‘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 rousers 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.

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins Of The American Republic

This wonderful, if sometimes clunkily written, book is a series of long digressions on figures of deep influence to the intellectual leadership of the American Revolution and America’s founding. He begins with a discussion of two lesser known Revolutionary figures, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young, who wrote stridently ‘Deist’ (really, atheist) works. Theoretically, it is about the influence of Deism on the founders, but really, it’s about making sometimes tendentious, but always interesting arguments for another layer of philosophical forebears beneath accepted intellectual forefathers like John Locke.

So how does that work in practice? A long discussion of Epicurean cosmology and how it (supposedly) informed the intellectual climate that directly influenced Revolution figures (mostly Jefferson and Franklin; though this also undercuts the idea that these were foundational, since in their learning and interests, they were sui generis). Spinoza is brought up early and often and is taken to be a key figure whose ideas were behind all the most influential ideas of those most directly connected to the ideas of the Revolution.

I’m not sure that Stewart was all that deeply interested in writing a book about the intellectual history of the American Revolution, but rather that it made an easier sell on his actual book, a fascinating look at two marginal figures of the American Revolution combined with an expansive view of the influence of Epicurean physics and places Spinoza at the center of the Enlightenment (yes, he makes a point towards the end that Spinoza is an ‘early modern,’ but in context of the whole book, he is clearly shifting the Enlightenment backwards a good bit, moving it’s beginning to Spinoza and Hobbes).

Stewart is himself a materialist of the Spinozan variety (he wrote an earlier book about the Dutch-Iberian philosopher), I would hazard by his good natured glee when writing about it. I don’t mind a position, in that respect, especially when it is joyful in its advocacy, rather than disrespectful in it.

I enjoy listening to (and usually disagreeing with) some of the podcasts and YouTube videos put out by the gloriously titled “James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.” I will give them credit for introducing me to the philosopher Daniel N. Robinson and also for aiming to influence the legal community in a specific conservative direction. Unlike the Federalist Society, which is really just a political organization dressed up in judicial clothes, the James Wilson Institute has a very specific legal philosophy around natural rights, which also puts it in opposition to the current trend of pretending to be originalist (natural right theory is not orginalism).

I bring this up because Steward waits until the book is nearly done to bring James Wilson (a Founding Father who is not obscure, but, let’s just say, sits in the second tier) up and goes on to describe him as: avaricious, socially ambitious, lavishly educated


‘Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays On History’ By Bernard Bailyn

Bailyn was an influential scholar of American history who died recently. He was old school and, while the first essay in this collection is, in part about the horrors and evils of the slave trade, it’s safe to say he was more of the great man school of history, which, in practice, leads to more discussions of dead white men, than not. This is only a slight criticism, so long as others are taking up the slack.

However, it was disturbing to read his essay on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians who reinvigorated study of colonial loyalists during the Revolutionary War and missing the strong strand of racism which united them.

His cause isn’t helped by a congratulatory prose style that is both flavorless and slightly condescending. Don’t get me wrong, I will be breaking down and buying on his full length histories, but this, the only volume by him in the DC Public Library system, is a poor argument for his importance as an historian of America.

‘The Heavenly City Of The Eighteenth-Century Philosophers’ By Carl L. Becker

How did have I not read Becker before? He has the classic style of the great, witty, learned, essayists of the nineteenth century. This book reads like a sequence of connected essays, which, effectively, they are, being based on a series of lectures he gave. Becker’s name appeared before me while reading Garry Wills’ Inventing America; while arguing against Locke’s influence and for that of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, mainly Reid and Hutcheson (I hadn’t realized this was controversial).

Primarily about the francophone philosophes (francophone rather than French, so as to include Rousseau), with frequent attempts to loop in the Enlightenment figures of the American founding and into the Scottish Enlightenment, it makes eighteenth century philosophy a fascinating, discursive read, which is an apt metaphor for it.

Sadly, for me, he fails to stick the landing. First published in 1932, he waxes unhappily about Bolshevism and the socio-political tumult of nineteenth century Europe. While I don’t necessarily mind (if also don’t necessarily agree) with his grumpy reactionary-ism, he doesn’t connect it to his lyrical discourse on the eighteenth century philosophers, except perhaps to say, that was good and these are bad.