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The American Revelation by Neil Baldwin -- A Review

Books about national character, values, spirit, and identity are always tricky, so Neal Baldwin avoids over-simplifying this study of American ideals by admitting at the outset that it is a representative study, not a comprehensive study.

His representatives, many born overseas, capture well the diversity and eclecticism of the American experience.

John Winthrop, Tom Paine, Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere (he put E Pluribus Unum on the national seal), and Israel Zangwill (author of The Melting Pot, a play Teddy Roosevelt loved) were born in Europe and brought European conceptions of "what could be better" to the New World.

Ralph Waldo Emerson remains, in many ways, the quintessential American thinker, but Baldwin makes clear Emerson's debt to European romanticism, literary and philosophical.

Figures like Jane Addams, Carter G. Woodson (who is ultimately responsible for Black History Month) and George Marshall seem hewn more directly from American timber, and yet even they were shaped and inspired by European precedents: Addams saw social action at its best in England before bringing it to Chicago; no historian (Woodson included) conducts his research without having learned lessons from the 19th century German historians, and Marshall's greatest triumph came from helping to rebuild Europe after WWII when he saw that America's future would be bleak without a prosperous transatlantic partner in democracy.

The American Revelation benefits from Baldwin's strategy of composing a biographical mosaic. Many seminal Americans are left out, but that's inevitable. The best chapters focus on Addams and Woodson. Perhaps the greatest figure studied is Marshall. All three are notable for incorporating their ideals into their actions. That probably is the hallmark American trait...and remains a work in progress.