G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”
Other nations find their identity and cohesion in ethnicity, or geography, or partisan ideology, or cultural tradition, he argued. But America was founded on certain ideas—ideas about freedom, about human dignity, and about social responsibility.
It was this profound peculiarity that most struck Alexis de Tocqueville during his famous visit to this land at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He called it “American exceptionalism.”
At about the same time de Tocqueville penned his sage observations in Democracy in America, a number of educators in the fledgling republic began to realize that if their great experiment in liberty, their extraordinary American exceptionalism, were to be maintained over the course of succeeding generations, then an informed patriotism would have to be instilled in the hearts and minds of the young.
Indeed, John Quincy Adams wrote, “Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”
Thus, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, rising citizens were presented with small handbooks—brief guides to the essential elements of the American creed. Pastors, statesmen, educators, and parents wanted to somehow pass on to posterity the moral and constitutional tools necessary to make good use of their freedom.
A decade ago, after collecting a representative sample of such handbooks from dusty antiquarian bookshops, I put together The Patriot’s Handbook as an updated version of that vaunted tradition. It contained a concise introduction to the foundational ideas, documents, events, and personalities of American freedom. It is a citizenship primer for a whole new generation of American patriots.
But, I always felt that I should provide a moral philosophy thread to tie those artifacts together into a coherent narrative; thus, this book.
Separating fact from fiction, exactitude from nostalgia, and actuality from myth in early American history is often more than a little difficult. Though it is perhaps unwise to have anything like an idealized perception of that great epoch, nevertheless, it is difficult to dismiss the breadth and depth of the fledgling colonial culture and the substantive character of the people who populated it. Living in a day when genuine heroes are few and far between—at best—those pioneers and the times they vivified provide a startling contrast.
5.5 x 8.5, 282 pages