Give Me Liberty by Richard Brookhiser

One of the myriad reasons for the near-death of this blog is that I simply don’t have the time, focus or energy to put into serious reviews of serious books. I read a decent amount of non-fiction but review very little of it. I feel caught in a catch-22, if I could write serious reviews of non-fiction I could get paid to do it and yet I rarely get around to posting quick reviews of the same books because I want to do the book justice.

Well, if this whole #StayHomeAndRead thing is going to work I am going to have to post some short blog reviews of non-fiction books. So let’s start with one of my favorite authors, Richard Brookhiser, and his latest book Give Me Liberty.

There are two things happening in this book: one is a simple history of America through the lens of our pursuits of liberty, the second is an argument about American nationalism.

The first thread creates the structure of the book

This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent shots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is. They show who asked for it, when, and why. Since no marriage is ever simple, they track its ups and downs. These thirteen liberty documents define America as the country that it is, different from all others

So what are these documents?

    1. Minutes of the Jamestown General Assembly
    2. Flushing Remonstrance
    3. Trial of John Peter Zenger
    4. Declaration of Independence
    5. Constitution of the New-York Manumission Society
    6. Constitution
    7. Monroe Doctrine
    8. Seneca Fall Declaration
    9. Gettysburg Address
    10. The New Colossus
    11. Cross of Gold Speech
    12. Arsenal of Democracy Fireside Chat
    13. Tear Down This Wall Speech

The bulk of the book is classic Brookhiser. Short, pithy and insightful description of history and its impact/significance. Some of the documents are familiar, some nearly unknown unless you are a student of history, but Brookhiser brings his golden pen to each and gives the reader insight into the DNA of America through its documents and their authors and signatories.

This is just a perfect read for anyone who enjoys history or wants to understand America better. It is accessible, a joy to read, and leaves you with a better appreciation of the thread of liberty in this country going back 400 years. Allow me to quote at length from the conclusion:

The General Assembly of Jamestown set the precedent of elected representatives voting equally on matters of public importance. The Flushing Remonstrance declared religious liberty to be a matter of supreme importance. The trial of John Peter Zenger secured the freedom to publish even mockery of those who rule us, elected or not.

The Declaration of Independence set liberty, ordained by our Creator and inseparable from equality, in black and white, at the top of our national birth certificate. The Constitution, among many other things, secured equality by forbidding kings and nobles and refusing to acknowledge slavery.

Glaring omissions had to be filled. The worst was slavery; silence was not enough. The New-York Manumission society worked for the liberation of “our brothers.” The Seneca Falls Declaration called for the vote to be given to our sisters. […]

In the midst our worst tragedy, as grotesque as it was bloody, the Gettysburg Address embraced both Declaration of Independence and Constitution: we are better than this; we will prevail. The best lines of the “Cross of Gold” speech declared that no amount of money should create a belief in human inequality; “Liberty Enlightening the World” told all the world that came here they were coming to a land of liberty. […]

The Monroe Doctrine asserted that there should be no kings in this hemisphere; the “Arsenal of Democracy” fireside chat that there should be no Nazis in Britain; the “Tear Down This Wall” speech that Communists should not forever rule the heart of Europe.

So that is the history part, and I encourage you to read this book for that aspect alone.

But the other part is an argument about America and nationalism. Brookhiser notes that nationalism is all the rage these days from Donald Trump to Brexit. He also argues that it is a given in human society; that it “supplies feelings of belonging, identity and recognition.”

But in this as in so much else, America is unique in its concern for liberty.

We have been securing it, defining it, recovering it, and fighting for it for four hundred years. […]

Our concern for liberty shapes how we live in society and what we know ourselves to be in the order of things: how we relate to each other and what God has made us. American are free and equal men and women, marked for liberty at birth. Ignorance and vice may obscure and sometimes even steal our birthright, but we work, stolidly or heroically, to reclaim it.

Brookshier is telling this story because he fears that the thread is being lost, the history is being forgotten. The “duty and pleasure” of remembering the people who contributed to our liberty is being neglected. He calls the current time “the most confused historical moment” he has lived through.

Between a haggard establishment, a perverse intelligentsia, and a inchoate populist pushback, America’s national essence is being ignored, trampled, or distorted. Those who remember the right words and principles repeat them as platitudes; others spurn them or offer substitutes, do-it-yourself or imported from abroad. Because the people offering the substitutes are either less intelligent or less virtuous than the authors and original audiences of the liberty documents, their alternatives are worse.

Brookhiser offers this historical memory as a tonic for our time; a course correction or reminder of who we are and where we have been. He closes the book with a call to action of sorts:

Liberty is never easy. you have to know what it is, believe that it is essential, and watch over and defend it. May these documents, and the men and women who wrote and endorsed them–settlers, villagers, jurors, farmers, advisors, speech writers, politicians, statesmen–be an example for us.

Amen. A perfect reason to Stay Home And Read.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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