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Ark of the Liberties: America and the World
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Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

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by Ted Widmer

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The United States stands at a historic crossroads; essential to the world yet unappreciated. America’s decline in popularity over the last eight years has been nothing short of astonishing. With wit, brilliance, and deep affection, Ted Widmer, a scholar and a former presidential speechwriter, reminds everyone why this great nation had so far to fall. In a


The United States stands at a historic crossroads; essential to the world yet unappreciated. America’s decline in popularity over the last eight years has been nothing short of astonishing. With wit, brilliance, and deep affection, Ted Widmer, a scholar and a former presidential speechwriter, reminds everyone why this great nation had so far to fall. In a sweeping history of centuries, Ark of the Liberties recounts America’s ambition to be the world’s guarantor of liberty. It is a success story that America, and the world, forgets at its peril.

From the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United States, for all its shortfalls, has been by far the world’s greatest advocate for freedom. Generations of founders imbued America with a surprisingly global ambition that a series of remarkable presidents, often Democratic, advanced through the confident wielding of military and economic power. Ark of the Liberties brims with new insights: America’s centuries-long favorable relationship with the Middle East; why Wilson’s presidency deserves reappraisal; Bill Clinton’s underappreciated achievements; how America’s long history of foreign policy immediately touches on the choices we face in 2008. Fully addressing America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq, Ark of the Liberties colorfully narrates America’s long and laudatory history of expanding world liberty.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In this exploration of the United States’ promotion of liberty across the globe, Ted Widmer offers an examination of our history that should influence the way we think about our place in the twenti-first-century world. At a time when we need to restore America’s standing in so many places, Ark of the Liberties shows us how we can do it if we remain true to our historic ideals.” —Bill Clinton

“Ted Widmer wants to restore idealism’s good name. In the spirit of an old-fashioned jeremiad, he summons his countrymen to return to their own highest standards and properly play their anointed role in the world.” —David M. Kennedy, The Washington Post

“Widmer has written an ambitious account of the enduring global reach of America, whose uniqueness he attributes to the millennial outlook of the Europeans who first settled here.” —The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice

“Widmer’s book is both a primer and a call to faith of sorts—a historically cast reminder.” —Art Winslow, The Los Angeles Times

“[A] valuable history of the ideas that have shaped American foreign policy.” —Chris Tucker, The Dallas Morning News

“A bold, sweeping, critical, ultimately admiring and optimistic (but cautionary) birthday card to America.” —Doug Riggs, The Providence Journal

“Fed up with a never-ending war and the state of the union? This fascinating story of America’s epic rise to freedom and world power might renew your patriotism.” —The Chicago Tribune

“A sweeping, elegant history of the ideas that shape American foreign policy. And no idea has influenced America’s understanding of its role in the world as decisively as the concept of liberty. Widmer meticulously traces the contradictions, triumphs, and betrayals of liberty that have unfolded across the centuries of the American experience.”—Evan R. Goldstein, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“This is a wonderful and much-needed book. It will give even the most hardened cynic reason for renewed hope in America’s future.” —Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

“A taut and timely account of America’s search for its place in the world. Ted Widmer probes both our exalted national rhetoric and our occasionally odd international behavior; the result is a wise analysis of America’s evolution from the nation where liberty dwells to the one that shows up—sometimes—where it does not.” —Stacy Schiff

Ark of the Liberties should be read by all who want to understand why the United States behaves as it does in the world.” —Gordon Wood, Brown University

“With great skill, eloquence, and frequent humor, Widmer has written the history of America for all of us who care about our country and the direction we must take in the years ahead to be true to our ideals and regain the respect we have lost in today’s world.” —Ted Kennedy

“Finally, someone has sent out a brilliant team called Ted Widmer—an historian, a cartographer, a rocker-poet composer, a White House speechwriter, and one damn good storyteller—to capture the many ways that we Americans have franchised our new nation: as idea, ideal, and pure product of a land where liberty can be hard to come by. What an affectionate, optimistic, and irreverent WPA Guide to every era of an astonishingly global America.” —David Michaelis, author of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography

