The Ground We Stand On

IT is well for the reviewer to include the subtitle of John Dos Passos’s new book, ‘Some Examples from the History of a Political Creed,’ for it provides a general idea of the scheme. This political creed is the unique Anglo-Saxon insistence on the rights of man that sets off the English-speaking peoples from the rest of the world and is the most enlightened hope for human happiness, or, at any rate, human opportunity. The characters who in these pages embody this idea have just that one quality in common — the instinct for individual freedom; otherwise, they show as many facets as the adventure of life allows.
The main persons recorded are Roger Williams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Joel Barlow, H. H. Brackenridge. The secondary characters, most of them nearly as important as the others, include Milton, Anne Hutchinson, Coke, Cromwell, John Lilburne, Prynne, Winthrop, Defoe, Thomas Hutchinson, John Adams and his cousin Samuel, Patrick Henry, Lafayette, Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton, Fulton. And many thumbnail sketches show up as clearly, even if for only a moment, as the full-length portraits.
Each reader will have his own predilections among the parts of the book. We should all probably agree that the final essay, on H. H. Brackenridge, is the least satisfactory. For the rest, we find a uniformly expert account of Roger Williams, whose amplitude of toleration was matched only by his courage; of Franklin, who raised worldliness to an altitude almost unworldly and yet delighted to cut a figure at the French court; of Jefferson, whose austere and classic dream for America was best realized in the architecture he fashioned for it; of Joel Barlow, whose never-aging charm could not quite conceal his bitterness, and who, after risking his life at Algiers in the service of his countrymen, lost it in the same service while in pursuit of Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow.
Mr. Dos Passos’s thesis is that the struggle between constantly forming and re-forming special groups and the self-governing masses is the very essence of our political vitality. ‘So long as that contest continues the nation will remain a growing organism.'
In a book as rich as this, the wealth must include coins of varying denominations, but there is no professional need to cavil at details. The book is absorbing, a fabric of swift prose, of sudden appearances and departures, of dramatic lights and shadows. It is intelligent in each interpretation of event. And — especially in these days — it is important as a record of our hopes for the future. K. S. H.