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BOOK REVIEW: Principles to which we must return

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7 EVENTS THAT MADE AMERICA AMERICA - AND PROVED THAT THE FOUNDING FATHERS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG
By Larry Schweikart
Sentinel, $25.95, 258 pages

What this deft little book kind of reminds me of is the old PBS series "Connections" (since revived, I understand, without my having noticed). In "Connections," the historian of science James Burke highlights a technological development - say, the Normans' use of stirrups - that led to other developments that led, amid viewer "Ahas!" to developments that gave us the modern world.

Larry Schweikart's timeline - U.S. history, more or less since the Revolution - is shorter than Burke's; his purpose, moreover, is anything but politically neutral, as will be divined from the subtitle.

The developments he traces - e.g., private initiative as the key factor in Johnstown, Pa.'s, recovery from its catastrophic 1889 flood - make the case for softer, lower-key government, in the Founders' style, and for resistance to big-government nannyism and like afflictions.

His earnest submission is that "modern liberals have empowered the U.S. government with the ability not only to open the bedroom door, but literally to peek inside one's stomach or dictate what music one listens to by forcing a contribution to 'approved' arts."

The Founders, in other words, held to liberty-affirming principles that later generations tended to violate, accidentally or intentionally, as different circumstances confronted them. Well, these culpable generations ought to have looked back, Mr. Schweikart assures us. His - our - realization of the Founders' superior wisdom is the "connection" the reader loops together: freedom of speech, for instance; freedom to create new forms of art, such as the rock music he says helped undermine communism. Indeed, our historian-author from the University of Dayton, who specializes in revisionist assaults on liberal revisionism, dedicates the present book to "Rock and rollers, here and abroad, now and then."

OK, hold it right there. Professor Schweikart's musical enthusiasms may have carried him a bit far out to sea. Not that society could ever have stopped R&R (as the communists unsuccessfully sought to do). Next time, though, he would do well to acknowledge that liberation takes many forms, personal and cultural, as well as political and economic. Elvis didn't set in train the destruction of the family model, but the pounding-pounding-pounding, ultimately anarchic, beat he generated hardly encouraged, oh, let's just say, personal restraint and forbearance. End of sermon.

Whether or not we accord the professor high marks for musical taste, we need to credit him for arrestingly showing us some of the new, less creditable ways we think about government. I liked considerably the chapter titled "Johnstown Fights a Flood." It leads us to contemplate our present mental dependency upon the federal government as the One Great Relief Agency. It's not irrelevant to our concerns, certainly, given the complexities of modern life, but not omni-competent either - as government at every level demonstrated before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

The people of Johnstown had - of course - some government help in their time of distress, but according to Mr. Schweikart, "the Johnstowners thought it best for the residents (and volunteers) to handle their own problems." The military provided necessary security against looting and pillaging. Yet "private philanthropy and local citizens had dealt with the 'relief' efforts without the intrusion of even the state - let alone the federal - government."

Now let it be acknowledged freely that clocks don't run backward. Mr. Schweikart is content - I think - to point out that "relief and disaster response by the federal government ... always come up short compared to the compassionate efforts of communities and neighbors." His enterprise is to make the reader say, "Oh." And then, "Hmmm." And then possibly draw some deductions as to how we might proceed during future disasters.

So with government "dietary nannyism," a phenomenon Mr. Schweikart traces back to the health obsessions government embraced after President Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack. We needed to take better care of ourselves, government decided. It was on from there to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's wars against salt and soft drinks - government not only as defender of our liberties but as nursemaid, certain of those liberties notwithstanding.

Mr. Schweikart's libertarianism (albeit ascribable to the spirit of the Founders) may turn off particular readers. I do not see that as a problem with his book. What he means to do - show us something we haven't thought about sufficiently - he does effectively, engagingly and with considerable learning. We don't necessarily have to see the national reaction to Ike's heart attack as the cause of Michelle Obama's anti-childhood-obesity campaign. Yet the two phenomena share a common background: the idea that government's charter involves tender care for the most personal aspects of our daily lives.

One of the greatest of the Founders, George Mason of Gunston Hall, Va., urged on his countrymen the duty of frequent "recurrence to fundamental principles." I believe that is what Mr. Schweikart has in mind here: recurrence while there's time. Based on the evidence he lays before us, we'd better not stand there, daydreaming.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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