December 14, 2009

presidential fact #9

The Liberian city, Monrovia, is the only non-American capital city named after a U.S. President

Good Feelings

Bipartisanship in our era is a joke. Everyone promises it and nobody can deliver. Our most recent two Presidents (and their challengers) campaigned on a platform of being political gap-bridgers---uniters, not dividers. But then it always blows up instantly. Obama tried for bipartisanship for about a week before he passed his stimulus package with a strictly partisan vote. Bush got a little more leeway before becoming "the most divisive President in history."

But the thing about that is that every President was considered the most divisive President in history. Clinton was so despised by the Right that he was impeached on sex charges, to the Right's own political detriment. Ford kept getting shot at by women. LBJ could barely go outside his house the protests were so bad. Lincoln caused a civil war. And so on. Not that this is a bad thing- Josh Lyman, among others, teaches us that partisanship is a necessary evil that leads to enhanced debate. Sharper elbows produce sharper ideas.

However, in our trip through divisive presidents, the buck stops with Monroe (to paraphrase another divisive president). Monroe went way out of his way to appoint politically opposed and geographically diverse men to his cabinet and government posts. His unprecedented effort at reconciliation led to his Presidency being dubbed the "Era of Good Feelings." He paid a price for it at first- a friend to all is a friend to none, and Henry Clay led the charge of people who were offended by Monroe's choices.

But it paid dividends later on when, despite a string of failures, Monroe preceded Ronald Reagan as America's first Teflon President. There was a terrible depression in 1819, and Monroe mishandled Missouri's application for statehood, which eventually led to Missouri being admitted as a slave state (until it wasn't---we will get to that during Buchanan). But people stuck with Monroe and he retired as one of our most popular Presidents ever.

December 09, 2009

it's about time we got some real men in here

the nice thing about james monroe is that he's a dude. really tall, bulky, soldier, war hero. he and madison were jefferson's two closest friends, but while jefferson and madison corresponded about philosophy, science, and classic literature, they only wrote to monroe about politics.

monroe was our first non-genius president (that washington was a genius at leadership will do for our purposes). ketcham's biography of madison serves pretty well as a seminar in revolutionary politics, because madison shaped so much of revolutionary politics. monroe wasn't an original thinker - as ammon puts it he "had no talent for abstract thought" - but he worked hard, and he was influential because reportedly he was the nicest guy in virginia. monroe would pick sides and then "dedicate himself" to the debate.

he a talented politician, while his 4 predecessors were men of talent who got involved in politics. it's a fascinating transition to watch, because it seems to have been a permanent one. after all, when's the last time we had a president you would call a genius?

December 02, 2009

It's Not What You Know

In this life, connections are everything, and it was no different in Revolutionary America. And I feel very safe saying that no person, now or then, has ever possessed references better than James Monroe's. As a 21 year old war veteran, he traversed the country looking for a regiment of troops he could command, and later sought a placement at University in France. He had with him three letters of recommendation.

Alexander Hamilton said this: "You know him to be a man of honour and a sensible man and a soldier. This makes it unnecessary to me to say anything to interest your friendship for him. You love your country too and he has the zeal and capacity to serve it."

George Washington: "[T]he esteem I have for him, and a regard for his merit, conspire to make me earnestly wish to see him provided for in some handsome way."

Thomas Jefferson called Monroe a man of "abilities, merit, and fortune" and a "particular friend."

Jefferson later became Monroe's legal mentor (after Monroe FAILED to get a job or place in school!) and pretty much invented the case method for teaching law, just for Monroe. That's what they now teach at every law school in the country, including Notre Dame, where I just left with three letters of recommendation from non-Founding Fathers.

December 01, 2009

presidential fact #8

George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe were all born within miles of each other in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

the cressman conundrum; or, freaks & geeks explains the war of 1812

It was 1979 in suburban Michigan and Allen wouldn't stop bullying Sam Weir.  Sam goes to Harris, their mentor geek, to ask for advice.

"I would recommend the Cressman Conundrum. Tom Cressman. My freshman tormentor. The ideas was, if you fight your bully, afterwards, whether you win or lose, they'll tend to leave you alone."

"Did it work?"

"He broke my tailbone.  But the results were effective."


So the British have spent a few decades being grumpy about the colonies going all independent. They took it out on America by making trading really difficult. The details are at times dull. During the Adams presidency, John Jay went to England and made a treaty with them, essentially agreeing to keep letting them oppress American shipping, bullying that was swallowed because of how unprepared America was to go to war with England 10 years into nationhood.

But it just got worse and worse. A lot of people in parliament still viewed America as a rebellious colony that would eventually collapse back into the fold, and they continually refused fair trading policies with them. Madison enacted an embargo on British trade, hoping that this would so cripple the British economy that they'd come to appreciate and respect their American trading partners. It did not, they did not. England just started trading with other people, and Federalists opponents of Madison in New England continued to smuggle goods in and out regardless of the embargo.

The embargo was kind of a disaster. It had about the effect of a 7-year-old who decides to run away from home, and therefore spends a few hours in the treehouse in the backyard. When he repents and comes back inside, his rebellion is mistaken for a normal amount of time spent outside. James Madison was made for debate, not for broad strokes on the world stage.

So the time came to face the bully. America was outmatched, unprepared, and not unified in its decision to go to war, but it seemed that Britain would never stop punishing America unless it defended itself.

Madison and Congress declared war, appointed an astounding number of incompetent weenies to run the army, and got stomped on. Stomped on for years. They basically didn't win a battle for the first two years of the war, and then Madison sat on a horse on a ridge overlooking Washington while the British flooded in and burned down the White House and the Capitol. Only after they spent some time inside the White House eating Madison's dinner.

