with the Statue of Liberty and the Emma Lazarus sonnet that adorns it, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” fireside chat, and Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech. These address four new subjects: the freedom to be unmolested in a new land, the battle for economic sustenance in a time of monopoly, the necessity of political alliance in an hour of grave danger abroad, and our conflict with communism.

The New York Times chose to focus for the length of last year upon the fact that it was the 500th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in America. Wouldn’t they have done better to emphasize the anniversary of self-governance on our shores? That is a greater story, after all.

Those who want a different kind of lesson can do little better than to pick up Brookhiser’s volume. His style is elevated without being stiff, and he is informative without being pedantic. He has that rare talent of knowing what the most pertinent detail is so that he can swiftly illustrate and explain. Altogether, this is a remarkable book on an important subject from an extraordinary writer. I freely acknowledge that he is a friend, and I necessarily do so with pride.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.


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