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A People's Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America.

A People's Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America. James MacGregor Burns, Stewart Burns. Knopf $30. This book's publication coincides with the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Bill of Rights, and that might arouse a certain degree of skepticism. Books of this genre tend toward patriotic banality ("Despite our flaws, what a sweet land of liberty"), alternately focusing on the founding of the Bill of Rights, lavishing praise on James Madison, and then rushing to embrace the Warren court (with homage paid to Justices Holmes and Brandeis along the way). Such books tell a tale of unending, enlightened progress, a tale increasingly hard to reconcile with the cast of characters now presiding in black robes on the Rehnquist court.

But A People k Charter is not banal; it is not about the Supreme Court; it is not even about the Bill of Rights. A Peoplek Charter is about grassroots agitation and struggle, not legal documents. Judicial figures and political leaders do not go unmentioned, but their role is in most cases incidental. Instead, the book focuses on "historic rights movements in which all participants are engaged in forging a dynamic, evolving people's charter of rights."

Thus, while the Burnses mention James Madison's participation in passing the Bill of Rights, they give most of the credit to the "mainly hinterland people" who forced the Federalists to accept rights as the fundamental issue. President Wilson's crucial support for the women's suffrage amendment is noted, but his support-given kicking and screaming against his will-was the culmination of more than a half century of agitation by the women's movement. Senator Wagner's devotion to labor's associational rights goes unquestioned, but "it was the struggles and sacrifices of millions of workers reaching back at least a century that had set the agenda and terms of the debate" over the Wagner Act.

The authors provide a well-written overview of these and other historic struggles. In particular, they explore the liberation efforts of feminists; African Americans from abolitionist Frederick Douglass ("the preeminent American rights advocate of the 19th century") to today's civil rights leaders; and laborers who battled for rights of association and a 10-then 8-hour day. Although much of the book concentrates on these three groups, there is more, including the Jews' escape from Egyptian slavery, the struggles and intellectual history leading to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the debates over the idea of private property in American history, and even a section on international human rights.

Breadth has its price, however. Covering the history of American protest movements in 470 pages precludes in-depth treatment and it risks skating across the surface of much material. Important historical figures fly by, mentioned in passing or crisply accounted for in brief paragraphs. And while the authors' research is copious, it could not possibly have been comprehensive, and occasional gaffes occur. For example, despite their skepticism about the power of law to bring about meaningful social change, the authors find some signs of hope in First Amendment law: the generous press protections for defamatory statements even as applied to private persons and the fairness doctrine requiring broadcasters to cover issues equitably. But those generous press protections for statements about private persons were severely cut back in 1974, and the Federal Communications Commission repealed the fairness doctrine in 1987.

Despite the limitations that usually accompany such ambitious undertakings, the book is worth reading because the authors not only know how to tell an often gripping story, but they also write it from a refreshing political perspective. It is a perspective that regards the right to happiness mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as more important than any right to unbounded private property. (Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke eloquently for that point of view, is one of the few political leaders afforded substantial attention.)

It is a perspective that argues that emancipatory groups have too often settled for too little one that regards the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment as a gain for the women's movement, as its defeat brought renewed effort instead of false satisfaction. It is also a perspective that stares repression of free speech in the face and shows that such repression has worked politically at many points in American history. Still, the Burnses are steadfastly optimistic that change can be forged and forced by broad-scale grassroots movements.

Perhaps that view is too optimistic. Nonetheless, the authors do offer us many role models for creating that hoped-for progress: people who, like Frederick Douglass, understood that the "limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

-Steven Shiffrin
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Author:Shiffrin, Steven
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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