- - Monday, November 11, 2019

“Nationalism is a given in human society,” writes Richard Brookhiser, longtime senior editor at National Review, historian and author of 13 books. “It supplies feeling of belonging, identity, and recognition.” As is well documented, it can also take “sinister forms elsewhere.”

But not here. “The unique feature of America’s nationalism is its concern for liberty. We have been securing it, defining it, recovering it, and fighting for it for four hundred years … A complete history of liberty in America would be a complete history of America.” Instead, in this book, Mr. Brookhiser focuses on an assortment of documents, from 1619 to 1987, that he believes “represent snapshots from the album of our long marriage to liberty.” 

Among them are the 17th-century minutes of the Jamestown General Assembly, of which he writes: “Self-rule in America began, however haltingly, at Jamestown. So did equality.” The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 was a challenge issued by settlers to Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Amsterdam, protesting his mistreatment of Quakers. The trial of John Peter Zenger provided a basic principle for the operation of a free press, from colonial times through today.

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In his treatment of our basic Founding documents, writes Mr. Brookhiser, “Independence is what every breakaway colony achieves. But the Declaration of Independence is about more than throwing the rascals out. Our nationhood begins with an essay on liberty.” 

Mr. Brookhiser explores the complexities of constructing the U.S. Constitution, and how the problem of slavery, the antithesis of liberty, was dealt with — or how dealing with it was postponed, until, inevitably, the issue was decisively addressed in the Civil War. 

In this regard, Mr. Brookhiser  gives us an anecdote involving a conversation between Ulysses S. Grant and Otto von Bismarck in Berlin, where Grant had stopped on his post-presidency world tour. Bismarck, who had unified Germany, “assumed that Grant, and America, had been engaged in a similar process of consolidation.”

“‘Not only save the Union,’” Grant corrected him, “‘but destroy slavery … We felt that it was a stain to the union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.’” 

As Mr. Brookhiser points out, Grant was enunciating a basic truth. While nationalism “is the organizing principle of the modern world … . American nationalism embodies the principle of liberty. Without that, it is nothing. Without that, we are a bigger Canada or an efficient Mexico. Grant was not as eloquent as Lincoln at Gettysburg, but he had spoken for a new birth of freedom, soldier’s version, all the same.”

The Gettysburg Address is also included in Mr. Brookhiser’s liberty documents, as are the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, a poem by Emma Lazarus, William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, a 1940 FDR Fireside Chat speech and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech. As this is being written, Germans are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a historic event that signaled the inevitable collapse of the Soviet empire, and eventually the Soviet Union itself. 

It was a triumph for human liberty and, as Mr. Brookhiser points out, a personal triumph for Ronald Reagan, “who had envisioned victory over the Soviet Union for a decade” and whose “words at the Brandenburg Gate had told the subject peoples of Eastern Europe that their masters were hesitating, and that America was on their side. Superpower negotiations would not distract us from the most important thing which was liberty, including theirs.”

Mr. Brookhiser’s choice of what he calls “liberty documents,” he acknowledges, could easily have been different. “A few — The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address — would probably have to be on any list.” But it’s a quality of a nation devoted to liberty that “it declares itself, over and over.” 

“If I have omitted a favorite — where is the Mayflower Compact, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,’ the Federalist Papers, or ‘I have a Dream’ — it is there, in the wings, with brother and sisters. More, we may hope, will come, repeatedly.”

Finally, a word about the author himself, who writes today with the same assurance, intelligence, clarity and directness that characterized his first cover article for National Review, written while still a high school student. Since then it’s been 13 books, all of which should be included in the reading lists of students of American history. 

There is much to commend Richard Brookhiser’s prose. But for a conservative writer, there could be no higher honor than being personally chosen by Bill Buckley to write for his magazine. 

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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By Richard Brookhiser

Basic Books, $28, 304 pages

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