Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: Founding Brothers (Book 30 of 100)

I never had much of an opinion about the founding fathers other than they were stereotypically all dead, heterosexual, white men who were probably racist and sexist too boot. Joseph J. Ellis's book Founding Brothers helped to change that opinion. It's true that all the founding fathers were white and most of them were male. There was apparently one woman at the Constitutional Convention but she's never talked about even in this book. I still don't know her name.

Still, Ellis makes clear that they were not all these far off God like figures as we are taught to view them in high school history class. They were normal people with normal problems. Some of them, in fact, quite severe. For example, Thomas Jefferson could not keep a friend. He first alienated George Washington and then alienated John Adams who was his lifelong friend. While Jefferson and Washington never made up, Jefferson and Adams did manage to recover their friendship to some degree in their later years.

Another interesting thing I learned was while I knew this story in the general sense (as every American school child does) was the in depth analysis of the fatal and famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. I knew that Hamilton had died and that Burr had been in disgrace after that. But, I didn't know why. It was basically a pissing contest that got out of hand between two grown men who had political disagreements and decided it would be better to go shoot guns at each other than act like civilized people and work it out on the debating floor. No one from what I can tell expected anyone to end up dead. As the author puts it, "In the contradictory version of the next four or five seconds of the duel, might serve as evidence for the post-modern contention that no such thing as objective truth exists." Hamilton, according to his man servant, didn't intend to fire at Burr. According to his own man servant, Burr had no intention of injuring Hamilton. He just wanted to regain his honor after Hamilton had said some disquieting things about him.

Another thing I did not know before reading this chapter was that dueling was illegal. I always thought it was just something they did back then. I didn't know they weren't supposed to be doing it according to the laws of the time. This incident actually helped end dueling in it's illegal format. Even though it had been illegal before, people still practiced it. Suddenly, it became a disgraceful activity and not a gentleman's sport. Although, from my modern stand point I wonder why it was ever a sport to begin with.

The question of slavery, of course, came up a lot in this book. Actually, my view of slavery has changed from reading it. Slavery was still an awful abomination of a thing and the nation would have been better off had we undertaken the Quaker proposal to just get rid of it first off. But, I must remember (being an activist myself as all these people were I feel) if the country would have been founded at all had we tried to deal with slavery or the Native American question in a way that would suit our modern sensibilities back then. This makes me wonder about how future generations of disabled people will view their decisions that early leaders of the disability rights movement had to make that excluded people with cognitive and psychiatric impairments from getting home care support and only made that service available to people with physical impairments.

The early leaders I've spoken to about this subject are, of course, sorry that it happened. But, they say no one would have ever got out of institutions had they insisted that every person who couldn't do a thing had a right to get supportive services to do it. If no one had gotten out of institutions, where would we be? Not to excuse genocide and slavery which happened as we know in the founding of the United States. However, I can't help but wonder if the founders felt the same way that early leaders of the disability rights movement do about having to make that horrible and hard decision. I may not like everything America does or everything it has done, but I know I'm glad to be an American. If these decisions had played out differently, there may not have been an America to be discussing in 2010. I suppose we can all look back and say we wish it would have gone that way but we can never know what pressures the people were under as they tried to establish the first national republic in the world.

That being said, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to think about it, it still makes me feel really uncomfortable to call human beings property as they did over and over again in this book. I didn't know Ben Franklin was a big abolitionist. In fact, it was his current mission when he died. I'm really going to have to look more into him now.

The thing I found most interesting about this book was the author's interview on the last disk. According to Ellis, the revolutionary generation (as he calls people who attended the Constitutional Convention) were basically together for 30 or 40 years. I don't have many friends or enemies that I've known for a decade much less arguing with the same people for 30 or 40 years. Modern Americans don't have friendships like that anymore. Ellis also argued that the, "culture of the modern campaign" led to "less deep, less interesting" debates. He says that no one in the founding generation would have run for office in our sound byte culture. Wouldn't that have been too bad? Indeed, I wonder how many people of virtue are choosing not to run for office because it's just too invasive and all-encompassing. I ran for a small, town office and found that almost more than I could bare.

I rate this book a 7.75 out of 10. It made me think. It humanized these historical megafigures into actual human beings. Not many books can do that. I think you'll enjoy it.

No comments:

Post a Comment