We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . ."" In this intriguing intellectual and cultural history, Carter (Little America; Another Part of the Fifties, etc.) demonstrates that Jefferson's superb rational vision for America was neither self-evident nor easy. Starting with the myth of the boundless frontier that preceded the first American settlers, Carter attempts to demonstrate how our republican ideals have always battled a potential for expansionism and heedless, greed-driven autocracy. Even Madison and Jefferson sparred with Caesar's ghost: ""'You lay down metaphysical propositions which infer universal consequences,' "" criticized the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, ""'and then you attempt to limit logic by despotism.' "" Carter believes that ideas matter, so he addresses the puritanical and evangelical religiosity of America as a set of religious and political ideas--almost always reactions to America's progress towards Roman-style empire. One of the most intriguing bits here is the equation of populism with religious fundamentalism--"" revivalist politics."" In recent incarnations, this righteous brew has intoxicated Reagan Republicans as well as Jesse Jackson, and this grand old ""tradition of American folk evangelism"" has even been tapped into by nonreligious liberal reformers, from abolitionist James Russell Lowell to Joan Baez. In the end, Carter emphasizes, our seesaw progress between coldhearted acquisition and power and hotheaded rectitude has been dwarfed by the environmental crisis. Carter urges us to take up a ""free market of ideas""--provided our thoughts embrace the planet, not just ourselves. Though crammed with gems of historical research, Carter's history doesn't quite add up to a cohesive whole, failing to amplify major ideas above the din of subtle counterpoints and academic asides. Rich pickings, then, if a bit dense and disorderly.