Thursday, 17 December 2009

“Ark of the Liberties”, by Ted Widmer (Hill & Wang)

Widmer-ArkOfTheLiberties The roots of American Engagement with the World

From the colonial period through to our current age, Ted Widmer traces the legacy of American ‘liberty’; with all its contradictions, misapplications, and also frequent misappropriation.

The author’s narrative also explains the significance of America’s fall from international popularity in the past decade. Ark of the Liberties illustrates the importance of religion and religious beliefs throughout American history: how a sense of divine destiny has infused images and thoughts about America since the very beginning, informing citizens and politicians since its founding. It is also about the interaction between this idealistic, some might call is messianic nationalism and the hard-headed realism preached by the Founding Fathers. Widmer explains how “the wall of separation” between church and state “was more of a picket fence, with eyeholes to peak through”.

“A fuller appreciation of our divisive origins and the muddle of our early foreign policy is newly desirable at another moment when so many people around the world are divided about what it is, precisely, that the United States stands for.”

In Ark of the Liberties, Widmer has offered his take on how America’s divisive origins have informed the United States’ later interaction with the global community. He starts with the discovery of America, the first waves of immigration and its time as a colony, before progressing through the Great Awakening, the Revolution, and on to the present day – drawing comparisons and lines of continuity between each period, how one could not have happened without the events that preceded it.

Widmer addresses all the major themes and events of American history, bursting bubbles and myths as he goes (all of which are the result of America’s idealistic heritage). For example, when discussing the westward expansion, he says:

“We have so many inaccurate notions about our westward expansion that it is difficult to list them all, but to suggest that our pioneers simply walked into land that was unoccupied, or occupied solely by Native Americans is blatantly wrong” and “We built this country on thousands of tiny invasions”

Widmer holds Abraham Lincoln in particularly high regard. According to the author, Lincoln “brought the ark back to its true course” after the expansionist and adventuresome first half of the Nineteenth Century (Mexican War, acquisition of Texas and California, etc.).

“Lincoln’s greatness lies as much in his restraint as in his capacity for action. In retrospect, he seems almost to have been called into service for the express purpose of calming [America’s] baser instincts and summoning our better angels.”

The above quote, in fact, is a perfect exemplar of the sometimes overly-flowery language Widmer can be prone to. It’s not a bad thing, as it certainly lacks the stuffiness of some histories. Equally, however, it does sometimes come across as over-written, or it can make his passages overly idealistic – just as he says America itself has frequently been. No doubt some will be put off by this, seeing the author as just another American ‘booster’ (to use his word), trumpeting the greatness of the United States. He is, in some ways – it is clear throughout the book that Widmer is a proud American, but one who wants to shine a little light on the truth of America’s approach to the world. He does this, even if sometimes he succumbs to the patriotic fervour he cautions against.

Another section in the book that stood out concerned Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson – how the two of them are frequently paired up as opposites and exemplars of the two strands of the American character (TR as the ‘realist’, Wilson as the ‘idealist’). Both of these presidents had a huge impact on American foreign policy, which is still felt today. For example, about Wilson’s liberal and idealistic approach to international relations:

“We may express distaste for Wilson’s simplistic idea that the world will eventually resemble the United States – but every president since then has voiced a similar aspiration.”

Widmer admires TR, it is clear. As a personal favourite of mine among the US presidents, this section was lively and balanced, as well as originally presented. The author clearly and concisely articulates the importance of TR’s presidency and how he changed US foreign policy (or, at the very least, started the US on its new course). For one, TR expanded America’s approach to foreign policy:

“In effect, he was going past the Monroe Doctrine, and even the Roosevelt Corollary, into a new way of thinking that argued the United States has a responsibility to solve the world’s problems in addition to its own.”

And also,

“Through his skill and his bluster, he had shown that Americas could do far more than occupy the world stage – they could command it.”

The author’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. His approach to his subject is balanced and frequently humorous, dealing with his topic at times with a cheekiness that helps lighten the subject, making it more accessible, but not diminishing its impact. Widmer's writing is well nuanced, extrapolating large ideas and themes from the smallest of actions and symbols, painting a grand picture of America’s sense of self and ideals.

“History never sleeps”, Widmer writes. In Ark of the Liberties, he artfully manages to trace continuities and causality throughout America’s history. This review could be almost endless, given the amount of interesting and originally-presented ideas Widmer has managed to cram into this book. However, the longer this review is, the less the reader will actually have to go out and get it for themselves.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in American history and how and why the nation sees itself the way it does. Very enjoyable and engaging.

Also try: Morton Keller, America’s Three Regimes (2007); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2007); David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty (2008); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2009); Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire (2008)

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