Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1888
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 laws could be vetoed by the states (Madison and Thomas Jefferson, on rare occasions, also sounded the cry of nullification). Seceders refers mostly (but not exclusively) to the southern states during the events which led to the Civil War. Among the insurrectionists are figures as disparate as Daniel Shays, John Brown, the “Weathermen,” and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Numbered among the vigilantes are the Ku Klux Klan, some “Red baiters,” and abortion clinic bombers. Withdrawers include Henry David Thoreau, Henry Adams, H. L. Mencken, hippies, and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. Disobeyers include Students for a Democratic Society and Martin Luther King, Jr., though Wills indicates that King’s disobedience was indeed civil and therefore partly affirmative of law and government.
Wills closes the book with two brief chapters. The first argues that government, when properly constituted and kept within the narrow bounds of its special competencies, is a useful tool and should be understood as “a necessary good.” The closing chapter admits, on the other hand, that government power may also be abused, so that the wrong kind of government should, in fact, be feared.
Though he wades through history displaying broad knowledge of events and ideas, Wills’s critique is anything but academic. It is aimed squarely at such contemporary right-wing targets as the National Rifle Association, the militia movement, and even the Contract with America. On the other hand, the angry street movements which emerged from the Left during the late 1960’s, as well as the phenomenon of “dropping out” (“yippyism” as well as “hippyism”) are also subjected to thoroughgoing criticism in the light of what American politics and government are supposed to be about.
Yet, A Necessary Evil presents much more than a critique. In tandem with Wills’s previous work, it presents a well-developed political philosophy of its own, one that confronts not only the foibles of contemporary left-wing and right- wing ideologues but also the political apathy and cynicism that these ideologues have wrought. According to Wills’s political philosophy, it is a mistake to have blind faith in government, but it is also a mistake to lose faith entirely in this useful and indeed indispensable mechanism. If Americans understand government and politics as necessary goods, they will be more attuned to the things that go right in their political system, though such achievements may not make it onto the nightly news. On the other hand, they may also demand more from politicians, holding them to higher professional standards. In the past, Wills has referred to himself as a “conservative.” This designation for his political philosophy is as accurate as any other label one might apply, as long as Wills is not thoughtlessly tossed in with any of the dozen varieties of conservatism so often bandied about in American political campaigns or by right-wing think tanks. In the end, Wills’s thought is simply too fresh and original to fit easily into the usual categories.
A Necessary Evil is not without its flaws. Wills covers a very broad range of thinkers, ideas, and movements. While he is an extraordinarily well informed generalist, he is not a trained specialist in many of the areas he is covering. As such, it is likely that scholars will find any number of points on which they might quibble or even offer more serious criticism. For example, Wills twice quotes Thoreau to the effect that, since the government that governs least governs best, the best government of which one can conceive governs not at all. It is important to note, however, lest one think of Thoreau as an anarchist, that Thoreau immediately follows by saying that, when people are ready for it, they shall indeed have government that governs not at all. This qualifier makes it clear that there is more to Thoreau’s idea than a mere repudiation of government. Rather, he has a sense of history and human development which informs and tempers his antigovernment sentiments.
The example of Thoreau brings up another shortcoming in Wills’s book: its failure to provide in-depth treatment of a theme seen in political philosophy since its early formulation among the ancient Greeks. For Plato as well as his student Aristotle, there is inherent tension between universal and conventional values (or, correspondingly, philosophical and citizenly, “higher” and human values). It is this tension which partly informs Thoreau’s thought and which later becomes the basis for the law-affirming civil disobedience of King. Indeed, this tension is central to the enterprise of democracy in a nation of self-proclaimed individualists such as in the United States. Most Americans believe (to some degree, at least) that they must devise their own values rather than merely conform to secular authority, even if it be the authority of the majority. At the same time, Americans can be highly conformist in deciding what is “un-American” or simply “uncool.” In short, Americans seem to want to be both philosophers and citizens. The problem is that, all too often, they fail to be either, settling instead into the more comfortable (though sometimes frenzied) role of consumer. This theme in political philosophy (as well as its application to the United States), seems to be closely related to Wills’s inquiry. It deserves his explicit attention.
Finally, Wills lumps together so many kinds of antigovernment sentiment and movements that his categorization sometimes seems strained. After all, 1960’s hippies and 1990’s survivalists may both be dropping out of mainstream politics, but the essential values (and political philosophies) of these groups are so different as to make their inclusion in the same broad phenomenon perhaps more misleading than it is enlightening.
None of these criticisms, however, mars the overall effect, or the importance, of A Necessary Evil. Wills has identified a meaningful stream of thought and action in American history, one which is alive and well as he writes and which has subversive effects on American politics and government. The implication is quite straightforward: If Americans expect their politics to be corrupt and even go so far as to fear the effects of efficient government, then American government will, in fact, be corrupt and inefficient. Moreover, Americans will be satisfied with cloying, mealy-mouthed politicians and be unwilling to take the measures necessary to cut their way through image politics. In the end, seeing government as a necessary evil becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and American politics, if not quite evil, will not even aspire to provide the “necessary good” that citizens, as what Aristotle called “political animals,” require from it. As such, Wills’s book is aimed at changing not only people’s thoughts but also their deeds. It seeks to make dominant in the United States a consciousness of government that will persuade Americans to use the tool of politics proactively and more wisely so that the country’s experiment in self- government might ultimately be called a success.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (August, 1999): 1984.
Commonweal 126 (October 22, 1999): 14.
Library Journal 124 (September 1, 1999): 218.
The New Republic 220 (November 1, 1999): 37.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (October 31, 1999): 14.
Publishers Weekly 246 (August 2, 1999): 59.
The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 1999, p. A24.
Washington Monthly 31 (October, 1999): 50.
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