Historian and biographer Brookhiser (John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, 2018, etc.), senior editor of National Review, grounds his spirited argument for American exceptionalism in the idea of liberty.
“We have been securing it, defining it, recovering it, and fighting for it for four hundred years,” writes the author. He chooses 13 public statements, written or orated from 1619 to 1987, which he believes “define America as the country that it is, different from all others.” Although acknowledging the nation’s “dark chapters” of oppression, brutality, and injustice, Brookhiser focuses on men and women who defiantly fought for liberty, offering lively biographical and historical vignettes that set the stage for each of the documents he examines. These include the minutes of the Jamestown General Assembly, which provided that decision-making in the colony would be by vote; the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, a statement of grievance sent to Peter Stuyvesant—“a martinet and a bigot”—to insist on religious freedom; the narrative of the trial of John Peter Zenger, which allowed the press in Colonial America to flourish; the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution; the Gettysburg Address; the Monroe Doctrine, which warned “corrupt, oppressive systems” to stay away from America; and the Declaration of Sentiments formulated by suffragists at Seneca Falls. The author also looks at some lesser known protestations for liberty: the constitution devised by the New-York Manumission Society, a group of “oddball Quakers and Manhattan elitists,” to confront “the injustice done to those among us who are held as slaves” and help them to share in “civil and religious liberty”; Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”; William Jennings Bryan’s "Cross of Gold" speech; Franklin Roosevelt’s 16th fireside chat, of 1940, which underscored America as “the arsenal of democracy”; and Ronald Reagan’s exhortation to tear down the Berlin Wall. Without liberty, Brookhiser concludes, we can be nothing but “a bigger Canada or an efficient Mexico.”
An engaging history of admirable episodes from America’s past.