A History of American Distrust of Government
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With the breadth of knowledge and stylistic astringency that have characterized his score of other works, Pulitzer Prize—winner Wills (John Wayne’s America, 1997, etc.) attacks skepticism about federal power that corrodes political discourse. In the last few years, pitched battles against centralized power have erupted from many quarters, including the militia movement, bombers of abortion clinics, advocates of term limits, the National Rifle Association, even the Gingrich-led GOP in its takeover of Congress in the 1994 election. Wills believes that historical and constitutional justifications for Beltway-bashing lack any basis in fact—as if “people could stay loyal to the Constitution only if they felt it was structurally disloyal to itself.” Opposition has taken many forms, he notes, including nullification (Jefferson and even Madison briefly succumbed to this by secretly writing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions), secession, insurrectionism (e.g., Timothy McVeigh), vigilantism, withdrawing (e.g., Thoreau at Walden Pond), and disobeying (Martin Luther King Jr., who succeeded by battling one set of laws rather than questioning the legitimacy of government itself). Underlying such diverse movements is a cluster of attitudes that tend to be traditional, provincial, spontaneous, religious, rights-oriented, and participatory. Taking issue with the truism that democracies intentionally limit governmental efficiency, Wills notes that Madison and the other framers of the Constitution strengthened federal power by forbidding states to coin money, make treaties, set terms for citizenship, and the like. Wills’s wide net often snares relevant yet overlooked evidence that undercuts treasured American myths (e.g., pointing out that the “Wild West,” instead of relying on the handgun, often banned its use). An iconoclastic history of one of the major currents in American politics, written with relentless logic and scholarly Çlan. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-84489-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2000


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