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You Say You Want a Revolution: 1776–2001

It seems fitting, on the 225th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, that we should look back to the origins of the United States of America. Is it true, or is it only my imagination, that—despite the steady accumulation of scholarship, the occasional flurry of scandal (did Thomas Jefferson father a child with Sally Hemings?), the blandishments of the historical tourism industry, and the faces on our money—the Founding era is receding from popular consciousness? When I started school, 40-odd years ago, the heroes of the Revolution loomed large. My impression is that this simply isn't the case today.

Certainly a good deal of mythology had accreted to the events of that era. One purpose of an education is to learn to sift the reality from the myth, as best as one can (see, for example Mark Noll's essay in this section, on the moral complexity of the Revolution). But there was also, however imperfectly conveyed, a sense of living continuity with the past. The loss of that connection, to the extent that it is in fact lost, is grievous.

"But what do we mean by the Revolution?" John Adams famously asked. "Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people."

The nine pieces in this special section consider from many different angles the formation of America's national character. In the first piece, Donald Yerxa interviews Harvey Mansfield, who—with his wife, Delba Winthrop—recently completed a new translation of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. The section concludes with Stephen Carter on Lincoln, showing how the 16th president, "by elevating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence above the legalism of the Constitution, … managed what few other American leaders have: he persuaded people to sacrifice for others when they had little to gain for themselves."

Even if this section were twice as long, it would hardly encompass its subject. Important ...

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