Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

America This is Quite Serious: Inventing America

FA serious

Every year around July 4th, inspired by the occasion as much as the dream of getting some real reading done over the long holiday weekend, I pull from the shelf Garry Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was published two years after the bicentennial, and is a long and dense study of the intellectual foundations of the Declaration of Independence — “the psychology of Louis de Jaucourt, the contract theory of David Hume, the mechanics of benevolence as elaborated by Francis Hutcheson,” as Wills summarizes them early on. Wills also talks about the way those lines of thought square up with how the document exists in our collective consciousness today, though I suspect he would have some updates to that interpretation.


As you might imagine, Inventing America has the potential to make its readers absolutely insufferable at today’s barbecues and fireworks shows, and fortunately I rarely get in too deep. The Prologue is enough to add a little magic and solemnity to a day all too often characterized by over-eating and ‘Murica chest thumping, and that is my recommended reading here.

The question Wills raises from the outset is: Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under America This is Quite Serious

Technology is Making Poetry Awesome Again

Despite what Wattpad is doing to the novel, a new program called RapPad has given everyone an excuse to read poetry.

RapPad was designed to help aspiring rappers write the hottest computer generated rhymes. Over at Mental Floss, linguist Arika Okrent recently used the “Generate Line” function to combine famous opening lines with existing rap lyrics. For example:  Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under Hooray Fiction!

Debauch This

Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns
Media matters
Status: You’ve been scooped

FOR ALL THE WOE CONCERNING TODAY’S UNDER-BALANCED AND OVER-SENSATIONAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE, perhaps no era of newspapers was more intense or intemperate, or more guiltless in its venom, than early journalism in the American colonies and new United States. It was the first draft of history for a nation feeling its way, rather probingly, to an identity as a republic.

Eric Burns’ “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism” explores this turbulent era of news from the first newspapers in Boston in the 1690s through the Passionate Decade of the 1790s. These formative years produced some of the finest scolds and wordsmiths our country has ever known, from Ben Franklin writing as Silence Dogood in his apprentice days, to Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. It was also a golden age of wrath and overreaction, when mobs would tear print shops to shreds and thrash offending editors in the streets. Years ago, I worked as the editor of the Pioneer Review, a small-town weekly in rural South Dakota. I remember after one contentious election, an angry contingent — including several prominent citizens — stormed into my office and demanded that I turn over the voter rolls to reveal any local traitors who had helped elect Tim Johnson, a Democrat, to another term in the U.S. Senate. I explained that I printed the vote tally but was not privileged with individual ballots. The mob grudgingly retreated, leaving my office and body unharmed. No tables were overturned. No chairs tossed through windows, no fire set to our press. That was child’s play by comparison.

But then I hadn’t even written anything to inflame the town. In colonial times, blowhards railed against everything from the Stamp Act to various treatments for small pox, and publishers neither saw nor presented any distinction between a news report or opinion and editorial. The idea of an impartial media did not yet exist, and rival editors laced into each other with blistering ferocity. You couldn’t skate by with clichés. You couldn’t be toothless in your taunting, or insipid with your insults, or you made a sorry journalist.

Early newspapermen were businessmen first; they needed to turn a profit, and that often meant accepting commissions, and viewpoints, from their patrons. One of the most scandalous instances of a writer-goon for hire came from Thomas Jefferson, who secretly funded Thomas Callender to slander and abuse President George Washington — all while Jefferson served next to Washington in his cabinet as secretary of state.

Jefferson’s dick-move has earned him condemnation in multiple volumes, while history has judged Washington far more generously than his own time. In his two terms, the first president was sneered as a monarchist, accused of “debauching” the nation, and slandered by nearly every Republican newspaper. These takedowns took their toll, and Washington — who appears to have coined the phrase “infamous scribblers” — grew to regret the free press his administration had tolerated (John Adams, with the Sedition Act, would later exact some temporary and questionable revenge by imprisoning the most vocal of his government’s critics).

Another foul-mouthed minion of the Republicans, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was involved in a long-running feud with archrival William Cobbett, whose paper supported the Federalists. Cobbett once wrote that Bache “has outraged every principle of decency, or morality, or religion and of nature. I should have no objection to the boys spitting on him, as he goes along in the street, if it were not that I think they would confer on him too much honour.”

