Essays on The American Citizens Handbook
Hand It to Them - Rediscovering American Scripture - American Citizens Handbook
National Review, May 14, 2001 by Jay Nordlinger
Looking idly at my bookcase the other day, I fixed on a volume I had never noticed before: The American Citizens Handbook. It had come to me, I realized, from an old friend who was moving and unloading some books. It had sat on my shelf, ignored, for years. As I fingered this book, it seemed a relic from a distant, and glowing, past. What's more, it was the product of-could this be true?-the National Education Association. Coming to know this book made me practically weep for a liberalism that has been lost, and an Americanism, too.
I did some poking around, and soon learned that I was not the first "conservative" (as descendants of Jefferson are now forced to call themselves) to take an interest in the Handbook. Michael Farris, the home-schooling leader in Virginia, discovered it in the mid 1980s. Then the education secretary, William Bennett, used it in a speech. He challenged the NEA to reissue the book, or, if it would not, to permit others to do so. The association responded flummoxed and embarrassed. One spokesman explained, "The world has changed a lot" (ah, and so has the NEA). Another sniffed, "We've got lots of other books if [Bennett] wants to pay for them."
Some years later, Lamar Alexander, running for president, mentioned the Handbook as a "virtual user's guide to America." Mike Farris tells me that he once met the man hired by the NEA to destroy the final 10,000 copies of the book. Had he been asked to burn them? asked Farris. That would be too good to be true-and it was. The man had buried them.
The NEA should hardly be embarrassed by this volume; it may be the highest service it has ever performed. The book first appeared in 1941, to coincide with National Citizenship Day (September 17). It went through six editions, of which I have the last, published in 1968.
The book was the project of Joy Elmer Morgan, a Nebraska-born educator and writer who lived from 1889 to 1974. For several decades, he was editor of the NEA's Journal. (I should affirm here that Joy Elmer Morgan was, indeed, a man. When I was quite young, I knew an old man named Shirley, who one day confided to me, "Everything was fine in my life till that damn Shirley Temple came along.") Morgan's name is seldom mentioned today, although he is reviled in certain right-wing publications as a proponent of world government and all-around threat. If Morgan could stand as the "Left," however, conservatives would dance in the streets.
The Handbook is a great treasury. It was originally
intended to prepare young citizens for their responsibilities as voters, and as
adults generally. It is a compilation of just about everything that is
significant and outstanding about the United States. The work is serious,
earnest, heartfelt. It is, as the NEA noted in the 1968 edition, both
"inspirational and informative." It is, of course, patriotic, but in the most
thoughtful way. There is nothing blinkered or rah-rah about it. The book might
appear to the contemporary reader quaint-something on the order of a girl's
memory album, circa 1909-but, as I absorbed its pages, I was startled by the
power it carried. It puts forth an American creed, although this creed is a big
and generous one, waiting to be embraced by anyone, or rejected by
anyone-including the NEA.
The opening essay, as well, belongs to Morgan: "Your
Citizenship in the Making." Its most striking quality, along with wisdom, is
gratitude: "It is a high privilege to be a citizen of the United States. There
are those in less fortunate circumstances who would gladly give all they possess
for the mere chance to come here to live." That is a bracing statement, and an
obviously true one. Try out a couple more of Morgan's bracing, obviously true
No one would contend that the Constitution is a perfect document. The very men who framed it were conscious of its shortcomings. . . . We have our difficulties agreeing among ourselves as to what we want the Constitution to be and how we want it to be interpreted or administered. But these are small matters as compared with the great fact of the Constitution itself, standing between us and chaos, between us and a return to the brutalities and confusion of earlier centuries.
Talk like that can, today, get you laughed out of school-quite literally.
The next section of the Handbook lays out the
"Characteristics of the Good Democratic Citizen." (A lot of these titles cannot
help provoking present-day giggles, which is part of our problem.) In 1949, a
branch of the Defense Department asked a branch of the NEA to come up with a
description of the "good democratic citizen." A committee was duly formed, and a
document resulted, listing 24 characteristics, with subsets for each. What is
most remarkable about them is the balance they achieve. They are a beautiful
melding of the "liberal" and the "conservative." For example, under "Respects
and upholds the law and its agencies," we have, "[The good democratic citizen]
respects and supports officers who enforce the law, but does not permit his zeal
for law enforcement to encourage officials to infringe upon guaranteed civil
rights." (We also read, "understands what perjury means and testifies
honestly"-ahem.) On the international front, we have, "Knows about, critically
evaluates, and supports promising efforts to prevent war, but stands ready to
defend his country against tyranny and aggression."
