The Magazine

Talking Freely

When the subject is liberty, what are we thinking?

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Brownley's is an important essay, not only because she illustrates the folly of ceding peremptory cultural authority to the modern academy, but also because Johnson's approach to judging literature exemplifies the attitude a free people should cultivate towards their own society--that is, towards themselves. Over the long run, and despite mistakes along the way, a free and educated people will tend to make good decisions.

Catherine Zuckert's "Tom Sawyer: Potential President" is, in my view, easily worth the modest price of the book. Zuckert's interpretation of Mark Twain's great novel is penetrating as a work of criticism. But she also goes a long way toward answering an old and complex question: How can democracy succeed so brilliantly as a form of government when democracies themselves are so often led by ambitious, self-aggrandizing, and otherwise morally flawed men?

Elected statesmen will rarely or, perhaps, never be the morally conscientious men we would like them to be. As Tocqueville pointed out (Zuckert finds Henry Adams saying more or less the same thing), a truly good man wouldn't put himself forward for his peers to vote for him, for to do so would necessarily involve self-regard and guile. Thus Twain's subtle joke midway through the novel: After Tom saves the life of Muff Potter, "There were some that believed he would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging."

Those who have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer--or, at any rate, those who have read it as adults--will likely have been troubled by a sense that Tom is, in a word, unscrupulous. He is not cruel or knavish; but he exhibits less honesty and humility than we might prefer to see in our own children. Tom deceives. He manipulates (remember the famous whitewashing-the-fence scene). He is inconsiderate of the interests and feelings of others, even his own family. He takes what doesn't belong to him (though, as he sees it, he stops short of outright theft). And above all he pursues his own glory with relentless energy.

Yet, as Zuckert explains, he possesses certain traits that make him an ideal popular leader. He is bold, imaginative, capable of enduring pain and risking his life. Indeed, it's precisely his single-minded interest in his own renown that drives him to perform his most noble deeds.

Zuckert quotes Twain's remark that Theodore Roosevelt was Tom Sawyer grown up, "always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off." So will our statesmen always be, whatever we may tell ourselves about ages gone by.

Edward McLean deserves great credit for bringing these essays together. And so does the present occupant of the White House for making the idea of freedom so prominent a part of our discourse.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.