This year I continued in my tradition of reading some appropriate books around the Fourth of July, starting with the excellent Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis and moving on to two collections.
The first, Our Sacred Honor by William J. Bennett, collects the thoughts and advice of the ‘founding founders’ on such themes as patriotism, frugality, industry, civility, friendship, romance, and faith, adding his own commentary as introductions to each section. It is something of a patriotic canon in that it contains excerpts from not only the Declaration of Independence, but works like the Ballad of Paul Revere and the famed story about Washingtoncutting down a tree with his hatchet. The collection is weakest here: though Bennett lightly acknowledges that these accounts are not true to fact, they’re included more for the way they make him feel, which is patriotic. What makes up for this is the wealth of material taken from the letters of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and company. (These three and Franklin provide most of the material.) The section on piety seems superfluous given how abundant references to providence are throughout the text, but the religious sentiments of these four are a world apart from those of the current strain of politicians who try to enlist God as a running-mate. I found the collection informative, though I suppose any collection of letters from Adams and Jefferson would be superb. In short,, this collection offers a slightly naïve appreciation of the founders’ thoughts, but still enjoyable.
The Good Citizen, a collection of essays about citizenship in modern America, was a far more demanding and meatier read – challenging, in fact, more for the ideas than the language. The modern America the contributing authors address is one increasingly polarized, struggling to adjust to technologies which are radically altering the way we relate with one another, juggling massive issues, both domestic (social injustice) and foreign (struggling to compete in the ever-changing global market), and attempting to do so while not being entirely united. The standout essay for me was Michael Lerner’s piece on values in America, though I also greatly appreciated Robert Bellah’s piece on polarization and Barbara Christian’s “The Crime of Innocence”, which chastised Americans who try to excuse themselves from responsibility by remaining willfully ignorant about the problems present in the country today.
At the library, my American Independence Display proved only lightly popular. Another Joseph Ellis book, American Creation, and David McCullough’s 1776 were among those checked out. Ellis is an author I intend to read more of this year, and I’m thinking I might also tackle McCullough’s classic biography of John Adams.