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  • Writer's pictureCharles Arrowsmith

Review: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness by Peter Moore (Washington Post)

“Since the identity of the United States as a nation remains unusually fluid and elusive, we Americans have had to look back repeatedly to the Revolution and the Founding (as we call it) in order to know who we are.” The eminent historian Gordon S. Wood wrote those words in “The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States” (2011). Now, with the country locked in an endless, vicious battle over American values — and as we celebrate its 247th birthday — it’s a suitable time to return to the founding documents and the events that led to their creation. British writer Peter Moore’s new book, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream,” examines the prehistory of the Declaration of Independence and the transatlantic currents that bore it to the shore of legend on July 4, 1776. Is there anything we can apply to our present tribulations?

Moore follows in the footsteps not only of Wood but also Wood’s teacher Bernard Bailyn, author of the seminal, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” (1967). Moore’s approach, however, is less exhaustive. Most of the Founding Fathers remain offstage, and he instead enlists a smallish, mostly British cast of characters to play out his narrative history of the period, including the ambitious printer William Strahan, the genius lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the firebrand Parliamentarian John Wilkes, the radical historian Catharine Macaulay and a former tax collector named Thomas Paine. The most prominent American in the book is a Zelig-like Benjamin Franklin, who, whether attending the coronation of George III or providing a letter of recommendation for the emigrating Paine, finds himself present for numerous turning points in Anglo-American relations. These figures, Moore argues, “thought just as long and hard about life, liberty, and happiness as Thomas Jefferson did.”

For the review in full, visit The Washington Post.

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