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American Happiness and Discontents
The Unruly Torrent, 2008-2020
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George F. Will has been one of this country’s leading columnists since 1974. He won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1977. The Wall Street Journal once called him “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.” In new collection, he examines a remarkably unsettling thirteen years in our nation’s experience, from 2008 to 2020. Included are a number of columns about court cases, mostly from the Supreme Court, that illuminate why the composition of the federal judiciary has become such a contentious subject.
Other topics addressed include the American Revolutionary War, historical figures from Frederick Douglass to JFK, as well as a scathing assessment of how State of the Union Addresses are delivered in the modern day. Mr. Will also offers his perspective on American socialists, anti-capitalist conservatives, drug policy, the criminal justice system, climatology, the Coronavirus, the First Amendment, parenting, meritocracy and education, China, fascism, authoritarianism, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and the morality of enjoying football. American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008-2020 is a collection packed with wisdom and leavened by humor from one the preeminent columnists and intellectuals of our time.
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"In order to master the unruly torrent of life the learned man meditates, the poet quivers, and the political hero erects the fortress of his will."
—José Ortega y Gasset
But a journalist, whose job is to chronicle and comment on the torrent, knows that this is not amenable to being mastered. That is what it means to be unruly. Besides, the enjoyment of life is inseparable from life's surprises, and hence from its contingencies. Surprises and contingencies have propelled this columnist through a happy half century of arriving at his office each morning impatient to get on with the pleasure of immersion in the torrent.
For a third of a century my office has been in a narrow, three-story townhouse built in 1810 in what is now Washington's Georgetown section. It was here in 1814 when marauding British troops burned the White House and part of the Capitol. I purchased the building in 1987 from a small, sprightly, sparrow-like woman, then in her nineties, who had lived there since her childhood. She said that her parents recalled seeing Abraham Lincoln's son Robert walk past the house on his way to the corner saloon to purchase a pail of beer. This is plausible. Back then, beer was often sold in pails. And Robert, although frail at age seventy-eight, haltingly made his way up the steps of the memorial to his father at the dedication of it on May 30, 1922.
Because of where I live and work, the continuity of America's institutions and arguments is never far from my mind, as is the truth of William Faulkner's statement that "the past is not dead. It is not even past." That is why this book begins with some writings about American history. Were I a benevolent dictator, I would make history the only permissible college major in order to equip the public with the stock of knowledge required for thinking clearly about how we arrived at this point in our national narrative.
The poet E. E. Cummings—or as he's remembered, e.e. cummings—wrote of a "footprint in the sand of was." As a Washingtonian, I live immersed in was—in history. I have spent almost all of my adult life in Washington and still am stirred by its grand vistas and monuments. And by the fact that the bricks of Georgetown's sidewalks have been trod by politicians, jurists, and statesmen who have made American principles vivid and the American project successful.
I have now completed five decades as a columnist, and a few readers might be interested in learning how someone could have the good fortune to tumble into such a delightful career. In September 1958, four months after my seventeenth birthday, I came out of the Illinois wilderness to matriculate at Trinity College in Hartford. Soon thereafter I did what a young man from Central Illinois would naturally do: I took the train to New York City. Arriving in the splendor of Grand Central Terminal, I plunked down a nickel for a New York tabloid in order to see what was going on in Gotham. This purchase of a New York Post was a life-changing event because in it I found a column by Murray Kempton.
I do not remember what his subject was that day, but his subjects generally were of secondary importance to his style, which reflected his refined mind and his penchant for understated passion, mordantly expressed. Here, for example, is a sentence from his October 26, 1956, report on President Dwight David Eisenhower campaigning for re-election:
In Miami he had walked carefully by the harsher realities, speaking some 20 feet from an airport drinking fountain labeled "Colored" and saying that the condition it represented was more amenable to solution by the hearts of men than by laws, and complimenting Florida as "typical today of what is best in America," a verdict which might seem to some contingent on finding out what happened to the Negro snatched from the Wildwood jail Sunday.
