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 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.

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


‘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.

Inventing America

I loved this book, but mostly because it made me want to read other books. I’ve started reading Carl Becker, because Wills mentions him. I definitely need to read more Scottish Enlightenment (Hume, Home, Hutcheson, etc).

However, the argument itself seems… unnecessary today. That the Scottish Enlightenment was the critical intellectual yeast of the Founding documents does not seem controversial today, nor does relegating Locke slightly (though not so much as Wills does; he tries to dispel any idea of Locke’s political writings being an influence on Jefferson’s Declaration, which smacks of a lady protesting overly vigorously). He also leans heavily on finding references to Francis Hutcheson (followed by Kames, Hume, Smith, and only rarely Reid).

Wills writes that Lord Kames was Jefferson’s intellectual hero. Of course, Kames, Christian name, Henry Home, was David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed his name so that the spelling matched the phonetics) and Jefferson notably raged against Hume.

He spends as much time emphasizing the Declaration was not seen as a momentous documents at the time it was signed, only later becoming so (in part, through Jefferson’s own efforts to elevate it), as he does on the specific influences that this book is supposed to address. C’est malls vie, I guess.

I did learn things, though, or at least gain new perspectives. He provides new lenses through which to view Jefferson’s famed Head and Heart letter, provided by Scottish sentimental (which doesn’t mean what you think it means) moralism and Laurence Sterne. Incidentally, though I mostly fall into the camp of those who feel that the recipient of that letter and Jefferson did have a sexual relationship, though the letter suggests to me that our third president was an awkward lover.

Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, And A World Of Revolution

Another book about the relationship between Jefferson and Adams; less formally innovative than the other, but a nice, brisk read, nonetheless. Some odd choices though. It focused less on than the bitter divide that kept them apart for over a decade and more on the things that connected them. For about half the book, it seemed to be using their differing views of the French Revolution as the lens through which to view these two men, but then it seemed to forget about it. Which was weird, because it spent at least fifty pages discussing important figures within the French Revolution. Was that just padding?

Also, kind of amazed how historians (mostly white, male historians) are still tip toeing around Sally Hemings. It was a terrible, terrible thing he did, because her age and lack of freedom meant she could not consent and wildly hypocritical. But he did good, too, and it need not be interred with his bones, and Antony might say, it we acknowledge his deep sins.

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image In His Own Time

I am not sure the McDonald’s book is quite so different from other biographies and studies of Jefferson as he thinks, was one thought that occurred to me as I read Confounding Father. Really, in trying to show how Jefferson is seen in his own lifetime, he is going over things I have read previously and I do not really see a very different shine on any of it.

Which is not to say that it isn’t a good book on the great man with interesting things to say.

He credits Jefferson’s rise to fame in part, at least, to Hamilton’s constant, public attacks on him, which served to elevate him as the leader of a certain democratic ideology, which I have read before, but which he describes in greater detail that I have read before.

The image of him as the philosopher on the mountain began, by this account, in the late 1780s (and has persisted to this day), but one of the things that comes up repeatedly is how little known he was for his (disputed) authorship of the Declaration until probably the 1790s and how much that was actively promoted by Jefferson himself, albeit in a slightly roundabout fashion (by contacting what we would now call thought leaders and gently letting them know about his key role and helping elevate the document to a place which it had not held before).

The best section by far is on the elections of 1796 and 1800. Specifically, on how electioneering took place. The descriptions of letters going back and forth and the wars taking place via partisan newspapers… it’s all the sort of thing that I love (he writes that in 1800, printers circulated 250,000 newspapers, pamphlets, and books each week in America, truly astounding number, greater even, I wager, than the amount of Harry Potter fan fiction produced last year). How the (now known to be true) tales of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings circulated in the media even gets its own chapter.

So, in the end, it was a decent, if not terribly deep, biography.

Radical Hamilton

This… was a disappointment. I know Hamilton is having a moment, but this book didn’t quite seize on it.

The unique insight, supposedly, is that Hamilton’s insufficient to recognized Report on Manufactures is the key economic document for understanding the man’s rare genius. Yet despite saying constantly how important that work is, it is not properly discussed until something like 2/3 of the way into the book.

The book feels just sort of… thin. Yes, a connection was made between his biography (especially his service in the Revolutionary War), but I don’t know. I wanted more. I expected more. Hamilton was a prophet of government involvement in the economy and of industrial strategy (if there was an interesting insight, it was the connection between Hamilton’s ideas and the industrial policies of Japan during the Meji era).

Finally, he keeps using the word ‘dirigiste’ to describe Hamilton’s position on virtually everything. I mean, a lot. He uses it all the time. The constant use is like someone who has just discovered a word and decides to keep using it, rather like when my child learned to spell and use the word ‘anxious’ and it was her go to adjective in virtually any context.

Understanding Thomas Jefferson

Halliday begins his book with frequently salacious asides about Jefferson’s sex life, which rather sets the tone… badly. Taken in and of itself, the erotic life of our third president is a valid path of inquiry, but his probing is written in the language of a nineteen year old trying to show off his supposed sexual sophistication in conversation with sixteen year olds. Like any normal adult eavesdropper on that hypothetical conversation, I was not amused. The whole thing is not improved by improvidently titling the second chapter, Surges of Youth.

Really, it feels like a rather juvenile and often tone deaf excuse to delve into the sex life of our third president. And it gets downright icky at times. He bemoans that when Abigail Adams measured Polly, Jefferson’s youngest daughter, and the young slave who was accompanying, a certain Sally Hemings, that no record of Ms. Hemings measurements survive. So sad that we don’t get to know the cup size of a girl was fourteen at the time. He later suggests that maybe Sally seduced Thomas, which is supposed to make conservative commentators who can’t stand the idea that he fathered her children feel better about the whole thing. It seems a shame that this has to be mentioned, but an adolescent girl who is also owned by someone does not have the independent capacity to seduce a middle aged man, nor to give anything like genuine, informed consent to sex.

On several occasions, he explicitly describes his project as in opposition to the premise of Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (which is on my list, but which I haven’t read yet). Towards the end, in the penultimate chapter, he asks if his book, thus far, has elucidated Jefferson’s character so far as to say it is not Sphinx-like. While admire that he believes Jefferson can be understood, unless he is best understood as a somewhat sex-addled figure, I’m not sure this book has succeeded in that laudable mission.

I was also personally miffed by his remark that ‘Jefferson’s tenacious adherence to the moral-sense theory of psychology must be judged as scientifically rather dubious.’ First, I’m not sure how much that is the case. And I assume he is referring to Jefferson’s general acceptance of the sentimentalist theory of morals which was so eloquently argued by prominent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, which adherence made him quite forward thinking for his time (with the caveat that many contemporary elites would have agreed with him). However, he almost made up for that by praising Gore Vidal’s Burr.