Bad bios

As no doubt have you, I’ve read many biographies, and lately have been going through some recent ones about our Founding Fathers. As a rule, they are, as one might expect, quite good.

But I’ve come to see how really very good most of my reading has been due to one that was very bad indeed. It can, in fact, best be described as a hagiography of Thomas Jefferson. There were three remarkable problems with this book.

First, according to this author, Jefferson’s virtues emanated from every crevice of his character and illuminated every aspect of his life and of those of others who were so fortunate as to have attracted his favorable notice. We learn of these not merely from the narration of events of his career, but from a veritable flood of glowing remarks about him from admirers’ letters.

Second, on the occassions when the author couldn’t avoid at least acknowledging Jefferson’s flaws, he invariably attributed them to the overwhelming influence of his great virtues, as if they were mere detritus thrown up and suspended in the penumbra of his greatness. They must be suffered for their very indication of those underlying virtues – indeed, they should be overlooked because they are the mere inevitable accompaniment of them, and thus it would be petty – or, at least, shortsighted – of us to dwell on them.

Third, while in such a treatment you would expect at least to be presented with detailed explanations of his great accomplishments, there is, in fact, amazingly almost nothing at all. For the Declaration of Independence, for example, we get a torrent of quotes from contemporary observers about how great was its author for producing it – but we learn nothing about how he did that – nothing about his sources of inspiration, his literary guides, his adaptation of these to the Revolution’s ideals – not to mention nothing about how it evolved in the committee and in Congress before adoption (other than a brief reference to Benjamin Franklin’s insistance on describing rights as “self-evident.”) His roles in the Washington and Adams presidencies are just as mysteriously nondescript, as almost is that in his own presidency.

To learn about how the Declaration of Independence actually was written and adopted, how the Louisiana Purchase actually transpired and the associated Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as everything in between, we have to read the biographies (reviewed in these pages, beginning here) of the other Founders, where these events are covered in some – certainly greater – detail. As for this biography of Jefferson, the only details you’ll garner from it are the names of every horse he ever owned (seriously), and the like.

But the authors of these other biographies have in mind to present to us the importance of their subjects to our nation’s history and culture, and this importance derives from all of their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and their failures, and are all best understood with a full appreciation of both sides of their coins.

When you’re considering purchasing a biography, be sure to screen for the objectivity and breadth of vision of the biographer. You will learn more that is useful, appreciate the subject’s value more, by receiving a comprehensive, frank presentation of the story.


James Madison (1751-1836), the last American Founding Father, had a remarkable career that placed him at the center of seemingly all the central events that created and established the new country. Beginning as a delegate in the Virginia legislature during the early years of the Revolutionary War, he soon became a key member of the Continental Congress, an architect of the Constitution, a centrally important contributor to the famed Federalist Papers, an indispensable congressional ally of the first president in creating the new country’s institutions, a critically important figure in establishing the foundations of the two-party system while working to oppose the actions of the second president and then to promote those of the third, finally becoming the fourth president himself, during a second war with the United Kingdom that some argue represented the actual conclusion of the revolutionary period, finally securing independence for the United States.

How do you tell so complex a story, of a single man whose deeply inspired work influenced the creation of the core institutions of the country, then moved on to help lay the foundation for its most strident and enduringly competing instincts, all while nevertheless retaining philosophical integrity and political coherence? How can a single-volume biography comprehend so complex a task, that yet is so important to understanding America’s formative years?

David O. Stewart, in his “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America,” accomplished this feat by relating Madison’s career as the story of his stupendously constructive relationships with five key figures in the early life of the country: Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, and his own wife, Dolly Madison.

This turns out to be an excellent idea. The author in this way effectively covers the critical issues that were the objects of the collaborations. In the course of this he both informatively describes the issues and events that animated the relationships, and frankly evaluates the performance of Madison, each collaborator, and the relationship itself. He further uses the relationships to uncover, highlight and explain points where Madison’s political thinking and alliances changed or evolved.

This has proven to be a very engaging and interesting way – as well as an exceptionally productive one – to read about this period of U.S. history. And just as importantly, this author (along with all other of those, but one, I’ve read in this series abut the Founding Fathers) lends credibility to his relation of events through the frankly detached critical objectiveness of his narration, about Madison as both a man and a political thinker/actor, and similarly about his collaborators.

