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In selecting important "documents" to review, no American historian would exclude certain documents, but some documents are a judgment call. Brookhiser picks some of the most obvious, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, but he also made some other interesting choices: FDR's arsenal of democracy "fireside chat," displaying his consummate political skills; Reagan's tear down this wall speech, delivered to the world as only President Reagan could; the trial of John Peter Zenger; and William Jennings Bryan's cross of gold speech.
As much as I want to pick Reagan's speech, today, November 9th is, after all, the 30th anniversary of the wall's coming down, I must pick the cross of gold speech. My paternal great grandfather was mid-way through his 35-year law career in 1896, in Chicago, and he was involved in Democrat party politics (running for judge twice). I never knew him, nor did I know his son, my grandfather. My own father did not know his grandfather and barely knew his own father since his dad died so young, and then he, himself, died so young, so I have no family legends. But because of Brookhiser's excellent prose, and his attention to detail, in my mind's eye I can picture great granddad at the Chicago Coliseum in the audience on that day, and maybe in the proverbial smoke-filled room.
That is why I love history, and why Brookhiser's new book really hits the spot. He identifies all of the players, even those now (almost) lost to history, as if HE were there. An excellent job, indeed.
In his own words, Richard Brookhiser writes that, in lieu of a complete history of America, “This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent snapshots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is.” The author then goes on to say that, in so many words, liberty is the defining essence of the American character and of its nationalism, nationalism being the loyalty and devotion given to one’s nation, important for maintaining unity and thus national and individual survival. Brookhiser asserts that the unique feature of America’s nationalism is its concern for individual liberty.
Brookhiser then goes on to flesh out what these 13 documents mean, explaining them by giving context, by telling the stories of how key characters brought them into being. He devotes a chapter to the men and women behind each document:
1. MINUTES OF THE JAMESTOWN GENERAL ASSEMBLY (1619, VA; Self-Government: equal voting) 2. FLUSHING REMONSTRANCE (1657, Flushing, New Amsterdam (NY); Religious Liberty) 3, TRIAL OF JOHN PETER ZENGER (1735, NYC: Free Speech) 4. DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (1776, Philadelphia, Inalienable Rights: liberty inseparable from equality) 5. CONSTITUTION OF THE NEW-YORK MANUMISSION SOCIETY (1785, NYC, Racial Equality) 6. CONSTITUTION (1787, Philadelphia; Blessings of Liberty: Forbidding aristocracy) 7. MONROE DOCTRINE (1823, Wash DC; Hemispheric Liberty: No European aristocracy in Americas) 8. SENECA FALLS DECLARATION (1848, NY; Women’s Vote) 9. GETTYSBURG ADDRESS (1863, PA; Conceived in Liberty: Joined Declaration & Constitution) 10.THE NEW COLOSSUS (1883 for Bedloe’s/Liberty Island; Liberty Enlightening the World - Statue of Liberty: Emma Lazarus’ poem about the Land of Liberty) 11,CROSS OF GOLD SPEECH (1896, Chicago; Economic Equality: money should not destroy equality) 12.ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY FIRESIDE CHAT (1940, Wash DC; National Defense: World Freedom Connection) 13.TEAR DOWN THIS WALL SPEECH (1987, Berlin, Germany; Berlin Wall: Communism should not rule Europe)
Among the very interesting stories, some interesting items include: 1. Jamestown burned to the ground in 1676 (coincidentally 100 years before the Declaration of Independence). 2. Good government rests on a. consent; b. rights (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc). 3. When the British evacuated New York City at the end of 1783, a third of it had burned; all of its trees had been cut for firewood; commerce had only just revived. 4. Men want liberty, but they surrender it for security or take other people’s liberty to bolster their own self-esteem. Securing liberty’s blessings takes vigilance and effort. 5. The bloodiest battle of the American Revolution was Camden (SC; the first great engagement of the Civil War – the First Battle of Bull Run – injured four times as many). 6. In order to raise money for the preservation of Mount Vernon, Edward Everett gave his most famous talk, on the character of George Washington, 129 times. 