Thursday, 30 June 2016

REVIEW: "We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America" by Juan Williams

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America
by Juan Williams
ISBN: 978-0307952042
Copyright April 2016
Hardcover, 464 Pages

We the People is an exceptionally well-written, immensely engaging, and effortlessly understandable book filled to the brim with incredibly thought-provoking and inspiring narratives. The book is astutely and refreshingly anchored upon the notion of America's “original Founding Fathers”—“the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the fifty-five men who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787”—as a springboard for examinations of an assemblage of modern Founding Fathers—the “new founding family for today's America.”

Perspectives harbored by America's original Founding Fathers were demystified—their calls for a secular government apparently were not in consideration of the “best interests of American democracy,” but rather were “simply means of discriminating against religions that the Protestant Founders and their progeny they didn't like: namely Catholicism and Judaism.” Significantly, debates regarding the Second Amendment in the context of maintaining a “well-regulated militia,” and as the solution to concerns about “a too-powerful national army” transformed into the 21st century dialogue of the right to bear arms for self-defense or hunting.

Similarly, the author highlighted the fact that as the U.S. military shouldered the responsibility of “countering communism throughout the world,” it undoubtedly represents “a far cry from the Founding Fathers' original concept of local militias.” A further assortment of interesting details pertaining to the Founding Fathers were further explored—“most historians” argue that the Founding Fathers' beliefs were shaped by Deism; they committed to an economic policy prescribing minimal governmental role in the economy, along with “limited taxation and small protectionist policies.” And in an utterly lucid manner, the author communicated other important distinctions; “the Founding Fathers knew nothing about the Thirteenth Amendment (ending slavery), the Fourteenth Amendment (giving equal rights to all citizens, including blacks), or the Fifteenth Amendment (giving black men the right to vote).”

The book spotlights instrumental figures both renowned and less familiar to the American public. President John F. Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy, and President Ronald Reagan are amongst the famed individuals discussed. The author chronicled the inspirational stories of the Kennedys who “drastically reformed America's immigration policy,” and explored President Reagan's, along with his attorney general Ed Meese's, role in leading to the appointment of partisan justices—those “who believed in a strict reading of the Constitution as the basis for all decisions”—to the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia.

Distinctly captivating was the survey of Jesse Jackson—the “President of Black America” and successor to Martin Luther King Jr.—and the famed economist Milton Friedman. Jackson and King were credited for laying the groundwork for the “political possibility” of a black president, “a reality incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers;” Jackson did so by being a forceful crusader for “black capitalism,” for the maximization of the value of “black political power,” and by further normalizing the notion of a black running for the presidential nomination.

Friedman, on the other hand, was highlighted for his “economic counterrevolution against Keynes's theory”—he who established himself as the leading economist for “America's small-government conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans,” and known for his influential economic ideology of the free market and opposition to an activist government. On an interesting note, Friedman's small-government, free-market approach was said to parallel the thinking of Founding Father and former president Thomas Jefferson. Presumably as a bonus, the author inserted a concise list comprising 13 bulleted points pertaining to facets of the market to which Friedman expressed his opposition, of which includes the Food and Drug Administration, and the national parks.

Eleanor Roosevelt—the longest-serving First Lady in American history, “the most activist First Lady the nation had ever seen,” and the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights—Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book Silent Spring, and Betty Friedan, writer of The Feminine Mystique, represent the only three women spotlighted in the book. Roosevelt is revered for her proclamation of “universal rights for all people” beyond the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; Carson is acclaimed for inspiring “the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Environmental Policy Act,” and for sparking the nation's environmental discourse with her book expounding the dangers of the pesticide DDT; and Friedan, owing to the success of her book, was extolled for launching the contemporary feminist movement, and for inducing “intense discussions of gender equality” unprecedented in postwar America.

Other less known, but nonetheless comparably pivotal, figures discussed in the book include Robert Ball, a leader in the Social Security Administration under both Democratic and Republican presidents—and one whom without which “there would be no Social Security, no Medicare to provide healthcare for the elderly, no Medicaid to provide healthcare for the poor, and certainly no Affordable Care Act in the twenty-first century”—and George Meany, the head of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and a paramount figure in America's labor movement, and for setting the 21st century “middle-class employment” framework in the country.

Other similarly captivating narratives were that of General William Westmoreland, for having established “the basis for the modern American military” as he reconstructed the military to an “all-volunteer force” comprising of “professional soldiers;” Bill Bratton, who “transformed modern policing” by demonstrating the effectiveness of data-driven approach to policing, by applying the theory of “broken windows” policing, and whose crime-fighting techniques were religiously spread coast to coast; Harry Hay, the creator of the first major US gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, in 1951; and Henry Kissinger, a preeminent intellectual force in American foreign policy.

A historical gem, the book also recounts for example, the history of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—America's most powerful gun lobbying group—in its transition from an apolitical group to one spouting a “harsh, hostile political voice,” and even its role in a poignant bombing of a federal government office building housing ATF offices—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms offices—in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people. Significantly, the book also educates fellow Americans on other critical pieces of historical information, such as the “Economic Bill of Rights” called for by President Roosevelt, and the Bill of Rights for Women adopted by the National Organization for Women in 1967.

In other instances, even brief mentions of for example, the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion—a revolt “against the federal government's right to collect excise taxes on distilled liquor”—or “The Lavender Scare” expressing the combination of “homophobia and anti-communism,” ought to be appreciated for intellectually stimulating the reader and even its potentiality in encouraging one to conduct independent studies on the specific subject matter beyond the book.

The discussion of pertinent legislations represent yet another outstanding facet of the book. There were references to for example, the notorious McCarran Walter Act which granted officials the authority and “wide latitude” to deny visas to potential immigrants associated with communists in their native countries, or the Taft-Hartley Act intended to restrain the growth of unions. On a more positive note, there was the Clayton Act—the “Magna Carta” of American labor rights—which legalized strikes and boycotts, and the Norris-La Guardia Act which illegalized coercion of workers by employers “to sign contracts that banned unions from their job sites.”

The moderate sampling of illustrative legal cases was also outstanding. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case was one alluded to most frequently, and aptly each time, in the book; the landmark ruling administered in the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The author accentuated a paradox—Chief Justice Warren was the man who called for the internment of, and stripped the constitutional rights of, Japanese Americans after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In a further extension, the Korematsu v. U.S. case was mentioned as an exemplification of a Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Japanese American internment.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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