Last night, I finally finished Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. It’s taken me a while to read since I’ve been busy with my girlfriend lately. We decided though to make Wednesday reading night since she knows how much I miss reading. (I have a great girlfriend.)
I’d been considering reading it for a while since it got consistently good reviews and even won a Pulitzer Prize. Having seen it mentioned that it was more about personal sketches than straight history, I was a little skittish about starting it since that’s not my interest, but when given a copy by a former coworker, I figured I should read it.
I enjoyed it overall, although it was a little more personal than I like my history. As I do whenever I read about the Founding Era, I more than once exclaimed “Jefferson’s an ass!” He was very duplicitous and self-serving. And John Adams does in fact seem to be as arrogant as he is commonly portrayed, although Ellis does make a good case that the arrogance was at least somewhat deserved and that Adams was a better President than is commonly remembered. (Anyone would have had trouble playing the hand he was dealt in his term as President.)
The chapter on the Burr-Hamilton duel was very illuminating, even though we can never be completely sure what happened at the moment of the duel itself since, by standard practice, there were no direct witnesses and those who did overhear parts of it gave seemingly conflicting accounts. Ellis does a good job reconciling the accounts into a unified story that corresponds to bot sides accounts and makes it seem that both Burr and Hamilton behaved honorably at the duel itself. It was the later political “dueling” over the outcome, combined with the fairly negative public perception of Burr prior to the duel, that turned Burr into the monster he is seen as today.
The last chapter of the book deals with the estrangement and later reconciliation of Jefferson and John Adams. It details how these once good friends grew apart over political differences and how they were brought back together due to Adam’s desire to leave an account of his version of the Revolution. Jefferson’s view of history was that there are big moments that change things, while Adams took the view that history is a process, not an event. Jefferson’s view tends to win out in explaining history to people, but, in my opinion, Adams’ is closer to the truth. As an example, American history is often taught that Pearl Harbor was an unexpected sneak attack without any warning, but the truth is that many knew war with the Japanese was coming for years, Pearl Harbor was merely the culmination of a process that had been going on for a while.
Similarly, Jefferson’s view of history allowed him to portray the Declaration of Independence as the birth of a nation where none had existed before, even though separation had been discussed for years. This view gives America a definite birth date and, perhaps not so coincidentally, makes Jefferson a hero of the Founding. While Adams gladly viewed Jefferson as one of the Founding heroes, he felt that the Declaration was the culmination of a process where the truly significant event was each colony writing its own state constitution, which coincidentally was a proposal made by John Adams.
Here, too, the process view of history makes more sense, but the Jefferson version is easier to tell so it entered into the historical mind of the America. Adams, knowing that this was happening, undertook the reconciliation with Jefferson so there would be a paper trail wherein he laid out his arguments that his role in the Founding deserved greater prominence, perhaps greater than Jefferson’s. (He had been there since the beginning from the Stamp Act and involved in the founding of America all the way through to serving as President. He had more years of service than anyone, even Washington, so he definitely has a point.)
I definitely recommend the book for anyone with an interest in the period of American history.
I am next moving on to The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 by Dinesh D’Souza. This book argues that what Radical Islam hates most about America is our culture and that we can’t win the War on Radical Islam until we win the culture war at home and stop exporting our current culture overseas. I’ve read a lot against the thesis of this book, but haven’t seen anything conclusively proving it wrong. It’s hated by both the right and the left, so I figure it’s either complete crap or spot on, and given that it’s by D’Souza, one of the more thoughtful writers out there, it’s probably spot on.