The Corner


On Liberty

President Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress)

“The fundamental things apply,” goes an old song. In a Q&A podcast, Richard Brookhiser and I talk some fundamental things — as they relate to the American project. Rick is a senior editor of National Review, as you know, and the author of many books, especially relating to the American founding. His latest book is Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea. It stretches from the Jamestown General Assembly to Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

In between? Well, the Declaration of Independence, of course, and the Constitution, and the Monroe Doctrine, and many other things. Some of those other things? The Seneca Falls Declaration, the Gettysburg Address, and Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor”).

One of the most touching things I know, in all of American history, is Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy of Henry Clay. Rick quotes it: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.”

There is a world of Americanism in that statement.

At the end of his book, Brookhiser tells a story about U. S. Grant and Otto von Bismarck. They met in Berlin, when Grant was on a world tour, after his presidency. “Here were two great nationalists of the modern era,” writes Brookhiser — “one who had beaten the armies of secession in the world’s largest republic, and one who had, through shrewdness and carefully chosen wars against neighbors, forged a collection of kingdoms and statelets into an empire.”

Yet they were very different. They had different conceptions of nationalism. (In his book, Rick makes no distinction between nationalism and patriotism. He treats them as the same.)

Bismarck expressed sympathy about the American civil war. They were the worst of wars, civil wars. Yes, but it had to be done, said Grant. Of course, replied Bismarck: You had to save the Union, just as we had to save Germany.

Not only that, said Grant: We had to destroy slavery.

Bismarck had to think about this for a moment. Well and good, he replied, but surely saving the Union was the main thing. At first it was, said Grant. But in due course, we saw that slavery had to be blotted out, forever.

“We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”

Writes Brookhiser,

A union in which denial of liberty was a permanent feature, not a stain to be deplored, contained, or eradicated, was not a Union worth saving. It would not be America.

He continues,

Bismarck was half right. Nationalism, including national unity, is the organizing principle of the modern world.

But Grant was entirely right. American nationalism embodies the principle of liberty. Without that, it is nothing. Without that, we are a bigger Canada or an efficient Mexico.

Do you know my favorite statement about patriotism? It was uttered by Carl Schurz, the German immigrant who became a Union general, a U.S. senator, and other things. It was taught to me by Barbara J. Fields, the historian of the South. “My country, right or wrong — when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.”

Again, my Q&A with Rick is here. Like a handful of other people I have known — Paul Johnson, George Will, David Pryce-Jones, John O’Sullivan — Rick talks as well as he writes. He speaks in substantial paragraphs, which you could plop right down into text, without emendation. Extraordinary.


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