THE overworked word “civilized” is the accurate one for the eight essays on American history comprising Gerald Johnson’s fifth book. Delight in irony is certainly one earmark of the civilized man, and this book captures with finesse the ironies wrought by “time and chance” in the careers and later reputations of the founder of the duPont dynasty, of Jefferson, Hamilton, Clay, Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Thomas E. Watson, Theodore Roosevelt, Bryan, and Wilson. The author can be compared with Lytton Strachey and come off better; instead of an intrusive snobbism he has a skeptical faith in the strange ways of democracy that gives depth to his treatment, so that we ponder what he is writing about rather than stare at the brilliance of the author. Gerald Johnson is entertaining and seldom lets his gift get out of hand; he is scholarly but conceals his pains with grace; he is curious and fair-minded and consistently intelligent, an adornment to the ranks of American historians. Most important for us, he is a genuine liberal, and this is refreshing in a period of sham liberals who are covert idolaters of the extremely centralized state.