This seventy-five-word sentence—sinewy, ironic, and somewhat demanding—paid a compliment to his readers: He knew they could and would follow a winding syntactical path through a thought so obliquely expressed as to be almost merely intimated. Kempton understood that the swirling, stirring society in which Americans are at all times immersed is constantly clamoring for their attention, plucking at their sleeves and even grabbing them by the lapels with journalism, politics, advertising, and other distractions. Furthermore, Kempton knew that reading newspaper columns is an optional activity, so a writer must make the most of his ration of words—in Kempton's case, often fewer than 700 of them. Reading a columnist's commentary on political and cultural subjects is an acquired taste, and a minority taste: It will only be acquired if it is pleasant, even fun.
However, the fact that most Americans do not read newspapers, let alone the commentary columns, is actually emancipating for columnists. The kind of people who seek out written arguments are apt to bring to the written word a fund of information and opinions. Having a self-selected audience of intellectually upscale readers allows the columnist to assume that his or her readers have a reservoir of knowledge about the world. So, he can be brief—most of the writings in this book are approximately 750 words long—without being superficial.
Today, America has a much more clamorous media environment than Kempton knew. New technologies—cable television, the Internet, social media—produce a blitzkrieg of words, written and spoken. The spoken words are often shouted by overheated individuals who evidently believe that the lungs are the seat of wisdom. Here, however, is the good news: Amid the cacophony, and because of it, there is an audience for something different, for what Kempton exemplified and some of us aspire to—trenchant elegance.
My path from my Grand Central Terminal epiphany to a life practicing the columnists' craft was circuitous. After college, I studied for two years at Oxford. As I prepared to leave that magical place of "dreaming spires," I was undecided about my preferred career path—law, or teaching political philosophy. (My father was a professor of philosophy, specializing in the philosophy of science.) So, I applied to a distinguished law school and to Princeton's graduate school. I do not remember all the reasons I chose Princeton, but I suspect they included this one: Princeton is located between New York and Philadelphia, two National League baseball cities. My father, a philosophy professor, was a born academic; I obviously was not.
Still, having earned a PhD, I was teaching at the University of Toronto in the autumn of 1969 when Everett Dirksen from Pekin, Illinois, who was minority leader of the U.S. Senate, died. (Pekin, which is about eighty miles from my hometown of Champaign, was a sister city of Peking, China, as Beijing was then known. The sports teams at Pekin High School, from which Dirksen graduated, were called the Chinks. Times change, and aren't we glad.) Senate Republicans shuffled their leadership and someone of whom I knew nothing, Colorado's Gordon Allott, was elected chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. He decided he wanted to hire a Republican academic to write for him. In the late 1960s the phrase "Republican academic" was not quite an oxymoron, but then as now such creatures were thin on the ground. Allott, however, found me north of the border and brought me to Washington.
After three years on the Senate staff, I called William F. Buckley, with whom I was acquainted and for whose National Review I had written a few things. I told Bill that I thought his magazine, which was then and still is produced in New York, needed a Washington editor. He made a practice of collecting young writers, and was probably inured to their impertinence. His characteristically generous reply to me was: You're right, I do, and you're it. In January 1973 I began writing columns for NR and also for the Washington Post, which was just starting a syndication service. Fifty years and 6,000 or so columns later I number myself among the fortunate few who have lived this familiar axiom: If you love your work, you will never work a day in your life.
So, as a believer in free markets, and hence in the price system's rational allocation of society's resources and energies, I am amused by the fact that this system has made a mistake regarding me. Under sensible pricing of labor, people should be paid the amount necessary to elicit their work. I, however, am paid to do what I would do without pay. Writing—forming sentences and paragraphs, producing a felicitous phrase in the service of a well-made argument—is, for me, a metabolic urge, and more fun than I can have anywhere outside of a major league ballpark.
