The brief history of the United States under the Articles of Confederation is not something I knew much about, in spite of all the reading I've done aThe brief history of the United States under the Articles of Confederation is not something I knew much about, in spite of all the reading I've done about the American Revolution and early Republic period. The Articles and the period in which they were the law of the land seem to get skipped over quickly, an embarrassing mistake and needless distraction interfering with the a national myth in which the Declaration and the Constitution, Paul Revere's ride and Washington's inauguration, are part of a seamless whole.
Ellis, in this brief work, does a fine job of illustrating the fallacies in that myth, arguing that the Articles were, in fact, the natural and inevitable product of the thinking that informed the Revolution. For Ellis, that means the Revolution might well have failed, and the union dissolved, had not a handful of men -- the titular Quartet of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, along with Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson and other supporting players -- intervened to subvert the Articles and replace them with something actually workable. Progressive historians tended to talk about this intervention as a coup and, while Ellis dismisses that characterization, it still seems a reasonable interpretation; Ellis himself points out that most Americans and most state governments were perfectly happy with the Articles, preferring their provisions of a weak central government, strong state sovereignty, and inability to enforce taxation. The Constitution clearly came into existence in spite of the will of the people, not because of it, making its preamble more than a little ironic.
Ellis tells this story well, though he is occasionally repetitive in spite of the book's short length. And he provides a useful corrective to the habit of talking about "The Founders" and their "original intent" as an undifferentiated group and with uniform ideas (my favorite section here, in fact, was the discussion of how Madison squared off against Patrick Henry over ratification of the Constitution in the Virginia legislature). Indeed, the whole book functions, occasionally overtly, as an anti-Tea Party polemic; Ellis delights in pointing out that the original intent of many of the Founders, including Washington himself, was that the US have a strong central government with complete sovereignty over the states (including the ability to veto state law) and robust taxation authority -- the very opposite of what the Tea Party stands for, in spite of all their invoking of the Founders. Given the book's slight nature, I suspect this was Ellis' motivation for writing it -- which just makes me like it all the more....more
I generally am reading a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction concurrently, so I always have something to read regardless of my mood. I thought iI generally am reading a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction concurrently, so I always have something to read regardless of my mood. I thought it might be fun to read this while tackling Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, and I was right; it's not only a good read but also a useful antidote to Chernow's largely uncritical embrace of Hamilton -- and, of course, it's lively, witty, and irreverent in that Gore Vidal way (his take on George Washington is especially delightful). It's also the best Vidal novel I've read, though I confess I don't remember Justinian (which seems to have a better reputation) well enough to compare them. It's also inspired me to read something more factually about Burr; H.W. Brand's monograph on him is something I hope to get too soon. ...more
This is in most respects an excellent biography, and one that's sure to bring a deep appreciation of Hamilton's role in the founding of the Republic.This is in most respects an excellent biography, and one that's sure to bring a deep appreciation of Hamilton's role in the founding of the Republic. It's not too much to suggest that there would have been no United States without Hamilton -- perhaps only Washington and Madison were as instrumental to the birth of the nation. Chernow is served well by the fact that he's a journalist, not an academic; as a good journalist can, he masterfully lays out why Hamilton matters, while bringing him fully to life in a bio that never feels ponderous or tedious even though it's a tome.
So why not 5 stars? My single but significant quibble is that Chernow is so nakedly a Hamilton fanboy that it gets in the way of his objectivity again and again. Hamilton does something amazing and the historical record provides no reason why? Chernow is happy to speculate on which of AH's splendid qualities motivated him. Hamilton does something egregiously awful and (frequently) self-destructive (literally, in the case of not resolving the Burr duel through negotiations when he had the chance)? Chernow essentially shrugs. Hamilton's enemies become Chernow's enemies as well -- somebody starting with this bio to learn about the Founders could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that Thomas Jefferson was the worst person in American history. And at times it leads to flat-out deceptive writing, as when he quotes Jefferson's Treasury secretary and ardent Hamilton critic, Albert Gallatin, saying that Hamilton's financial design for the nation was "the most perfect ever devised" -- but buries in a footnote the fact that his source for the quote is the memoir of Hamilton's son, who obviously never would have been privy to a discussion between Jefferson and Gallatin and who thus must be reporting a third- or fourth-hand anecdote if he wasn't just making the whole thing up. Chernow's presentation of that tall tale as fact is emblematic of his overall bias and approach.
