Original Intents: Hamilton, “Jefferson, Madison And The American Founding” By Andrew Shankman

The good: learned some interesting things. Was not up on the conflict between Madison and Hamilton on paying the domestic debt. Hamilton wanted to pay the wealthy Americans who had bought up Revolutionary era debt at a discount, whereas Madison wanted to give them a small profit on their below face value purchase, but also make sure the the original holder, who received a promissory note for $100 (for example) for $100 worth of grain, would, if not made whole, at least receive some part of it. Suffice to say, I’m on Madison’s side. Also interesting to read how a man named William Duer, a one-time lieutenant in Hamilton’s treasury department, almost singlehandedly (according to Shankman) created dangerous investment bubbles and subsequent crashes in 1791 and 1792, which feels downright contemporary, except that Duer went to prison and we never seem to hold the rentier class accountable.

The bad: AP style gone awry. The dreadfully boring style and monotonous sentence structure makes this a real slog to read. AP style is not meant to create boring prose, but to set a floor which the writer can choose to rise above. This writer, ahem, does not appear to have made that choice.

I’m probably being too harsh. It’s a fine monograph, limited in scope, but covering an important issue (debt and credit) in the early years of the United States, through the lenses of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, though Jefferson is, surprisingly, the least important of the three (possibly because Madison, as his de facto political lieutenant, was more active in the national conversation, while Jefferson kept his image as the retiring philosopher).

Review: The Transcendentalists And Their World

What a great book, really.

I borrowed it from the library, but with everything I had going on, especially the other reading I needed to do, it was clear I wasn’t going to have time to finish it before the due date (there was a long-ish waiting list for it). So, I pre-ordered the softcover version (because, as much as I want good books to succeed, that doesn’t mean I have to pay for a hardback copy; especially since it was so much less awkward to hold and read the paperback, even an oversized one).

It is not about Transcendentalism, but about the town of Concord, Massachusetts from the 1790s to mid 1840s. The opening history is about the town figuring out how to memorialize its role in the Revolutionary War and it closes with Henry David Thoreau giving the lectures that would make up Walden. It’s a close reading of the history and archives of a particular place that happened to have been very important in American history.

The structure is a thing of magic. It manages to move chronologically through time, while, at the same time, being arranged thematically. There is a section about religious change, as the long-time minister of the official church moves towards Unitarianism and rival churches are formed. There is a section about the rise of manufacturing. And, of course, there is a great deal about Ralph Waldo Emerson, though he does not dominate the book, because it is, ultimately, social history, not intellectual history.

Highly recommended.

‘The Imperial Presidency’ By Arthur Schlesinger

While the late great Gore Vidal almost had some choice words for the man who has been described as Camelot’s court historian, I am glad to have finally read something longer than an old New Yorker essay by Schlesinger. He’s a good, though not great stylist and enjoyed the history I learned, though part of me wishes that he had also written a more concise version, where the polemical aspect could have shown through more brightly when it comes the general thesis (his deep and understandable antipathy towards Nixon amply shines through).

Indeed, even as he charts the presidency through nearly two hundred years, even before reaching 1968, Nixon surfaces on a regular basis.

But the most interesting part was the very end. I can rightly recommend just skipping the first few hundred pages to get there, but it’s a little tempting. He criticizes those – and I have been among that number – who say that a parliamentary system could resolve many of the issues around that titular imperial presidency. He really just looks at the British model (which is very nearly a two party model) and points out that the Prime Minister is even more empowered than an American style president with even fewer guardrails and says that many British commentators look longingly at our system. And, yes, in this Trumpian world, a supine Republic parliamentary majority and a Trump PM does feel frightening, especially without any contemporary tradition of members being willing to fall on their swords to depose a rogue PM of their own party.

‘Liberalism And Its Discontents’ By Francis Fukuyama

Ten years ago, if you had told me that I would have read this much Fukuyama, I would have laughed at you. Though, I should hedge that ‘this much’ – most of his recent books have been pretty short.

He suggests he is making an argument for classical liberalism, but I would suggest that he’s really making the argument for liberal democracy. I say that because he is not deeply interested in economic issues.

It’s a short and useful read. While not its purpose, the book makes another argument that the American right is unknowingly carrying the banner for postmodernism and French theory, most recently for mimicking Foucault’s theory of power and science in its arguments again mask mandates and vaccines.

Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past

This book should probably be assigned to high school seniors. From debunking the image of Sam Adams as a rabble rouser and pointing out that everything in Massachusetts besides Boston had been in revolt and not under British control for a year prior to ‘shot heard ’round the world.’ The bit that was new to me was that Patrick Henry’s ‘Liberty or death’ speech was written by a guy named William Wirt, who wrote Henry’s biography in the early nineteenth century and reckoned with the fact that Henry didn’t write much down, including his speeches.

Raphael brings up that we really do not teach the Revolutionary period of American history after the fifth grade in the United States. I’m not sure if that tracks for my experience, but it sounds about right. And part of the problem is that teaching fifth graders, he argues, plays into a more binary sense of morality.

