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‘Lessons In Liberty’ Helps Us Work Like James Madison, Think Like Clara Barton, And Multitask Like RBG

Teacher Jeremy Adams’ new book offers lessons in wisdom for a struggling generation of kids.


Well before most critics started noticing the crises of mental health, alienation, and stunted maturity among members of Generation Z (people now in their teens and twenties), writer and teacher Jeremy Adams discussed all of this and more in his 2021 book Hollowed Out. Seeing it firsthand as a government and history teacher in Bakersfield, he accurately identified the problems afflicting this cohort and how those problem correlated with the rise of smartphones and social media. Today, this is common knowledge, and there are many books about it, but three years ago, these problems were either ignored or immediately attributed to the Covid lockdowns. 

I loved the book, and my review hopefully expressed how much it resonated with me. As a high school English teacher here in Texas, I saw many of the same things as Adams. Adams did such a good job articulating the pathologies of Gen Z that it was something of a letdown when the book concluded with a general call for loving our young people more and saving them from the nihilism taking root in them. Sure, this is a fine recommendation as far as it goes, but what specifically does he think we should do to help Zoomers out of their funk?

In his new book, Lessons in Liberty: Thirty Rules for Living from Ten Extraordinary Americans, Adams answers this very question: “Let us study the best American men and women in our rich history and focus on the best they have to offer.” Unlike the usual prescriptions for treating civilizational malaise, like elaborating a set of rules or outlining some policy proposals, Adams takes his cue from the great Roman writer Plutarch, who wrote the classic Parallel Lives that juxtaposed great Romans and Greeks. Like Parallel Lives, Lessons in Liberty tells the stories of great individuals, with a focus on their virtues and humanity.

That said, unlike Parallel Lives, Lessons in Liberty is far more diverse and universal. Instead of focusing on political leaders and generals, Adams takes care to include men and women of both the political left and right who distinguished themselves in a variety of roles, from political leaders to Civil War medics to professional tennis players. For Adams, greatness comes in many forms, whether it’s dealing with John McEnroe’s temper tantrums or settling the intense debates of the Constitutional Convention. In one way or another, everyone will face a similar situation in their lives, and everyone would do well to remember what these great Americans did to triumph.

Before he describes these amazing Americans, Adams addresses the elephant in the room: “what I have witnessed in the past decade is a plaintive pivot away from empowering optimism toward a contemptuous cynicism about American civilization and its history.” He is well aware that today’s historical revisionists have done damage to the legacy of the country’s heroes. But he is also confident that simply telling the stories of these men and women will easily overcome these damning flaws. The key is to see these men and women as human beings instead of symbols embodying this or that ideology.

With this concern addressed, Adams gets to his heroes. It’s a motley crew, to say the least: George Washington, Daniel Inouye, Clara Barton, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Ashe, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, James Madison, and Theodore Roosevelt. Each of these individuals has his or her own particular lesson to teach. For example, James Madison teaches us to “Do What Others Are Unwilling to Do,” and Clara Barton helps us understand that “It’s Not Someone Else’s Problem.”

Politically speaking, Adams is about as close as one can be to being a perfect moderate. While he clearly hopes to conserve what’s great about America, he also recognizes those who worked for American social progress. As such, he avoids partisan sniping and highlights the good of both sides. For example, he discusses Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s accomplishments as a jurist and how she became a feminist icon while also acknowledging Theodore Roosevelt’s legendary dynamism and virility. Although more partisan readers (like myself) might take issue with some of Adams’ choices, he manages to pierce through this bias by offering a well-written exposition of each person. I may never join the cult of the “Notorious RBG,” but I can appreciate what her example illustrates about the importance of relationships and work-life balance.

In this sense, every chapter has something to offer, but Adams’ treatment of the founders, particularly Jefferson and Madison, is easily the best. Teaching the subject for over two decades has certainly left its mark, allowing him to present some profound insights on both men. His analysis of Jefferson’s generalist approach to scholarship and Olympian perspective on American Independence beautifully complements his description of nuts-and-bolts Madison, who had a gift for realizing Jefferson’s ideas by writing them into a workable Constitution.

Besides inspiring a greater appreciation for both men, Adams’ accounts also make both of them more relatable. Like everyone else in the book, they each have strengths and weaknesses, requiring them to rely on each other to achieve greatness. It’s evident that Jefferson and Madison needed one another — as well as John Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and many others. It may sound trite, but when this teamwork happens, anything becomes possible. When this is forgotten, failure is the result (see Roosevelt’s third-party run for president).

Perhaps the only criticism one could make about Lessons in Liberty is the relative lack of criticism. Adams does his best to emphasize what’s good and admirable in these lives and thus tends to minimize or ignore some of their problems. At most, Adams might remark on James Madison’s short stature or George Washington’s vanity.

However, by doing this, Adams neutralizes two potential problems that always come up in recounting history. First, he moves past those controversies that work more to obscure these personages than reveal anything important about them. All too often, the layman will know that Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings or that Theodore Roosevelt lived a life of privilege and yet completely miss the massive contributions that both of these men made to the country.

Second, by focusing on the positive, Adams is able to inspire and enlighten his readers. After people read about Daniel Inouye’s faith in the American system or Lincoln’s colossal intellect, they will instinctively want to adopt these virtues as their own. As Adams points out in Hollowed Out, the problem with most Americans isn’t so much that they don’t know about their past, but more that they just don’t care about any of it.

Overall, Lessons in Liberty works on a number of levels. Ideally, it’s the kind of book that would be adopted in classrooms to encourage younger generations to aspire to greater things. It’s also a nice introduction for any person wanting to cultivate a better understanding of American culture, which is made up of so many different voices, traditions, and histories, but united in a shared commitment to excellence.

Most importantly, the book really is a practical guide for living a better life. As Adams puts it in his chapter on George Washington, “A more sophisticated and genuine freedom is attained when one is free from the excesses of the self — the very excesses preventing us from becoming the men and women we hope to be.” In this case, it is only fair to conclude that true liberty and happiness will come from reading Lessons in Liberty and putting those lessons into practice.

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