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.

‘How To Pronounce Knife’ By Souvankham Thammavongsa

A lot of very good short stories. Some were weaker than others (the short story that gave the collection its title was not my favorite), but overall a good read.

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Jesus And John Wayne

John Wayne is an outsized figure in this book. Both the real John Wayne and the symbol. Whereas Bad Faith centered white evangelicalism’s turn to partisan politics in race, Du Mez centers it in gender and patriarchy and finds its origins much earlier in the twentieth century.

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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.

‘Washington, D.C.’ By Gore Vidal

To my great joy, early in the book, a young man fantasizes that he is within the Barsoomian tales of Burroughs. Even more enjoyable, for me, at least, he name drops neither, just a character you’d only know from having read the books (or seen the movie).

This character grow into a sort of Vidal stand-in; an elite-born man who became a polemical political moralist, who also knew political Washington inside and outside.

Of course, the Washington of Washington, D.C. doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the least because you’ll rarely see Senators hanging around the city on weekends (they are back in the states they represent). But this book also realizes that. At one point, an aging, mostly moral, lion of the Senate muses that he almost lost re-election after being outspent and confesses some confusion over how television and radio ads changed things.

I gather he retroactively incorporated this into his ‘Narratives of Empire’ series, but it lakes the scope and sweep of the two I have read (Burr and Lincoln). It felt rather personal, not in the least because it covered a time when he was growing up in this older Washington.

That said, one can see in the aspiring politician Vidal’s critiques of Kennedy. In the leftist intellectual seduced by that rising star, Arthur Schlesinger (I don’t know what Vidal thought of him). But it’s not exact and more a nearby critique, than a direct one.

Lord help me, in many ways, it’s more Henry James than Gore Vidal, but the better for it. I had set aside my affections for him, but this reminded me that, actually, he’s a d—m fine novelist.

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.

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.