Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff


My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

Bloomsday Forgot


No, it’s not Bloomsday. I missed it.

I forgot about it. Which I do not normally do. In past years, I have been in strange rooms at midnight for marathon readings of Ulysses.

This year, it simply passed me by.

And yes, grappling with COVID and, perhaps more importantly, with racism (andyes, Black Lives Matter, and yes, All Lives Matter is racist in part because you never, ever used that phrase until people started saying Black Lives Matter), meant that I had other things on my mind. More important things, even.

But it passed. And that’s sad.

He is a member of the traditional, white, western canon, but he is also still one of the greatest English language authors in all history and we used to take one day a year to honor and. remember him and, as, if not more importantly, to make literature fun, vital, and experiential.

I won’t live forever, barring some kind of amazing medical advance and don’t know how many Bloomsdays I have ahead of me.

I hope that, at the very least, I remember the next one.

When It Is Written


This chapter in world history will be written and it will portray us, the United States of America, badly. Because we, as a country, compare so badly to a defined group of other, otherwise comparable (more or less developed, capitalist, and small ‘d’ democratic) countries. There are the countries that acted nationally and decisively and are on some kind of trajectory to make the virus a more or less negligible factor even in the absence of the vaccine; and there are countries like us who have flailed about and now sort of appear to have given up on doing anything about.

And this chapter will be written and it will be remembered because it makes for such a nice, clear narrative. Those that took action and succeeded, in some fashion, and those who did little, did it late, gave up early, and failed.

Historians like it when such bright lines exist.


Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.

– Horace Walpole

A Guide To Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia


As it turns out, it’s the sort of glossy covered, trade paperback you would find (and probably do) at the gift shops of Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and elsewhere across Virginia (in fact, it helpfully provides the website addresses to such places, where mentioned). Not, perhaps, providing the sort of new information that I am looking for, having already read I don’t even remember anymore how many books and writings by and about Jefferson over the last two years or so.

But, to give it its due, a nice guide to places of importance to Jefferson. And going beyond Monticello to include places like the house of his legal mentor, George Wythe, and his retreat at Poplar Forest (for when the visitors at Monticello got to be too much). And a shallow, but still useful primer on architecture. I learned more about Andrea Palladio, from whom we get the term Palladian, including the title of his most famous book, which Jefferson apparently read and much enjoyed, I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). I also did not know that Jefferson designed a number of Virginia courthouses and also the houses of some of his friends.


Independent Bookshop Week

Ravelstein


You can, at least, say that reading Ravelstein makes you want to read more about and by Alan Bloom, who the title character is a not even really disguised version thereof.

I have read little Bloom. And only one other Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift; it liked me not, and while it inspired me to read some Delmore Schwartz, his poems discouraged me from reading more).

But my suspicion is that the only improvement this novel makes on reading Bloom himself (or a proper biography) is that Ravelstein is a much better name, with its towering, gothic overtones. Bloom is too comically joycean to be a really good name anymore, at least on a man.

I furthermore suspect that I would have better, in general, reading neither Bloom nor Bellow, but simply revisiting Isiah Berlin and Leo Strauss.

The book gets even weaker when it drifts from Ravelstein. The narrator, who is, as you might guess, a Chicago writer with too many marriages in a relationship with a much younger woman (intelligent, but not too intelligent; pretty, but not too beautiful; caring; understanding; indeed, the very perfect fantasy young wife of an old man), is not as interesting as he thinks. He is not uninteresting, but a long stretch where he goes to vacation to Puerto Rico, eats a toxic fish, has to be flown back to the United States, hallucinates in the hospital, and nearly dies, is completely unnecessary. Mortality is a theme that runs all through the novel, but this was, as I said, unnecessary. I didn’t read Ravelstein to spend so much time with someone improbably named ‘Chick’ (I kept thinking of Chick Corea).

I first started reading this book in 2004. I remember reading it a bar in St. Petersburg where my friend sometimes worked. I had left a position at an environmental nonprofit because the head of the Florida was a insufferable fool and a bit of a sadist. She wanted my job and pretending to ask permission. I was trying to read a paperback copy of Ravelstein. I don’t know where that copy went or why I decided I had to make another go at it.

Palm Springs Art Museum


I’m writing this because I saw this article critical of the Palm Spring Art Museum‘s response to George Floyd’s death and related issues of racial violence and racial justice.

I don’t have much to say about that controversy, except to note, #BlackLivesMatter. But I (as a white, heterosexual, cis-male) have fond memories of that museum from nearly fifteen years ago.

My first vacation with my now wife was to Palm Springs, where we visited the museum. We went back several times, because, well, I really liked the town. And I remember especially these highly realistic statues of an elderly couple (click here and look for #17). We were convinced at first that they were real people.

Neither A Limited Government Nor A Hawkish Conservative Be


Jefferson was a revolutionary, but also, by some modern standards, a conservative (at the risk of seeming to laud George Will, which I am really loathe to do, because he really does not deserve it, he might be the closest comparison).

Until digging into these letters, I hadn’t been aware of how much he was engaged in the discussions around the Constitution. He was in Paris, of course, and I am in now way suggesting he was involved in its writing, which I understand to have been mostly masterminded by James Madison. But he was aware of drafts, of the discussion around later including what we now know as the Bill of Rights, and of the Federalist Papers. He has some recurring concerns around the ability of a President to keep running for office more or less indefinitely, allowing a popular one to become a de facto president for life.

While he talks about the need for limited government, he, like the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s supposed originalism, is not a faithful lover to the idea. In 1788, he writes to Madison about what he thinks an addendum to the Constitution (again, this is about the discussions related to what would be known as the Bill of Rights) ought to include.

In his mind, a ban on monopolies should be one of them. He acknowledges that the prospect of a limited duration monopoly can spur ‘ingenuity,’ but does not believe that to be worth the damage caused by monopolies in general (which, in his wording, I wonder if our modern speech might not interpret what he calls monopolies as patents or copyrights).

He also writes the amendments should include something to ‘abolish standing armies in time of peace…”

He then goes on to say that our militia should be sufficient in to protect us in most cases, since we were not at significant danger from European invasion and our militia ought, he thought, be sufficient to stave off Canadian or Spanish[-American] aggression. Again, he didn’t have much to do with directly writing the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, except insofar as his ideas were influential, but doesn’t this also seem to suggest that the eventual Second Amendment was not intended to reflect a general acceptance of guns in the population, in general?

‘The Middle Temple Murder’ By J.S. Fletcher


Despite myself, I enjoyed this Edwardian mystery. Despite myself, because it had many flaws. From the piling of coincidences to the protagonist’s name (Frank Spargo; it is just men, or does this sound more like a 1930s American noir anti-hero than an early 20th century London scribblers?), nothing should work. But, overall, it does.

While lacking the special genius of Doyle’s iconic detective stories, the forward movement was continuous and propulsive. So much so, that I felt tired reading about Spargo’s late nights followed by early mornings (but in true English fashion, he never seemed rushed). Like any good detective story, all the major persons on interest are introduced early, without giving the game away (or, at least not too much; why wasn’t our intrepid investigator more suspicious when two people claiming relative disinterest also said they really wanted to see the body?). Except for a small village, I never got a good feel for the setting (though there was a nice description that made the neighborhood around Middle Temple Bar seem, for just a moment, dangerous).

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