July 6, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought
If Fourth of July celebrations prove anything, it's this: Nobody wears their love of country on their sleeves like Americans do.
And that's as it should be. For all of its faults and foibles,
America has demonstrated repeatedly over the last 230 years that it
truly deserves our devotion. Ask yourself: If the United States
didn't stand for something noble and fine, would we be having a
national debate about how many people should be allowed to
A lady is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin, at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, "Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?"
Replied Franklin: "A republic -- if you can keep it."
That's always been the trick -- how to "keep it." One thing is certain: It can't be done without the participation of an informed electorate. And you can't be informed without following the advice that former first lady Barbara Bush recently gave graduates at George Washington University: "Read, read, read."
So, in the interest of making your summer reading both educational and entertaining, let me suggest three books in particular.
One is William J. Bennett's latest work, America: The Last Best Hope. Bennett is a throwback. He really believes that the United States is a wonderful country, founded by brilliant men and dedicated to improving the world by providing a safe haven for free thought, free speech and free enterprise.
Bennett covers the bad as well as the good, so this book is honest without being pessimistic. If you believe Columbus came to North America to kill natives by giving them smallpox, this book isn't for you. But if you want to understand how generations of Americans worked to build the country we love, this book offers an excellent starting point. Like David McCullough's 1776, Bennett not only refreshes memories, but re-inspires us with the achievements of so many great Americans.
For a detailed look at one of them, readers should turn to Stacy Schiff's absorbing A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. I had the pleasure of being at Mount Vernon when Schiff won the George Washington Book Prize for this story of Benjamin Franklin's behind-the-scenes role in making America possible.
At an age (70) when many Americans are already retired (and, in his day, an age few lived to see), Franklin traveled to Paris. His mission: Persuade the French government to support the American colonies in their war against Britain.
But he was working, as they say, without a net. Franklin had little contact with the American government and virtually no guidance from it. Yet he managed to forge an alliance that gave the colonies the military and financial support they needed to prevail. Schiff deftly recreates these key events, telling an intriguing story every American should know.
Finally, I'd encourage readers to take a more off-the-beaten-path look at our past by reading James Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer.
Swanson describes a peculiar moment in history. The Civil War is ending in Union victory, and the country is prepared to celebrate. Instead, President Lincoln is assassinated, and the leaderless government finds itself chasing his killer.
It's a cliche, but Swanson's book really is hard to put down. He provides colorful detail of the 12 days it took to hunt John Wilkes Booth and lets the reader see things from both sides -- the hunters and the hunted. Swanson also writes about the forgotten players in Lincoln's murder, the family and friends who helped Booth flee.
It's all part of the American story -- an experiment in liberty that continues to this day. How long it lasts is up to each one of us. But there's one sure way to prolong it: Read, read, read.
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.
First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times