Luckily, that bias is so easily detected that it's also easily ignored, and a fine book remains....more
How good is this biography? This good: when Ben Franklin finally dies, as of course we knew he must, after 84 years and 700+ pages, I actually felt saHow good is this biography? This good: when Ben Franklin finally dies, as of course we knew he must, after 84 years and 700+ pages, I actually felt sad. Brands is that good at taking one of the most familiar, popular, and oft-portrayed/parodied/pastiched figures in all of American history and rendering him fresh and fully human. Obviously it helps that he's dealing with Franklin, one of the most accomplished and fascinating figures of his age. But Founding Father biographies can sometimes feel like a tour of a wax museum; biographies of figures this long-lived and multi-faceted can fall prey to being a kind of running checklist of high points ("Poor Richard - check; electricity - check; Declaration of Independence - check..."). Brands instead gives us a Franklin who, by the end, feels like an actual person we might actually know, were we so lucky. And while Brands clearly admires Franklin -- and, let's face it, there's much to admire -- his book never descends into hagiography. It's also a great read, its lively writing marred only by a penchant for puns and the occasional leaps of faith without evidence (a few too many "Franklin must have known..."; "we don't know, but can imagine..." moments; this does indeed enliven the reading, but offended the academic historian in me).
I confess I'm a Founding Father junkie and awfully fond of Franklin in particular, and that probably skews my perspective just a bit here; I also haven't read the two other big Franklin biographies from the last decade (Isaacson's and Wood's), so I can't make that comparison. But this a book I'd recommend to anybody, just as a well-told tale of a life worth telling....more
A bit of thematic reading for July. Maier tells two stories, both well. The first of these debunks the myth that the Declaration of Independence was lA bit of thematic reading for July. Maier tells two stories, both well. The first of these debunks the myth that the Declaration of Independence was largely the product of Thomas Jefferson's singular genius -- a myth Jefferson had a habit of encouraging later in life. Against this she lays out the history of the many "Declarations of Independence" put forth by various colonial governments in the months between the beginning of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord and the Second Continental Congress' declaration on July 4, 1776 (which was only one date in a fluid process; John Adams was certain the US would forever celebrate July 2). Through this history, Maier shows that the ideas, and even sometimes the phrases, that made it into Jefferson's Declaration were already in circulation by the time he put pen to paper; Jefferson's Declaration was more synthetic than original, and Jefferson more draftsman than author.
The second story Maier tells is of how the Declaration itself was largely forgotten nearly as soon as it was signed, and only later became, as her title would have it, American Scripture. This story traces the Declaration's revived cultural presence starting with its partisan use in early 19th-century politics and culminating in its evocation in the Gettysburg Address. This was to me the far more interesting story, and I wish she had devoted more time to it. All in all, though, a very interesting read, with excellent and useful appendices....more
How should a political junkie to cope with his withdrawal pangs during the seven week interim between the Texas/Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries? ReadiHow should a political junkie to cope with his withdrawal pangs during the seven week interim between the Texas/Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries? Reading Larson is a pretty good strategy. A Magnificent Catastrophe tells the story of the 1800 election, which established the basic pattern for US presidential elections and nearly undid the country in the process. The election between Adams and Jefferson was the first to feature political parties in a leading role, and all that we've come to know and love about them was there from the start -- including gaming the Electoral College, negative advertising, machine politics, intra-party rivalries, and whispering campaigns that leading candidates were not quite American enough. It was also the only election to end in a tie, the first to be settled by the House of Representatives, and a major test of whether the country could change ruling parties and survive. In the history lessons I remember from school, it's that last fact that gets the emphasis -- that Jefferson's being able to assume the presidency without constitutional crisis was proof that the U.S. had a functioning democracy. Larson's point comes at that one an oblique angle; he seems to argue -- and this is especially interesting in the face of all the Founding Father celebrations published in recent years -- that American presidential politics was pretty much the same dreary spectacle 200 years ago as it is today, and the wonder of it all is that we made it this far. Larson's a lively writer as well as a careful historian, and A Magnificent Catastrophe practically becomes a page-turner as the Democratic-Republicans conduct a too-disciplined race for the White House (the cause of the tie) and Federalists scheme to stop them even as their own party begins to fall apart. A very compelling read; I'm looking forward to picking up his Pulitzer-winning book on the Scopes trial from a couple of years back....more