The Ideas That Made America

Such a brief book must, necessarily, be swift in its progress. But there is, as always, such a thing, as too much. Amply endnoted, it nonetheless feels shallow. The Enlightenment influenced thought behind America’s founding is dealt with in less than twenty pages. An opening chapter, which subtitled itself ‘Precontact-1740,’ managed to make most of what was said about indigenous people’s thought about Europeans proselytizing to them, which feels more than a little icky.

Transcendentalism, the second most interesting moment in American intellectual history, to my mind, after the Founding period, actually subsumed in a chapter about first half of the nineteenth century, so that an alien who magically read English, but knew nothing about American history, would think that Ralph Waldo Emerson, rather than being a towering figure in the creation of a American intellectual tradition, was more of just a guy who was around and maybe wrote one or two essays that are pretty good.

I would say that the author has a conservative bent (even though she completely fails to give any details about conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and William Buckley believed, despite spending several pages on them), and perhaps because many of America’s most important thinkers were liberal (or even radical) in some way: William James, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc.).

The most egregious sin, I think, is that it’s just an assemblage. The book advances no thesis, it just breaks up American intellectual into some distinct time period and gives a breezily brief description of each. Without that, how can you claim these ideas made America?

So,I guess it’s a nice, short primer of some kind, but perhaps not useful for much beyond brushing up on a couple of things to drop in conversation to make yourself sound smart (but hopefully, you don’t encounter anyone who actually read the thinkers, because then you might be caught out, because you won’t have learned that much).

Review Of ‘The Europeans: Three Lives And The Making Of A Cosmopolitan Culture’

This is the sort of book that seemed like it should be right up my alley. After all, the three lives were a writer I enjoy, an opera singer, and an art connoisseur. But it nonetheless failed to properly grip me.

It was, dare I say, too bourgeois?

And the implied premise is that these three characters are deeply interesting, as well as being useful exemplars of Europe’s growing cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century. And they are (I believe) interesting figures (well, the writer and the singer definitely are), but more than sixty pages in, I had learned about the connection between the rise of railways and mass market literature and about how fear of buying forgeries led the nouveau riche to invest in (then) contemporary art, among other interesting things, but had not gotten anything close to an idea about the central figures (well, except perhaps for the connoisseur, Louis Viardot, whose primary personality traits are deeply positive in a partner, but maybe not engrossing reading; traits like patience, tolerance, and staidness).

I did, eventually, get a better idea of the three central figures but the premise… I don’t know. I feel that Baden-Baden would have been awesome in the 1860s (did you know they had a public building called the Conversation House [only, they naturally used the German]?), but the epilogue went on to suggest that, actually, their time (the mid nineteenth century) was less truly European and cosmopolitan than the early twentieth century.

So, should you read it? I guess. It’s interesting in many ways, but at the same time, never has a ménage a trois seemed so boring.


Thomas Jefferson has often been accused of dissembling in his political life. Two letters, in particular, that I came across while reading my Modern Library edition of The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson drove that home. Both, not coincidentally, written to John Adams, his great political rival in post-Articles America.

The first is Jefferson proclaiming a certain innocence in the controversy over his private correspondence praising Paine’s Rights of Man, praise which pointedly criticized the (comparatively) Anglophilicism of the Federalists and their political stances. While certainly true that he did not intend it to become public, much less published as a sort of introduction to the work, he writes as if nothing he said was not an implied attack on Adams.

Later, in the aftermath of what passed for presidential campaign in those days (the 1796 election), he protests too much to his (former, future) friend, writing:

In the retired canton where I am, I learn little of what is passing: pamphlets I never see: newspapers but few; and the fewer the happier.

Even the use of the pointedly pastoral term ‘canton’ (a word I can’t remember him using and a search using the tools of the National Archives reveals that, when used, it mostly used to refer to places in Europe, like the Swiss cantons or places or things actually named ‘Canton’) seems too… too much. After all, Jefferson did engage his supporters in a media war (using newspapers and pamphlets) on his behalf during the election. His failure to say  something as simple as, it was a hard fought election and while we have our strong political differences, I remain your friend and admirer. Instead, he says he wasn’t paying attention and later says that he always assumed that Adams would end up the victor. Finally, he says:

No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself…

Gore Vidal’s portrayal of the third President as a conflict adverse, sneaky political operator seems apt. Jefferson later wrote to his friend James Madison, complaining that he despaired of convincing Adams of the truth of his professed sentiments. I’m not sure I would have trusted them either.



