Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Gunning For Position

By Brett McNeil

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  In his most recent book, "A Necessary Evil," Northwestern University professor and eminent public intellectual Garry Wills joins the ranks of the late Richard Hofstadter in marshalling overwhelming and crushing evidence to dispel a number of errant, though deeply held, American myths.

Topping his list of beloved misnomers are the ideas that the American government was created to check its own power, that the Revolutionary militias were responsible for tossing off the British yoke, and that the Second Amendment was drafted to ensure that armed citizens could curb the power of their own government.

But like Hofstadter's attempts to reason with the unreasonable and unlettered, Wills' new book has the same effect on the myths he sets out to dispel as the U.S. Army had in dispelling the Vietcong. To borrow a phrase used to describe the American war effort in Southeast Asia, Wills' book is like a sledgehammer on a floating cork. He swings mightily, even savagely, at the most inexplicably resilient of targets, but to what effect?

The difficulty of Wills' effort lies not in the efficacy or accuracy of his arguments—he is right on and goes to great lengths to explain just how right on and historiographically sound his reasoning is—but lies rather in the ability of Americans to disbelieve those things they find uncomfortable or inconvenient. While Wills scores heavy blows to the notion that the Constitution established a right for individual gun ownership, people who today either profit from the gun trade or derive some part of their identity or self-worth from their gun collections will simply dismiss him as another self-deluding, gun-hating pussy comfortably ensconced in, and taking pot shots from, an ivory tower.

But what a convincing pussy he is! "A Necessary Evil" is a primer in just how misunderstood and misread—and in some cases, how sloppily manipulated—are the motives of our founding fathers. James Madison sought not to create a more perfect government of checks and balances, nor one that would make the federal authority subservient to the states, but rather saw a strong federal government, removed from local pressures and provincial biases and with Congress in the lead, as the key to a long-living and prosperous United States. The Minutemen, rather than a rag-tag bunch of yeoman heroes, are exposed by Wills as ineffectual fighters better suited for bullying slaves or Tory loyalists than repelling a foreign aggressor. And as for the idea that American freedom is vested in a tradition of individual ownership of guns, Wills presents the unhappy evidence that at the time of the American Revolution, not one in ten Americans owned an operable firearm.

In our supremely cynical age, Wills' portrait of Madison and Washington, and later Lincoln, as men devoted to an indivisible government that would make people freer and happier—tapping their own inherent decency to do so—is an edifying and heartening one. That it will convince few of those who disbelieve Wills when he says American government is not an exercise in canceling central authority or negating governmental efficiency should do nothing to detract from his efforts. Rather, Wills' book ought to be read, and considered, by anyone who thinks they have a handle on who founded our nation and what they were up to when they did it. So, too, should it be read by anyone, like Wayne LaPierre or Charlton Heston, stupid enough to suggest that a nation of handgun owners is what the framers had in mind when they rewrote the Articles of Confederation. (Brett McNeil)

"A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government"
Garry Wills (Simon and Schuster) $25

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