Book Reviews - Summer 2020

How We Came Together

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America purchased its sense of itself at a high price

By Jill Leovy | June 2, 2020
An illustration in the May 26,1866 issue of <em>Harper's Weekly</em> of the Memphis massacre of 1866, in which mobs of white residents and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods, committing murder, rape, robbery, and arson (Wikimedia Commons)
An illustration in the May 26,1866 issue of Harper's Weekly of the Memphis massacre of 1866, in which mobs of white residents and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods, committing murder, rape, robbery, and arson (Wikimedia Commons)

Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood by Colin Woodard; Viking, 432 pp., $30

The anthropologist Sally Falk Moore thought that some portion of legal reasoning was really masquerade. Studying colonial East Africa, she found that legal changes billed as rational reforms were, when viewed over a century, simply mirroring economic and political changes.

The implication? Seemingly disinterested law is a cover for politics. Judges and lawyers may not realize it, Moore wrote, but their careful arguments of legal norms really function as a means of displacing responsibility. Those involved are not reasoning; they are unwittingly disguising the exercise of power behind a vague abstraction called The Law.

I kept thinking of Moore’s argument while reading Colin Woodard’s Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood, an exploration of the ideas that guided the country from its first days as a fragmented alliance against England—what Woodard calls a “contractual agreement”—to a monolithic Great Power after World War I.

In Woodard’s version of this story, it is not judges and lawyers who mistakenly think they are engaged in a rational inquiry when they aren’t, but intellectuals. Woodard’s subjects sincerely believe that their work is original, that they are thinking independently. But he makes us see that their most cherished accomplishments are but flecks of foam on the tide of history moving through them.

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