At about this time the American commissioners in London sent home the King's offer of peace, which essentially assumed that America had been reconquered. It was a bad year for Madison.

This turn of events, although disastrous, at least accomplished what Madison had not been able to accomplish thus far - it united public opinion. After some reshuffling in the chain of command the the swift promotion of Andrew Jackson, the American army successfully expelled the British forces from Baltimore (cue the Star Spangle Banner. literally.) and New Orleans.

Having fought the bully, and gotten stomped on several times, the results, as Harris promised, were effective. The next offer of peace from Britain was that of an equal, and America had finally proven her place in what Ketcham always calls "the family of nations." Madison's reputation did a 180 from that of a indecisive cerebral to a triumphant wartime president, and he retired joyfully to Virginia while Washington was rebuilt for the incoming Monroe.

Fight the power.

November 29, 2009

Adams Marathon #2

A few thoughts about film as a medium for teaching history.

In the David McCullough documentary that was a special feature to the Adams boxed set, the author says what all of our history teachers say: that history is more than a collection of dates and quotes---it is about people, and their lives. This is doubtlessly true, but the reason that dates and quotes get so much play is that they are capable of accurate and ready determination. We know for sure what day the Declaration of Independence was ratified, and what was argued on either side of the surrounding debate. We don't know what Thomas Jefferson's face looked like as delegate after delegate altered its language. It seems that a historian's main challenge is to use the facts as a foundation, and to divine from them the human story.

In books, it is very easy to tell what is fact and what is guesswork. Ralph Ketcham, especially, takes liberties in trying to find the man in the collected papers and letters that are "James Madison." He frequently invites us to "imagine" Madison doing certain things: running through a swamp as a boy, despairing when his first relationship falls apart, nodding in agreement at a colleague's argument. These frolics are harmless--- there are certain gaps in the record, and it is useful to have educated guesses (when labeled as such) from an authority on the subject.

A movie, of course, is different, as the filmmaker is guessing all the time. Something as minor as the way an actor is standing when delivering a line can forever inform the way a viewer thinks of a subject. For example, Janet made the pithy comment yesterday that Thomas Jefferson was always "looking exasperated and leaning against stuff." This is not something we knew from any book, because an author couldn't get away with something like that. And it isn't like the filmmaker is trying to slip something by us, there's no choice. The guy playing Jefferson has to do something while he is talking so he might as well look exasperated and lean against something, because that seems pretty in character.

All of which is leading me to the question of whether using talented actors and paul giamatti to tell the story of John Adams is "better" history than using the facts---the dates and quotes---alone. I asked my friend Jenny about this---she is getting her Phd in history now, and she doesn't like that the book became a miniseries at all. She referred to it as "historical fiction," and drew no distinction between a work like the Adams miniseries and a Philippa Gregory novel.

I think for someone like me who doesn't have a phd in history, the film treatment does more good than harm. In the McCullough documentary to which I referred, he remembered meeting Harry Truman in 1952, and that what most surprised him was that Give 'Em Hell Harry was in color- he only knew him from newspapers and newsreels. And so it is with these historical figures who precede even photography. We forget that they were people before they were monuments, or as janet said, that they were not the founding fathers at the time. That's why it is important to see a Jefferson who is always leaning against stuff. Not because it teaches me that he is the specific type of person portrayed in the movie, but because it reminds me that he was a person at all.

All for now. Some thoughts on the war of 1812 tomorrow, then on to Monroe.

loyal opposition

On July 3, 1776, the day before the D of I was signed and independence declared, John Adams wrote this in a letter to Abigail:

The fourth day of July, 1776, will be memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

Dont fail to notice, people, that he said "one end of the continent to the other." Did they even know about California back then?

The miniseries had many flaws (not least of which was casting the marginally talented paul giamatti against the actress, laura linney), but one thing it was great at was contextualizing and respecting Adams's opponents- those like John Dickinson who did not want the colonies to declare their independence. Since we now know that declaring independence was so clearly the right decision, it seems right to portray the loyalists as british apologists at worst, and scaredy-cats at best. Now that we know that we won the war and survived our salad years, arguing for reconciliation seems reckless.

But John Dickinson wasn't the crazy one---John Adams was. There were too many obstacles in the way of independence to list, or fit in an 8 hour miniseries. But through guile, rhetoric, religious invocation, and a bit of fear-mongering, Adams convinced 12 state delegations composed of learned men to essentially ignore the facts on the ground, and start a suicidal war (12, not 13, because Dickinson ultimately abstained) because of idealism. The movie portrays Dickinson as he probably thought of himself--- a sober, thoughtful, grounded man with his finger in the dyke, holding off for as long as he could the deluge of revolution.

What kind of man leads his countrymen into such chaos? The same kind of man/fanatic who knows specifically that 230 years later, the 4th of July will be celebrated with parades and fireworks. Only because his ideas seem reasonable now does history regard Adams as a reasonable man. But in the unfolding of his time, Adams was as daring a revolutionary as has lived. Film proved an especially good medium for reminding me of this.

