By Jim Fraiser
With the recent flurry of scholarship on America’s Founding Fathers by esteemed historians such as Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood, bookshelves are bulging with quality non-fiction explaining Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
Two of the better new books are “Revolutionaries” by Stanford professor and Pulitzer Prize-wining historian Jack Rakove, and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Founding Fathers” by South Carolina-educated Alabama historian Dr. Brion McClanahan. The former offers intriguing details on the lives and actions of the aforementioned founders, their wives and their children, while the latter offers an overview of the “Big Six,” along with summaries of the contributions of largely forgotten founders such as George Mason, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Francis Marion, John Hancock and others.
The two books also offer differing perspectives: Revisionist Rakove emphasizes our founders’ very human flaws, suggests they were true revolutionaries while inconsistently favoring the Washington/ Adams/Hamilton strong central government Federalist approach, while McClanahan vigorously defends our founders’ motives, claims they were not revolutionaries but conservatives fighting for rights guaranteed under British law and tradition, and perhaps too keenly sympathizes with the Jefferson/Madison/Mason anti-Federalist states rights advocates.
Rakove astutely analyzes why the 1774 British Coercive Acts “turned the episodic political controversies of the previous decade into a revolutionary crisis,” opining that they were too punitive toward a yet-unconquered nation, threatened fundamental (British) constitutional rights to an elected legislature and jury trials, and over-asserted Parliamentary sovereignty over British colonials. Federalists such as Hamilton and Washington, he suggests, supported a robust bank-supported, industrial-age fueled central government capable of maintaining independence from aggressive European nations. Theorizing intellectuals like Jefferson and Madison never understood, Rakove asserts, that an agricultural-based, state-dominated, weak central government simply could not sustain American liberties in a 19th Century monarch-friendly political environment.
Along the way, Rakove offers little-known but much appreciated quotes by the founders during their battles for American political supremacy. “There is as much intrigue,” wrote John Jay to Washington, “in the [Senate] as in the Vatican, but as little secrecy as in a boarding school.” With reference to John Adams, Franklin writes, “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses.” Rakove also offers his own eloquent expositions, as with Jefferson’s support of religious freedom and public education, observing that “the point of reading history first, scripture later, was to empower individuals to judge the claims of all religions” and to “better detect how ambitious rulers in all ages perverted legitimate power into tyranny.”
‘The Politically Incorrect Guide
to The Founding Fathers’
McClanahan, by contrast, emphasizes how Jefferson, Madison, and the vast majority of the other founders from Richard Henry Lee to Roger Sherman, favored states rights, i.e., the limitation of encroachments upon individual liberties by an out-of-control central government, and the prevention of governmental expansion, economic waste, oppressive taxation and overseas warmongering. McClanahan also offers his share of vintage founder quotes, such as John Tyler’s, “A nation oppressed by taxes can never be generous, benevolent or enlightened;” Patrick Henry’s, “the battle, sir, is not the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave;” and Charles Carroll’s comment that from political discussion rife with “virulent invective and illiberal abuse … we may fairly presume that arguments are either wanting, or that ignorance and incapacity know not how to apply them.”
These are not dry histories by any means; Mason scores a humorous hit when responding to a colleague’s insult that due to age he has lost his wits, by quipping, “Sir, when yours fail nobody will even discover it.” Jefferson has one on his friend John Adams, noting that, because of the Bostonian’s integrity he had not realized the extent of Adams’ vanity, but “his want of taste I had observed.”
Every American should become familiar with the political concepts that so tasked our founders during their struggles to establish a republic in keeping with the true principles of 1776. No trip to the polls should be unaccompanied by a clear understanding of these crucial concepts. For me, Rakove and McClanahan make abundantly clear that Hamilton and the Federalists were right in the 1780s when they argued that a stronger central government and stable economy were essential to the preservation of American liberties at home and abroad. However, Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans proved the more farsighted founders, understanding even then that such a government would ultimately evolve into one succumbing to extravagant domestic spending, judicial legislation, erosion of the Bill of Rights, and executive overreaching in hawkish diplomacy that would yield massive debt, oppressive taxation, unchecked immigration, wasteful foreign wars and every conceivable manner of federal government excess.
“Revolutionaries” and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Founding Fathers” succeed in making complicated issues understandable to the reader, and both authors imbue their prose with enough drama and wit to make reading these books a “must have” experience.
Jim Fraiser is an ardent admirer of our Founding Fathers, a federal administrative law judge in Tupelo and the author of 13 books of fiction and non-fiction, including the recent short story collection “Your Love is Wicked” and the forthcoming “Garden District of New Orleans.”