Peter De Vries—novelist, fiction editor of the New Yorker, and the wittiest American writer since Mark Twain—said, "I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I am inspired at nine o'clock every morning." I am at my desk before eight o'clock every morning, so eager am I for another day of the pleasures of my craft.
It might seem peculiar to derive pleasure from working in a Washington that for many years has been sunk in visceral, mindless partisanship. And, truth be told, the bitterness is often inversely proportional to the stakes. Furthermore, it might seem perverse to enjoy writing cultural criticism at a time when the culture is increasingly coarse and silly. However, one reason the temperature of the nation's discourse is high is that the stakes are high. Today's fights are not optional and they are worth winning.
In recent years, colleges and universities have received from the public increased attention and decreased admiration. This is because America's most dispiriting intellectual phenomenon is the degradation of higher education, which is being swept by two plagues to which it should be immune—fads and hysterias. But because some of the noblest achievements of American civilization, our great research universities, are imperiled, the nation's future is, too.
Although there are many kinds of colleges and universities, the idea of a university is inherently aristocratic: Higher education is not for everyone, and it is not primarily vocational or even "practical," as this is commonly understood. Rather, institutions of higher education—some much more than others—should be answers to a question posed by Alexis de Tocqueville. His Democracy in America, which has rightly been called the greatest book about a nation written by a citizen of another nation, implicitly but insistently asked this: Can a nation so thoroughly committed to equality cultivate and celebrate excellence, which distinguishes the few from the many? Much depends on our being able to answer this question in the affirmative. Much depressing evidence suggests that we cannot.
The book you are holding includes a substantial selection of pieces illustrating the role of courts in contemporary American governance. The fact that courts are increasingly central to the nation's political arguments explains the ferocity of the struggles over the confirmation of presidential nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. Many thoughtful people think courts have become too important. I disagree, for reasons that will, I hope, become clear in the pieces dealing with various instances in which basic rights have routinely been imperiled by majoritarian institutions, but have been protected by judicial ones.
There is much in this book about cultural matters, broadly construed, including the interesting fact that "parent" has become a verb, and sexual mores have…well, let Peter De Vries explain: "A hundred years ago Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter was given an A for adultery. Today she would rate no better than a C-plus." There is very little in this book about recent presidents. What William Wordsworth felt about the world—that it is "too much with us"—is how I feel about almost all presidents. They permeate the national consciousness to a degree that is unhealthy and, strictly speaking, unrepublican and anti-constitutional. Entire forests are felled to produce the paper for books about presidents. What we more urgently need, always, is attention paid to the ideas that have consequences as presidents come and go. They are all temporary; the Constitution and the American creed bide.
Many selections in this book are about books. The more fuss is made about new media—the Internet, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and so on, and on—the more I am convinced that books remain the primary transmitters of ideas. In fact, because of what makes the new media so enchanting to so many, the importance of books is increasing. When television was a new medium, the witty Fred Allen, whose career was in radio, quipped that television enabled you to have in your living room people you would not want in your living room. The new media enables the instantaneous and essentially cost-free dissemination of thoughts, most of which should never have been thought, let alone given written expression. The velocity imparted by the new media somehow is an incentive for intemperate discourse. Books, however, have long gestations and, usually, careful editors. One of the most demanding and satisfying facets of this columnist's craft is taking the many hours required to distill to its essence a worthy book that took another author many years to write; to offer just one example, to be able to acquaint a large readership with the lapidary sentences and mind-opening nuggets of information in Rick Atkinson's military histories—a specialty now almost extinct in the academy.
It has been well said that the United States is the only nation founded on a good idea, the proposition that people should be free to pursue happiness as they define it. In recent years, however, happiness has been elusive for this dyspeptic nation, in which too many people think and act as tribes and define their happiness as some other tribe's unhappiness. As a quintessentially American voice, that of Robert Frost, said, "The only way out is through." Perhaps the information, the reasoning, and, I hope, the occasional amusements in this book can help readers think through, and thereby diminish, our current discontents.