November 28, 2009

a very special episode of At Times Dull

today david came to chicago and we marathoned the 7-hour john adams miniseries. there is much to say.

john adams - a few weeks ago i told my friend kait of our plans to watch the miniseries. "john sadams?" she asked, "because that thing will have you crying in 20 minutes." and yeah, what the crap, hbo? the miniseries is directly based on david mccullough's book, which is a real credit to him, but having read that very book i'd have to say that john adams is NOT that depressing. in fact, mccullough frequently paints him as the most candid, amiable of the founding fathers, most of whom where stiff-lipped aristocrats. the miniseries would have you think he was a big crankypants, always whining and badgering and huffing and puffing when he didn't get things his way. the impression i had of him was that he was brilliant, ambitious, persuasive, and extremely likeable, and that his moody, vain attributes were just the common b-side of a type a personality.

of course, you say, who am i to judge the character of john adams? i am no one. but consider the fact that he was repeatedly elected to public office, he was repeatedly chosen by his peers in government for the highest offices available, and george washington, benjamin franklin, and thomas jefferson all regarded him as talented and a reliable friend. the man depicted by hbo was simply too much of a downer to have accomplished any of those things.

the making-of featurette, which i rushed to view, is drenched in the goal "not to romanticize the founding fathers." this is a noble goal. as the director said, to understand the world of 1776, you have to live in a world where you don't know who the founding fathers are. they're not icons yet, they're still just dudes in wigs who spend a lot of time debating. and they are portrayed in the miniseries as very human, with all their flaws hanging out. the great providence of the american revolution is not the actions of a single one of them, but that they were all alive at the same time. they, shall we say, complete each other. i will now presume to call myself a student of the american revolution and say that, as a student of the american revolution, the scenes that had me on the edge of my seat were the personal interactions between the founding fathers, whom in the last few months have come to play a bizarrely large role in my daily life. there's a scene when franklin, adams, and jefferson are sitting around putting red pen to the first draft of the declaration. there's a scene where the continental congress does a roll call vote for independence. there's a scene where george washington is sworn in as president on a balcony in philadelphia. there's a scene where john and abigail drive up to the white house, still under construction, still called the president's house. some of the hair and make-up on the production is pure alchemy, and as david mccullough said in an interview, the first time he walked up to david morse in costume as george washington, it was heart-stopping.

these scenes gave me the goosebumps. i would refrain from saying that history came to life, but i guess i just did.

pride & prejudice: being the bromance between john adams and thomas jefferson: i believe i've already written at some length about the relationship between adams and jefferson, but it's the part of early american history that i find most captivating. i was delighted to find that i share this in common with david mccullough.

adams and jefferson died on the same day - july 4 1826 - the 50th anniversary of american independence. mccullough said that it was this extraordinary fact that he first wanted to write about, and that in exploring how to do so without being swept up in the glamour and legacy of jefferson, he discovered that adams' was the story that needed to be told. even so, the extraordinary friendship between the two steals the show in the both the book and the miniseries.

they met in 1776. adams was a brash orator and jefferson a shy idealist. adams pulled jefferson out of his shell to write the declaration. jefferson becomes a superstar. a few years later they both end up in paris as diplomats, and form a close friendship. when the adams' are called away to london, they are most saddened by the fact that they'll be away from jefferson's company. after the constitution is ratified, both men return to america to serve in the new federal government - adams as vice president and jefferson as secretary of state. as two political parties emerge, they find themselves torn asunder by domestic politics. as adams was part of the ruling federalist majority - first as vice president and then as president - it was jefferson who turned to the destructive political machinations of the minority, hurting adams professionally and personally. the rift was almost a matter of policy until after adams retirement when he found out that jefferson had secretly been funding a newspaper with the express instructions to write damaging and frequently untruthful articles about adams. and that was when he broke both adams and my heart.

adams, it should be said, always refused to say anything bad about jefferson. even when running against each other in the presidential election of 1801, adams referred to jefferson as "a dear friend of many years."

but in their retirement, when both had wearied of national politics, adams wrote jefferson a letter, and jefferson wrote back. after not hearing or seeing each other in over a decade, they began a correspondence that lasted until their deaths. historians drool over it. and in the miniseries, it's the happy ending. in a touch that would be way too adorable were in not entirely factual, they had busts of each other in their bedrooms. busts. this stuff kills me.

abigail adams: for the love of heaven would someone give this woman a monument.

benjamin franklin: being a genius at french etiquette is maybe not something to be proud of.

paul giamatti: i remain unconvinced.

david mccullough: what a gem.

November 23, 2009


so you won a revolution. now what are you going to do?

the 1780s: not great.

the 1770s were all death to king george! no taxation without representation! give me liberty or give me death! we declare these truths to be self-evident!

and by the 1790s, we had a nation. a president that virtually everyone liked, some good trade agreements, and something that was, if not already so, on its way to being a stable currency.

in between, the 1780s happened. it's like the decade that america forgot, or would like to, and has been the hardest part to get through of every biography so far. so we won the war, which put us in massive debt. the states were being governed by the articles of confederation which, in a nutshell, said, "you're free! please behave yourselves." most of the luminaries of the revolution basically graduated out of legislative duty. some of them went to europe as diplomats, some retired, and some went home and said "i'm a hero! give me a state to run!" (read: patrick henry. good at sound bytes, bad at everything else, like running virginia.)

so when the first post-war congress convened, there were almost no big-name declaration signers there. just a bunch of talented younger guys, many of who had been active in state legislatures in voting for independence, but new to the national scene. and these guys had all the unexciting work to do. there were no more declarations to write, wars to win, philosophies to shout from the rooftops. there was inflation, debt, regional conflict, and state governments running wild with their independence. the main conflict of the 1780s went something like this:

congress: we owe several european nations millions of dollars, could you please tax your citizens?
states: do we have to?
congress: we'd like you to.
states: but we're free now! we hate tyranny!
congress: if we don't get some taxes we're going to become part of britain again.
states: stop oppressing me!

soon it became clear that the articles of confederation were based on way too much goodwill among the states, and a stronger central government was needed. the 1780s were a decade in which the states and the congress tested out their new government, found its flaws, started speeding towards self-implosion, and then tried to reshape the government from within the confines of the confederation. in short, it was the decade for james madison.