This section, like the Handbook itself, is hardly naive or unrealistic. The effect of the whole is not at all treacly or goody-goody. Yet it is a strong antidote to cynicism and the suffocating cloak of irony: Our good democratic citizen "is critically aware of differences between democratic ideals and accomplishments, but works to improve accomplishments and refuses to become cynical about the differences."
An essay by Henry Steele Commager comes as a hell of a jolt. If anyone represents the old liberalism-the liberalism of this volume-it is Commager. The gulf between him and, say, Eric Foner today is enormous. Of course, Professor Foner is no liberal; we simply have to call him that, in accordance with a foolish and misleading political taxonomy. (Angela Davis, the Communist Party official, is often described in the press as a liberal, as we Right-types have long liked to note.) In "Our Schools Have Kept Us Free" (another of those titles), Commager makes a stirring case for common education, and in particular for its assimilative power. "How, after all, [are] millions of newcomers to become 'Americans'-in language, in ways of life and thought, in citizenship?" The common school, he writes, has served "the cause of American democracy." The truth is, this most heterogeneous of modern societies-profoundly varied in racial background, religious faith, social and economic interest-has ever seemed the most easy prey to forces of riotous privilege and ruinous division. These forces have not prevailed; they have been routed, above all, in the schoolrooms and on the playgrounds of America.
Commager wrote these words in 1950. And how are the "forces
of riotous privilege and ruinous division" faring now? Pretty well, huh? This is
what compels us "conservatives" to retreat to school choice and let-a-
thousand-flowers-bloom, the common school, which bound the country together,
having crumbled, not least because of the illiberal urgings and practices of the
But who will taste? America is a young country, as everyone says, but we seem to have lost so quickly our . . . our nationhood. Our cultural and spiritual nationhood. This handbook was last published in 1968, but it might as well be an archeological find, a dusty curiosity. An NEA statement produced in the book-"Education for All American Youth"-seems almost reactionary today. Why? How did what was liberal become "conservative" (or worse) so fast? How did it happen that "liberals," in the late 1990s, rallied around-with pulsing passion-a president who had a) used a 21-year-old intern for sex, b) perjured himself in court proceedings, c) abused his office, d) tampered with witnesses, e) cheated, lied, defamed, f)-but that is another rant (though a clearly related one). The good liberal fashioners of The American Citizens Handbook could never have been Clintonites.
This little book-or not so little: over 600 pages-undeniably did something to me, and for me: It stirred what some guy once called "mystic chords of memory." It would do the same for others. And if that memory were totally absent, the book would install it.
I tell you, I will never give up my copy-I would fear not finding another. I would like to share it with children. While reading it, I refrained even from making notes in it, unwilling to deface it. It is sick, though-positively sick-that I should feel this way. That I should feel that I possess something rare and talismanic, something quasi- forbidden, almost underground. This stuff should be as common as water- and it was. It should be again. It could be again, if people wanted it, demanded it. All those volumes that lie a-molderin' in their grave: We should dig 'em up.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Review, Inc.
Steal it, Mr. Nordlinger
By Lawrence Henry
Back in the sixties, Abbie Hoffman published a book called Steal This Book, a kind of icon of the era. Looking back on it, it seems kind of namby-pamby. What passed for "transgressive" in those days was stealing books from the college book store - at many schools an expulsion offense; heaven knows what colleges do to bookstore thieves nowadays.
Today, there is a book actually worth stealing, and I am going counsel that it be stolen, in a fashion calculated to make a bigger bang than Abbie Hoffman ever set off. It's called The American Citizens Handbook, by Joy Elmer Morgan, first published to mark National Citizenship Day (September 17) in 1941, then reissued six times. The last edition was published in 1968.
National Review managing editor Jay Nordlinger, writing in that magazine's current print edition (May 14, 2001), in an article titled "Hand It To Them: Rediscovering American Scripture, " describes the Handbook as "a great treasury."
"It is a compilation of just about everything that is significant and outstanding about the United States," Nordlinger writes. "The work is serious, earnest, heartfelt…I was startled by the power it carried…It puts forth an American creed…We have in this book the evidence of a nation, and a civilization. Here, the bond holds firm; the salt retains its savor."
Not for small purpose does Mr. Nordlinger employ that pointed Biblical reference. For, of course, in the United States today, the American creed, the American idea, the unalloyed commitment to the American nation, has lost its savor. More to the point, its savor has been deliberately diluted and corrupted. We can taste this corruption clearly in the current controversy over Senator Bob Kerrey's Viet Nam war experience, or , more correctly, in the accounts of his account of that experience. (See how we remove our gaze from the truth, layer by layer?) In what passes for serious discussion nowadays, a "good" man did a "bad" thing because he was a "victim" of a "bad" war. Or, no, maybe this "bad" man is now "good" because he is "coming to terms" with something in his past so he can "heal."