They will diminish if, but only if, Americans adhere to two categorical imperatives: They should behave as intelligently as they can, and should be as cheerful as is reasonable. The pursuit of individual happiness, and of a more perfect union, never reaches perfect fulfillment, but never mind. "The struggle itself toward the heights," wrote Albert Camus, "is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." For Americans, the pursuit of happiness is happiness.
The Path to the Present
From Runnymede to Stelle's Hotel
June 14, 2015
WASHINGTON—Americans should light 800 candles for the birthday of the document that began paving the meandering path to limited government. Magna Carta laid down the law about "fish weirs" on English rivers, "assizes of darrein presentment," people being "distrained to make bridges," and other "liberties…to hold in our realm of England in perpetuity." But what King John accepted at Runnymede meadow on June 15, 1215, matters to Americans because of something that happened 588 years later in the living room of Stelle's Hotel in Washington, where the Library of Congress now sits.
Although the "great charter" purported to establish certain rights in "perpetuity," almost everything in it has been repealed or otherwise superseded. Magna Carta led to parliamentary supremacy (over the sovereign—the king or queen) but not to effective limits on government. The importance of the document was its assertion that the sovereign's will could be constrained.
In America, where "we the people" are sovereign and majority rule is celebrated, constraining the sovereign is frequently, but incorrectly, considered morally ambiguous, even disreputable. Hence the heated debate among conservatives about the role of courts in a democracy. The argument is about the supposed "countermajoritarian dilemma," when courts invalidate laws passed by elected representatives: Does the democratic ethic require vast judicial deference to legislative acts?
The first memorial at Runnymede was built in 1957 by, appropriately, the American Bar Association. It is what America did with what Magna Carta started that substantially advanced the cause of limited government.
The rule of law—as opposed to rule by the untrammeled will of the strong—requires effective checks on the strong. In a democracy, the strongest force is the majority, whose power will be unlimited unless an independent judiciary enforces written restraints, such as those stipulated in the Constitution. It is "the supreme law" because it is superior to what majorities produce in statutes.
Magna Carta acknowledged no new individual rights. Instead, it insisted, mistakenly, that it could guarantee that certain existing rights would survive "in perpetuity." British rights exist, however, at the sufferance of Parliament. In America, rights are protected by the government's constitutional architecture—the separation of powers and by the judicial power to stymie legislative and executive power.
Early in 1801, as John Adams's presidency was ending, a lame-duck Congress controlled by his Federalists created many judicial positions to be filled by him before Thomas Jefferson took office. In the rush, the "midnight commission" for William Marbury did not get delivered before Jefferson's inauguration. The new president refused to have it delivered, so Marbury sued, asking the Supreme Court to compel Jefferson's secretary of state, James Madison, to deliver it.
Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the court, held that the law authorizing the court to compel government officials to make such deliveries exceeded Congress's enumerated powers and hence was unconstitutional. Jefferson, who detested his distant cousin Marshall, was surely less pleased by the result than he was dismayed by the much more important means by which Marshall produced it. Marshall had accomplished the new government's first exercise of judicial review—the power to declare a congressional act null and void.
Although the Constitution does not mention judicial review, the Framers explicitly anticipated the exercise of this power. Some progressives and populist conservatives dispute the legitimacy of judicial review. They say fidelity to the Framers requires vast deference to elected legislators because Marshall invented judicial review ex nihilo. Randy Barnett of Georgetown University's law school supplies refuting evidence:
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Madison acknowledged that states would "accomplish their injurious objects" but they could be "set aside by the national tribunals." A law violating any constitution "would be considered by the judges as null and void." In Virginia's ratification convention, Marshall said that if the government "were to make a law not warranted by any of the [congressional] powers enumerated, it would be considered by the judges as an infringement of the Constitution which they are to guard.…They would declare it void."
