Richard Brookhiser describes his new book, Give Me Liberty, as an examination of “thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent snapshots from the album” of America’s “long marriage to liberty,” from the days of the 13 colonies to the Cold War. This is too modest. Brookhiser has created, with an artistry at once subtle, economical, and gripping, a primer on the American idea of freedom, a manual for patriots.
He achieves his effect by skillfully blending storytelling and character portraiture with analysis of the nature and meaning of America’s free-state philosophy. His brief account of Jamestown, the story with which he begins, is a tale well told, but it is also a reflection on how the colonists, struggling merely to survive in an alien wilderness, found time to vindicate liberty by establishing the “first legislature in America,” with “elected representatives voting equally on matters of public importance.” Jamestown stood up to the mother country even as it drew on the mother country’s own lawmaking traditions. Britain became the mother of parliaments in part because it was an island nation that relied on a navy for defense, not on a standing army like those on the Continent, which could be used by sovereigns to suppress dissent. The Jamestown colonists carried this habit of standing up to authority into a new world.
Legislative power is one aspect of American liberty, religious freedom another. In a few deft strokes Brookhiser brings to life the confrontation that produced the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657. New Amsterdam was a company town run by peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, who answered to the Dutch West India Company. His idea of corporate good governance left no place for vexatious Quakers: Friends in New Amsterdam were liable to expulsion, imprisonment, and whipping. Across the East River, the citizens of Flushing thought such persecution offensive in the eye of God. In retelling their collision with Stuyvesant, Brookhiser argues that their Remonstrance, coming three decades before John Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration and the English Toleration Act of 1688, owed less to enlightened theory than to a religious charity that enjoined Christians not to offend Christ’s “little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker.” Secular philosophy “did not make the men of Flushing take action,” Brookhiser writes. “Neither did practical sociology. It took God to do that. In America religious liberty without the force of God’s injunction is a discussion topic or, at best, a habit.”
Brookhiser goes on to do for the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger for seditious libel (an early attempt to muzzle a free press in America) what Macaulay did for the trial of the seven bishops for the same offense in the run-up to England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688: He makes a courtroom drama vivid for the contemporary reader. Zenger, German by birth, came to New York as a boy and became a printer. When the royal governor of the colony, William Cosby, proved himself a noxious ass, Zenger joined the resistance by printing the Weekly Journal, a newspaper that poked fun at the Cosby regime. Cosby brought him to trial, expecting an easy conviction. But much like James II in the case of the bishops, he failed to foresee how much an exceptional advocate could do to sway the minds of men inclined toward freedom. Andrew Hamilton, an émigré Scot and the most learned lawyer in Philadelphia, was retained for the defense, and Brookhiser does full justice to his forensic power in asserting “the liberty both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power . . . by speaking and writing the truth.”
Jamestown, Flushing, and Zenger are pieces in the puzzle of liberty, but it is what Brookhiser calls “our national birth certificate,” the Declaration of Independence, that puts the pieces together and supplies America with its overarching credo. Part of the power of the Declaration derives from its language. “Jefferson was quiet and shy,” Brookhiser writes, “and under stress he suffered from migraines. But when he sat down to write he was transformed, showing a style that was both sweet and urgent, singing and staccato. . . . No other writer in America had that combination of lightness and power.” Yet what gives Jefferson’s essay on liberty its ultimate authority, Brookhiser says, is its assertion that our freedom — our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — is something more than the practical contrivance of mortals. For Jefferson human rights and liberties are attributes of our nature ordained by divine power — are, in Brookhiser’s words, “outside human fashioning, created by God.” Jefferson, for the most part, had “no more religion than a cat,” Brookhiser writes. But he believed that the rights and liberties at the heart of “America’s reason for being” are neither merely pragmatic nor peculiarly American: They are “inextricably human” because their origins are “extrahuman, fashioned by the Creator of everything.”
Give Me Liberty goes on to describe the application and extension of the quasi-mystic premises of Jefferson’s Declaration to larger swathes of American life. The Constitution provides the practical framework for American liberty; the New-York Manumission Society, the Seneca Falls Convention, Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “New Colossus,” and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech are attempts to extend freedom to those who either have been excluded from or have not been wholly initiated in the free-state creed, blacks, women, non-Anglo immigrants, working-class folk made to feel less than equal because that other American idol, the “bitch-goddess Success,” has not smiled on them. Three other chapters, on the Monroe Doctrine, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” address, and Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech, show how the country has worked to secure its liberties by resisting aggression and promoting freedom abroad.
Unexpected cameos of John Jay, Frederick Douglass, Gouverneur Morris, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Clay, and a score of others cast these pushers of liberty in a new light, each quite unlike the others, yet each engaged in an unconscious dialogue with all the rest, participants in the common enterprise of trying to make freedom real. Brookhiser finds unexpected connections between different characters and different phases in the American drama, uncovers the thread that runs the length of the fabric. Yet if pressed to quibble with Give Me Liberty, I would note the comparative absence of Massachusetts. Virginia, Manhattan and the Hudson Valley, the Burned-Over District of western New York, the Middle West of Lincoln, Bryan, and the young Reagan — they are all amply represented in the book. But the Bay Colony of the Puritans is present mostly in those of its sons and daughters whose families fled it.
There is, to be sure, a difficulty in fitting Puritanism into the story of liberty. If Calvinism has given us our intense individualism, it has also given us our self-righteousness, our yen for sniffing out heretics and prying into our neighbor’s business, and our impatience (in our occasionally barbarous freedom) with the graces that make life bearable, that liberate it from the tyranny not of authority but of dreariness. The Puritan, under a messianic imperative to build the new Jerusalem of the future, is contemptuous of the civilizing arts that make for opulence in the present. It got worse when Puritanism degenerated into Yankee utilitarianism, the oppressive creed that has given us our national cult of uncomeliness in matters relating to the arrangement of common space, from the lightly dressed hog troughs of the suburban shopping center to the cold quadrilateral rigidity of the urban gridiron plan.
But the millennial fervor of the Puritan is also our blessing. Transformed into Emerson’s nondenominational “effort at the Perfect,” the messianic impulse lives on in America. It has given us Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, with a born-again nation undergoing its “new birth of freedom,” and Reagan’s faith that America is “a place in the divine scheme of things” set aside as a “promised land” for those desiring freedom. The trope has since become a gimmick, with leaders obliged to make preposterous claims for the novelty of their programs, so many new freedoms, new deals, new frontiers, and new covenants; but the impulse itself is part of what we are.
The danger is that this mystical exaltation of liberty may blind us to the virtues of other kinds of flourishing. Brookhiser glances, a bit contemptuously, at “romantic and radical” thinkers who doubt whether America has indeed found the universal formula for the good life, who believe that the ground on which the Founders built, if it was solid, was also somewhat low, who are quick to point out that the characters in Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, languishing under autocracy, live a good deal more completely, have more human depth in them, than does, say, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt in the all-American city of Zenith, in the land of Lincoln.
But these are trifles. What matters is Brookhiser’s original reflection on the nature of our American experiment, the work of a man who has for many years immersed himself in the minds of those who forged our freedom. When he says that liberty “is our nationalism, and we should be proud of it,” especially now, when it “is being ignored, trampled, or distorted,” we should listen.
This article appears as “Primer for Patriots” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.