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4.0 out of 5 stars Introductory history of major Freethinker contributions to U.S., April 3, 2006
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This review is from: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Hardcover)
This book has a narrow purpose and that is to present a sampling of the major political contributions of Freethinkers to U.S. History. Ms. Jacoby does not explore the ideology of freethinking in any great depth, nor does much material focus on conflicts within this ideology, its roots, the evolution of freethinking, and its future. Instead she focuses on the political contributions made by American Freethinkers, often by their partnering up with religious groups who also contributed to the major moral progress our political system has yielded over the past 219 years. Sects like the Baptists prior to our founding through ratification of the Constitution as well as liberal protestants from the start of the abolitionist movement through the present day.

The contributions listed in this book, while chronologically presented, are told as discrete narratives with few common threads that one would expect in a comprehensive history. However, as an introductory history of freethinking, which this book is, it's a near perfect execution - I would say on a par with Chief Justice Rehnquist's history of the Supreme Court that was also told by way of discrete narratives.

While Ms. Jacoby considers herself a Freethinker, this book is surprisingly unbiased, with freethinking positions presented within their proper context, free of rhetorical devices, and amazingly respectful to the contrary ideologies which have also thrived to the present day; even though these competing ideologies generally demonize Freethinkers with a cornucopia of rhetorical fallacies so effectively that freethinking is the least respected ideology in America.

Ms. Jacoby also does not have a problem documenting where Freethinkers went off the deep-end or other weaknesses of historical freethinking positions. This dispassionate approach exemplifies how important it is to carefully evaluate the character and scholarly abilities of the people we trust to present us with information. Consider the wildly inaccurate polemics of revisionist David Barton who has subsequently been forced to admit many of published claims of the supposed religiosity of our founding framers was simply not true - they never said or did much of what he claimed in past books he wrote. Jacoby's presentation, bibliography and source notes are one of a true scholar.

The structure of the book is as follows:

The first three chapters cover a brief history of our founding ideals and the execution of those ideals by ratification of the U.S. Constitution. While interesting, three chapters on the biggest achievement Freethinkers contributed to in our nation's history, that of a Constitution reserving our individual rights and limiting government power by a sovereign free people rather than from a God-ordained monarch provides only a cursory review of the enlightened rationalists of the day like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Hamilton (see Jacoby's fine bibliography for more expansive sources or my other reader reviews).

The 3rd chapter begins the abolitionist narrative and also begins the discussion of the opportunity abolitionism presented for women to start their march for the same "privileges and immunities" propertied, white, protestant men enjoyed at our country's founding. The role women played in our moral progress is one of the rare common threads Jacoby weaves through her chapters, with this thread covering the roots of abolition well into the 20th century.

The fourth chapter on Lincoln was the finest essay in the book, well written and with a very strong analysis on why the early biographers contradicted each other regarding Lincoln's beliefs, convictions, and motivations to lead this country through the Civil War. I especially appreciated reading Jacoby's perspective on Lincoln's biographers when describing Lincoln's ideology and how they could be so wildly divergent.

Subsequent chapters cover the dawn of Darwin's theory of evolution, the political contributions during the golden age of free thought in the late-19th century, the culture wars as mainstream churches lost membership while America went through several lower-church revivals, and the development of a political partnership between the lower churches and the Catholic Church. A chapter on some freethinkers deserting their libertarian roots to toy with far left political ideologies while other Freethinkers competed with this new tangent by defending our founding ideal of libertarianism. Another chapter covers the realization of freethinking efforts for true freedom that occurred for tens of millions of additional Americans from the 1940s through the 60s as America really got serious about denying government the unconstitutional power to infringe on individual rights, especially in the areas of religious freedom, voting rights, interracial marriage and privacy. Another reader review is correct that this section was scant in its exposition of libertarian Freethinkers like Ayn Rand, H.L. Mencken, and a comparison of freethinking to the ideology of neocon pioneers like Irving Kristol; I would argue that this is the one major flaw in this book and the reason I knocked a star off.

Jacoby follows up with a brief chapter on the current culture war and ends the book with the only polemic of the book, an apologetic on Reason and Freethinking. And while these chapters are not unwelcome, there are many other books that go much more deeply into these subjects. The golden nuggets of this book are the reviews of freethinking contributions at each point in American history where our culture changed because of the impact of political changes contributed at least partly by a small minority of people that best exemplify what Jefferson and Adams hoped Americans would eventually all subscribe to - a universalist approach to liberty grounded in rationalism and empiricism rather than the primitive superstitions that ruled that day and still rule most Americans' lives.

Jacoby does a fine job of describing why we should thank Freethinkers for our liberty every bit as much as we should our veterans (my analogy, not hers); not because of what she believes, but because of the actions of past Freethinkers noted in this book and the obvious fruits of their labor, i.e., our Constitution, the ending of slavery, women's rights, the end of government-sponsored racism and the embrace of the scientific method and rejection of a "God of the gaps" approach by our intelligentsia that has led to our technological progress.
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