With the composition of the Supreme Court likely to change substantially during the next president's tenure, conservatives must decide: Is majority rule or liberty—these are not synonyms, and the former can menace the latter—America's fundamental purpose? Because one ailing justice was confined to Stelle's Hotel, it was there that Marshall read aloud Marbury v. Madison. This made February 24, 1803, an even more important date in the history of limited government, and hence of liberty, than June 15, 1215.
A Nation Not Made by Flimsy People
June 6, 2019
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concord Hymn"
WASHINGTON—After the morning bloodshed on Lexington green, on the first day of what would become a 3,059-day war, there occurred the second of what would be eventually more than 1,300 mostly small military clashes. Rick Atkinson writes: "A peculiar quiet descended over what the poet James Russell Lowell would call 'that era-parting bridge,' across which the old world passed into the new." Here again is Atkinson's felicity for turning history into literature.
Many who have read his Liberation Trilogy on U.S. forces in World War II's European theater (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, The Guns at Last Light) will already have immersed themselves in his just-published The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775–1777, the first of what will be his Revolution Trilogy. It is a history of the combat in which the fate of a continent, and an idea, was determined by astonishingly small numbers of combatants, and one astonishing man.
As London came to terms with the fact that Boston is farther from Charleston than London is from Venice, it slowly dawned on Britain's government that it was fighting not just a nascent army but also a nation aborning. And that it had the daunting, and ultimately defeating, logistical challenge of maintaining an army across an ocean in the age of sail. When its North American commander asked London for 950 horses, more than 400 died en route and others, weakened by the voyage, died on shore.
America's shores—most Americans lived within twenty miles of Atlantic tidewater—were home to people made restive, then violently belligerent by a vibrant print culture: "Philadelphia…boasted almost as many booksellers—77—as England's top 10 provincial towns combined." The war would be won largely by the deft retreating of George Washington who, as Atkinson demonstrates, several times came "within a chin whisker of losing the war."
Approximately 250,000 Americans served for some period in some military capacity, and more than one in ten died, a higher proportion of the nation's population than perished in any conflict other than the Civil War. They died from battle, disease, or vile British prisons. Few battles produced mass carnage (one in eight of the British officers who would die in the eight years of war died in four hours at Bunker Hill). Inaccurate muskets (Atkinson says, "The shot heard round the world likely missed") often were less lethal than the primitive medicine inflicted on the victims of muskets, cannons, and bayonets. Only the fortunate wounded got "their ears stuffed with lamb's wool to mask the sound of the sawing." Amputations above the knee took thirty seconds; about half the amputees survived the ordeal or subsequent sepsis.
Washington rarely had more than 20,000 soldiers and often had fewer: On one December day during his late-autumn 1776 retreat from New York City across New Jersey, he lost about half his "threadbare and dying" army to expiring enlistments, and he crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania with less than 3,000. Later that month, however, he recrossed the river with 2,400 and in less than two hours at Trenton (where Lt. James Monroe was wounded) and, eight days later, in an hour at Princeton, saved the idea of a continental nation based on republican ideals.
One lesson of The British Are Coming is the history-shaping power of individuals exercising their agency together: the volition of those who shouldered muskets in opposition to an empire. Another lesson is that the democratic, sentimental idea that cobblers and seamstresses are as much history-makers as generals and politicians is false. A few individuals matter much more than most. Atkinson is clear: No George Washington, no United States.
Washington, writes Atkinson, learned that "only battle could reveal those with the necessary dark heart for killing, years of killing; that only those with the requisite stamina, aptitude, and luck would be able to see it through, and finally—the hardest of war's hard truths—that for a new nation to live, young men must die, often alone, usually in pain, and sometimes to no obvious purpose." The more that Americans are reminded by Atkinson and other supreme practitioners of the historians' craft that their nation was not made by flimsy people, the less likely it is to be flimsy.
