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Saturday, November 13, 2010

No frigate like a book

Emily Dickinson wrote "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. . ." And this was my feeling on first opening a new book yesterday, Madison and Jefferson by Burstein and Isenberg (2010).

As I read the Preface, there was a frisson of freshness that overcame me as I realized I was venturing back to the 18th century and the founding of our country. There is always such a thrill when reading about Washington, Adams, Jefferson and their forging a new nation out of the thirteen colonies.

The authors make a point of telling us what historians do, that is challenge conventional wisdoms, assumptions and preconceptions about people in history and the events they helped initiate. "The discipline of history exists to reexamine time-honored treatments of people and events, and to separate myth from reality."

They warn against celebrating these men "blindly," for this invites "massive self-deception."

In other words, what the authors want to do is take a fresh look at the relationship of these two former Presidents, third and fourth, to hold them up to the light of new scholarship, new questions about what they did and didn't do.

One thing we learn right off the bat is that "Jefferson sought to undermine the [Constitutional] ratification process--to Madison's severe embarrassment." (xix) But Madison went on to champion Jefferson for the presidency, to battle John Adams, thus becoming his "campaign manager."

What's exciting about this literary/historical adventure is to witness two first-rate historians using their craft to scrutinize old misconceptions about two very famous men, founders of our country.

If we think today's politics are sometime brutal, one should learn more about the battles amongst the early men of the Revolution and the founding of this country.

Questioning the common wisdoms might not always be popular, but we need men and women who will accept this challenge, not just as historians but as critical friends within the parlors and corridors of power.

In the recent past too few questions were asked about major policy undertakings and with new memoirs afoot, we need all the inquisitiveness we can muster lest we thickly varnish reality.

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