A Necessary Evil
A History of American Distrust of Government
By Garry Wills
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780684844893, 352pp.)
Publication Date: October 20, 1999
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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In "A Necessary Evil," Wills scrutinizes our anti-governmental attitudes -- from the revolt of the colonies against king and parliament (romanticized as a revolution against central authority in general) to the present justifications for tax revolts, gun owning, and term limits. Wills reveals the roots of distrust of government -- from mainstream to extremist -- from the Founding Fathers' rancorous disputes, through secession struggles and Civil War, to the present. He shows how we have handed down a number of myths that inflate or distort our ideas about what freedom means and that perpetuate our mistrust of government.
"A Necessary Evil" debunks some of our fondest myths -- that minutemen, not the Continental Army, won the Revolutionary War; that checks and balances were designed to make our government inefficient; that the national ideal should be "citizen-politicians" serving limited terms; that the states are sovereign; that the president is "our" commander in chief; that the three branches of government are equal; that local government is always most responsive to our needs; that the Second Amendment gives everyone a right to own a gun; that the frontier was "tamed" by individualists' firearms; that insurrection is a constitutional prerogative. Embedded deep in our national psyche, Wills argues, is our acceptance of anti-governmental values.
From Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton to Webster, Calhoun, and Lincoln;from frontier insurrections to Timothy McVeigh; from Thoreau and Emerson to hippie communes; from John Brown to Martin Luther King Jr.; and from secessionists to bombers of abortion clinics, Wills illustrates the peculiarly American penchant for fighting our own government -- both from left and right -- as he distinguishes between resistance to legitimate government and disobedience to unjust laws.
We Americans tend not to value government as a force for good, but to tolerate it as a necessary evil. Wills surprises us continually in "A Necessary Evil," as he shows why we hold our own elected government in disdain.