Documenting the United States


We know we belong to the land,

And the land we belong to is grand.

-- Lyrics from the musical,


As the nation approaches the highest holy day of patriotism, it is a daunting task to review the sacred texts of the American experience, let alone the scholarly works that expound these documents. But for those who might want a few trembling suggestions for seasonal reading, the basic documents -- all fairly brief -- might be reduced to just five:


The Declaration of Independence. For much of the 224 years after the foundation document was published, there was a cherished notion that the American Revolution didn't really measure up to a fundamental change but rather was simply a bourgeois protest against taxation and lack of voice in ordinary affairs.

This myth was laid to rest by Gordon S. Wood in his superb 1992 study, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (Random House), in which a distinguished historian demonstrates that no matter what the Founders may have intended -- and clearly there were many differing intentions -- the Declaration took on a life of its own and created a new social and political order, not just for America but for all the world and for all time.

The great events of the 1770s may have been a "conservative" revolution, but the most striking aspect was the rejection of class and hereditary privilege that had burdened the world since time began. Wood's conclusions shouldn't be all that surprising, really, because Thomas Paine said pretty much the same thing in his immensely influential writings at the time of the Revolution. These are masterfully illuminated in a 1995 book by Eric Foner, "Thomas Paine: Collected Writings" (Library of America).


The Constitution. The organic law was an inevitably outgrowth of the Declaration. Aside from "The Federalist Papers," the series of contemporary essays that argued for ratification of the Constitution, the most significant single work on the Constitution over the years has been the historian Charles A. Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States" (Free Press), which maintained that the Founders were more concerned with protecting property rights than individual rights or even the public good. Beard's work, while dense, has been profoundly influential, especially in the judicial interpretation of the Constitution.


The Gettysburg Address. Although Charles Beard's work is still read and respected, his conclusions have been challenged by more recent scholarship, most notably Garry Wills' "Lincoln at Gettysburg" (Touchstone Books), the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning study that demonstrated how Abraham Lincoln, using just 272 immortal words, forever fused the lofty principles of the Declaration to the enforcement authority of the Constitution. Wills' work is aptly subtitled, "The Words that Remade America."


The Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's 1863 document was the pivotal statement in the most perilous moment in the American experience. The plight of African slaves in America has been chronicled by innumerable writers, but by none so comprehensively as John Hope Franklin in his masterwork, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans" (Knopf), reissued this year in its eighth edition. For those who shrink from such a massive body of scholarship, an excellent alternative can be found in Kenneth Stampp's more manageable "The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South" (Vintage Books), which has become a minor classic since it was first published nearly 50 years ago. Also, more recently, there is Eugene D. Genovese's deeply moving "Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made" (Random House).


The Opinions of John Marshall. This is the sleeper on our list. While the four foregoing documents are well known, the contributions of "the Great Chief Justice" have received all too little attention. Marshall's reign as the fledgling nation's chief magistrate spanned five presidencies in three decades, and produced a body of jurisprudence of incalculable significance.

Without two opinions in particular, we most likely would live today in an land that we could scarcely imagine. The first is Marshall's opinion in the case of Marbury vs. Madison, which established the authority of the Supreme Court to review acts of Congress. The second is the opinion in the case of McCulloch vs. Maryland, which established federal supremacy over the states.

It is curious that Marshall and his achievements are so little appreciated, but this historical slight has been rectified by the publication in 1996 of Jean Edward Smith's "John Marshall: Definer of a Nation" (Henry Holt & Company Inc.). No book mentioned in this essay would be more rewarding or more enjoyable than this one.

The canon of celebratory work is so vast that one hardly knows where to begin or end, but even the most superficial discussion must mention the contributions of artists as well as political theorists. There is, for example, the whole body of defining work of the 19th century poet Walt Whitman.

What is less appreciated is the manner in which Whitman's spirit was so brilliantly recaptured and reinvigorated by the music of the immigrant composer Aaron Copland in such all-American works as "Appalachian Spring" and "Billy the Kid."

Of course, not all American prophets have been so effusively optimistic as Whitman. There have been moments of the gravest doubt in the American Experience, as in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," a work that subtly but ominously suggested the imminence of a second American Revolution. But this book was barely off the press before it was answered in a surprising and curious way in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that showed the Okies dancing in the lush fields to the tune of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."

The musical was announcing, in Broadway lights, no less, that the Depression and the Dust Bowl were over; an irrepressibly optimistic president was enunciating the Four Freedoms; the unregenerate splendor of the national experience still shone brightly; and old Ben Franklin, who wrote the first truly American story in his "Autobiography," surely was smiling.

Ray Jenkins has been a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. In 1954, he was one of two reporters who covered the Phenix City, Ala., upheaval, coverage that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, the New York Times in Alabama, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and The Evening Sun, for which he was editorial page editor. His book "Blind Vengeance" was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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