The Essential American,

A Patriot's Resource:
25 Documents and Speeches
Every American Should Own

Edited by Jackie Gingrich Cushman,

with a foreword by Newt Gingrich

Regnery. 369 pp. $21.95

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Reviewed by Harvey J. Kaye


In 1939, when the United States was still suffering under the Great Depression and increasingly threatened by the likelihood of a second world war, progressive writer Max Lerner observed that "The basic story in the American past, the only story ultimately worth the telling, is the story of the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the democratic adventure."

Remarkably, conservatives Newt Gingrich and his daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman might actually agree with Lerner's proposition.

In her introduction to The Essential American, Cushman states that the 25 documents she selected for inclusion are intended both to express America's highest ideals and commitments - "liberty . . . unity and equality . . . overcoming personal obstacles . . . personal character . . . exploration and achievement . . . political and economic freedom" - and to relate American history as the great and exceptional story of advancing freedom and equality that it has been.

Unfortunately, however, not only does the collection fail to capture "the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the democratic adventure," it also betrays its declared aspirations in favor of scoring ideological points.

Don't get me wrong. The book contains a fascinating assortment of pieces - though how the editor failed to include passages from Thomas Paine's Common Sense and The Crisis is beyond me.

Following Gingrich's foreword and Cushman's introduction, the anthology opens with Patrick Henry's famous speech of 1775, "Give me Liberty, or give me death." It includes the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, three of Abraham Lincoln's addresses plus the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I have a dream" speech.

It also includes texts such as Abigail Adams' letter to her husband John demanding that he and his colleagues in the Continental Congress "remember the ladies"; Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address in 1801, in which the new president sought rhetorically to unite the country by declaring "We are all republicans, we are all federalists"; and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961, imploring Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you."

Who could not be thrilled and inspired reading such works?

However, the collection also includes an assortment of texts that, as important as they may be, express not so much America's highest ideals as its most troubling practices, past and present.

That would be fine - indeed, compelling - if the editor acknowledged the contradictions they reveal. We find "Captain Mosley Baker's speech at San Jacinto" calling on Texans to "Remember the Alamo!" It's a memorable and moving oration, but Cushman, after saying that "The story of liberty-loving Texans fighting for independence - first from Spain and then from a Mexican dictator - illustrates why Americans are willing to die for their freedom and liberty," fails to note that Texas would soon enter the United States as a slaveholding state.

Similarly, Cushman introduces Theodore Roosevelt's 1899 speech "The Strenuous Life" by suggesting that we "challenge ourselves to live out the doctrine of the strenuous life." Yet she doesn't mention that Roosevelt was trying to energize the country to play a "grander" and more forceful role in world affairs, starting out by imposing our will on the Philippines. As Roosevelt himself stated in the speech: "Resistance must be stamped out."

The Essential American is not a "patriot's resource," but rather a "conservative's resource."

To their credit, Gingrich and Cushman do not appear to subscribe to the resurgent states-rights rhetoric of others on the right such as U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Gov. Rick Perry (R., Texas). Nevertheless, one can imagine the volume was concocted to serve as a resource for the newly fashioned history and social-studies curricula to be taught in Texas schools. It stresses American freedom, but construed in decidedly New Right, Republican ways.

The book highlights Americans' faith in God and commitment to freedom of worship, but makes no reference to the Revolutionary - yes, 1776! - aspiration to separate church and state (which was effectively inscribed in the "Godless" Constitution and First Amendment).

And while economic freedom, narrowly understood in antistatist and free-market terms, gets special attention by way of Ronald Reagan's nationally televised address endorsing conservative Republican Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, the book includes not one of Franklin Roosevelt's great speeches of the 1930s advancing a decidedly American vision of economic freedom as economic security and opportunity. (The book does make a brief reference to the Four Freedoms when introducing FDR's speech of December 1941 calling for a declaration of war against Japan.)

In the end, The Essential American fails to convey just how "exceptional" American history actually is.

To do that, Cushman and Gingrich would have had to widen their ideological horizons. They would have had to attend better to the original and continuing arguments and struggles of liberal, progressive, and radical Americans to realize America's purpose and promise and to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy.

Moreover, they would have had to treat American history as forever open and experimental, or again, as Max Lerner put it, as "the story of the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the democratic adventure."

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America."