Episcopal priest Webber (American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists, 2011) traces America’s search for personal freedom through the men and women whose voices still demand our attention.
The author follows some of our best orators, from Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster to Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, and he successfully shows how differently and yet how alike this struggle has been over the years. While Henry sought freedom from central government, Webster was committed to the same; they both sought personal freedom and feared too much power in any one place. The book gets a bit dry as the author moves into the abolitionists and suffragists. They fought to end slavery and create a free life for African-Americans and rallied against the death penalty and child labor along the way. The women who worked with them saw their own lack of freedom and fought for the vote and the right to own property, giving birth to the suffragist cause. The most interesting part of the book is the way Webber traces the seeds of ideas, the sources and connections as they are repeated through the years. Abraham Lincoln asked the same questions as Webster about preserving the Union, and he paraphrased Webster’s words in the ending of the Gettysburg Address: “of the people, by the people….” Adlai Stevenson used Lincoln’s “house divided” in a Cold War–era speech. Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down theory came straight from William Jennings Bryan. All these men and women spoke of freedom as a goal for all, and each dealt with the economic factors that controlled freedom: poverty, taxes and inequality.
Mostly engaging, and Webber saves the best for last: Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and cadences moved an entire nation, and he, like the other orators, used his voice for the millions who had none.