Thursday Book Reviews – Adams Vs. Jefferson,

Adams Vs. Jefferson

John E. Ferling

Think the 2012 election is contentious? Try 1800. Much of what we take for granted about our republic today had not even been thought of at the start of John Adams’ term as president. In the early days of the Constitution, America had moved from throwing off the yoke of a foreign king to a new battle: Whether America would be run by an elite few consisting of New England merchants and southern planters or would it truly be a government for, of, and by the people.

If I had to title this book, however, I would not have called it Adams Vs. Jefferson. The battle between the first two political parties, the original Republican (or Democratic-Republican) Party and the Federalists, was really a battle between Jefferson, the idealist, and Alexander Hamilton, the scheming pragmatist. Both men’s flaws were on display in the lead-up to the election of 1800, and Adams seems more caught in the cross-fire. So while you’re tea partying your way to the polls or occupying whatever capitalist temple annoys you, keep in mind that pretty much everything you assume about the Founders, the republic, and democracy itself is most likely wrong.

Suicide Squeeze

Victor Gischler

The master of smart-ass noir returns in this tale of one of his early characters, Conner Samson. Samson began life having everything handed to him. He was a star athlete who was assumed to be destined for a career in the major leagues. That’s the back story. The present is Conner trying to pay off his bookie and wondering if it’s time to look for work again. He finds a job repossessing a boat called the Electric Jenny. When Conner goes after the boat, he finds himself entangled with a Japanese billionaire obsessed with getting his hands on a rare Joe DiMaggio baseball card signed by DiMaggio, Marylin Monroe, and Billy Wilder. It’s a classic collision of the evil and the stupid, and all of them trip over themselves in yet another Gischler comedy of errors.

Advertisements

Jefferson’s Contradictions

AMERICAN SPHINX by Joseph Ellis

{Originally posted to Goodreads.com]

Joseph Ellis wrote an unflinching look at the Father of Our Country, George Washington, but before that, he wrote his own personal hero, Thomas Jefferson.

While this is an excellent look at the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, what keeps me from giving this book five stars is Ellis’s very reason for writing this book.  In his introduction and conclusion, he is almost apologetic, making like Rush Limbaugh to “put it all in perspective for you.”  In short, Ellis is a Jefferson fan boy.

Ellis gives us enough facts about Jefferson to form an honest picture of him.  We see his struggle with slavery, an institution he could not live without yet found morally repugnant (much like Washington).  He is a fiscally responsible public servant whose own finances were a mess, a problem exacerbated by his love of antiques, furniture, lavish building projects, and, of course, fine wine.  We also see the prototypical modern Republican – that is the party of small government, localized authority, and little federal spending – become an even more energetic president than either of his predecessors.  In short, Jefferson was a walking contradiction.

Where Ellis falls down in this effort is his need to explain Jefferson’s thinking, as though without such commentary, a reader might rush to judgment and see the man as something less than iconic.  None of it is necessary.  If all Jefferson ever accomplished in his life was write the Declaration of Independence or acted as one third of the greatest diplomatic team in history – the rest of it being Benjamin Franklin and John Adams – his place in history would be assured.

As it is, Thomas Jefferson the revolutionary I am most certainly an admirer.  Thomas Jefferson the elder statesman, whose correspondence with Adams in both men’s twilight years remains the greatest bipartisan dialogue in US history, is undoubtedly someone to whom we should stop and listen.  But Jefferson the politician and president?

Jefferson may have been the original libertarian and proponent of small government.  However, like too many of that philosophy, he was an ardent hardliner, at least until relaxing his stance suited him.  Granted, it gave us the Louisiana Purchase and removed France and Spain from the North American continent.  But as a politician?

Not a fan.

But that’s quite all right.  It would do most Americans good to see that their Founding Fathers were not this monolithic group of men who thought and acted as a unit.  They were a disagreeable and contentious lot full of idealists (Jefferson), pragmatists (Adams and Washington), and even a few schemers (Alexander Hamilton).  To say the Founding Fathers intended anything as a means to win an argument shows a lack of understanding of this crucial phase of history. The Founding Fathers intended vastly different things, and that the Constitution even exists is a miracle.

That a man who opposed much of its content would become our third president is no mean feat, either.