A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

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9780684844893: A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

In his most original and important work on American history since "Lincoln at Gettysburg," Garry Wills examines Americans' skepticism and distrust of government, which he ascribes to our misunderstanding of the Founding Fathers and of much of our history. In "A Necessary Evil," Wills scrutinizes our anti-governmental attitudes -- from the revolt of the colonies against king and parliament (romanticized as a revolution against central authority in general) to the present justifications for tax revolts, gun owning, and term limits. Wills reveals the roots of distrust of government -- from mainstream to extremist -- from the Founding Fathers' rancorous disputes, through secession struggles and Civil War, to the present. He shows how we have handed down a number of myths that inflate or distort our ideas about what freedom means and that perpetuate our mistrust of government. "A Necessary Evil" debunks some of our fondest myths -- that minutemen, not the Continental Army, won the Revolutionary War; that checks and balances were designed to make our government inefficient; that the national ideal should be "citizen-politicians" serving limited terms; that the states are sovereign; that the president is "our" commander in chief; that the three branches of government are equal; that local government is always most responsive to our needs; that the Second Amendment gives everyone a right to own a gun; that the frontier was "tamed" by individualists' firearms; that insurrection is a constitutional prerogative. Embedded deep in our national psyche, Wills argues, is our acceptance of anti-governmental values. From Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton to Webster, Calhoun, and Lincoln;from frontier insurrections to Timothy McVeigh; from Thoreau and Emerson to hippie communes; from John Brown to Martin Luther King Jr.; and from secessionists to bombers of abortion clinics, Wills illustrates the peculiarly American penchant for fighting our own government -- both from left and right -- as he distinguishes between resistance to legitimate government and disobedience to unjust laws. We Americans tend not to value government as a force for good, but to tolerate it as a necessary evil. Wills surprises us continually in "A Necessary Evil," as he shows why we hold our own elected government in disdain.

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Review:

Nothing may be more American than distrust of government, but Garry Wills says there is something deeply wrong with this tradition. "It is a tradition that belittles America," he writes, "that asks us to love our country by hating our government, that turns our founding fathers into unfounders, that glamorizes frontier settlers in order to demean what they settled, that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for." Although A Necessary Evil is full of historical references, it is plainly motivated by contemporary politics: "I began this book in 1994, when the fear of government manifested itself in the off-year election of a Republican majority to Congress." Wills writes at length about matters such as the republic's founding, the 19th-century debate over states' rights, and so on. Yet the most passionate and engaging sections focus on antigovernment attitudes today, as embodied by the term-limits movement (the founders, he says, never were opposed to professional politicians), the National Rifle Association (whose defense of gun-ownership rights, Wills believes, is ahistorical), and abortion-clinic bombings (which Wills unpersuasively blames on Ronald Reagan). In his conclusion, Wills argues that government is in fact "a necessary good." It may do things poorly from time to time, and it may even do great harm. "But," to draw a parallel, "when marriages fail, we do not think it is because marriage is an evil in itself." A Necessary Evil is an erudite treatment of an important subject. --John J. Miller

About the Author:

Garry Wills is the author of twenty-one previous books, including John Wayne's America and the national bestseller Lincoln at Gettysburg, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at Northwestern University and lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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