Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Review

I spent a good part of the past three months immersed in the world of colonial and antebellum America. Christmas brought me Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington, David and Jeanne Heidler's biography of Henry Clay, and Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers. All three were good reads and I would recommend any and all of them.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that these historical figures were real people reacting to real events and while we know how the events worked out, the people involved didn't. These historical figured were capable great good, and tolerating and even advocating for serious wrongs.

The real strength of all three books is they place the lives and actions of these historical figures into a context. Everything they did or said was in response to certain realities. All 3 books put these historical figures back into the time in which the operated and it is much easier to see why they acted the why they did.

Certain historical realities dominate all three books and should influence how we look at the formative decades of American history. One is that there was no consensus on what the Constitution said and meant. Compromise and ambiguity were needed to write and ratify the constitution. and not everybody agreed with it. Somehow the constitution won the strong support of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, George Washington, and the reluctant support of Thomas Jefferson. Any document that can do that is by necessity full of vagueness and open to multiple interpretations. Even Hamilton and Madison, who helped pen the Federalist Papers, eventually split over the policies of the Washington administration.

It is also important to remember that slavery was always an issue and the spirit that guided the early days of the republic was to keep all discussion of slavery and abolition off the table. However, every issue was always understood in the light of slavery. This created a dynamic where discussion of the issue was viewed as a threat and as a result the U.S. twisted itself into knots over the one issue that dominated all others. The same contradiction, of course, applies to the personal views that individual founders had on slavery.

It is easy to view the founders as caricatures as noble patriots. Instead they were real people who lived in a specific time and place. All three books do a marvelous job of recapturing the the people, time, and place of the founding decades of the U.S.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where do Backbenchers Come From?

The Backbencher has been quiet in the past few months. Among the many reason is that I am going to be a new father in about month and much of my life has centered around getting ready. Anyway, while the focus of the blog may change a little I hope to get back to some more blogging.