Stewart has performed a marvelous feat in drawing the reader into so important yet complex a story by hitting on this technique for telling it in so natural and engaging a way. Get your copy of “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America” and enjoy a terrifically illuminating stroll through American history from the Revolution through the War of 1812.

Speaking of Independence . . .

The United Kingdom recently voted by referendum to leave the European Union. The responses by the so-called political and media mainstream have been, at the very least, disdainful of and disrespectful to the people of the UK.

The worst tripe is the “slim victory margin” and “followed by an increase in racist/hate crimes” nonsense, which is carried formulaically by a disappointing range of sources. The superficially more sophisticated critique, though, which is actually not much better, can be represented by that promoted with a surprising air of injured spite by the Economist magazine. The Economist is widely known for evaluating issues from the perspective of its editorial policy of support for classical liberal economics, and is rightly regarded for unapologetically taking plainly presented positions on that basis. On this issue, it has long urged the UK to vote for “remain,” although it did so with less than usual acknowledgement of the depth and weight of opposing arguments – a lack that was, sadly, transparently noticeable. Since the vote, its reporting in almost every section of the magazine has strained to emphasize how whatever bad economic or political news might be there has its source in or is exacerbated by Brexit.

Why is that? Why can no observers of these events acknowledge – much less make the effort to understand and appreciate – positions counter to their own? And in so failing (and so resolutely) to listen to what is said and who is saying it, why should they describe a vote reflecting opinions counter to their own as surprising? Is it actually their specific intent to declare to the world how out of touch they are, how distant from the true mainstream, thus confirming the view of them that is largely responsible for the vote they so cluelessly condemn?

An example of this is the rather unpleasant and uncivil criticisms of UK voters and certain euroskeptic parties in other EU member states for expressing “unseemly” nationalism or, even suggesting racism due to the desire of some groups to contain or regain control over immigration. This speaks directly to the fundamentally undemocratic approach of the EU political and bureaucratic establishment in general, in that they strive to simply extinguish cultural and political attachments that tend to stymie their own centralizing agenda.

As an American, I am generally pro-immigration. While I surely would prefer it were accomplished legally in the U.S., just as surely throughout most of our history it was a decidedly haphazard process – as often as not acknowledged after the fact. Yet it was terrifically beneficial to us then and, despite the legendary closing of the frontier era, remains largely so now.

I don’t concur with the notions  that our culture is principally Judeo-Christian, or Anglo-Saxon, or European, or the like. While our political institutions and much of our unique national culture have origins in such backgrounds, we are first and foremost a nation shaped in every meaningful way by the still discomfitingly revolutionary idea that sovereignty resides in the people (“people” – there’s the rub, but that’s for another essay). Evolving robustly and renewing itself innovatively around the enduring core framework provided by the Constitution, the country changes to meet changing threats and opportunities, while retaining – indeed, enriching – its unique, its innate Americanness.

But that’s us, and moreover it is an adaptation we have taken on due both to our own political culture and our irreproducible geopolitical circumstances.

Which don’t exist in the UK, nor in European countries. So, why shouldn’t the people of those countries strive to establish their own relationship with the phenomenon of immigration as it presents itself to them over time – why should they not constructively deepen and enrich their appreciation of and ties to their own histories and cultures, which have shaped each other and themselves as peoples over the centuries?

Ultimately, they will, and so they should. If the EU, or something like it, is to survive, it can only do so as a trading community of sovereign states, perhaps with security ties. There can be no enduring “United States of Europe” in the American sense. The states of Europe are so culturally distinct they cannot be forcefully molded into some sort of internally definitionless, malleable mass by hopelessly – willfully – out of touch bureaucrats, to be shaped and managed by their putative betters. They will manage themselves, and prove – even under the burden of the history of warfare through the mid-20th century everyone so properly fears – to be better at it than the post-modern technocrats who would assume the mantle of aristocracy that is now being detected and rejected by the people. The awareness of their sovereignty – and of their need to possess and exercise it – has come to the peoples of Europe.

That is what has changed, and what must be respected.

Declaring independence

On this day, 240 years ago, it was approved by the Continental Congress and signed. Independence was declared. This is how the Declaration began:

“When, in the course of human events . . .”