Anyway. Read it.

‘The Lost Cities Of Africa’ By Basil Davidson

This 1959 book is a reminder that even someone who was relatively forward thinking on racial issues can still come across as pretty cringey now. But I appreciated that Davidson frequently reiterated that the civilizations of ancient and medieval Africa were both uniquely African, i.e., not founded by Phoenician, Arabic, or Person settlers, and the equal or superior to other, contemporary world civilizations.

But, the options for a book on African civilization before the Europeans began conquering and generally messing stuff up were limited and I learned a lot.

I imagine many readers will already have had some awareness of Kush and perhaps the Mali empire and its literary center of Timbuktu, but learning more was a pleasure. What I most enjoyed was reading about the strange isolation of the southeastern kingdoms. They did not interact much with other African cultures, but instead looked east to their trade across the Indian Ocean with the empires and kingdoms of Indian and China.

The Social Life Of Books: Reading Together In The Eighteenth-Century Home

As a scholarly work, it is more a series of thematic anecdotes than the explication of a sustained thesis, but it shows an admirable amount of archival research into the clues left behind by middle-class households in the 18th and early 19th century. It does a strong job of arguing that 18th century England (and this book is almost exclusively about England) was more literate than perhaps we give it credit for, though, as always, we should remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.

I enjoyed those glimpses into these lives and homes and learning about the way in which people read. Which also leads to the most interesting, if only cursorily examined, idea which she tosses out there in the chapter about novels: the rise of of the novel is directly linked to the decline of poetry as a subject of popular reading.

Much reading, she says, was done aloud. It was done by families in the evening, but also at social gatherings. And publications were designed for that purpose, which means not too long and easy to put down and pick up at a later time. If your neighbor came over and stayed while you read to your family, it wouldn’t do for him to hear just the middle of a dense novel, but something like poetry was perfect.

The novel, by its very nature, encouraged solitary reading and this led to the decline of certain shorter forms that were also strongly linked to oral traditions, i.e., poetry.

The Essential Debate On The Constitution

I put this book on hold on account of Bailyn’s presence as an editor, even after my disappointment in volume of his own writing. Of course, it’s not really about him (his preface is remarkable in its brevity and lack of information), but about reading these late eighteenth century American political writings.

It’s easy to say that, wow, look at how literate and intelligent this discourse was, why can’t we be like that, but I’m certain there were plenty of broadsheets being passed around calling the other side out for scatalogical fixations. And, who knows that a hundred years from now, the four years (thus far?) of Trump’s reign may be collected in volumes depicting the debates of the age as a discourse between Ross Douthat’s melancholy concern trolling and David Brooks’ hand wringing exercises?

The argument in favor of ratification are well known due to the canonization of the Federalist Papers, some of which, like Federalists 10 and 30, are collected here (to the editors’ credit, they try not to simply collect Federalists, but to find other documents in support of ratification).

The arguments against are probably less well known, or, at least, were less well known to me. The rightness of the ratificationist cause was taught as an uncomplicated truth in my schooling. The writings of ‘Brutus,’ whose identity is not known for certain, I believe, part of the so-called ‘Anti-Federalist Papers,’ are particularly interesting and well written. That said, arguments that a federal government would take away state independence feel overwrought when states feel so presently empowered to pass whatever racist and discriminatory laws that their White majorities might want.

What struck me most was how suddenly prescient the warnings about the Supreme Court feel now. They feel almost prophetic, especially when you think that they were written before Wilson and Marshall instituted judicial review. The opportunity for unsupervised and unaccountable judges was well recognized then. I will admit to a certain ambivalence. I find judicial elections unnerving, because its feels like justice is vulnerable to being warped to support re-election.

American Scripture: Making The Declaration Of Independence

Described as a bit of a broadside against Garry Wills’ earlier book on the subject, rather than situate the Declaration within a pan-European intellectual environment, with special attention to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Maier is more interested in a strictly American context. The state and local proclamations that preceded it, for example. She is not terribly interested in the philosophical background of it (though she is interested in the philosophical implications).

If I’m honest, I found Wills to be a better writer. This is partly because I wasn’t too interested in the straight revolutionary history that makes up the first third or so the book.

‘Illuminating History: A Retrospective Of Seven Decades’ By Bernard Bailyn

I fear I’ll need to buy one of Bailyn’s seminal books, because the two available from the local library system are not giving me a good view of his value as a historian, but are giving me a good view of his limitations as a writer. He’s not bad, but when I started reading him, I was in the mood for a great stylist.

This is really just a collection of essays on his work; some interesting, some dangerously paternalistic, and some quite touching.

My favorite part was the very end, his appendix, which isn’t an appendix, but a place to write brief biographies of two historians of early America who influenced him. Many historians are forgotten after death and I credit him for wanting to immortalize Morison and Handlin, just a little, is admirable.