I think the brevity of the essays work against the purpose of the text. This is a thin volume, so it wouldn't be fair for me to criticize it for a lacI think the brevity of the essays work against the purpose of the text. This is a thin volume, so it wouldn't be fair for me to criticize it for a lack of depth. That said, I expected this to be a series of essays that attempted to explain how each of the three founders (Adams, Washington, Jefferson) defined independence. And there is some of this, but I also found much more biography than I expected. And with a volume so thin, any biographical details must of necessity be short and shallow. Still, Morgan does draw out some helpful points.
Adams - Of Adams we learn the least, with more focus on his biography than his philosophy. In the main, we learn that he distrusted political parties and felt that the virtue of the individual was the key to a successfully independent nation: "the ability of the American republic to sustain its independence rested on the ability of its citizens to sustain their virtue" (20).
Washington - We get more of Washington's philosophy, with Morgan setting out two keys to Washington's approach to government: honor and interest. For Washington, "honor required a man to be assiduous and responsible in looking after his interests. But honor also required a man to look beyond his own profit ..." (33). These values were important for individuals and nations, and affected Washington's approach to foreign policy. He felt it was vain to "appeal to the honor of any country against the interests of that country and its people" because such appeals would not hold over time (46). This also implied that America should pursue its own interests, in an honorable fashion, without getting caught up in the interests of other nations, leading to Washington's famous neutrality in foreign relations.
Jefferson – Jefferson—the most controversial of the three, the most hypocritical from a modern perspective—is also the most radical in arguing that the rights of the state outweigh those of the national government and that the rights of the individual outweigh both. For Jefferson, "liberty was always an attribute of the individual, and the state at best a means of securing it” (70). In addition, he believed that "one generation is to another as one independent nation to another" (76), meaning that twenty years was the maximum amount of time that any law or constitution could be considered to have the consent of the people or that any public debt could be contracted. He also sought protection of individual liberty from the influence of the church and protection of national liberty from the burden of debt and foreign obligation. The goal, a government limited enough to provide every possibility of liberty to the individual, but powerful enough to protect that liberty. Though, significantly, Jefferson's conception of the "individual" was confined ideally to well-educated, land-holding farmer/philosophers (which, in modern terms, would translate to "the elite").
Overall, the Jefferson essay makes it worth the read, but even then you'll need to look elsewhere for historical context, nuanced interpretations, or scholarly controversy....more
Insightful and helpful overall, though as others have noted, he loses the mostly-approachable language and tone when diving into the more technical taInsightful and helpful overall, though as others have noted, he loses the mostly-approachable language and tone when diving into the more technical tangents. Also, though some of his characterizations of conservatives are accurate, others are presented in ways that prevent this from being a helpful resource to give to a hard-core conservative. But I think Lakoff intends this more as a guide for progressives than an apologetics, so that's OK. I would like to see him write that book, though, so that I could pass it on to my conservative friends with confidence that they'd finish it. ...more