News Bulletin: The American Revolutionary War Was Violent
July 2, 2017
PHILADELPHIA—Some American history museums belabor visitors with this message: You shall know the truth and it shall make you feel ashamed of, but oh-so-superior to, your wretched ancestors. The new Museum of the American Revolution is better than that. Located near Independence Hall, it celebrates the luminous ideas affirmed there 241 Julys ago, but it does not flinch from this fact: The war that began at Lexington and Concord fourteen months before the Declaration of Independence was America's first civil war. And it had all the messiness and nastiness that always accompany protracted fratricide.
- “Thoroughly brilliant…George Will outdoes George Will…. His latest collection…is nothing short of spectacular…. Every column had me wanting more…. Will’s book is an antidote to the present level of discourse, and most fun for readers eager to learn well beyond policy is that so much of Will’s commentary springs from the voluminous books he consumes with great vigor…. [T]his most excellent of books is in many ways about books, and will have the reader ordering all manner of new ones after reading commentary that springs from the reading of them by Will. American Happiness teaches a great deal, but also sets the stage for a great deal more learning…. Easily the best part of what is so good on so many levels is what the reader will learn about the world, past and present…. This is a soaring book…. With American Happiness, there’s a sense that Will himself is happier about the world. This is not to say that he’s thrilled about where the proverbial “we” are in total (see the introduction), but this curation is not that of someone who sees the U.S. in decline."—Forbes
- “A wise compendium on the tumultuous whirlwind that has been the last decade or so of American life. In addition to its historical, economic, and anthropological value, the book demonstrates Will’s rare combination of two unexpected qualities: attentiveness and toughness. He is attentive to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cultural shifts shaping everyday life in America, and tough on Americans who wish to turn their backs on what has driven American success since the country’s inception: its unapologetic commitment to capitalism….The strength of Will’s critique stems once again from his willingness to go against the grain….No other book summarizes better the torrents of American life over the last decade or so. There is much wisdom in what will undoubtedly be an important historical record for this epoch.”—The Public Discourse
- “A joy to read…If you read or listen to one column every day for the next 192 days, you’ll widen your interests, deepen your insights, and enjoy fascinating conversations with family and friends.”—Your Weekly Staff Meeting
"A deeply erudite, always opinionated commentator, Will laments the erosion of literacy and advocates for binge-reading rather than binge-watching, and he parses the intricacies of recent Supreme Court cases with authority....A gentleman scholar and scold, Will continues to wield his sharp, discerning prose."
- "[An] erudite and eclectic collection....Will's eulogies of conservative leaders...are particularly rich and insightful....Will is a consistently provocative and articulate opinion-maker. Fans will delight in this expansive survey of his recent judgments."—Publishers Weekly
Praise for The Conservative Sensibility
- "A thoughtful, elegant reflection on American conservatism and the Founders' political thought."—The Atlantic
- "A blockbuster -- if a book so thoughtful and learned and graceful can be called a 'blockbuster.'"—Jay Nordlinger, National Review
"When you read a work as wise, incisive and superbly written as this one, you rightly assume it was produced by a first-rate mind."
—The Wall Street Journal
- "Staggeringly good. Easily one of the best books on American Conservatism ever written."—Jonah Goldberg
- "[A] magnum opus..... Will still beats all his rivals in his ability to combine high thinking with a shrewd capacity to understand day-to-day American politics.... It is hard to think of any of today's angry young "movement" conservatives surviving in journalism for fifty years, as Mr. Will has, and still having enough to say to produce a big book at 78."—The Economist
- “The author toils in the fields of the consequential rather than ephemeral. As this collection proves (yet again), Will’s writing rises above journalism and is worth reading — and re-reading.”—The Interim
“These columns, written between 2008 and 2020, are written mostly with the same elegance, persuasiveness, and lucidity that have marked Will’s long career as one of the nation’s most perceptive political commentators.”
—New York Journal of Books
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2022
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Hachette Books