One of my proudest possessions is a pocket-sized copy of the United States Constitution.
It was gifted to me by my friend Jason Bedrick, a school choice advocate and former legislator from New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state. This tiny edition of modern democracy’s Talmud never leaves my side; I am a devotee of America’s political structure, a romantic of checks and balances.
The Bedrick Constitution is of roughly similar weight, dimensions, texture and colour to a United Kingdom passport. My insistence on carrying both documents at all times is occasionally the source of comic mishap; more than once Madison’s finest labours have only narrowly escaped an inky imprint.
July 4 is an annual loyalty test, for when it comes to America, I am still a teenager with a crush. I am in love and have been since I first cracked open Federalist No. 1, first listened through the Philco hiss to Roosevelt’s beefy New York tones, first read in breathless wonder about the men who gave ‘the last full measure of devotion… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom’.
I love it all: The cynical idealists of Hollywood and cynical cynics of the Chicago Loop. The beach bum billionaires of Silicon Valley with their carbon neutral mansions and their private jets on standby; the flinty Protestants of New England who are no longer particularly Protestant but just as flinty. The coastal snowflakes and heartland grunters who have made culture-warring a national sport, subbing in TV sitcoms and the Supreme Court to end-run each other’s values. My affection is limitless but complex: Mary Harris Jones and Langston Hughes — Ronald Reagan and Sidney Hook. O my America, my ever-being-found land.
Mine is an idealist’s America but, then, America is an ideal. As David Gelernter argues: ‘Americanism is nearly unique in being a whole political worldview. Its creed is liberty, equality, democracy, and American Zionism: America as the promised land, the shining city on a hill, a nation tasked by God to be a beacon to the world; to be the world’s only biblical republic.’
Talk of Providence is no longer fashionable but while the American experiment can abide in an unbelieving age, it cannot be fully understood divorced from its religious roots. Freedom from an established church came via a few dozen Anglicans and Presbyterians who believed they were doing God’s work. They carried English concepts of liberty across the Atlantic but they tended them more rigorously, guarded them more fiercely. In time, they drafted and debated and codified them into a charter that is still the sturdiest guarantor of freedom and bulwark against tyrants in the known world. I could never choose between my two little red books. Britain is my country, America my philosophy.
What a surly wretch you must be to disdain such a nation, what a bloodless eunuch that its charms fail to arouse. Anti-Americanism is impotent jealousy elevated to a political creed. Its adherents cherish Donald Trump as a nightmare-perfect icon of America, a profane synecdoche for a flag-wrapped, dollar-weighed con trick on the poor and gullible. The home of the brave is in fact a hollow empire of racist cops, heavily armed friends of Jesus and emergency rooms with Chip and PIN.
And it’s true; dispossession and prejudice are part of the American story but they are subplots. If America is sometimes the land of Trump, it is more often the nation of Hamilton and Jefferson. If it has given the world the Kardashians and Jerry Springer, it has more significantly offered up Faulkner, Bernstein and Brando. If America has problems — and it does — it is in American ideals and innovation that the solutions will be found.
Of late I’ve felt gloomy about the future of the world. Trump is in the White House and a noxious fug of populism, nationalism and anti-Semitism chokes the air. Then this July 4 I read the Bedrick Constitution and found a renewed confidence in American ideals. This manifesto penned at a time of slavery, of black men valued at ‘three fifths of all other persons’, of disenfranchised women, has been amended over time to right those wrongs and through long wars and painful sacrifices ‘the blessings of liberty’ have been extended and enhanced.
America changes, America endures.
2 thoughts on “The little red books”
A lovely piece of writing which has left me tonight with a warm glow of hope that good will prevail for my friends and family in that wonderful pot pourri of a nation just across the pond.
Feckin’ ‘ell. You was waxin’ lyrical there. I waited for a punch line but none arrived. Condensed some disparate thoughts and views I have. For me America was Saturday matinee at the local cinema watching westerns. In hindsight I realise that I identified with Americans as somehow like me. British cinema was populated with English middle class types, I just knew I wasn’t one of them.