The founding concepts of the United States are based on Enlightenment ideals of equality and freedom. Throughout our history these broad ideals have struggled against anything that might impinge on them, such as government controls, regulations, and taxation. This opposition, along with other forces both internal and external, has resulted in our share of strife, as well as occasional threats of systemic failure. In our nearly 250 years as a nation, we have fought wars and serious conflicts at an average of about one per generation, more than any other major military power. We have repeatedly armed and disarmed. We have also conducted systemic campaigns against perceived enemies—including Native Americans, Irish and other immigrants, blacks, “Leftists,” organized labor movements, and various others— within our own borders based on race and political beliefs.
There have been plenty of moments of crisis that, while little remembered now, were real and threatening at the time. Our first real estate, debt, and securities crash as a nation happened less than ten years after the end of the Revolution. Among the notable people who went broke in that crash was Robert Morris. Morris had been the superintendent of finance who’d come up with the money to keep General Washington’s army in the field from 1781 through 1784 to finally win the war. Along with Alexander Hamilton, Morris helped establish the American financial system. Unfortunately, he was also a principal buyer of millions of acres of western lands, as well as real estate in Washington, D.C., which was the immediate disaster that brought him down and got him thrown into jail. Two years after the 1792 crash, the Whiskey Rebellion forced [End Page 5] President Washington—desperate for money to pay off Revolutionary War debt—to send fourteen thousand troops to Western Pennsylvania to quash an uprising over taxes on distilled spirits.
Looking at the course of American history, it could be argued that the threats to our nation were apparent from the start and in some ways even foreshadowed by the Constitution. It is fortunate that genuine leaders and larger democratic efforts have arisen and fought back—moral, competent people such as Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King—who have reminded us that we can continue to fight for a practical and resilient liberty.
Liberation is a classic theme in literature. It comes in many forms, from bold statements of the free human imagination, such as Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” to humble expressions of renewed vision, as in William Blake’s “The Tyger.” In tone, it may be celebratory, or it may be ominous or fatalistic, as in Melville’s Moby Dick, which dramatizes how moralistic quests for deliverance can in certain cases be nihilistic, worse than the evil the protagonist imagines fighting. It can also be angry and specific, as in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative of his own life, in which he speaks of the diabolical hypocrisy of “the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
This issue’s stories include Thea Chacamaty’s “Earthquake Weather,” which portrays the dilemma of a pair of former West Coast rock musicians, Iris and her husband, George. Iris is pregnant with their first child, and they’ve settled in a house, bought with her sister’s money, which has just been leveled by an earthquake. Iris’s relationship with her sister, Patty, is tense, after Patty published a best-selling tell-all memoir about their dysfunctional family. With the house destroyed and no money to get through the short term, the couple has to rely again on Patty, but it doesn’t take long for her to discern things about her sister that paradoxically lead to a certain degree of unshackling from their family’s past.
In his short story “Boulder,” Paul Smith’s unnamed narrator is a member of a construction crew laboring on a thirteen-mile addition to the interstate that two other companies are also working on. With sharp comic touches, the story reveals the internal politics and competition among contractors and subcontractors in an industry that doesn’t appear much...