The Book of (Historical) Virtues

(From "America: The Last Best Hope")
Reviewed by Alan Wolfe
Sunday, June 11, 2006


The Last Best Hope

Volume I: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War

By William J. Bennett

Nelson Current. 573 pp. $29.99

I admit to a soft spot for William J. Bennett. To be sure, I disagree with him on most major issues, find his fondness for gambling morally troubling and do not share his enthusiasm for President Bush. But we have all too few former government officials and cable television talking heads who write books that actually deal with ideas. By and large, Bennett's books have been pretty good. I helped raise three children on his Book of Virtues , and they are the better for it.

With his new venture, Bennett shifts focus from philosophy to history. America: The Last Best Hope will be a two-volume affair dedicated to retelling the story of America's development into the world's most powerful liberal democracy. Volume I begins with the explorations of Christopher Columbus and ends with the world's plunge into the chaos of World War I.

If you believe that good historical writing involves years of archival research leading to the unearthing of new knowledge, Bennett's book will disappoint; all the references are to the works of previous historians, and no new discoveries await the reader. But non-academically trained historians have always tried to capture the grand sweep of the American past, so Bennett belongs in a long-established tradition. He has a strong sense of narrative, a flair for anecdote and a lively style. And the American story really is a remarkable one, filled with its share of brilliant leaders and tragic mistakes. Bennett brings that story to life. The pessimism of the Federalists in an increasingly democratic society, James K. Polk's war against Mexico, the Mormon Great Trek -- all are related with a sense of excitement and engagement.

Pundit that he is, Bennett is not content just with narration; he also has lessons to impart. Americans, he believes, fail to appreciate the great things their country has achieved; a rousing, explicitly patriotic history can help them overcome the cynical defeatism that he sees lurking in contemporary society. This sounds like a formula for right-wing political correctness, and to some degree it is. Bennett defends Spanish colonization; excuses away the three-fifths rule that enabled slave-owners to increase their power by counting 60 percent of every slave as a person for purposes of congressional representation; bends over backward to understand why settlers might hate Native Americans (although he properly criticizes Andrew Jackson's vicious campaign of Indian removal); and claims that racial segregation harmed both whites and blacks.

Still, Bennett on balance resists a moralistic tale in favor of a nuanced one. As might be expected from so pugnacious a commentator, he takes sides. But the sides he takes are surprising. Americans throughout their history have been divided into camps not unlike the liberals and conservatives of today. Depending on the circumstances in which they lived, some of our leaders believed in a strong national government and equal citizenship for all, while others pledged their allegiance to state and local authority and were quite content to live in a society in which inequalities of birth were reinforced by existing institutions and practices. Bennett nearly always takes the side of the former against the latter.

Nowhere are Bennett's sympathies more strongly pronounced than in his discussion of the ideas and events leading up to the Civil War. American conservatism has long had a tendency to romanticize the Old South as a land of virtue and courage. Bennett will have none of it. Not a trace of sympathy for slavery and slave-owners appears in his book. He castigates John C. Calhoun, slavery's most brilliant defender, for bringing on the conflict. He denounces the Dred Scott decision as "inimical to the Founders' vision." He has nothing but praise for Frederick Douglass and his campaign for equal rights. Bennett is a Lincoln man, pure and simple.

Bennett takes the same side when discussing periods in which Americans were divided over the role of government in their society. He prefers James Madison's more restrained Virginia Resolution defending states' rights to Thomas Jefferson's more secessionist-leaning Kentucky one. Theodore Roosevelt gets more praise than William McKinley. Bennett's America even holds a place for labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers. Immigration and religious pluralism are welcomed by him. (Sometimes, in fact, his book reads like a Catholic -- more specifically, an Irish Catholic -- history of America.) Bennett may be a conservative today, but he has little positive to say about Know-Nothings, Copperheads and isolationists, all of whom were conservatives yesterday.

Liberal readers will be wary of his explicitly nationalistic history. They ought instead to recognize what a tribute to liberalism this book is. Precisely because he is so proud of his country and wants to celebrate its greatness, Bennett calls attention to all those movements toward liberty and equality that enabled the United States to expand its ideals and strengthen its citizens. The fact that so prominent a conservative as Bennett accepts nearly all the major reforms of the 19th century suggests just how much the current American consensus remains a liberal consensus. Whether he finds the same to be true of the 20th century awaits Volume II of America: The Last Best Hope . ยท

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His new book, "Does American Democracy Still Work?," will be published in September.

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