In The Mail

What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers by Richard Brookhiser

I am a huge fan of Richard Brookhiser. His short biographies are great reads. If you think history is boring, you haven’t been reading Brookhiser. Now he is coming out with this fascinating work that views today’s issues through the lens of the founding fathers. This one has been moved to the top of my TBR list! A combination of history and political debate? How could I resist.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, here is what Michael Lind had to say (writing for Publishers Weekly):

It might be thought that nothing new could be said about America’s founding fathers, in the midst of the contemporary avalanche of tomes about Washington, Jefferson and other early American leaders. But Rick Brookhiser, inspired perhaps by a Christian motto—”What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD)—has come up with a way to describe the views of the architects of the American republic that is as entertaining as it is informative.”

Americans have been asking what the founders would do since the founders died,” writes Brookhiser, a journalist and historian (Alexander Hamilton and The Way of the WASP). Combining the skills of a first-rate writer with those of a medium at a séance, Brookhiser channels the spirits of eminent early Americans in discussing contemporary public debates. At times, Brookhiser has to stretch to find an analogy between the era of the founders and today, such as his comparison between stem cell research and the old practice of robbing graves for medical research.

In other cases, however, the conceit works to shed light on present and past alike. Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy around the world? Brookhiser makes a case for the caution of Alexander Hamilton rather than the optimism of Thomas Jefferson. The war on drugs? “The founders would not have fought a war on drugs,” but would have taxed them instead, Brookhiser declares, reasoning from the excise tax on whiskey imposed by the federal government. What would the founders do about Social Security? “Social Security follows none of their models (family provision, charity, reward for service, investment).”

The book reveals that many of the public policy questions confronting the early American republic are similar to challenges Americans wrestle with today. The values of 18th-century Americans, by contrast, were radically different and benighted by modern standards. Jefferson, while opposing slavery, argued that blacks were inferior and should be expatriated from the United States. The founders took a male-dominated society for granted, though Hamilton was willing to consider sweatshop work for women: “It is worthy of particular remark, that, in general, women and children are rendered more useful… by manufacturing establishments than they would otherwise be.”

With a rare union of wit and scholarship, What Would the Founders Do? presents history as a source of continuing debates, rather than as a set of answers. Comparing the founders to present-day Americans, Brookhiser concludes: “We can be as intelligent as they were, and as serious, as practical, and as brave…. We can; as they said, all men are created equal.”

America: The Last Best Hope : From the Age of Discovery to a World at War by William J. Bennett

Here is another one for you fellow history buffs. As a fan of popular history this one looks to be interesting. Let’s turn to Publisher Weekly again:

Bennett, a secretary of education under President Reagan and author of The Book of Virtues, offers a new, improved history of America, one, he says, that will respark hope and a “conviction about American greatness and purpose” in readers. He believes current offerings do not “give Americans an opportunity to enjoy the story of their country, to take pleasure and pride in what we have done and become.” To this end, Bennett methodically hits the expected patriotic high points (Lewis & Clark, the Gettysburg Address) and even, to its credit, a few low ones (Woodrow Wilson’s racism, Teddy Roosevelt’s unjust dismissal of black soldiers in the Brownsville judgment). America is best suited for a high school or home-schooled audience searching for a general, conservative-minded textbook. More discerning adult readers will find that the lack of originality and the overreliance on a restricted number of dated sources (Samuel Eliot Morison, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager) make the book a retread of previous popular histories (such as Boorstin’s The Americans). This is history put to use as inspiration rather than serving to enlighten or explain, but Bennett does succeed in shaping the material into a coherent, readable narrative.

Seems fair enough. Given the overall lack of historical knowledge in this country, I’d say Bennett is providing a valuable service. I will let you know when I have a chance to read it.

The Ten Year War: Ten Classic Games Between Bo and Woody by Joel Pennington

Speaking of history, this one deals with the history of the greatest rivalry in sports: Ohio State v. Michigan. This series has given an awful lot of pain lately so I am nut sure why I want to bring it up. But this volume discusses the glory days of this rivalry, so perhaps I can recapture that feeling. Regardless, I need something to give me my football fix and this should do it.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. The Bennett book sounds as if it will be good. Although I admire very much the thinking of (English Catholic) Paul Johnson, his history of America doesn’t see through our eyes. We do need an American history of America. Perhaps this is a beginning. All the reservations by PW cited above are actually plusses: we actually need a history that recycles older sources too often not read. Sources grounded in American tradition, eschewing ‘enlightened’ revisionism, that is the shallow thinking of today’s less-than-stellar pundits. How ‘original’ to give us in one book the whole story of what Americans have lived for and created.
    My last check of a family public school textbook found superb graphics but very little real history. And the teaching of history does begin in the lower schools, specifically grade and high school. If Bennett’s book addresses that need, it will indeed be a treasure. AS for the educated elite among school age children (homeschoolers), most of them will range far and wide with in-depth American reading great enough to shock your state school board. They’ll skip this book, having read many of Bennett’s sources first hand.

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