'The American Revelation' Defines a Nation's Spirit The ideals that have shaped what it means to be American are the subject of Neil Baldwin's latest book, The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country From the Puritans to the Cold War.
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'The American Revelation' Defines a Nation's Spirit

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'The American Revelation' Defines a Nation's Spirit

'The American Revelation' Defines a Nation's Spirit

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This Independence Day, many Americans will hear speeches about people and events that define our history. It's something author Neil Baldwin has been thinking about for many years. In his new book, "The American Revelation," he cites 10 ideals, from the Puritans to the beginning of the Cold War, that he says have shaped our national identity. He explores these ideals through the idealist individuals who first expressed them.

Mr. NEIL BALDWIN (Author, The American Revelation"): I'm making the distinction that history is created by people, and I'm trying to bring it down further than the abstract level of just dates and successions. And that's why I was so careful in each of these 10 ideals to go back to the exact moment when they entered the national discourse.

MONTAGNE: The first essay and the first notion that you take on is that of the city on a hill.

Mr. BALDWIN: John Winthrop was the leader of what is called the Great Migration, which was the second and much larger wave of Puritans who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the spring of 1630. And the sermon that he gave was on board the ship Arbella before it left England for Massachusetts. He wanted to raise the spirits of his followers, who, after all, were leaving behind their land, in many cases leaving behind their families for a time and taking a rather big risk in crossing the sea. And the city on a hill, to me, is the quintessential metaphor for America at its inception. A city on a hill is a place that serves as a moral example to the rest of the world. And furthermore, John Winthrop cautioned his followers that `If we succeed, we will be honored by humanity. If we fail--if we fail--everyone will see that just as well.'

MONTAGNE: Well, if we jumped ahead to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that would be the middle 1800s, you have a different sort of writer shaping the American character. How would you characterize Ralph Waldo Emerson in relation to his predecessor?

Mr. BALDWIN: To me, he is the giant of our culture in so many ways. So to pick the work that I chose if his, which is "Self-Reliance," I picked that because that's kind of become a watchword. It's become such an ingrained principle in the way Americans live their lives. Emerson takes on a much more metaphysical attitude toward life, and Emerson, of course, invents the whole transcendental movement, which is really based upon the ways in which you look at the natural world and through an increasingly intensive study of the world around you. That's how you arrive at a higher sense of purpose in life.

MONTAGNE: One thing that Emerson wrote and that you quote: "Nothing can give you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." You know, that seems to be in tension with the notion of a group experience, city on a hill. He's really talking about the capacity of the individual.

Mr. BALDWIN: In order to make the best contribution that you can make to the community, Emerson is saying you have to dig very deeply into yourself and bring out what is the best in yourself. Emerson paves the way in subsequent generations for another, I think, quintessentially American ideal, which is the social conscience and the recognition that one has to give back to society. That's exemplified by Henry George and Jane Addams and some of the other people that come along in the next couple of generations after Emerson has departed the scene.

MONTAGNE: Let us then go on to Jane Addams.

Mr. BALDWIN: Jane Addams not only invented the social work profession by establishing one of the first settlement houses, neighborhood settlement houses, in America, Hull House, really I think Jane Addams is the beginning of the women's movement. Jane Addams in 1902 wrote an essay called "The Sphere of Morals is the Sphere of Action" in which she insisted that women could exist outside the domestic sphere--and that's the word she used, sphere--and women could have professions, and women could be out in the world and women could be on a par with men, and women could be colleagues with men in academia and in the social work profession and in all the helping professions.

MONTAGNE: You took 375 years. You got all the way to the Marshall Plan.

Mr. BALDWIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: But you stopped there. Why did you stop there?

Mr. BALDWIN: Some people have asked me, in other words, you know, why not John F. Kennedy? Why not Martin Luther King, `I have a dream' and all of that, which is very rich? But I personally as a historian had to stop with enough objective distance, so I chose Marshall because he was the first military man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and he accepted it on behalf of the American people. It was given to him as a result of his engendering of the Marshall Plan, which was the great economic rehabilitation of Europe after World War II.

MONTAGNE: What do these ideals, some of which flow into others, some of which rise out of others, what do they all add up to in terms of the American revelation?

Mr. BALDWIN: This is our patrimony, and when an ideal enters a culture, as we know sometimes it can become ennobled, sometimes it can become perverted. It could become interpreted, or spun, as it were, in a different way to suit the intentions of the philosophy of whoever's doing the interpreting. But in the end, I felt like it was impossible--it's impossible to move forward unless you understand the patrimony of our past, and by patrimony I mean that these ideals belong to all of us by virtue of our being Americans and being here.

MONTAGNE: Neil Baldwin is the former director of the National Book Foundation. His new book is "The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country From The Puritans To The Cold War."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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