“In Ark of the Liberties, Ted Widmer retrieves the history of our country’s profound contributions to human freedom, without once falling prey to pieties or bromides. Widmer’s ark actually describes a great moral arc that, despite its manifest failures and contradictions, has finally, in Theodore Parker’s phrase, bent toward justice. Effortlessly combining grand interpretation with reappraisals of key figures and events, Widmer’s account is unfailingly fascinating—and could not be more timely.” —Sean Wilentz, Princeton University, author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

“With boldness and humor, Widmer grapples with an idea central to our nation’s history, while providing a number of fresh insights into U.S. foreign policy and presidencies along the way. While the philosophical problem of universals is probably irresolvable, Widmer asks the right question at each stage of his history: What, exactly, do we mean by liberty?” —The Innocent Smith Journal

Publishers Weekly

From the colonial period through our current age, Widmer traces the legacy of American liberty with all its respect, contradictions and misapplications. His narrative explains the significance of the U.S.'s fall from international popularity in the last decade. Widmer's admiration for his country doesn't prevent him from recognizing its faults and, at times, the country's inability to hold true to the ark of liberty set forth in the national narrative. Widmer's writing is wonderfully nuanced, extrapolating large ideas and themes from the smallest of actions and symbols. William Hughes's narration doesn't do the book justice. His delivery lacks that subtlety, specificity and energy that Widmer's impressive and witty text needs. A Hill & Wang hardcover (reviewed online). (July)

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Library Journal

In this historical overview of U.S. foreign policy, Widmer (director, John Carter Brown Lib., Brown Univ.; Martin Van Buren) argues that the United States has more often been internationalist than isolationist. A former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, he elaborates on the rhetorical dimensions of his topic. FDR clearly emerges as his foreign policy hero for championing human rights and the end of colonialism during World War II, even as British prime minister Winston Churchill fixated on preserving the British Empire. Widmer also praises Woodrow Wilson's idealism abroad without commenting on his racism at home and Jimmy Carter's human rights record without acknowledging his limited political experience, which undermined his domestic and foreign policies. In failing to note the shortcomings in temperament of some of the Presidents, Widmer fails to explain why some become crusaders and others pragmatists. The lack of footnotes will limit scholars' use of the book, but its readability will appeal to a broader if partisan public. Recommended for libraries with patrons interested in foreign policy.
—William D. Pederson

Kirkus Reviews
Diplomatic history of the United States, emphasizing its spiritual underpinnings as much as wars and treaties. Though Widmer (Martin Van Buren, 2004, etc.) does not ignore the traditional subjects within the field, his theological analysis takes him to places where other scholars don't always tread. The former Clinton speechwriter sees the country's longtime focus on spreading liberty throughout the world as a net positive, when done properly. He begins with a long examination of the nation's founding, spending considerable time on the nation's Puritan roots and showing how John Winthrop's idea of a "city upon a hill" has inspired politicians of both parties ever since. Widmer is harder on Republican presidents, especially Reagan and the Bushes, whom he argues didn't follow their lofty moralistic rhetoric with equally just policies. He describes the architects of the current administration's foreign policy as "wolves in Wilsonian clothing." One of the author's key points is that Woodrow Wilson was more than a sentimental idealist, and his foreign policy was underrated. "By giving voice to what had been airy aspirations, and mobilizing the world's peoples, and taking his plan far toward completion," he writes, "Wilson proved to be a realist indeed." Widmer covers many subjects at a brisk pace while synthesizing a vast array of primary and secondary sources. Occasionally the volume of information becomes overwhelming, but the author makes solid use of poetry and fiction to back up his arguments-the title comes from Herman Melville's 1850 novel White-Jacket, which uses the phrase "ark of the liberties" to describe America's role as a moral exemplar. An unusual and engaging tour of thehorizon of American diplomacy that should appeal to both scholarly and general audiences.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.29(d)

Meet the Author

Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a foreign policy speechwriter and senior adviser to President Clinton, and is Senior Research Fellow of the New America Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Observer.

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Ark of the Liberties: America and the World 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very intelligently written book that deals with major strands and markers for historic American Foreign Policy.