Neil Baldwin’s The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country From the Puritans To The Cold War attempts to illuminate the true ideals of the American republic through a look at ten of the country’s most influential documents and the people behind them.
Some readers may be surprised to find that Baldwin has not included any of the most legally defining documents in the country’s history. There’s no note on the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Dred Scott decision, or any of the other important governmental papers that every American history course drills into its students’ heads. Baldwin’s focus is on the debate that came before and around these momentous decisions. So he doesn’t discus the Monroe doctrine directly, but does present a thoughtful essay on John O’Sullivan’s crucial “Manifest Destiny”; doesn’t focus on the Declaration of Independence, but puts intense thought into the meaning and circumstances of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, which helped make the Declaration possible.
Many of the works Baldwin examines, like John Winthrop’s “City On A Hill”, will be familiar to even casual students of US history. Some, like Jane Addams’ “The Sphere of Action” and Carter Woodson’s “The Negro in Our History,” have been largely forgotten, to the detriment of public discussion. It can be hard to follow along with Baldwin’s debate when facing an unfamiliar work, and Baldwin provides few direct quotes from these, and no copy of the originals is included in the book. But Baldwin’s discussion doesn't even chiefly focused on the primary documents themselves, as much as on the social circumstances that created them and their authors. These social and historical contexts are explored in enthusiastic detail, turning each chapter into a combination biography, history, and political lesson. Baldwin provides ample opportunity for the reader to seek comparisons between the world of these historical documents and their own modern situation, and almost pleads for the reader to debate his conclusions.
No one document can hope to change the country on its own, and Baldwin isn’t trying to force an opinion on anyone. The American Revelation is instead an invitation to think; about the meaning of patriotism, democracy, and America itself. If not quite a revelation, it is at least an inspiration for discussion, and that discussion, as Baldwin shows, may be the true defining power of the country.