because james madison was a huge nerd. almost no description of him is ever written without getting to "man of learning" in the first few sentences. madison was part of the first post-war congress, and he became extremely frustrated with the weak national government. when his term was over, and he returned to virginia, he found himself without much to do, so he decided to embark on a course of study on how all governments had worked through the history of time. he made himself an expert on every republic, empire, monarchy, parliament, and senate that had ever ruled, and studied what worked and what didn't. he was doing his homework.

after a few years in the virginia legislature, madison went to serve in the federal convention where, basically, he walked that convention like a dog. many of the delegates were there with goals of protecting the private interests of their state. madison was there to create the most perfect government on the earth, and pretty soon he was running every debate.

madison was no idealist. unlike jefferson, his most particular friend, madison did not think that americans when left to their own devices would all decide to be virtuous farmers. but he did think a republican government was the only way to go. when the constitution was being ratified, madison and hamilton published a series of essays in its defense now known as the federalist papers. madison wrote, in the opening essay, "it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force."

a lot of these decisions and choices were made in the 1780s, by men whose states were going broke and who had very little reason to concede to each other. james madison is known as the father of the constitution because, during the very long and hot and miserable summer of 1787, he got them all to agree to fund a strong central government and start working for the greater good. he did this by merit of how blatantly smarter he was than everybody else in the room (and franklin was there). he was a huge nerd, and he was also a huge political genius. we should all be very glad we weren't alive in the 1780s, and we should be very glad that james madison was.

now if only the guy would get married.

November 18, 2009

presidential fact #7

 The delegates of the Federal Convention of 1787 (or FedCon, as we would call it nowadays) got a 10-day break after a month or two so a committe could summarize their progress. George Washington went on a trout-fishing trip with Gouverneur Morris (his actual name) to Valley Forge. It was the first time he had been there in the summer.

One can only imagine the subtle, wise, magisterial, time-worn comment he made upon seeing the site not covered in snow and blood.

November 14, 2009

presidential fun fact #6

James Madison was both our shortest and lightest President. At 5'4 and 100 pounds, he was a little bit shorter and slighter than Victoria Beckham (h/t

Madison, the Early Years

Ironically, James Madison had a weak constitution.

Centuries before Jimmy Carter bemoaned America's Crisis of Confidence, and Bill Clinton Felt Your Pain, Madison was the country's first emoter-in-chief. Starting in his college days Madison had a weird form of what was then called epileptoid hysteria, and what we would now call panic attacks. Madison described it like this: "a constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling Epilepsy, and suspending the intellectual functions." Madison took medicine for his disorder, but it seems to have been more in his head than body---the hysteria only appeared before sea voyages and other activities that involved intense physical or intellectual labor. When Jefferson invited him to Europe once, Madison wrote to his mentor, "I have some reason to suspect that crossing the sea would be unfriendly to a singular disease of my constitution." Throughout every step of his life, people close to Madison were always worried that whatever responsibility he was about to take would finally overwhelm his fragile health. He was too weak to become a farmer, and too stressed out to become a lawyer. Even studying for finals proved too difficult for him, and he had to stay at Princeton one summer because he was too drained to make the journey home after exams.

He was also shy. Whereas John Adams could not shut up about his love for Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson sent saucy letters to women happily married to his friends, Madison seemed almost embarrassed by his clumsy attempts at romance. For example, the world didn't know until 1948 that he had been engaged to a woman named Kitty Floyd (no relation to Kitty Boyd, happy birthday). Why? Because Madison had inked out every reference to her in every letter. After a couple hundred of years, the ink had faded sufficiently that historians could set to work deciphering the code that Madison used to write about his betrothed. The engagement ended when she cheated on him with a med student, as women will.

Even Madison's attempts at mischief seem virginal (Don't think I didn't see the opportunity for a joke about the Non-Intercourse Act of 1810. I just passed). At Princeton, he became involved in a flame war with a rival student association. About its leader, Moses Allen, Madison composed this attempt at bawdy humor: Great Allen founder of the crew/ If right I guess must keep a stew/ The lecherous rascal there will find/ A place just suited to his mind/ May whore and pimp and drink and swear/ Nor more the garb of Christians wear/ And free Nassau from such a pest/ A dunce a fool an ass at best.

Marshall Mathers he wasn't. But from this sensitive youth emerged the finest diplomatic mind America had known. In the early days of the country, America faced a choice between allying with Britain, whose economic and political interests best aligned with ours, and France, who had bailed us out during the Revolutionary War. In the midst of partisan profane discourse that would make Billy Martin sound like Judith Martin, it was Madison who forged a compromise that allowed France to save face. He was worried about their feelings. This deft maneuvering later served as a model for President Kennedy (another man who felt) in dealing with Khrushchev's bombastic ego during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Madison used the occasion of his first inaugural address to share his nuanced view of how the psyche affected politics: "Indulging no passions which trespass on the rights or the repose of other nations, it has been the true glory of the United States to cultivate peace by observing . . . the respect of the nations at war . . . . If there be candor in the world, the truth of these assertions will not be questioned."

And that's how far I am in the book. Can't wait to see how this guy reacts when the Brits burn down the White House. I will let you know.

