This balanced scholarly investigation of the Founding Fathers’ divergent notions of inherent freedoms—in historical and contemporary terms—is sure to confound those who think they learned everything they need to know in 9th-grade civics.
In his most recent work, prolific independent scholar/essayist Schwartz (God’s Phallus, 1995, etc.) examines the seldom-discussed doubts Thomas Jefferson held about the “inalienable rights” he so eloquently enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—that seemingly inexhaustible sound-bite goldmine for Tea Partiers and other underinformed latter-day sloganeers. Unlike James W. Loewen’s corrective Lies My Teacher Told Me, Schwartz’s work doesn’t rewrite history as it has been taught to, and (mis)understood, by generations of Americans—rather, the author examines it contextually and philosophically. In measured, meditative language, he probes the Lockean themes of personal liberty that informed the debate surrounding the drafting of Jefferson’s Declaration. Schwartz also attempts to clarify Jefferson’s ambiguous personal stance and his ultimate acquiescence to the Continental Congress for the greater good of the fledgling democracy they engendered, by proclaiming independence from British rule in 1776. Passionate, literate and argumentative, the Founders were making things up on the fly, but ultimately, the author posits, it matters little who preferred Hume to Lock, or the ratio of deists to theists. The author declares that “the Declaration and the founders’ views are essentially as relevant or irrelevant to the nature of rights in America” as the reader’s or his are now—that is, “they may be illuminating, but they are not prescriptive.” While he shrewdly avoids name-calling and easy solutions, Schwartz’s message is clearly cautionary, warning that those who attempt to promote present-day political agendas based on misperceptions of centuries-old compromises of thought and language do so at their, and our, peril. The author urges that the current debate should shift “from what the founders meant” to “the values that ultimately we want to embrace and protect.”
Perhaps too lofty for the general reader, but for anyone with a wary eye on the battles ahead, Schwartz’s argument is absorbing and profound.