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|1||God's Country: Aiken, South Carolina||2|
|2||The Colossus: Washington, D.C.||48|
|3||Headquarters: Plano, Texas||96|
|4||Streets: Gary, Indiana||142|
|5||The Stage: Boulder, Colorado||190|
|6||Homeland: Salt Lake City, Utah||236|
So here was our experiment: become reacquainted with the principles of the American founding and the men who first presented them back in the turbulent days of the eighteenth century; then go out and look about us for evidence in this America of the country they so long ago established. If we tell you now that we discovered it - indeed, that the foundations laid back then and built upon in the 225 or so years since, still form the essence of the American identity - it should not spoil the experience of this book. In fact, that is the message we hope you will see in every page: that the America of Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton and Franklin, Washington and Adams is as alive now as ever before.
You can hear it in the arguments before a South Carolina school board considering the line between church and state as the community it serves initiates a campaign to build a more "moral" society (Chapter 1), and in the hallways of a multinational corporation as it conceives a marketing plan to sell the potato chip - and with it, the gospel of the free market - to the underdeveloped world (Chapter 3). You can detect it in the chatter of Washington political activists using the debate over a president's plan for tax relief to make their case for the appropriate balance of power between the federal government and the states, between any government and the "sacred" individual (Chapter 2), and you can watch it in the staging of an American musical - that quintessentially American art form - as presented by Colorado high school students who find in its lyrics and melodies the expression of a still idealistic people, embracing freedom, equality, and the spirit of rebellion (Chapter 5).
To become reacquainted with the founders was, for us, its own reward. Like so many others, we had come to regard them in the form of caricature, on the one hand raised up by the myths of the uncritical biography (one thinks of Parson Weems's myth-ridden biography of Washington) and, on the other, just as ceremoniously torn down by the debunking screed. The trend of the past few years has been a somewhat cynical one, dismissive of the glorification of the founders as if the recognition of their achievement was little more than an exercise in American self-congratulation. But we discovered that, as with most subjects, the truth lies somewhere between competing extremes, and it is this: America was founded by a collection of astonishingly brave, talented, brilliant, creative, and committed men who, despite their exemplary qualities, were also very human and, therefore, flawed. They are not to be seen as a collection of gods, looked upon with reverence and fear (nor would they have wanted us to see them that way), but as the initiators of a governmental framework remarkable in its fairness and adaptability, in its respect for life and human dignity, and in the value it puts on the fulfillment of the human spirit.
The founders meant that framework to be handed down like a precious family heirloom, to be reinterpreted when needed from one era to the next, while always holding on to its essential qualities. And our discovery is that, to a degree that surprised us, it has. Americans do not form a race, in the way that the Germans or the Japanese do, but they do form a people, united around a set of ideas that the founders made concrete in the form of America's defining institutions and documents. Those ideas are only most directly confronted in political argument. Indeed, they reach deep into the fabric of the American life, informing the way that Americans raise their children, speak their language, pursue their professions, pray to their God (or choose not to pray to any God), conduct their leisure, play their games, even the way they make each other laugh.
Americans are unique in their vision of a dynamic, idea-driven identity, a fact that is demonstrated in one method of national self-criticism. In what other nation has a constitution - a document laying out the machinery of government - taken on the quality of a sacred text? Where else but in America does the claim, "that's un-Constitutional" ring with the quality of accusation, as if it were calling attention to the "immoral," the "unnatural," or even the "impossible"? Indeed, where else can the un prefix be applied to a people, the way that we say something is "un-American"? The French cannot be "un-French," the German "Un-German." The twentieth-century German political theorist Carl Friedrich took note of that when he declared "to be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact."
We conceived our book as a journey, and you will note that it is laid out that way. We did this in part as a method of organizing the material and demonstrating its scope, but also because of the resonance we felt it provided with our topic. One of the beauties of the American story is that it is itself a journey, that the founders conceived it to be one, and the ideals they set forth were just that - ideals - perhaps unattainable, but worthy goals for a nation of strivers. America, as the founders imagined it, was to be a nation in perpetual process, always in the act of becoming, often falling short of its own ambitions for itself, yet always ready to resume them. Americans set out to be just, but do not always achieve justice; they pride themselves on living in a free society, yet they do not always respect freedoms; they revere democracy, but they are sometimes undemocratic. The nation's avowed principles are distorted to serve evil purposes, as in the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, and they are sometimes used against us; only in a free society could men with sinister aims, like those responsible for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, move about at will, preparing their assault. Over the years, America's principles have been shaken, molded, adapted, assaulted, but, remarkably, they endure.
Posted October 17, 2002
This book, like its best selling predecessor also written by Jennings and Todd Brewster about the over-riding nature of the events of the 20h century, is a very well researched and immensely entertaining look at America and its inhabitants. Although obviously designed for popular culture and prominent display on coffee tables across the land, it is indeed a compelling collection of disparate elements weaving a patchwork quilt glimpse at the pluralistic nature of our society and our people. This book also capitalizes on the impressive range of data collected by ABC-TV in preparation for their superb "In Search Of America" series of televised documentaries, and the book therefore has a virtual cornucopia of offering for the reader to use in coming to appreciate the dynamic diversity that is such a celebrated aspect of American life. Whether investigating civic arguments about the separation of church and state or existential concerns of Latinos in the land of the Mormons, the reader can find an almost endless variety of facts, anecdotes, and examples of all that we have cause to find pride in as American citizens. In essence, the book represents an absorbing attempt by Jennings and Brewster to explore the stated national ideals they believe are the defining and driving forces for our culture. And the work they have accomplished in delivering this vision of contemporary America is an impressive display of how to usefully employ eyewitness anecdotes with elements of contemporary history in service to a lavishly produced and excellently articulated narrative about the current state of the polity and the society at large. In times of such turmoil and emotional distress, it is wonderful to have such a glowing look at our collective enterprise as is offered here. It is indeed a splendidly executed effort that travels the breadth and length of the land to illustrate to us just how durable, adaptable, and pragmatic a people we are, and how well our social fabric and our cultural values serve us in times like those we live in. I can highly recommend this book. Enjoy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.