November 09, 2009


one of the more awkward situations i've ever been a part of transpired when my big brother eric and i traveled together to boston. i was a junior in high school and he was a sophomore in college and we had the same spring break, so we drove out to visit some family and be tourists in boston.

one of our stops was at the boston tea party site, where you can board an imitation boat, attend an imitation town meeting, and then throw an imitation crate of tea over the side of the imitation boat (after which, because the crate is tethered with a rope, and because we can't actually all throw crates into the harbor, you have to haul the crate back up and hand it to the next person in line).

the whole attraction is really best enjoyed when you're about 13, which is not to say it's without merit, but the enjoyment you get out of it at any other age is just pure irony.

the real low point was the town meeting. our spring break was in mid-march, well before tourist season, so the group of us present at the town meeting numbered about 7, scattered around benches that could have seated 40. eric and i, an elderly asian couple, and a young european couple with two young children were the rebels present on this particular day. a young girl, who i can only guess was a history major unhappy with the way her life was turning out, stood before us. she explained that the revolution was popularized in new england by town meeetings, during which the town officials would tell news of what the british were doing and get the crowd riled up. when the crowd was pleased, they would pump their fists and yell "aye!" when the crowd was angered, they would point and the ground and yell "fie!" she had us practice this, and from that moment it was clear that those present with us did not understand english, or were pretending not to.

she started the meeting. she reminded us of the stamp act (fie!). general washington was raising a colonial army (aye!), but there were already ships full of british soldiers crossing the atlantics (fie!). now they were imposing the tea tax (fie!) but the sons of liberty weren't going to take it (aye!). as the asians and europeans looked on blandly, eric and i gamely carried the mob mentality a deux. we yelled aye and fie as often as expected, but this only served to highlight how pathetic the whole spectacle was. at one point, eric got mixed up and shouted "fie!" while pumping his fist, instead of pointing at the ground. this gave us the giggles, and the town meeting continue to go downhill. we tried to participate as good-naturedly as possible, regarding our tour guide with the trademark combination of amusement and pity with which you regard anyone who wears a costume for a living, but our efforts were not enough to keep the desperation and humiliation out of her eyes, barely visible below her historically accurate lace bonnet.

all this is to say that i've never been carried away by the revolutionary spirit. this is one of the reasons i love james madison.

washington began his career as an officer in the british army. always the upward mover, he actually sent an embarrassingly grovelly letter to a british admiral asking for a promotion, which he was not given.

adams and jefferson both studied law, and began their careers as opposition to the british was growing popular. it was something they had to consider gravely, and incorporate into their public philosophies.

madison was about 16 when the stamp act was passed, and the decade that passed between that and the declaration he spent at school, college, and back in virginia at his family's estate. when at princeton (then called the college of new jersey), he and his classmates debated the idea of british rule in their commencement oratories. he studied Moral Philosophy (a subject that at the time included ethics, political science, economics, and philosphy) in the context of america's role vis a vis tyrannical britain. he grew up with the idea of revolution, and he loved it.

after college, he and william bradford, a princeton classmate and philadelphia printer, decided to keep up a regular correspondence for "pleasure and improvement." this correspondence soon became an exchange of revolutionary ideas, news, and gossip. as many of the men who went on to vote for independence were out fighting, debating, or writing, madison was a 23-year-old on his family farm, pumping his fist. he was a convert of the purest form, not bothering to temper his arguments against those who might disagree, never discussing his ideas with anyone except those who vehemently agreed, and rushing to swift, aggressive conclusions. where the first 3 presidents have come across as wise, reasonable men in the time of independence, madison comes across as an enthusiast. it's endearing. aye!

November 08, 2009

We See Things as We Are, or Watching C-Span in Fort Wayne

As Jefferson lay ailing in the Winter of 1826, he wrote this to James Madison: "Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections."** So Dramatic. Madison did what he could, making his mentor look good with a very successful presidency (which I am now reading about in this long-ass book). But as the Bernstein epilogue points out, Jefferson's legacy has been quite variable, moving at the whim of the present worldview of an ambivalent public.

During the first phase of Jefferson's legacy, from his death until the civil war, the very word "Jefferson" acted as an inkblot test measuring the psyches of the nation's opposing factions. Northerners championed what he said, holding him as a defender of individual liberties and a strong national government--Southerners what he did, praising him as a slavery advocate and believer in states rights. What everyone agreed on was that Jefferson was the father of religious freedom- Americans at that time really started going for organized religion.

Jefferson's popularity was at its low point after the Civil War, which is surprising since Honest Abe claimed Jefferson as his intellectual hero. But he had not been nearly as enamored of TJ as were Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee, a Virginian. Like every revolutionary in the world since 1776, they saw their cause as being tied to that of the American Patriots. The industrial revolution made America feel alienated from the gentleman planter who dreamed of an agrarian America. Also, an increasingly progressive country started to see through his hypocrisy re: the slavery issue (only 100 years before I did). President Wilson even called him "not a great American."

But then everything collapsed in 1929, and Jefferson's poor man populism once again became trendy. FDR praised Jefferson's crusade against "malefactors of great wealth" (and more nefariously, admired Jefferson's pluck in trying to disregard everything the Supreme Court said) (in a history of the Supreme Court, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR would be the villains).

Finally, Jefferson gained his status as an American hero during World War II. Jefferson's bicentennial was observed in 1943, and gave the country a reason to reflect on his thoughts about freedom. We were in the depths of the war against fascism, sowing the seeds of a long war against communism, and Jefferson was our best cheerleader. He was the best political writer in our history, and in battles of ideologies, words have meaning.

So the question is this: Why is Jefferson's legacy so malleable? I think it's no more complicated than that the man is really, really quotable. The best thing about having swine flu in Fort Wayne was all the C-Span I got to watch during the health care debate. And Jefferson's prints all over that thing, superficially. Some Dem blowhard quoted Jefferson as saying this: "Liberty is to the collective body what health is to every individual body. " Obviously, Jefferson was in favor of the public option. But then Sarah Palin, via her facebook page came back with this Jeffersonian zinger: "Tyranny will take hold if good conscious men do nothing." (Yes, I am facebook friends with Sarah Palin. She's like, the hottest girl in school. Either her or Korrinne Ward). Obviously Thomas Jefferson would detest this attack on our freedoms.

