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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

History Vs. Hero Worship

On my birthday last November, I committed here to writing 63 posts about books over my 63rd year. Although on task to make my commitment, refusing to write about any book not worthy of a discerning reader's time has complicated the challenge and also increased my frustration with marginal books.

No such complications or frustration with "Founding Brothers" (2000) by Joseph Ellis. This might be the most enjoyable and informative book I've ever read about names familiar to anyone who studied early American history - Washington, Adams (John & Abigail), Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Burr. The author uses each of his seven sections to describe the relationships each had with the others and how their shifting alliances influenced the formative years of the republic. My attention never flagged; the author's language and scholarship are first rate.

And unlike most of what I recall being taught as a child, Ellis faces the question of slavery head-on throughout his book; the focus is on history, not hero worship. Though the first census in 1790 recorded a slave population of almost 700,000 in a population of just 4 million, the founding brothers found a way to kick this can down the road, setting the stage for an inevitable Civil War 70 years later. In the author's words, slavery was "...an intractable problem that even the revolutionary generation, with all its extraordinary talent, could neither solve nor face."   

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