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A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom by Jedediah Purdy

August 8, 2011

Today, most people think of the concept of American Freedom as something that came into being with the Revolutionary War and has existed unchanged ever since, permanent ideals etched in stone or, more accurately, preserved in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. What this book takes a look at is the forces that have acted to shape that peculiar idea, how it has been defined and redefined over the years, and how malleable our “American Ideals” actually are.

As a companion to this book, I also listened to Joanne B Freeman’s Yale course on the Revolutionary War via iTunes U, which covers the origins of the American Revolution—the British colonies united by a common opposition to an overbearing British monarchy—through the prosecution of the war and its aftermath. If there is a central theme to be taken from her course, it is that nothing about the American Revolution was inevitable. There were no ideals of freedom, no grand plans for independence from Britain or for the colonies to unify with each other—each step of the revolution could only have happened in those particular circumstances. It was motivated not by a drive to form a nation but by a reaction to British rule. The American idea of liberty was an oddity at the time, and the American government was considered by many, even those involved in creating it, as either a noble experiment likely to fail or a temporary solution before an eventual return to a government more resembling the traditional monarchy.

A Tolerable Anarchy starts with the ideals of the revolution as viewed by two prominent English thinkers, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. Johnson considered the colonists to be “zealots of anarchy,” predicting that their peculiar idea of freedom could lead to nothing but complete societal collapse. Burke represented a slightly more optimistic viewpoint—he saw the American theories of liberty as completely reckless, but was simultaneously charmed by the colonists’ spirit.

Purdy examines the ideals of freedom and liberty predominantly as they come up against or interact with countervailing influences. He discusses the obvious hypocrisies of the Declaration of Independence, which boldly claimed the equality of all men and laid the ideological groundwork for a new sovereign nation that would ironically be built on the back of slave labor. A Tolerable Anarchy is a sprawling landscape of American philosophy, examining the ideals of the great thinkers of revolutionary and post-revolutionary America—Adams and Jefferson, Frederick Douglas and Ralph Waldo Emerson—through the entire arc of American history. Names like William Lloyd Garrison are mixed in with the likes of Lyndon Johnson, Anton Scalia and George W. Bush.

Purdy looks at the difference between freedom and equality, the push-pull of freedom and social order, and the ideals of freedom as they apply to our economic system. It is a sweeping survey of American thought, balancing theory with historical example. Where it falls short is in the very last section, where Purdy addresses current issues through the lens of economic freedom. Until this point, his book is very non-partisan, but just ten pages from the end he sets forth a laundry list of “obvious” policy implications—universal health insurance, environmental protection, workers rights, and global climate change. While I’d be sympathetic to most of the causes he lists, he doesn’t make much of a case for any of them. He just kind of throws them out there. The one he does go into more detail on—global warming—seems a more clear-cut case study for his first book, For Common Things. He needs more support for his argument here.

Aside from that flat note at the end of the book, I found it to be a great overview of what it has meant to be American at different times. It also provides some thought-provoking context for our ongoing political debates.

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