The import was clear. This was not just another in an endless line of contests for power, an unremarkable breaking away of one group from another, a mere recurrence of the age-old pattern of a rising empire supplanting a fading one. It was an entirely new, a historically momentous enterprise – undertaken not merely to separate from Great Britain, but to embark on a wholly new political experiment on a wholly new scale. One to which “the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them” – a profoundly revolutionary idea the elaboration of which in this and succeeding founding documents was to form the very soul of this new nation. This was, indeed, an event in the history of humankind; we were fully aware of that, and we would have the world at large made aware of it as well.

“. . . a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The truth is, we didn’t intend merely to inform those opinions but, as was our instinct since the earliest colonial period, to form them. The very enumeration of those causes would speak to what would later become enshrined in our Constitution. We weren’t merely explaining why we were doing this – we were declaring who we aimed to be. And so dedicated to that aim we were that we would set ourselves up before the world, both to judge our sincerity in the harsh light of practice, and to see in the example we strove to exhibit the way forward for themselves as well.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”

Jefferson initially wrote “sacred and undeniable.” Franklin, inspired by the contemporary rise of rationalist ideas, supporting the belief in the ability of mankind to, by his own efforts, discover his place in the world and to make his way in it, changed the phrase felicitously to “self-evident.”

“. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .”

There it is. The foundation for everything. It is the never-ending, always evolving debate over these twin pillars that – for all the apparent centrifugal stresses it seems to provoke – generates the continued dedication to the ideals that are the principal definition of this nation. We continuously, from generation to generation, struggle with the question of how to understand, how to realize them. We strive – not always successfully, but always earnestly – to use what we thus discover about our strengths to negotiate a path forward through what we learn about our weaknesses. Toward equality for all. Toward the meaningful possession and expression of our unalienable rights.

After a recitation of the wrongs done the colonies by the King of Great Britain, the Declaration turns to the central matter at hand:

“We, therefore . . . solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states . . .”

It would not be until after the Civil War that the “United States” would come to refer to a single political entity. But the nation building was nevertheless begun; the line was crossed, and with this announcement to the world there would be no return.

Finally, the momentous proclamation concluded with these words:

“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

We do that still, in today’s dangerous world, every day, knowingly or not. It endures yet as but a fragile and revolutionary phenomenon in the course of human events. Keeping it alive and offering hope to us and the world remains, now as then, dependent wholly and vitally on our honest attention – and on our sacred honor. Today is a fine day to recall that. It is a fine day, too, to celebrate it.

Designing the Declaration

In June 1776, before the debate had been concluded over whether to even assert independence, the Continental Congress decided to have a formal declaration prepared, just in case. A committee of five was appointed to draft it, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The strong consensus was for Adams to be the actual drafter, but he just as insistently argued that Jefferson do it. On Adams’s promise to supervise and consult closely with Jefferson, this was agreed. The committee established the general content and form of the document, and Jefferson began the historic task.

Jefferson was highly regarded not just as a wordsmith, but as a hard worker, and he had much of that to do for other committees. But he also was widely read in the political classics, and had more recent American sources to hand, as well. Key examples of these are widely considered to include:

  • The Preamble of the Constitution of Virginia (Jefferson)
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights (George Mason)
  • The English Declaration of Rights (1689)
    There were others, but these provided the key aids to drafting, enabling Jefferson to complete the project despite the time pressure that he faced.

Both inspiration and sometimes especially felicitous phrases were borrowed from these sources. But their weaving by Jefferson into the argument for and the assertion of independence in the Declaration transformed them into inextricably elegant parts of a magnificent whole. His was perhaps the accidental, but surely the perfect pen to render this portrait for the world of American aspirations and ideals.

The draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776, and was tabled until after the formal decision to declare independence was determined. As we have seen, that occurred on 02 July.

And so on the 3rd of July there followed heated debate over the draft text of the Declaration, a highly delicate process carefully and assiduously managed by Adams. Jefferson spoke not a word in defense of his work as fully a quarter of it was removed and some other parts of it were reworded. Adams finally produced its approval and signing by the Continental Congress on the 4th of July, 1776. The decision for independence had been made two days earlier, and had now been formally declared – in sublime, soul-stirring, and world-changing voice.