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The thirteen books you must read to understand America
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
A dozen books? A hundred—or a thousand—books would not do the job. All countries are hard to understand, and despite its brief history, the United States of America is harder to understand than most, because of its size in dreams, because of its obstreperousness, and because of its heterogeneity. Still, for all this, the United States has an unmistakable national identity. Here, in chronological order, are books that have described, defined, and enriched America’s sense of itself. I am dismayed at all the significant works so brief a list must leave out, but I do think that these particular choices illuminate in a major way what Ralph Ellison called “the mystery of American identity”: how we Americans are at once many and one.
(1787–88) originated as an explanation and defense of the American Constitution. It survives as a brilliant exposition of the first principles of democratic government. Written mostly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison , the eighty-five Federalist papers were published between October 1787 and May 1788 in New York City newspapers, were reprinted throughout the thirteen states, and were read avidly during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution—and have been read avidly ever since. Can one imagine any newspaper today, even the august New York Times , running a series of such length and weight (except when blackmailed into doing so by the Unabomber)?
Thomas Jefferson (Library of America, 1984). Jefferson embodied much of American versatility within himself. He was an architect, an educator, an inventor, a paleontologist, an oenophile, a fiddler, an astute diplomat, a crafty politician, and a luminous prophet of liberty in words that light the human way through the centuries. President John F. Kennedy once called a dinner of Nobel Prize winners the most extraordinary collection of human knowledge ever to be gathered together at the White House “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
But Jefferson was a man of contradictions: a champion of human freedom who did not, as George Washington had done, set his slaves free at his death; a champion of the free press who favored prosecuting editors for seditious libel; a champion of the strict construction of the Constitution who bent the sacred document for the sake of the Louisiana Purchase. Other early Presidents, observed Henry Adams, our most brilliant historian, could be painted with broad brushstrokes, but Jefferson “could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.” That invaluable publishing project the Library of America brings together in a single volume Jefferson’s most notable writings, including his Autobiography , his major addresses, and a selection of his letters.
Alexis de Tocqueville (two volumes, 1835, 1840). The concept of “national character” has been under a cloud in scholarly circles, but can anyone really deny that Englishmen tend to be different from Frenchmen, and Germans from Italians? And can anyone read this extraordinary book about a country of thirteen million people along the Atlantic seaboard without seeing how much of the description and analysis still applies to the nation of 265 million stretching from sea to sea?
When Tocqueville, a twenty-five-year-old French nobleman, arrived in the United States in 1831, he was more interested in democracy than he was in America—or rather he was interested in America as a test case of the “great democratic revolution” that, he felt, was “universal and irresistible” and destined to transform the world. The grand question was whether this revolution would lead to “democratic tyranny.” Though concerned about the “tyranny of the majority,” Tocqueville believed that the power of voluntary associations and intermediate institutions had put America on the road to democratic liberty. He traveled around the country from May 1831 to February 1832 (and never came back). But in those nine months he saw more deeply into American institutions and the American character than anyone before or since. More than a century and a half later, his great work still illuminates American society.