Vikram Amar is the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign-Urbana and the Iwan Foundation Professor of Law.
How would the nation’s founders react if, miraculously, they were transported from the late 1700s to today’s America? What would they think of the country’s demographics; its commitments to racial, gender and sexual-orientation equality at home and abroad; its free-market, big-business, tax-averse economy; its social safety net; its use of extensive surveillance and data mining to combat criminal activity; its urbanized and suburban living spaces; the power of its Christian right; and its approach toward gun control, to name just a few of the key components of the United States in the 21st century? And who, exactly, are the framers of this new American society that might confound the original founders?
These are the big questions taken up profitably by veteran journalist and political analyst Juan Williams in “We the People.” Williams, a self-described registered Democrat, has demonstrated his professional versatility by writing the companion book to the acclaimed “Eyes on the Prize” PBS documentary series on the civil rights movement and by more recently serving as a regular Fox News commentator and guest host on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Each of his 18 substantive chapters profiles an individual (or small group of individuals) responsible in Williams’s estimation for, among other things, current immigration policies; the modern civil rights, feminist and environmental movements; Social Security, welfare and Medicare; the influence of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party; the clout of the National Rifle Association; the rise of unions on the left; urban density and suburban sprawl; the domestic stature enjoyed by the military; and modern U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic strategy.
Williams covers a lot of territory and does so in ways that are creative, thoughtful, readable, nuanced and, most of all, informative. We learn biographical and professional tidbits not just about very prominent 20th-century Americans such as Ted Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Milton Friedman and George Meany, but also about somewhat lesser-known yet important architects of modern law and society such as Robert Moses and William Levitt (housing development), Harry Hay (gay rights), and Robert Ball (Social Security and Medicare). By pulling together well-told narratives about these few dozen movers and shakers, Williams provides a one-stop shop for anyone interested in understanding the individual personalities behind much of modern America’s complex national persona.
The book is for the most part free of judgment. Williams comes neither to praise nor to bury contemporary America; he seeks to describe its shape and identify its essential characteristics. The work is a biography of a nation through mini-biographies of some of its influential denizens.
Any undertaking of this scope — even one free of moralizing — runs the risk of overstatement. Some might quarrel, for example, with Williams’s assertion that “today, the United States military is America’s most trusted institution . . . an otherwise politically polarized American public finds common identity in its uniformed service members.” Such a statement might be hard to square with the admonition that then-Sen. John Kerry made to college students a decade ago — that they could either work hard in school or “get stuck in Iraq” — or with the shabby treatment many analysts seem to agree that veterans receive.
A more meaningful criticism relates not to hyperbole but to omission. Given that the pillars of modern America that Williams traces involve not just public laws and policies, but also (as in the case of religious practices, private land development and union activities, for instance) private entities and individuals acting on private motives, the absence of any chapter focused on high technology, hardware, software or medical advances was striking. Coming as I do originally from Northern California and now from the University of Illinois (the epicenter of the Silicon Prairie), I kept waiting for a chapter devoted to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and the like, but found none. Surely modern communications and computing, along with vastly increased life expectancies brought about by medical breakthroughs, are among the most salient features of today’s American experience and ones that would have been most intriguing to the founding generation.
Williams’s use of our Founding Fathers as the lens through which to analyze the origins of modern America is imaginative yet fraught with complexity. The founders on whose views Williams periodically draws interacted with one another intensively in a small space over a relatively short time to erect a framework primarily for government and secondarily for the society it would enable. By contrast, Williams’s modern-day figures who have “reshaped” that vision are much more diverse, not just demographically but also temporally, and for the most part they operated on distinct (yet related) tracks from one another. I don’t imagine marine biologist and environmental visionary Rachel Carson spent much time engaging Gen. William Westmoreland the way Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debated law, philosophy and policy much of their adult lives.
But Williams’s inquiry into how the modern-day framers have reshaped the founders’ vision — and the related inquiry into how the founders would react — does helpfully direct attention to two important but underappreciated facets of American constitutional history. First is that the Founding Fathers were not always of a single mind. Take, for example, the question of how they would feel about the “high-risk American economy with its high rewards for big winners.” The answer might depend on whether we are asking Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, who had different ideas about the role the government should play in facilitating aggregation of capital and the virtue of free markets. Because the founders were all white, land-owning and often slave-owning men, we often forget that they did not always agree on a number of fundamental questions about government and society, and that the ratification of the Constitution was no mean feat.
Second is that many of the most important values we associate with our Constitution follow less from the late 1700s than from the mid-1800s, in the aftermath of the Civil War, which in many ways was a second founding era. The abolition of slavery, the rejection of racial caste, the requirement that states and localities (and not just the federal government) respect fundamental rights, and the commitment to political equality uninfluenced by characteristics with which individuals are born really set the stage for many of the 20th-century developments that Williams analyzes, including the civil rights movements involving free speech and racial, gender and sexual-orientation equality; immigration reform; and the idea that individuals (and not just militias) have a right to keep and bear arms. Putting aside whether 18th-century American leaders would be shocked by what they would find today, the forward-looking designers of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments probably would be less so.
And while I, like many constitutional law professors, revel in the last quarter of the 1700s, one of the most important lessons one might take when reflecting on Williams’s compilation is that his characterization of the Founding Fathers as the “ever-reliable touchstone of Americanness” perhaps ought to be updated to refer to the framers of the Reconstruction-era constitutional revisions.
By Juan Williams
Crown. 453 pp. $30