Study Guide

A Necessary Evil

by Garry Wills

A Necessary Evil Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In A Necessary Evil, Garry Wills does his best to debunk popular myths, slogans, and ideologies undermining the public’s trust in American government. In doing so, he takes on revered articles of faith held by the Left as well as the Right, contemporary “liberals” as well as “conservatives.” He also takes issue with prominent figures in American letters and various political icons, from some of the Founding Fathers down to the late twentieth century. The result is a provocative, well-argued book which adds significantly to themes developed in Wills’s twenty-one previous books, particularly The Inventing of America (1978), Explaining America: The Federalist (1980), and Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), the last of which earned for Wills a Pulitzer Prize.

The structure of A Necessary Evil is straightforward. Wills starts by debunking two “revolutionary myths.” He points out that the American Revolution was not won by mythical Minutemen or a well-trained militia, but rather by George Washington’s success in professionalizing the Continental Army. Wills goes on to discuss the myth of term limits, which played a prominent role in the Republican Party’s 1994 Contract with America. While some of the Founders fiddled with the rhetoric of term limits, they did not seriously consider imposing them constitutionally. This leads Wills to conclude that the Founders, on at least some level, appreciated political as well as military professionalism, and that they would not be startled or dismayed by the existence in American politics of so-called career politicians.

Wills then moves on to discuss six “constitutional myths.” First, refuting believers in the myth of states’ rights, he argues that the Founders specifically rejected any notion of joint sovereignty and clearly established the constitutional supremacy of the federal government. Second, he argues against the myth that the federal government was meant to be inefficient in order to lessen its potential for tyranny. The Founders, according to Wills, wished to establish a federal government that would be capable of pursuing the public good efficiently. Third, he argues against the myth that the Constitution’s separation of powers establishes three coequal branches designed to weaken the overall power of the federal government. Wills argues that what was intended was for the legislative branch to be, at the very least, a clear first among equals, and that the object was to impose limited safeguards specifically because what was envisioned was vigorous (rather than weak) legislative government. Fourth, Wills argues against the myth which sees the multiplicity of “factions” of which James Madison writes in The Federalist No. 10 as an attempt forever to cripple the power of the majority and, therefore, of the federal government. Wills argues that the role of factions was not to substitute for the public good but rather to help the majority to find more ably a lasting consensus through which the public good could be promoted actively. Fifth, Wills offers a brief argument that Madison’s real motives in adding a Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution had little to do with seriously diminishing federal power and much more, ultimately, to do with limiting the power of states over individuals. Finally, Wills argues that the Constitution clearly allows and even foresees the need for a standing army while, in the Second Amendment, providing only a highly qualified right to bear arms and, correspondingly, a severely limited reliance on militia for national defense and/or the defense of individual liberties.

Wills is not arguing that these mistaken myths have no roots at all in the American founding. Instead, he argues that they represent misunderstandings of the principles of government which triumphed at the time of the founding and which are necessary for the country’s political system to fulfill properly the needs of the American people. Throughout American history, various critics and gurus have rejected the actual principles and assumptions of American government, instead promoting antigovernment myths as a somehow truer Americanism. For most of the remainder of the book, Wills categorizes and illustrates the forms in which these antigovernment myths have been forwarded during the founding and throughout American history down to the present. More specifically, he discusses “nullifiers,” “seceders,” “insurrectionists,” “vigilantes,” “withdrawers,” and “disobeyers.” By nullifiers, Wills means those theorists such as John Calhoun who thought that national...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)