Friday, August 7, 2009

Books on the Founding & Early Repulic

I've pulled this from a some writing that I did a while ago to allay my conscience for not having posted anything recently. So as not to let my fan--someday maybe we'll get to a plural--down, I thought I'd pull something out of the (figurative) drawer.

Some Good Reading on the Founding & the Early Republic

After some delay, I’ve finally gotten to recounting some of the good reading I’ve discovered about the founding and the early republic. Of course, this is a work in progress, as I’m currently listening to a very fine work on the various playing in the Revolution and Early Republic: Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters, essays on Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Paine, and Burr. You’d think that all of these men are so well known that you wouldn’t learn anything new, but I have found the essays very informative and insightful.

But let’s start near the beginning—in this case, with Garry Wills’s Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1976). Wills, after receiving a degree in the classics from Yale and then gaining fame for his 1969 book on Richard Nixon, Nixon Agonistes, published Inventing. He used his writing skills as a magazine writer in combination with his skills as a scholar to bring a new understanding the Jefferson and the Declaration. He showed that Jefferson was more directly influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment than by John Locke. He followed this book with Explaining America: The Federalist (1981), in which he followed the path of Douglas Adair and showed the influence of David Hume on Madison and his cohorts.

Moving a away from Wills for a bit (but only to return), I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers, like Woods’s Revolutionary Characters, essays on the Founders. Very telling and informative. Likewise, I enjoyed listening to Ellis’s His Excellency George Washington, a brief biography of GW. GW was an immensely ambitious man, and Ellis gives a very compelling portrait. Also on GW, see Garry Wills’s Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (1984). This is not so much a biography as a study in iconography. Wills does discuss some incidents in GW’s life, but it’s mainly about the images that animated GW.
On Jefferson, in whom I’ve developed some reserve, I have no one good single biography that I’ve read, but he comes up in works such as those of Ellis (who’s written a highly acclaimed biography of TJ: American Sphinx) and Wood. I have read Forrest McDonald’s book on Jefferson’s presidency, and it was indeed informative. Alas, I’ve not read some of McDonald’s highly regarded work on the Founding. However, for John Adams, I’ve read a couple: David McCullough’s popular biography John Adams. Charming and a good overall consideration. However, I most enjoyed John Patrick Diggins’s John Adams in the American Presidents series. Short, but Diggins is always full of insight, and he’s one of my favorite American historians, whether dealing with the Revolution and Early Republic or a contemporary figure like Ronald Reagan. I also recommend his The Lost Soul of American Politics, although only the first few chapters deal with this era.
I listened to an abridged version of Ron Chernow’s recent biography of Alexander Hamilton, a true genius of the era, but a frightening prospect to many of his contemporaries. I’d like to read more about Hamilton, perhaps the most genius of a group of geniuses.
As for the Early Republic, Wills’s Negro President: Jefferson & the Slave Power (2003) argues that Jefferson won the election of 1800 against Adams (and Burr) by virtue of the constitutional provision that slaves counted for 3/5 of a person in the census, thereby giving an electoral advantage to the slave states. Back on Wills, portions of his books Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990), A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (1999), and Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (1994) (includes an essay on Washington), all include chapters on Founding & Early Republic issues.
Wills’s James Madison, for the American Presidents series, is a good overview of Madison & his presidency: how so effective a theorist and legislator was a less effective president. And last year, Wills added Henry Adams and Making of America (2006), part retrospective on Adams and part extended commentary on Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson & Madison. Will seeks to rehabilitate Adams’s great work, so often misunderstood and too little considered. Wills argues that the late Adams of The Education (voted the outstanding non-fiction book of the 20th century by Modern Library), who was cynical and determinist, is not the Adams who wrote the History. I’m now reading part of the history in conjunction with a re-reading of the Wills book. The interesting things about Adams work—a counterpoint to Gibbons’s—is that he sees America rising into nationhood after an uncertain start. Truly first-rate reading and history.
I have a bunch of books that I can list or share about this era that haven’t read (and that I’m now more motivated to do so), but these are ones that I have gotten to. All in all, a fascinating group of (mostly) men, not angels, who managed quite an amazing feat. Happy reading!