- Ark of the Liberties
A study of literary culture in the early republic, Ted Widmer’s first book, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City, took him to the intersection of words and politics. Widmer is currently director of the John Carter Brown Memorial Library and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program. He has himself worked at the intersection of words and politics, serving as a speechwriter and consultant to President Bill Clinton, while Clinton was in office, and subsequently helping Clinton with his memoir and presidential library. Widmer has compiled two collections of political speeches for the Library of America, ranging from the revolution to the presidency of Bill Clinton. In his most recent book, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, Widmer begins with a phrase from Herman Melville’s novel White-Jacket: America as “ark of the liberties of the world.” Widmer’s book is a study of the ark and arc of American liberty. On one plane, Widmer follows the American ark—an Old Testament vessel charged with the task of political redemption—as it navigates the rough waters of modern history. On another plane, Widmer traces the arc of liberty, a movement toward democracy and liberty in world history, and one in which the American continent has been a guiding force. Throughout Widmer’s book, the medium of politics is the written (and sometimes the spoken) word. Liberty rests on the ability to articulate liberty’s cause. When Americans have demonstrated this ability, they have honored the goddess of liberty; when they have been unwilling to speak for liberty, they have betrayed their national calling. Widmer traces a cyclical pattern of virtue achieved and then lost, democratic ideals promoted, tarnished and then rediscovered.
Ark of the Liberties is emphatically not a monograph. It is, for one, a book without footnotes and it is a book of many ambitions. Widmer begins with European fantasies about America and concludes with the presidency of George W. Bush, a stretch of history foreshortened by American continuities, by the “ideas that we Americans carry around like iPods, barely conscious of their weight” (p. xiv). Widmer refers to “America’s intellectual DNA” and at another [End Page 28] point to “the American DNA,” a constellation of ideas and convictions formed around the principle of liberty; such genetics can transcend historical particularity (pp. 22, 291). In his preface, Widmer praises “the sweeping histories of the 1940s and 1950s, when Americans thought nothing of trying to express big national ideas at a time when everything American suddenly had global ramifications” (p. xiv). Widmer’s aspiration is not merely to express big national ideas with global resonance. His book has a strong normative impulse. Often employing the first-person plural, Widmer writes for an American audience and hopes, with his book, “to make plain the value of history as a guide for a nation” (p. xxi). His guide shows the way forward, while chronicling the deviations and errors contained within the historical record. These amount to the misuse of American liberty, the chauvinism and power politics that can be hidden in a false language of liberty. The way forward has been there since the beginning: the New World illuminated a passage out from tyranny, first on the level of fantasy, until this fantasy was realized by the American Revolution, reinvented by Lincoln and translated, finally, into a global project. The passage out from tyranny is mostly the example of American democracy, but it can also be the projection of this example through military force, as was the case with the Second World War. The value of history resides in “our” capacity to distinguish real liberty, extended by America as a gift to the world, from its dangerous simulacra.
Widmer possesses a marvelous sensitivity to language, which follows from his erudition, his knowledge of political as well as literary history, and his deep involvement with American history, from European settlement to the present. He can catch the...