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A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government Hardcover – October 20, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Nothing may be more American than distrust of government, but Garry Wills says there is something deeply wrong with this tradition. "It is a tradition that belittles America," he writes, "that asks us to love our country by hating our government, that turns our founding fathers into unfounders, that glamorizes frontier settlers in order to demean what they settled, that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for." Although A Necessary Evil is full of historical references, it is plainly motivated by contemporary politics: "I began this book in 1994, when the fear of government manifested itself in the off-year election of a Republican majority to Congress." Wills writes at length about matters such as the republic's founding, the 19th-century debate over states' rights, and so on. Yet the most passionate and engaging sections focus on antigovernment attitudes today, as embodied by the term-limits movement (the founders, he says, never were opposed to professional politicians), the National Rifle Association (whose defense of gun-ownership rights, Wills believes, is ahistorical), and abortion-clinic bombings (which Wills unpersuasively blames on Ronald Reagan). In his conclusion, Wills argues that government is in fact "a necessary good." It may do things poorly from time to time, and it may even do great harm. "But," to draw a parallel, "when marriages fail, we do not think it is because marriage is an evil in itself." A Necessary Evil is an erudite treatment of an important subject. --John J. Miller

From Publishers Weekly

In a masterful extended essay, Wills, an accomplished analyst of the American political psyche (and winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg), explores, in all its guises, the great American distrust of government. Antigovernment sentiment is owned by neither the left nor the right, Wills explains: in the 1960s, for example, radicals adopted anti-government values, and Southern conservatives, though steeped in the tradition of states' rights, switched gears to affirm the authority of the federal government to wiretap, arrest and otherwise harass the radicals. The debate over the proper size and reach of the federal government is a moving target, but Wills hits it bulls-eye in chapter after chapter, whether he's debunking the mythology that has grown up around the militias that fought in the Revolutionary War (he argues that the Continental Army played a much more vital role) or clarifying the principles that undergird the separation of powers. He conceived of this book in reaction to the 1994 congressional election, feeling that the Republican Party's Contract With America embodied not a healthy wariness of power but a calcified, and dangerous, antigovernmentalism. Americans, Wills argues, need to stop "demanding from government qualities that should be sought, primarily, in other aspects of our social life." He asks readers to value the federal government for the things it can provide, from the quotidian (the highway system) to the majestic (equal protection under the law). Ultimately, his book is an eloquent plea for the maturity that would enable Americans, after more than 200 years, to view government as "a necessary good." (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (October 20, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684844893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684844893
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,999,174 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine's Childhood, Saint Augustine's Memory, and Saint Augustine's Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

In all, it's a very worthwhile book to read.
Most like Bork of all, his book will no doubt be used by people who agree with him politically to suggest that there is solid historical support for their position.
Glenn H. Reynolds
It wasn't "fear of government" but fear of corrupt misgovernment!
Acute Observer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

85 of 99 people found the following review helpful By a Republican on November 10, 1999
Format: Hardcover
When Garry Wills closes his book with the idea that government is a necessary good, some reviewers seem to have made the assumption that he is claiming then, that bigger goverment necessarily yields greater good. Nowhere does he make such a claim. In fact, his focus is not the scope of government or, for the most part, specifics of government. His main focus is two-fold: both the fact that anti-government sentiment has long been present in our nation, and the way in which its proponents have tried to see that sentiment written into our founding documents. His harsh words are not for those who are skeptical of the government but for those intellectualls who he feels have been sloppy in their attempts to establish a constitutional basis for such skepticism. If we were to assume that Wills's reading of the Second Amendment is the correct one, does that mean that it is the wise thing to ban citizens from owning fire-arms? Not necessarily. Is the belief that skepticism was not written into the Constitution a condemnation of skepticism? Certainly not. Though I may disagree with some of Mr. Wills ideas (though not generally with those found in this book,) he is certainly not a state-ist, a Hitler apologist, or a knee-jerk Liberal. The reviews that his book has received certainly show, though, that he has found a political nerve and that we often do look to the founding documents as justification for strongly held beliefs.
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33 of 43 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The strident, negative tone of some of the earlier customer reviews convinced me to buy this book. Anthing that generates that much anger is worth reading. Wills properly notes that people in this country have always distrusted government, and that this is probably a good thing. He also properly points out that many of the extremist critics base their arguments on selective misinterpretations of the Constitution, fail to understand the history behind the Constitution and its Amendments, and often quote those who OPPOSED adoption of the Constitution as argument for their misinterpretations.
People who want to change the Constitution have the right in this country to voice their opinions. People who claim to support the Constitution, but then claim our current government is not following it need to read this book.
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27 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Romano Smith on January 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Wills has written some great books: "Nixon Agonistes" was a revelation and his book on Reagan was a wonderful analysis of the relationship between a president and the myths the American people wanted to be true. This book has much in common with the earlier ones, in that there is the most careful examination of what actually went on in the past connected to themes that are of pressing importance today. So, for example, there is an impressive analysis of the "Federalist Papers" [especially Madison's contributions] interlaced with an evaluation of the misreadings over time that have now been embraced so willingly by our contemporaries. The writing is clear, the endnotes useful, and the total product an impressive one, in terms both of helping us understand our fascinating past and giving some order to the confusion of our current political climate.
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25 of 35 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A very interesting book. A little hard to read at times, due both to Mr. Wills overuse of language and to the differences in 18th century English and our own.
Right wing reviews have panned this book as left wing. As a Centrist, I noticed, however, that the both the left and right got poked on occassion.
The one thing that I noticed was the amazing human ability to flip-flop and interpret. Even our founding fathers apparently had the ability to interpret the actions, words, and writings of others according to their own beliefs and needs. Additionally, they demonstrated an ability to change (flip-flop!) their own positions to suit their current situation.
Whether they agree with Mr. Wills conclusions about the meaning of the constitution and bill of rights or not, I suggest that everyone, especially "either-wingers", read this book just to understand that these human abilities extend even to our founders and our constitution -- to understand that every one of the founders probably had different interpretations of what they were doing, and different reasons for doing it.
Nothing is black and white.
In fairness, I now plan to read a book that is reviewed to be more on the right wing. If I can find one, I may also try to read one that is more left wing.
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27 of 38 people found the following review helpful By John B. Maggiore on May 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Lincoln at Gettysburg" solidified Gary Wills' position as America's foremost popular historian. The work is genuinely profound, and the temptation is to expect nothing less from his succeeding efforts. While "A Necessary Evil" doesn't quite attain the heights of "Lincoln," it is worthy and important. It does what a good history, rather than a simple chronicle, should-- it interprets the past so as to explain its relevance to the present. Wills tackles some of the most persistent myths of our country's origin regarding the supposed foundation of its government on anti-governmental values.
Wills starts out with some broad points that are hard to argue with, such as the evidence of the framers' goals to create a more effective and efficient government under the Constitution than that which preceded it under the Articles of Confederation. But the more nuanced arguments based on examining the language of the framers (especially Madison) are the real value of this book are. This is where Wills excels. He is convincing in his dismissal of the notions that the framers intended states to be "sovereign;" meant for the second amendment to protect the right of private gun ownership for personal use; thought of the branches of government as "co-equal" and "balanced;" or that they meant for the Constitution to abide nullification in any of its forms. Some of these items, such as use of the term "sovereign" and "co-equal" seem to be Wills' pet peeves of Constitutional interpretation - that's fine, by getting these seemingly semantic points off his chest he adds passion that what from the pen of lessers could come across as dry and dull.
The book isn't all about language, but there's certainly enough there for those who liked "Lincoln at Gettysburg.
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