Title: The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War
Author: Neil Baldwin
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Explains the background of important American ideals which are usually isolated
Presents an interesting way of looking at American history
No over-arching themes tying all the chapters together
Explores 10 ideals which Baldwin sees as basic to Americas conception of itself
Presents them in the historical and biographical context in which they developed
Explains how they impacted people at the time and how the ideals shaped U.S. history
Determining what the common ideals of America might be could be the work of a lifetime, but Neil Baldwin has gathered together ten which he considers most relevant and influential in his book The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War. Each of these ideals developed in a particular cultural and biographical context which Baldwin explains in order to better convey the importance of the ideal to American history.
One thing that stands out sharply in Baldwins book is how little religion plays an overt role. Only with the first, John Winthrops idea of America as a City on the Hill, is religion the focus of discussion. In other chapters religion lurks beneath the surface or makes an appearance on the margins, but it never stands out in the same way as in the first chapter. Is this a sign that Baldwin is missing something, or that religion doesnt play as much of a role in American history as people generally assume? Im inclined to think the former, though Im not entirely sure.
At times, though not often enough, Baldwin recognizes the darker sides to American ideals. This comes out most forcefully in the chapter on John L. OSullivans ideal of Manifest Destiny. OSullivan started out merely paternalistic, insisting that America only gives to other nations (democracy, freedom) rather than takes and thus could scorn the criticisms of other nations.
In the end, he simply scorned the people he originally thought America should be helping. They were unappreciative and continually thwarted Americas goals. They were unfit for self-government and needed to be controlled by their betters. Benign paternalism turned into overt hostility, a theme which repeatedly occurs in history, and its probably no coincidence that this is the only other chapter where religion plays much of a role.
If its true that ideas matter, then the ideas and ideals which have shaped Americas conception of itself matter a great deal indeed. The ideas which Baldwin discusses arent just clever catch-phrases: they often go to the heart of how Americans view themselves and their country. Obviously these ideals are not fulfilled in the manner which people would like to think, but thats important as well.
Its simply not possible to understand America and American history without some comprehension of the ideals which Americans have allowed themselves to be led by, how they have tried to live up to those ideals, and how they have failed to live up to them. Sometimes, you cant even discuss Americas politics and actions with an American without bringing these concepts into play for example, if you want to argue that America has acted improperly, youll have a better shot at succeeding if you can effectively explain how certain basic ideals have been violated.
Despite some flaws, this really is a very good book on American history. Baldwins prose is lively and engaging, providing a strong sense not just of history generally, but also the people he is discussing. Its uncommon for books on American history to approach the subject biographically and topically, so this will probably be a welcome change for those who otherwise become bored with standard history books.