A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government
by Garry Wills
Simon and Schuster, 365 pp., $25.00
Between 1776 and 1789 Americans replaced a government over them with a government under them. They have worried ever since about keeping it under. Distrust of its powers has been more common and more visible than distrust of the imperial authority of England ever was before the Revolution. Garry Wills believes “there is more to this attitude, in our culture, than the normal and universal resistance to authority,” and in A Necessary Evil he sets out to find what the Americans who have resisted or rejected government over two centuries have in common. He discovers it in a set of values, common to all Americans but championed by some at the expense of contrasting values, equally common, which usually act in counterpoise to support legitimate authority.
Wills identifies no fewer than fourteen specific values, each with its progovernment counterpart, that lay behind the dissent of such diverse individuals and groups as John Calhoun and Timothy McVeigh, the Ku Klux Klan and hippie communes:
Here are the values we shall find recurring wherever government is opposed: a belief that government, as a necessary evil, should be kept at a minimum; and that legitimate social activity should be provincial, amateur, authentic, spontaneous, candid, homogeneous, traditional, popular, organic, rights-oriented, religious, voluntary, participatory, and rotational.
Values contrasting with those are not polar opposites, but distant points on the continuum of approaches to government—namely, a belief that government is sometimes a positive good, and that it should be cosmopolitan, expert, authoritative, efficient, confidential, articulated in its parts, progressive, elite, mechanical, duties-oriented, secular, regulatory, and delegative, with a division of labor.
The abstractions acquire more concreteness as Wills examines the prolific expression of antigovernment sentiment throughout American history. He divides into six different categories the opponents of government who have magnified the first set of values to the exclusion of the second: nullifiers (like Calhoun, who wanted the states to have the power to prevent the enforcement of particular laws), seceders (the Confederacy in the Civil War), insurrectionists (like John Brown at Harpers Ferry), vigilantes (abortion clinic bombers, the Ku Klux Klan), withdrawers (Thoreau, Henry Adams, H.L. Mencken, Utopian communities), and disobeyers (notably Martin Luther King Jr.).
Separate chapters offer brief descriptions, in chronological order, of the episodes in which Americans in each of these categories have arrayed themselves against government. Clinic bombers think they are protecting “religion, social homogeneity, tradition” in despite of a government that is “too cosmopolitan, too secular, too disrespectful of traditional mores.” When Timothy McVeigh (an insurrectionist) writes a note saying “Obey the Con-stitution of the United States and we will not shoot you,” Wills sees “the whole cluster of anti-governmental values” implicit in it, supposedly “proving that McVeigh spoke for the authentic people, in a voice provincial and amateur, not cosmopolitan and expert.” Even Thoreau and Henry Adams, who “fit less than others into normal polarities of feeling about the government,…were spontaneous, organic, and personal in their thought, as opposed to the mechanical and impersonal operations of …