These exchanges and many others in Burns’ book give me a pang of jealousy for an age of such impudent journalism.  There was once an honor to being eloquent, even at your most vicious, and no one bothered with the illusion of impartiality. Everyone had a bias, and that bias was a brand. Owning your arguments — and acknowledging your influences as a writer and thinker — did far more to educate readers than any pretension of being fair and balanced. Plus, the very real threat of a duel hung over every exchange of verbal fire. Now that’s accountability for your words.

It’s difficult to do justice to all the misery these writers heaped on each other, or to capture the extraordinary friction and energy involved in the early days of hammering out our grand national experiment. In these subdued times — and likely to the grave disappointment of my journalistic forebears — I will only go so far as to advise that you read the book and find out for yourself.

Do you want to trade paperbacks?

Leave a Comment

Filed under review

Americans Made

Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Did you know Washington, DC was almost named Washingtonople?
Status: Available in DC area only

FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME, WHO ARE DEDICATED BUT DECIDEDLY AMATEUR READERS OF AMERICAN HISTORY, there are a lot of good options to choose from. If your tastes lean more toward ideas and cultural context than the personal stuff, you can look to authors like Gordon Wood, who bind together stories about the founders under themes like “character,”  or explain how their Christianity or atheism, or that fact that the FF’s were gardeners or closeted homosexuals, or both, helped shape the course of human events.

If you’re really into ideas, you can turn to surly geniuses like Gary Wills, who can take a particular event or document — the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address, for example — and make riveting work out of tracing its intellectual roots in the Scottish enlightenment or thanatoptic poetry, respectively.

Howard Zinn has taken on the noble effort of showing how the actions of the Great Men who get the attention affected everyone else who was around at the time. “A People’s History of the United States of America” is something close to excellent, but should be read with the understanding that not every person who did anything of historical significance did it by way of a dark capitalist conspiracy. The right kind of reading in these books can provide an important awareness about how messy our path has been and likely will be, and get you primed for the nuances and complications of book like Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.”

For the more narrative, orchestra-swelling angle, try Joseph Ellis or David McCullough. For the more narrative, stomach-churning stuff, you can check out those Drunk History videos online.

Then there are guys like Ron Chernow and biographies like “Alexander Hamilton” and “Washington: A Life.” The best description of Chernow’s approach might be ‘the granular,’ in that he documents each man’s life down to very smallest of details. It’s not so much narrative or thematic as it is simply observant. We learn about the backgrounds of Hamilton’s benefactors on the island of St. Croix where he was born, and are told that on his voyage to college in New York, the ship caught fire and “crew members scrambled down ropes to the sea and scooped up seawater in buckets, extinguishing the blaze with some difficulty.” Of Washington, Chernow spends time on his near-constant worry over the finances of Mt. Vernon, his chiding letters to his employees there and his deep concerns about the discretion of his dentist. But we also hear about Hamilton’s abolitionism and dedication to his family, and that Washington’s mother’s shrill disapproval may have set the mold for his commitment to duty above all, that over the years he took in various orphaned members of his family, and that his stoicism was critical to holding together a young country looking for just about any reason to tear itself apart.

One of the many reasons to read these books is the deep connection between the two men. As relationships between the founding fathers go, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams get most of the attention for their academic and adversarial exchanges about the genesis of the country, which they wrestled over as President and Vice President and in years of correspondence, before poetically dying within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of declaring independence. The professional and personal interactions between Washington and Hamilton lacked such made-for-TV dramatics, but were in the end far more influential on the workaday construction of an enduring republic and the shape of the nation we know today.

Washington’s importance is undeniable; what often goes unremarked, however, is that Hamilton was by Washington’s side for most of the Revolutionary War, the drafting and defending of the constitution, and the laying of foundations for America’s government and economy during Washington’s presidency. When a looming war with France threatened to pull Washington out of retirement, he insisted against the wishes of President Adams and the decorum of military succession on elevating Hamilton to his second in command. The two men were cornerstones of each other’s success, from the battlefield through the drafting of the Washington’s farewell address, and to praise one is to praise the other. An apt comparison might be between Kennedy and Ted Sorensen, although an odder but more illustrative parallel can be made to Jay-Z and Kanye West: the patriarch reaching the peak of his abilities, and shaping his entire career, through the volatile creative genius of his upstart protegé.

OF THE TWO, HAMILTON’S BIOGRAPHY IS THE MORE INTERESTING. Hamilton rose from less than obscurity, the illegitimate son of an insolvent debtor on St. Croix, and by his early 20s was one of Washington’s closest advisers. Continue reading


Filed under review