America’s political heritage is too often shrouded in mythology, says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz — and mythology, about everything from the causes of the Civil War to the impact of the New Deal, can spawn a dangerous amnesia about successes and failures.
Wilentz’s prescription for ensuring an informed citizenry is direct contact with the political ideas that shaped our shared past. No wonder, then, that Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era, is the general editor of Princeton University Press’ James Madison Library in American Politics, a recently launched series featuring new editions of classic yet hard-to-find American political writings.
The series got under way in May with the publication of two books: The Conscience of a Conservative, the 1960 political manifesto of Barry Goldwater, who soon would be the Republican presidential candidate; and The New Industrial State, economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1967 analysis of corporate power.
This month will see two additions to the series: Liberty and the News, journalist Walter Lippmann’s 1920 discussion of the role of the press in a democracy; and a single volume containing two works by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Politics of Hope and The Bitter Heritage, which chronicle the optimism and disillusionment of 1960s liberals.
The wide range of authors so far — from liberal to conservative, from politician to historian — is deliberate. “I want to capture American politics in all of its variety and all of its intricacy,” says Wilentz, whose own political views are unapologetically liberal. “I’m not trying to push a line here — or, rather, I’m trying to push all the lines, because they all fascinate me.”
Coming next year is a collection of speeches and writings by Richard Nixon. A soon-to-be-established advisory board will help Wilentz pick future selections, with an emphasis on works that have contemporary resonance.
Wilentz and Princeton University Press director Peter Dougherty say they hope the books will appeal both within and beyond the academy, by offering affordable paperbacks for classroom use and by giving a general audience access to neglected texts.
So far, Dougherty says, the Goldwater book has sold 5,000 copies and the more esoteric Galbraith about half as many, although a Virginia Tech business professor ordered 500 for his students.
Key to the appeal of the series are new forewords and afterwords exploring each work’s contemporary relevance. Conservative commentator George F. Will *68 and liberal scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr. offer dueling interpretations of Goldwater’s legacy for 21st-century Republicans, for example, while economist James K. Galbraith discusses his father’s ideas in light of the rise of Microsoft and the fall of Enron.
“We’re not trying to entomb these things,” Wilentz says. “They’re classics because they’re evergreen, they’re alive. But it takes a little pruning and tending.”