I'm writing this on Thursday, September 6th and thinking about accomplishing my civic duty of voting earlier today. Regardless of your politicial position, I believe it is fair to say that elections are focused on people who are promising to either protect or change our understanding of what it means to be a "free" or "American". These are descriptors that have come to be synonymous with each other, and are often ideas that are taken for granted when compared to the polictical and social environment that many of our founding charters came from. A Tolerable Anarchy, by Jedidah Purdy attempts to reach back through history to evaluate how the meanings of "free" and "American" have shifted for certain populations.
I picked this plain, little book up because it had come up as an item to weed during the recent collection development overview being done at the Medfield Library. However, when I looked more closely at the book I was intrigued by the questions that the author was trying to ask. Being a relatively moral person, I thought I'd give this book a new lease on life and check it out rather than just withdraw it and keep it for myself.
Purdy starts by analyzing the ideals of the new American republic from the two viewpoints of British politicians of the late 18th century, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, but progresses through history mostly using presidenital inaugural addresses and states of unions. As a student of American history I am familiar with looking at the language of the Declaration and the Constitution, and the idea of "what it means to be an American" since my thesis was on another facet of precisely this subject. However, Purdy presents his question in a different way than I was used to seeing it: "what does it mean to be free?" I would guess initially that most people would see this to be a concept that goes hand in hand, but at several times in our history the case has not been so. What it meant to be free or an American if you are a woman, a slave, a homosexual, or a business owner did not necessarily come out to the same answer. If one aspect of your liberty is compromised does that mean you are less American than others who benefit from the full spectrum of Constitutional liberties? Does this somehow violate the fundamental belief that our country has come to adhere to? Many of these questions do not have a concrete answer because these issues are still slowly shifting with each new administration. Purdy is asking this as a political scientist and I do not believe that he is questioning how people feel individually as Americans but as political beings in a free market.
I would say that this book is brief enough to be interesting and offers charming insights into different historical time periods where meanings were changing. I also enjoyed that every hypothetical scenario featured a "she" instead of a "he" or an impersonal "they". This book hits the high points but doesn't mire the reader down in tons of theory. If you are interested thought experiments, or want to understand how the basic tennants of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence have evolved throughout history, then this is definitely something to pick up, but for hard core historians I still think reading the original Federalist Papers presents some of these arguments better.