Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

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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 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 ...

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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 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.

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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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
The Barnes & Noble Review
This fascinating and sometimes ambiguous book is a history of United States foreign policy told from the point of view of the ideas that motivated it -- or rather, not the ideas but the ideal that motivated it: the great ideal of liberty. For Ted Widmer sees the American millennial dream as having at its heart the idea that Americans are the new chosen people, tasked by God to bring liberty to the whole world.

I say "ambiguous" because although Widmer is sincere in believing that the United States desires and will continue to desire to export freedom and democracy to all peoples everywhere -- to desire always, and periodically to try, and sometimes to succeed -- he is frank about the wilful ambiguity in the project itself. Thus, the South demanded the liberty to keep slaves; and the westward expansion of the 19th century was an ebullient expression of liberty in which Sioux and Cheyenne happened annoyingly to be in the way; and Texas, New Mexico, and California were liberated from their Mexican possessors, as later were the Philippines and parts of the Caribbean; and the task of bringing liberty and democracy to Iraq have necessitated the Patriot Act and torture and Guantánamo Bay.

Widmer acknowledges all this but remains optimistic, for he can still say that the United States has been and can again be an ark of liberty -- "ark" in both senses: first, the container of a sacred trust, and secondly, the ship afloat on the flood of history that will bring mankind to safety on an Ararat of freedom at last. He can remain optimistic because both in intention and in fact America has more often than not held to the various things that the word "liberty" means, and done so with sincerity. He says, in conscious parody of the phrase "manifest destiny" that has inspired the best and fig-leafed the worst of American aspirations, "Despite our manifest imperfection, no nation has ever stood more clearly for freedom, and no other will soon assume that particular mantle. Certainly no one is looking to China, Russia or India as a shining beacon of freedom." And he is right.

Widmer begins his story of the American dream of liberty even before the first colonists, but of course it is with them -- escapees from religious unfreedom and strife in Old Europe -- that the story properly begins. This is not only for the obvious reasons but because the biblical phraseology, the sense of engaging in the final and history-sealing Exodus -- and therefore the sense of an eschatological fulfilment -- that filled the hearts and mouths of the Puritan leaders, set the terms of American self-perception ever thereafter. Certainly the flights of Bible-laced oratory that take off from both hustings and pulpit in the United States, now as throughout its history, give the grand project of spreading liberty an eschatological feel: and on this point politicians and preachers have always been inclined to take themselves seriously when their speeches and sermons begin.

Widmer's book prompts the thought that the key to understanding the United States of America could be the following conjunction: that the essence of America's history is that it sees its "manifest destiny" as the duty to "reshape an unwilling world in America's image" -- Widmer's words -- and the fact that the United States begins anew every four or eight years, starting over again with refreshed rhetoric, new hopes, new goals and ideals. Thus it is that the ark is relaunched on a flood of rhetoric -- oh, how Obama fits the mould -- as biblical, millennial, Promised Land–ish in sentiment as in actual quotation, and the great dream of bringing liberty and prosperity to all mankind, making the world a fit place for Americans to live in, is dreamed again.

The heroes in Widmer's book are Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is no coincidence that they are the presidents whose projection of military power resulted in definite increments of liberty for the world in history-changing ways, even if history's usual double-edgedness tempered the gift of American lives and wealth to that cause. The focus on President Wilson is apt, because in his views he focuses, like a lens, the story Widmer seeks to tell. "I believe that God presided over the inception of this nation," Wilson said in 1912, "I believe that God planted in us the vision of liberty; I believe...that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." That is a perfect summation of everything Wilson's predecessors and successors believed likewise, and not only said but acted upon. He was a historian -- the only U.S. president to hold a Ph.D. -- and he well knew how deep in America's veins runs the settlers' and Founding Fathers' conviction that the New World was meant to live up to its name.

Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war." Well: that is the irony of politics. But it shows that how America conceived the task of spreading liberty was not invariably a military one and has sometimes even been an isolationist one; though it has in practice mainly been so. The results have as often as not been a quagmire: the Philippines in the 19th century, Vietnam in the 20th, and Iraq in the 21st have each sucked American blood year after year, pursuant to the disastrous decision to get involved in the first place. But helping to liberate Europe twice in a half century tells the other side of the story: that is the story Widmer finds truer to what American self-perception represents.

There is a burning question behind this book. Liberty is a great value, especially individual liberty, which includes privacy, freedom of expression, and security from interference and depredation by the state. As a champion of liberty in this sense the United States, before the Patriot Act, was the bastion. But is this quite what is meant by "liberty" on every occasion of its incessant use in the land of the free? In the mouths of its extollers, does it really mean liberty, or does it mean license? Does it really perhaps mean libertarianism -- think "gun lobby" -- and perhaps it mainly means economic libertarianism, which gives carte blanche to the ruthless, the ravenous, the profiteers, and the greedy. The world is currently threatened with recession because the already rich of the financial markets gambled recklessly -- and now that things have gone wrong their banks and investment houses are bailed out by taxpayers' money, while the little man with the unmeetable mortgage loses his house because of their irresponsibility and the libertarian lack of regulation. Is this too much part of the liberty whose scrolls lie in the ark of the American covenant?

Widmer only obliquely considers the various things that the word "liberty" is and has been made to mean by its users and abusers, because his focus is the nation's corporate sense of mission to liberate the world. That keeps attention on foreign policy and presidential attitudes to it. But the way liberty can toxify into license in the way just described is not separable from foreign policy and foreign liberty-spreading adventure, as Iraq suggests.

Widmer describes what is happening in Iraq as the ark of the liberties beaching itself "on a rather nasty sandbar." One has to hope it is not more than that: not a hole below the waterline, so that with the excuse of a never-ending war on the shapeless, homeless, nameless spectre of terrorism we give up our liberties altogether. Widmer says that Americans soon began to realise after the invasion of Iraq "that these attacks on our enemies, in the name of liberty, were harming our own liberties." He sees the solution as lying in a more modest way of keeping faith with the project of defending and extending liberty, by "reject[ing] the idea of special destiny." Given the importance to American self-perception of the resounding rhetoric about liberty in which the great nation has wrapped itself, that might be easier to say than to do. But most of the rest of the world will be entitled to hope that, in practice, America continues to believe in its destiny. -- A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809027354
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 6/24/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • 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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Table of Contents

1 Fantasy Island 3

2 The American Millennium 17

3 A New Order of the Ages 40

4 Empire of Liberty 63

5 Liberty Enslaved 97

6 The New Colossus 132

7 Liberty Cabbage 158

8 The New World in All Tongues 190

9 The Cold War: Dawn 223

10 The Cold War: Twilight 253

11 Morning in America 285

Epilogue 313

Acknowledgments 331

Index 335

Illustration Credits 357

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2008


    A very intelligently written book that deals with major strands and markers for historic American Foreign Policy.

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    Posted October 20, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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