“A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Benjamin Franklin
Today is Independence Day in the United States, the birthday of our country. What was born on that day was not only a nation but an idea eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in these opening words:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In these words are an assertion of the equality and human rights inherent in being a human being created by God. Government does not confer these but rather exist to secure these pre-existing rights, and properly derives its power to govern from these rights-bearers. Finally, there is the opening of an argument for the revolt the Founders led.
Along with a military revolution was an intellectual revolution led by some of the most brilliant political thinkers of the day. Franklin was wise enough to recognize that a thoughtful and well-informed citizenry was crucial in every generation if what was gained and established in our nation’s birth not be lost to anarchy or tyranny.
Might it not be appropriate amid our celebrations to resolve to enhance our understanding of the history, ideas, and challenges that have shaped the American experiment? One could conceive many lists to do this. One work not appearing in the list below that may be essential as any would be The Debates on the Constitution. This is not a single work but a series of letters and articles capturing the arguments about the shape our constitution would take.
Here are ten others, most of which have been reviewed at Bob on Books:
- The Glorious Cause, Robert Middlekauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Perhaps the definitive account of the Revolutionary War, part of the Oxford History of the United States.
- John Adams, David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. There are many full-length biographies of the founders. Adams is lesser known than some, but worthy of attention for his intellect, his courage, his efforts on both sides of the Atlantic for American freedom, and the incredible correspondence between him and his equally brilliant Abigail.
- The Return of George Washington, Edward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014. This narrative not only offers one more reason why Washington was the indispensable man, but also shows the difficulties of governance under the Articles of Confederation that led to the U.S. Constitution, and recounts the debates that gave us that Constitution. Review
- Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates the Defined America, Allen C. Guelzo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. These debates in 1858 when these two were running for Senate (Lincoln lost) define the discussion around slavery. Guelzo helps us understand the extraordinary phenomenon of these hours long open air debates, the substance of each debate, and their significance in the lead up to the Civil War.
- America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. The thesis of this book is: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” The author raises the question of whether we will face that history, understand the deeply engrained character of racism in our society, and begin a walk toward freedom from racism’s burden. Review
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the black migration to the north and west following the failure of Reconstruction, and how it changed the lives of families who made that migration and the cities to which they moved. Review
- The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A wonderful collection of addresses by the author, mostly at college commencements, articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best. Review
- The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018. Just recently published, it narrates the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul. Meacham gives examples of leaders of both parties who led with hope, even when challenged by a politics of fear. Review
- The Global Public Square, Os Guiness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness argues for the critical importance of the human right of the freedom of conscience that undergirds our freedom of speech. Most societies through most of history have ruled by power and violence. The first amendment protections of our country are exceptional and worth not only protecting but extending to other countries, reflecting the equality of all human beings. Review
- Confident Pluralism, John D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible. Review
There are hundreds of others, of course, that might be included. I suggest these because they help us understand ourselves at our best and less than our best. They help us understand the ideals that have shaped us, and the compromises we have made with those ideals. They explore what hope there may be for an America that is plural in character–a people of many nations and beliefs–yet dedicated to the idea of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.
So, amid the fireworks and picnics and family gatherings, I hope you will find a moment to reflect on the ideas as a nation that make us what we are, and perhaps to grow in your understanding of our rights, leaving no room for the ignorance that is the seedbed of tyranny. Perhaps a book from this list might help!