For a final trip before school started up again, we visited Monticello, the vaunted home of Mr. Thomas Jefferson (we also visited Williamsburg; the colonial playground portion of the city a sad ghost town in this, the plague year, but I did enjoy the chance to see a monologue performed as the enslaved preacher and reformer, Gowan Pamphlet, who I recognized only because of Peter Adamson’s Africana Philosophy podcasts).
I wanted my daughter to see it and to, in time, have memories to call upon later when she tries to process what our country is.
Asked what she took away from investigating the inside of the house, she said that every room had stuff for writing. She also remembered that he had a device for copying what he wrote.
Posing before going to listen to a Jefferson impersonator speak. I made several notes about how the re-enactor subtly, but not too subtly, criticized President Trump. ‘Jefferson’ called out the British for sending armed troops into American cities. He criticized judges who answer to the king, instead of justice, He criticized the king for ignoring petitions. Finally, he said that the pursuit of science is in the Constitution as one of the duties of Congress and that he would always follow science, wherever it leads.
Books and letters. I can look at old writings for hours, though she is not there yet.
Posing with a young looking Jefferson.
Most likely, Thoughts on Political Economy is the treatise by Daniel Raymond, believed to be the first systematic treatise on economic written in America.
Because the struggle to balance disgust and admiration still exists for me when I contemplate Jefferson, this is important to include: the Monument for Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, which he founded and whose original buildings he designed. I think what I am struggling with is my admiration for Jefferson as a figure of Enlightenment (though I have recently read a book that posit in one as a post-Enlightenment proto-Romantic and another as more like a Renaissance polymath than a true Enlightenment thinker), and I say figure, because the idea of the thinker, reader, writer on the mountain is so alluring, and my inability to forgive him.

The Dark Side Of The Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, And Spiritual Seekers In The Age Of Reason

In his intro, Fleming explains that the ‘dark side’ of his title is a kind hearted pun, rather than a hint that reader is about to enter the gloomy, sordid, and evil underbelly of eighteenth century France.

Various figures who are almost part of a Counter Enlightenment (and appropriate phrase, considering how often he alludes to the Counter Reformation) drive the stories he tells. It’s not an overarching thesis which drives him, so much as curiosity about certain individuals and ideas who seem so different from our idea of what the Enlightenment was.

Most were new to me or provided new perspectives (I knew about the Port Royal movement as an intellectual school, but not about some of the spiritual healers and relic veneration around it). I was disappointed, I will admit, at how little space the Rosicrucians got. I used to be a reader in conspiracy theories of a certain sort (the sort mocked in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum) and would have liked to have seen it gone into a bit more. But a minor quibble, surely?

A larger quibble is what I hinted at a moment ago: how does this connect to the Enlightenment, beyond happening at roughly the same time? The occult strain within the Freemasons is real, but a chance to firmly connect them to the intellectual ferment of the age is sadly missed (just connecting it slightly to the gentleman’s club or the coffeehouse, the latter of which, predates modern Freemasonry, is not really doing it service).

In general, I confess to a general, though slight, feeling of disappointment. Disappointment because the book also feels a little slight. So many sections manage to feel undercooked (if always interesting). Alchemy is such a fascinating subject with a luxurious iconography and from this book I learned that… 18th century alchemy is a fascinating topic, with interesting iconography. Cagliostro is undoubtedly a fascinating and elusive figure and relevant to the topic… but did such a plurality of the pages theoretically devoted to him actually have to be an explanation of the history of L’affaire du collier (the infamous Affair of the Necklace)? I understand he was charged (and acquitted) in the matter, but is his distant involvement stupendously relevant to the history of spiritualism, occultism, alchemy, etc. in the Enlightenment? Similarly, there are two chapters on Julie de Krüdener, a writer who I confess to have never heard of before, and while her story is interesting and maybe relevant because she appears to be an early literary figure in the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism, but that’s kind of a stretch (though he attempts to bridge the gap by tendentiously connecting her to a series of semi-mystical writers who she… met? read? as well as to a later obsession with numerology which he also connects to Tolstoy and… wait for it… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy).

So, in conclusion (I sound Phillipa Chong now), I learned a lot, but a lot less than I would have expected about the supposed topic of the book.

Review: ‘Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years Of Thomas Jefferson’

img_5245My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.

Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).

It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.

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.

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.

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.

A Journal Of The Plague Year

This is the second time I have read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The first time was when I was a young man (late teens? twenties?) and was only the second book by Defoe I’d ever read (true to this day; the other being his book of the English Civil War, Memoirs of a Cavalier; incidentally, the use of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ is interesting; I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, wherein the use of the indefinite pronoun and the implied rejection of a certain authorial omniscience makes the works feel more trustworthy). Read more