The point is that the guy just took some points (Freedom, Religion, Speech) that everyone agrees on, and wrote about them elegantly and kinda generically. He was a real douchebag (Janet's word) when he was alive, and people held it against him for awhile, but not anymore. Now we strip mine his presidency for quotes, and all agree that he (we) was right all along. I could see a similar thing happening to Barack Obama years from now- it's just the downside of being a quotable populist. For example, in 100 years, when America is deciding whether to allow Canada into the country as the 51st state, people will abuse the shit out of this quote: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America - there's the United States of America.

OK I'm done with Jefferson. My next post will be about Madison. He wrote the Constitution---the supreme law of the land.

*I am reminded of Rep. Michelle Bachmann's statement in the health care debate the other day: "Our forebearers are crying out for us to preserve their freedoms." God help us if we still need health care after we die.

November 07, 2009

presidential fact #5

James Madison (4th president) and Zachary Taylor (12th president) were 2nd cousins.

November 06, 2009



At first I was kind of dreading the amount of overlap we would get between all the different biographies. Especially in the early years of the presidency, when the American political scene was still very small, most of the presidents were not only contemporaries but lifelong friends. So we're reading about alot of the same stuff over and over again. A letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson is quoted in the biographies of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and I wouldn't be surprised if it showed up in Madison and Monroe as well.

But the nice thing about it is how well I'm getting to know colonial/revolutionary America. I'm currently in the early years of the Madison biography, and when Ralph Ketcham lists off some of his more prominent classmates at Princeton, I already knew who a lot of them were. When he mentioned that Philip Freneau authored many satirical pamphlets at Princeton I was like, "Of course he did! Blast that Freneau! Always making trouble."**

I also know my way around American in the 1770s. Philadelphia was the center of progress (thanks in no small part to Benjamin Franklin). It was the largest city in America, and the first one to have sidewalks, streetlamps, and organized political dissension. People used to meet at the London Coffee House (ha) to complain about England.

Boston was a town of well-educated Puritans and Rebels. There wasn't a lot of old money in Boston in those days, mostly lawyers and merchants and clergy. John Adams was a true Boston man - self-made, thrifty, devoutly religious, and vehemently revolutionary.

New York started making a play for majorness slightly later. It had good shipping, and once the Revolutionary War was in full swing the British targeted it much more than Philadelphia. Although it was on its way up, in general it was a poor man's Philadelphia. George Washington was inaugurated there but the federal government moved to Philadlephia only a few months later.

Philadelphia was dead set on being the permanent capital of the federal government. It had hosted all the Continental Congress sessions, after all, it was the biggest, the most sophisticated, and the president already lived there.

But they decided to build a brand new capital, and they decided it should be on the Potomac. Why? Well, mainly because George Washington got to pick where it was, and Thomas Jefferson was his secretary of state, and they were all about Virginia.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all hailed from Virginia planter class (although Washington kind of married into it), and they literally will not shut up about it. Getting any of them, especially the first two, to leave Virginia was like kicking Adam and Eve out of the garden. Presidencies, ambassadorships, gigs writing the Consitution - all of these were moaned about as not being as awesome as staying in Virginia. Virginia was the most important place in America for the latter half of the 18th century, and possibly longer.

Americans were still comfortable with landed gentry, even if they weren't crazy about monarchy, and the Virgininan planters came close to being the barons and earls of America. They had huge, sprawling estates, hundreds of slaves, lots of debt, and oodles of class. It's an easy place to farm, and a big productive farm was possibly the manliest thing you could possess. The children of these estates (among them those 4 early presidents) had very little to do with their youth other than learn Latin, Greek, rhetoric, oratory, and theology. They grew up to be brilliant, stately, very accustomed to luxury, and very attached to their land. Virginia produced luminaries of the Revolution at a much higher rate than any other state, and was constantly being deferred to. When three men were needed to be envoys to Britain, Congress wanted to send a Northerner, a Southerner, and a Virginian. Men from Virginia were loyal to each other (most of them were related anyway), so any time a position came open, being from Virginia was always hugely in someone's favor, because of all the clouty friends they would carry with them. If the Virginians banded together in any debate, they would win it.

It was the old boys club within the original old boys club. Even at the time it had its skeptics. Adams - who was a fan of living within his means and not a fan of owning other people - thought Virginia was kind of ridiculous.

It's been a funny thing to get used to, because Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are all still major cities, but Virginia doesn't have a trace of the cache it used to. When I think of Virginia I think swing state and ham, but when I read the biographies it's just the ultimate. Jefferson thought it would be the model for the rest of America. Washington thought it would be the gateway to the west, the eternal epicentre of America, which is why he built the federal city a stone's throw from his house.

I don't know what happend to Virginia, or when it lost its status, but when I read about Virginia in the old days, I kind of wish I could go there. As long as I was a rich white man.

**Freneau was a poet and friend of Jefferson and Madison. Years later, when they were unhappy with the way America was going but didn't want to embroil themselves in a public scandal, they gave Freneau the money to start a newspaper had him write articles about how great they were. He was (maybe) the bane of Adams' presidency.

November 01, 2009


My favorite scene in pre-America America is Thomas Jefferson seething while the Continental Congress gentrifies his Declaration of Independence. I found a copy of Jefferson's draft here:

Cf. the final product:

Of note---

-Changing "we hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable" to "we hold these truths to be self-evident" (a change Jefferson made)

-Congress totally neutering the list of complaints against Crazy King George (the sentences that start "he has . . .")