7. “The poem she [Emma Lazarus] wrote was a grave and passionate sonnet. Sonnets in English follow Shakespeare or Petrarch. The Shakespearean rhyme scheme, three quatrains and a couplet (4 + 4 + 4 + 2), is inherently lopsided and a high risk. The concluding couplet is either a grand slam, bringing all the preceding lines home, or a swing and a miss. The Petrarchan pattern, two interlinked quatrains and a sestet (8 + 6), allows for the possibility of a more developed, two-step argument. This was what Lazarus achieved.” Lazarus’ words: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send them, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” 8, The Statue of Liberty’s seven-rayed crown is a symbol of the sun, radiating the endowments of nature’s God. The Statue itself is a logo – the logo of Liberty. 9. In the presidential election of 1896, William Jennings Bryan spoke of the Cross of Gold. This related to the bankers’ control of the money supply, based upon the gold system. Gold was in limited supply, and debts of the unmoneyed class were substantial. Silver was in plentiful supply. If silver were introduced into a bimetal system, inflation would essentially lower the value of debts. For the poor, gold would be a painful cross to bear; silver would be salvation. The Progressive Party’s Bryan would travel 18,000 miles by train, speaking over 600 times. The Republican Party’s McKinley brought ¾ of a million supporters by train to his home in Canton, OH, to hear him speak from his porch. Unfortunately for Bryan, he suffered a loss of credibility (a spike in wheat prices proved his economic forecast incorrect, while it proved McKinley’s correct), and McKinley edged him out in the vote. 10. Reagan’s "Tear Down This Wall" speech was opposed by the “boys” in the State Department.
From my reading elsewhere, however, I’d like to point out a few items upon which I'd like to comment:
P 76 “John Adams later guessed that only a third of Americans supported independence; the remainder were opposed or neutral.”
According to “All Things Liberty,” Adams was referring not to the American Revolution but the American view of the French Revolution. From my own research on the American Revolution, other historians place the ratio somewhere around 10% for the American Revolution, 10% against, and 80% just wanting to be left alone. However, as the Revolution progressed, the percentages varied wildly depending upon prospects for independence. It's been written that, at most, those for the Revolution did not exceed 45% and those against 20%.
P 92 “George Washington drafted a will in July 1799, five months before he died, directing that his 123 slaves be freed at the death of his wife.”
This is correct, but it’s important to note that Washington personally owned 124 slaves; he allowed for the immediate freedom of his valet, Billy Lee. Upon the death of Martha (1802), his will stated his other 123 slaves would be freed (but, fearing for her safety, Martha freed them in 1801). Of the other slaves of 317 total Washington controlled at the time of his death, 40 were leased/rented, and the remaining 153 were dower slaves, whose fate was determined according to the will of Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.
P 192/3 On this page Brookhiser writes: “On the first page of his unfinished novel, 'Amerika,' Franz Kafka describes the mighty woman, whom he had never seen, holding a sword. Where was his editor? What she holds is a torch.”
Why the author mentions this, I’m not sure, given that Kafka’s work was posthumously published in 1927, many years after the poem and the Statue of Liberty came into being.
The book ends with: “Liberty is never easy. You have to know what it is, believe that it is essential, and watch over and defend it. May these documents, and the men and women who wrote and endorsed them—settlers, villagers, jurors, farmers, advisors, speechwriters, politicians, statesmen—be an example for us.”
Bottom line, Brookhiser admirably sets in place what he sees as the bricks, the building blocks of freedom, the documents written by leaders of character that called out, institutionalized, guaranteed, and enshrined our liberties. This is what he sees as our foundation of freedom. This is how he believes America was built. Overall, the book is an excellent read and highly recommended!
Thirteen essays and a conclusion, drawing for each easy on an important document in American history. The author adds background and analysis to this very interesting collection of documents/speeches to draw out and drill down on the idea of liberty. The selection of topics was very thoughtful and the analysis very though provoking. Nationality was a sub-theme. The only reason for no fifth star is that his sentence structure and diction were at times disconcerting to this reader. A very good intellectual exercise for a very important but ethereal topic.