Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Selection: “The Essential American,” Jackie Gingrich Cushman and Newt Gingrich, eds. Book Selection: The Essential American: 25 Documents Every American Should Own, Jackie Gingrich Cushman and Newt Gingrich, eds.

Polling at about 3% and saying something embarrassingly statist every few weeks, Newt Gingrich seems unlikely to be the next president (I’m sort of half-rooting for Perry among the popular options at this point, myself).  But around the time of the 2010 elections, Gingrich got one small thing right: co-editing, with one of his daughters, a collection of major American political documents and speeches that nicely captures everything from the Founding to the Gettysburg Address to laissez-faire Calvin Coolidge’s low-key blend of reverence for the Declaration of Independence and reverence for God.

My two strongest reactions – at the risk of sounding like myself – were to Patrick Henry’s liberty-or-death speech (which is one of those things so moving and exciting that you’re grateful to reread it as an adult, when you can more fully appreciate how much it stands out beside the history-class competition) and Teddy Roosevelt’s 1899 paean to “the strenuous life,” which the ideological mutations of the past decade may yet cause to be retroactively redubbed the “national greatness” speech (that being the speech’s final phrase). 

Jackie Cushman Gingrich’s introduction to the speech manages to depict it as if it’s a mere high school valedictory-level exhortation to dare and take risks – and it’s easy to read it that way absent historical context.  In context, disturbingly, it is a much more important turning point in American history, essentially a call to become imperialists – and specifically to be proud of American conquest of the Philippines and its racial/cultural implications.  It was a call fueled by the more or less Nietzschean philosophical impulse of that period, and it was recognized as novel and dangerous even at the time. 

Lest I be mistaken for some lefty who regards all of Americas’ past icons as imperialists, I’ll note that Mark Twain, for instance, was an active and explicit anti-imperialist at the time, indeed a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League.  No, Teddy Roosevelt was recognizably awful – and statist and militarist and amoral in his robust and manly way – even at the time.  All the more reason to be wary if neoconservatives such as David Brooks emulate him (as discussed in my previous Book Selections entry in this book-filled “Month of Political Conflict” on the blog). 

America didn’t acquire an empire (if you can call it that) in “a fit of absence of mind” like the British.  We knew what we were doing, and there were heated debates about it at the time, long before Ron Paul started campaigning for president or, for that matter, leftists started writing turgid post-colonialist treatises.

But if you pick up this volume – which comes with a DVD containing a motherlode of additional major historical documents – it shouldn’t be for Cushman Gingrich’s intros anyway (which also at times flirt with the conservative cherry-picking approach of reading whole complex documents and mainly seeming to notice the word “God” in them).  It’s just a handy, massive compilation of important original documents regardless.


By none of the above do I mean I’ve turned into a complete
dove.  History (like the present) is a mess, with its pros and cons usually all bundled up together. 

Take Abraham Lincoln, hero to most and complete and utter villain to some paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians, which strikes me as odd given that he at least ended slavery, no small thing, and became the first Republican president by heading an essentially libertarian cause.  I have an anthology of great libertarian writings from American history on my shelf, and I assure you Lincoln’s words are in there, for all his pro-Federal, anti-state, anti-civil-liberties mistakes (as are those of some nineteenth-century anarchists who hated landlords – again, history is a mess).

Thanks to The Language of Liberty: The Political Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (like the Gingrich book, a free copy from my friends at the Phillips Foundation), I now have 800 pages worth of sometimes-noble, sometimes-awful sentiments from Lincoln, in fact.  I won’t pretend he was all good or all bad any more than I’ll join the orgy of anti-Hamilton hate that seems to be increasing among young libertarians, with their understandable, Ron Paul-inspired emphasis on the dangers of central banking. 

But to clarify some of these issues without so much complicating historical baggage, I recommend the new Learn Liberty videos from another cabal of my acquaintances, the Institute for Humane Studies.  If Teddy Roosevelt had heard all of these talks and taken them to heart a century ago, the world would be a very different place.

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