Jefferson was pretty pissed about Congress abrogating the list of grievances---that section got the most press at the time. But now we remember the second paragraph, which I memorized in fifth grade, and which is Jefferson's writing entirely.

Also Jefferson and Adams both died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration's ratification. But you already knew that.

October 31, 2009

presidential fact #4

speaking of sally hemings, of the very few contemporary accounts of her that exist, one of the most detailed was written by abigail adams.

the adamses and jeffersons were BFF in the years during and right after the war. abigail even joked about john quincy marrying martha jefferson. when jefferson was the ambassador to france, he sent for his young daughter patsy to join him. when she got to europe, she stayed for a few weeks with the adamses, who were living in london. abigail adams immediately hit it off with the 7-year-old patsy, but was shocked that she was traveling alone with only one of jefferson's slaves taking care of her - a young, immature, moody, irresponsible girl who had no business caring for a child, in abigail's opinion. sally hemings.

October 30, 2009


There's a popular myth out there that upon completing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson went back to Virginia and freed all of his slaves. That didn't happen in real life. Jefferson's relationship with slavery remains for me (and everyone else) the hardest part of his legacy to accept or make sense of. It's easy enough (right or wrong) for us evolved folk to gloss over the people-owning. We are all products of our time. But to do so would be letting TJ off the hook too easily.
First, of the thinkers and potuses of the time, none was so Cavalier about accepting the slavery. Washington was exceedingly kind to his servants and during his presidency operated his plantation as Schindler did his factory: losing money, poor productivity, everyone treated as a person. His excellency freed his slaves upon his death. The Adamses abhorred slavery. They received a slave once as a gift and immediately set her free. Abigail thought that EVERYTHING- from the revolutionary war to a child's sore throat- was God's punishing america for the evil institution. Yeah, he was from Virginia, but so was GW, and besides we expect greatness greater than this from our great men.
Also there is Sally Hemings.The Bernstein book largely ignores that elephant, but as literary convention would have it, the book has an epilogue.It points out that despite 200 years of compelling circumstantial evidence, mainstream historians.usually dismissed the claims of the Hemings-Jefferson offspring, and those who supported them. They were the original birthers. Now with widely accepted DNA testing techniques (which came way too late for generations of jefferson issue and ronald goldman), we know that the rumors are true. And as it is hard to imagine one's property consenting to a sexual relationship (or even having the capacity to do do), well, it's uncomfortable.
It's actually nonsensical. How could this guy, who as a youth proudly considered himself a "freeborn british subject," who started a war over tea taxes, who penned the clearest moral statement in the western world's history of man's responsibility to his fellows (We hold these truths to be Self-Evident...)--- how could he house one of his families in luxury in Monticello and the other in squalor in his backyard?
In her last post Janet notes that Jefferson was famed for his stoicism. Shakespeare (whose house Janet and I will never tire of telling you that Adams and Jefferson visited together) told of another Stoic, who crushed his conscience's stirrings under a belief that his compromises were in the best interest of his country. But Brutus is an honorable man.

October 29, 2009

public displays of patriotism

thomas jefferson was a very, very slow fuse. he was famous for his stoicism, and never publicly responding to criticism (the original 'no comment' president.)

after he was president, he devoted a huge amount of time to the founding of the university of virginia. he designed the campus, handpicked the faculty, and personally designed the curriculum. he said that the official opening of the university was the proudest day of his life.

things went quickly down hill. the first class of students, perhaps as a backlash to jefferson's enormously high expectations, acted out. they vandalised the campus, went streaking at night, and gambled all the time. when things got out of control, jefferson decided to give a speech to the student body in order to extol them to higher principles.

when he walked into the hall where the students were waiting, flanked by madison and monroe, both former presidents and lifelong friends, he wept openly. he couldn't give the speech as planned because he was too overcome with emotion.

jefferson could be kind of a d-bag. the kind of total snob whose expectations nobody will ever meet, and both washington and adams became really exasperated with him as part of their adminstrations. but this moment won me back. jefferson never wanted to live any other life than that of the scholar, but his phenomenal intellectual capacity, given the time he lived in, continually pulled him into public service, where he was - over and over and over again - disappointed by people.

it was his own fault. he expected everybody to be the embodiment of their own ideals, or in most cases of his ideals. but his disappointment in people was utterly real.

he was a perfectionist, he was furious at every word of the Declaration that congress proposed to change. when he had to watch an entire nation - one that he had created in his mind as a utopia of liberty - go off on its own shaky legs and try to sustain itself, he couldn't write enough letters expressing his grief. but when the university of viriginia fell short of his lofty plans, he simply couldn't take another disappointment. he wept in public. i can't remember the last time i saw a family member weep, let alone the president of the united states. that poor guy.

presidential fun fact #3

Thomas Jefferson's first memory in life was as a 2-year-old being carried on a pillow by a slave. His last living moment was spent telling a slave to readjust his pillows so that he could rest more comfortably.


Janet pretty much covered everything in the way of introductions, but there are two things I should add.

1. She and I met when we overlapped for one day working at the greatest bookstore in history in Boston. It was my first day, and her last day, and she was supposed to train me. Within probably eight minutes she had set off the fire alarm.

2. I am stuck in Fort Wayne, Indiana, doing a sort of legal internship for the year. This accounts for my enthusiasm that J. referenced earlier. She thought that my life's ennui would "shine through" my posts, but I think it is better to put it out front.

Onto the books. These first three guys are serving as more of an introduction to the Presidency than as an accounting of it.

Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were very different men with one thing in common. Their greatest moments did not involve their being President. This is almost inconceivable today, where Presidents are lifelong politicians whose careers have been meticulously planned as not to interfere with the goal of attaining the presidency. The office is not a reward--becoming President is the main thing. The culmination, of this trend is our recently electing a 46-year-old junior senator, who recently (very recently) had been serving in the Illinois State Capitol.

But not our first three chief execs. In 1776, John Adams, through persuasion and guile, convinced a majority of the delegates at the Congressional Congress to vote for Independence. He passed the ball to Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence (and Adams fought for every last word of it on the floor of Congress when weak-kneed PC delegates tried to temper the fightin' words). Then Washington went and won the damn war. By 1781 these guys were has-beens, or at least would-be has-beens. GW fancied himself the American Cincinnatus, who would retire to his plantation after winning the war. Adams wanted to finally spend some time with Abigail, the 18th-century Natalie Portman.

By the time they (spoiler alert) became President, they really didn't want to do it. Washington even maintained plausible deniability that his name was on the ballot. Again, inconceivable today.

Excited to start Madison. He mostly grew up in a time where the presidency existed---it was something he wanted.

October 28, 2009

John Adams
David McCullough

I remember seeing David McCullough on Charlie Rose soon after the book was published, and he was asked why he chose to write about John Adams. He said that he had been looking through some of Adams’ journals, and he found an entry that said, “I strive to rise every morning with the sun, read the Scriptures, study Latin and Greek, philosphy, and science, and walk 5-10 miles each day.” The next day’s entry said, “It is raining. I have dreamed away the day.” And that, McCullough said, is a man I can relate to. Among the tall, statuesque founding fathers, John Adams is short and chubby and talked to much and tended to get on people’s nerves. There are no monuments to him in Washington, and he’s not on any money. But he led the fight, in the 1776 continental congress, for independence, and personally persuaded a huge number of the delegates to vote with him.

Then he helped write the Declaration, went to France and Holland to secure wartime loans and political support, and ended up in England as the first citizen of the American nation to stand in front of the King of England. He also shared a bed with Benjamin Franklin on a few diplomatic missions and visited Shakespeare’s home with Thomas Jefferson. He got around.

Abigail Adams, as everybody says, is totally great. When the relationship between Jefferson and Adams turned sour (which broke my heart), Abigail still wrote to Jefferson to sympathize with him at the death of his daughter. When he replied and basically said, “I’m really sorry your husband and I aren’t friends anymore, but these things are out of our control,” she wrote back and said, “These things were completley in your control. You’re just a jerk. And now you’re lying about it.” One supposes that not many women in the 19th century would write to an ex-president in such a manner.

Everyone says Andrew Jackson was the first grassroots president, but I’d have to say John Adams should be in the running for that. Sure he went to Harvard, but everybody did back then, and for the most part he was a middle-class, self-motivated, self-made man. America!

presidential fact #2

when both were diplomats in europe, john adams and thomas jefferson visited shakespeare's home together.

presidential fact #1: founding spooners

during the early years of the revolutionary war, benjamin franklin and john adams were tasked with visiting a british admiral outside new york in the hopes of negotiating peace. on their trip, they shared a bed, and could not decide whether or not to keep the window open while they slept. adams was against it, franklin for it. franklin said he had theories about the health benefits of night air, and asked adams if he'd like to hear him. adams obliged, and fell asleep to the sound of franklin explaining these theories.

43 to go

His Excellency: George Washington
Joseph J. Ellis

A few months ago, I have no idea why, I decided it might be fun to read a biography of each American president, in order. I floated this idea a few times, and usually people laughed at me or said I would never get past the revolution.

But the project appeals to me. First of all, I don’t think I have a particularly admirable awareness of American history or politics, and this is a way to get a thorough schooling inAmerican history in a compelling way. Second of all, there are all these presidents! I probably couldn’t name more than 25-30 off the top of my head. And the role of the American president is so beguiling – so powerful and symbolic and influential, and yet so bogged down and defensive and working uphill – and this man can be George W. Bush one minute and Barack Obama the next. Crazy.

Eventually, I mentioned the idea to my friend Dave, who was immediately and ardently on board. He just graduated from law school and is kind of a political junkie, so he’s supplying all the context and enthusiasm. We waited until the end of the summer – until he had taken the bar and I had finished Infinite Jest – and dove into Washington after Labor Day.

We figure it will take four or five books before the project has any legitimacy. When I tell people I’m reading through all the presidents, they always ask me which one I’m on, and answering “Washington” doesn’t garner me a lot of respect. But we’re going to do it! Our goal is to finish before the 2012 election, which means we need to average a little less than a month for each president. Easy.

I did realize recently that I’m going to have to read through the entire American Revolution like, I don’t know, five times.

But Washington was great. I was surprised as how much vital information I didn’t know about him. Like where he grew up, and the fact that he didn’t have kids. This part, talking about when he was chosen to lead the Continental Army, made me laugh:

“Another short answer, subsequently offered by Adams as a joke, was that Washington was always selected by deliberative bodies to lead, whatever the cause, because he was always the tallest man in the room. Even as a joke, however, Adams was making a serious point that a veritable legion of his contemporaries made, especially upon first meeting Washington; namely, that he was physically majestic.”

John McCain can blame mass media if he wants, but it appears we have always been enraptured with leaders who look the part.

I also liked this part, about his post-presidential retirement at Mount Vernon.

“A day in the life of George Washington in retirement began at five o’clock with the rising of the sun: ‘If my hirelings are not in their places at that time, I send them messages of my sorrow for their indisposition.’”

Wake up calls! From George Washington!