This new, ironic, doubly self-conscious, simultaneously shallow and fearful America, a seeming combination of sissihood and bullydom, is hard to describe. It's slippery. It's meant to be. It's the product of deconstruction, mockery, evasion, cheating, and outright lies. What's left? The American Spectator's Bob Terrill calls it the "Kultursmog." In the best speech he ever delivered, Bob Dole (in Mark Helprin's line) said, of the American before the Kultursmog, "I remember it, and it was better." The Clinton campaign made fun of him, of course.
More than any other institution, America's schools have created this ironist fake morality in which we live today. Which makes it all the more astonishing to find out that The American Citizens Handbook was originally published by the National Education Association, the now completely radicalized teachers' union.
The NEA buried - yes, actually buried - the last 10,000 copies of the Handbook. The few copies that remain are in private hands, like Jay Nordlinger's, thank Heaven. He is not alone in hailing the Handbook's virtues. When he was education secretary, William Bennett challenged the NEA to reissue it, or to allow another publisher to do so. The NEA essentially mumbled and changed the subject.
In conclusion, describing his treasured copy of the book, Mr. Nordlinger writes, "It is sick, though - positively sick - that I should feel this way. That I should feel that I possess something rare and talismanic, something quasi-forbidden, almost underground. This stuff should be as common as water - and it was. It should be again."
No, Mr. Nordlinger, you feel exactly as you should. We are the dissidents now, and America's heritage is our samizdat.
So here's what you do: Steal this book. Steal it as an intellectual property. Get together a group of like-minded dissidents - William Bennett, Mark Levin, Grover Norquist, and Henry Regnery come to mind - and scan The American Citizens Handbook into a computer. By way of challenge, announce your intention to publish it again, and offer to buy the rights from the NEA. (I suspect Mr. Levin could make a heck of a case that the NEA had renounced its interest by burying the last copies of the last edition.)
If the NEA refuses, you've got a great publicity campaign. If they consent, they consent. Either way, you've got a great book.
Sell copies by subscription, raise enough money thereby to handle the printing costs, then go to town on it: mass sales through conservative organizations, home-schooling associations, and the like.
But first, in a small way, hand it to us. Put your article, "Hand It To Them," on the National Review Online website so we can start creating an Internet wave about it.
Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.
God and country in 1941: An NEA 'coming out' party
By Steve Farrell
When I think of organizations that have worked long and hard to undermine the religious heritage of this great nation of ours – especially in the minds of our children – few can match the record of the National Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In fact their record is so bad that if the Second Coming were to occur in a public classroom today, the former would insist that a cadre of psychologists swarm in on the community to undue the damage to children, teachers, and family before the school could open again, while the latter would put a restraining order on the Savior, and bring suit against the security guards for letting Him through the doorway.
But it wasn't always that way, at least not for the National Education Association. Proof being that in 1941 they published a little gem called The American Citizens Handbook. It was written for the Committee on New Voter Preparation and Recognition, to prepare children and their parents, immigrants and lifetime residents, for this grave, yet wonderful responsibility we call citizenship.
I feel confident were it republished today it would be banned from the classroom, and shouted down by their reviewers as a pack of dangerous lies. Here's why. Let me quote from the Foreword:
God, the Golden Rule, faith, grace, the traditional family, nobility, moral purity, these are the roots of our glory, and lacking these our motives, achievements and national spirit will become tainted, our hopes of reaching to the stars in the future, dashed?
Let's move to chapter one, paragraph two. Here we are informed that the people of this nation possess "an inspiring … mighty gift such as the people of no other continent enjoy, God-given and eternal."
The text then breaks into a chorus of Katherine Lee Bates, "America the Beautiful," with the prayer that "God shed his grace on thee."
I should hope so.
Then in an unforgivable spirit of flag-waving jingoism and fairytale-itis the handbook speaks of "Our Heritage of Leadership," described as a "mighty heritage that has come to us in the memory of great deeds performed by pioneer men and women who have established this mighty nation."
And then it gets worse.
Under "Charters of American Liberty," it goes so far as to say that "Beyond the heritage which is found in the lives of the men and women who have made America, stands the Republic itself, the greatest example of constitutional government among free men."
The crème de la crème isn't unloaded, however, until the eighth paragraph of the first chapter, where the NEA identifies the foundation principles of this "greatest single document in the entire struggle of mankind for orderly self government." Under the heading "Religious Ideals the Foundation" we read:
It is upon the Foundation of this Higher Law, the handbook concludes at this point, that our "Constitution …[stands] between us and chaos, between us and a return to the brutalities and confusion of earlier centuries."
I read the above quotes to my 14 year old last evening. Her instant, uncoached response was a sarcastic, "Boy have we come a long way!" Indeed.
More on the contents of this 'dangerous' citizens handbook next time