Book Reviews

25 agosto, 2007

138) Founding fathers (e outros tantos)...

The Nation's Fathers
An unrivaled portrait of the era of America's founding emerges from these works.
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, August 25, 2007

1. "Thomas Jefferson" by Fawn M. Brodie (Norton, 1974).
This subtle account of Thomas Jefferson's life richly illustrates his many contradictions and accomplishments: author of the Declaration of Independence yet lifelong slaveholder; revolutionary statesman yet almost reactionary defender of states' rights; a lover of mankind yet a fervent hater (he loathed cities, industrialists and Federalists without distinction). As Fawn M. Brodie delves into Jefferson's personal and public lives, her greatest achievement is in capturing his humanity even as she gradually reveals his often darker side. When this book first came out, it was derided by critics as "psycho-history" and condemned for having the temerity to suggest that Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemmings. Brodie's work might be provocative, but it is also compelling. Her Jefferson is a dreamer, a visionary and a romantic. He is also tragic and poignant and conflicted--which is just about right.

2. "The Memoirs and Anecdotes of the Count de Ségur" translated by Gerard Shelley (Scribner, 1928).
Born on the eve of the Seven Years War, the French Count de Ségur was part of a rarefied circle of globetrotting diplomats who crossed borders, spoke in foreign tongues and fomented revolution. They were often the engine of the events upending the Old Order. With great idealism, Ségur left the comforts of the French court to join the American rebels in their struggle for independence, and he soon added George Washington to his list of illustrious friends. A traveler, poet and ambassador, Ségur was an intimate of both Louis XVI's and Marie Antoinette's; he distinguished himself as a general under Napoleon; and he captivated no less than Russia's Empress Catherine the Great. Traveling with Catherine to Crimea in the 1780s, he discussed with her, of all things, the young American republic. Catherine snapped, "If I had lost any of the 13 provinces the way King George did, I would have blown my brains out with a pistol." Ségur's reply is immortal: "The air of our age is that of philosophy and freedom. It enters palaces as well as huts." Ségur's memoirs, relating monumental events in an unsparing voice, are among the greatest of the era.

3. "The Age of the Democratic Revolution" by R.R. Palmer (Princeton, 1959, vol. 1; 1964, vol. 2).

This book belongs to a now dwindling genre of sweeping historical surveys grappling with big ideas. R.R. Palmer's subject is the revolutionary tide that swept Europe in the 1790s; he succeeds handsomely in this ambitious project. Though perhaps more partial to the French Revolution than many of his readers might be, and arguably too understated when he assesses the significance of America's rebellion (it showed only "mild accents of liberty"), Palmer deftly captures the cataclysms of the age. We see the rape of Poland, the subjugation of Italy, the rise of Napoleon; we see Britain and Austria seeking to stamp out the revolutionary menace; and we see France sliding into chaos and seeking to export its fervor to America. Though at times heavy-going, "The Age of the Democratic Revolution" recalls the best sort of historical survey classes we once took in college.

4. "George Washington" by Douglas Southall Freeman (Scribner, 1948).
Despite all that has been written about the legendary general and president, George Washington remains the most impenetrable of the founders, forever austere, dignified, aloof and unapproachable. Yet Douglas Southall Freeman, who is best known for his monumental biography of Robert E. Lee, has done as good a job as anyone in pulling together the threads of Washington's life. Washington emerges as not the most brilliant man of his day, or the most eloquent, or even the most militarily gifted. For that matter, his administration was troubled, such as by the controversy over its tax policies, which helped ignite the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. In the end, however, what comes across in this biography (I prefer the abridged edition published in 1968) is that, in a thousand little ways, Washington was destined to become the most important of America's Founders.

5. "The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson" by Bernard Bailyn (Harvard, 1974).
Before the American Revolution, Thomas Hutchinson was perhaps the most distinguished colonial official of his day. He was the royal governor of Massachusetts and America's most eminent historian. But like a third of the colonists, he remained stubbornly wedded to the British Crown, thus becoming one of the most hated men on the continent. He was variously denounced as "dark, intriguing, and ambitious" and as an "arch-fiend." In 1765, a mob enraged by his support for the Stamp Act stormed into his house and, when he was nowhere to be found, stabbed his portrait with bayonets. Exiled to Britain in 1774, Hutchinson became a broken man, forever longing to be buried in American soil. Bailyn writes the story with uncommon sensitivity and elegance and powerfully reminds us that America's Revolution, stripped of its mythology, was a painful, even tragic, civil war.

Mr. Winik is the author of "April 1865." His latest book, "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800," will be published by HarperCollins next month.