First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence by Harlow Giles Unger

I consider myself a fairly well-read person when it comes to the American Revolution – both its military and political history. So, it was with some surprise, that I recently discovered another of our country’s “founding fathers” – Richard Henry Lee. Harlow Giles Unger writes about Lee in his book First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence.

According to Unger, history has mainly forgotten Lee. It remembers some of his more famous relatives – Light Horse Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy – but nothing really on the first person to call for independence, for union, and for a bill of rights. Unger works to enlighten the reader on the man behind these firsts.

As with most biographers, Unger is partial to his subject – not necessarily a bad thing. This is especially true in Unger’s chapters on the true author of the Declaration of Independence and the Anti-Federalists. Regarding the former, although Thomas Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, the words and ideas came from the speeches and writings of Lee. Unger points to documents written by Lee that first attribute the idea of independence for the colonies.

Regarding the Anti-Federalists, Lee was a vehement supporter. Based on his experiences with the British government, he totally opposed a strong central government. Unger writes that Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer was just as important for the Anti-Federalists as Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist was for the Federalists. Lee’s arguments were so sound that the Anti-Federalists almost forced another constitutional convention if a few moderates had not defected to the Federalists and the Constitution was ratified.

Unger writes passionately and clearly describing the life of Lee and why he should not be forgotten as one our country’s founding fathers.

Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg

Suicide of the West (SOTW) is a study in contrasts.  Jonah Goldberg begins his ambitious new book by removing God from his argument, but ends it discussing how the fading belief that God is watching us underlies many of our problems.  The book is a passionate plea for classical liberalism, and yet it is also deeply conservative and traditionalist. Goldberg argues that liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural and unique in human history while tribalism is the default characteristic of humans, yet calls for a robust defense of the former and firm limits on the later.

It is a complex, sometimes periphrastic, tour through anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy and politics.  Goldberg marshalls all of these disparate elements to argue for a seemingly simple thesis: human nature is constant, the vast majority of human history is one of suffering and squalor, but thru a series of serendipitous events the West escaped this torturous plateau into a world of increasing wealth, health and human flourishing.

He then offers both a call to action and a warning.  The call: understand this history, reflect with gratitude on our blessings, and pass it on to the next generation.  The warning is the flip side: this world of freedom, material wealth, and growth was created by the power of words and ideas (the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) and it must be defended. Nature is always waiting.  Corruption sets in without vigilance. The ingredients of the Miracle, as Goldberg terms it, can be lost and we can return to a world of tribalism, conflict and stagnation.

What follows is the first part of my review which functions as a summary of sorts.  In the second part I will address some of the book’s critics and the tensions noted above.

The book starts with a deep dive into biology, anthropology, sociology, economics and history to understand that, as Goldberg likes to say, human nature has no history.  Human beings come preloaded with a great deal when they are born. Preference for the family or tribe, distrust of strangers, adherence to group norms, the importance of status, the desire to create meaning, etc.–these aspects of human nature will always be with us.

The role of civilization is to tame, direct and channel human nature towards productive ends. Civilization is the fundamental building block for the Miracle but it is a necessary, not sufficient cause:

The ingredients for liberty and prosperity have existed on earth for thousands of years, sloshing around, occasionally bumping into each other, and offering a glimpse to a better path. Religious toleration, restraints on monarchy, private property, the sovereignty of the individual, pluralistic institutions, scientific innovation, the rule of law–all of these things can be found piecemeal across the ages.

So why exactly did the Miracle appear where and when it did?  It was “an unplanned and glorious accident.” Goldberg is deeply suspicious of simple answers to complex questions, understands that history is messy and, for the sake of his argument, refuses teleology (whether religious or ideological) as an explanation, but the answer comes down largely to ideas and language.

Building on the work of Deirdre McCloskey and Joseph Schumpeter, Goldberg argues that changing attitudes and forms of speech about markets and innovation led to the birth of capitalism.  Innovation was no longer viewed as a sin, ideas about trade, labor, and private enterprise changed, and the economic revolution followed.

What Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) grew in the unique soil of English liberty and flourished in America due to an equally unique set of circumstances.

The story had been developing organically for millennium but John Locke wrote it down and in important ways universalized it.  The American Founders were both influenced by it and distanced from it but put this universalized form into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  This story (another word for civilization/institutions/society) made liberal democratic capitalism possible.

But a good story requires a villain and Goldberg offers us two (or perhaps one in different forms): corruption and romanticism.  By corruption Goldberg does not mean bribery or payoffs, but a process whereby nature takes back what was hers; entropy, in the sense of decline into disorder, breakdown and decay.  The power of human nature is such that if we don’t work to keep it at bay, it will retake control.

This is where the tension between the ubiquity of tribalism for most of human history and the uniqueness of the Miracle plays out.  We can’t assume that the blessings of our civilization are the new normal; it is not natural or inevitable. We too easily slip into the natural equals good mindset.  Goldberg spends a chunk of the text harshly tearing down this fallacy.

This corruption can come from both the top down and the bottom up and in ways that align with human nature.  Top down: elites make rules that benefit them and block those seeking upward mobility. Whether in politics, economics, sports, religion or any other area of life, the powerful will naturally seek to protect and expand their interests.   History is overflowing with examples.

The benefit of liberal democratic capitalism is the creation of competing spheres of influence, institutional pluralism, in order to restrain and limit this temptation.  The American Founders sought a system with checks and balances that would limit and channel these tendencies in the political arena. The free market fosters competition which undercuts monopoly and other forms of economic power.

But corruption can also come from the bottom up.  When the people give into tribal instincts and seek unity above all, corruption will result.  Cultural, religious, and institutional pluralism is a necessary ingredient of the Miracle. This requires a mental division of labor where loyalties are spread across strata and organizations; from our family and relatives up and outward through neighborhood groups and clubs, religious communities, the economy, and government (local, state and federal).

Romanticism, personified here by Jean Jacques Rousseau, is in many ways the driver of both forms of corruption.  Goldberg contrasts Rousseau with Locke, and posits them as two of the main currents in Western thought:

It is a fight between the idea that our escape from the past has been a glorious improvement over mankind’s natural state and the idea that the world we have created is corrupting because it is artificial.  One side says that external moral codes and representative government are a liberating blessing. The other says that truth is found not outside of ourselves in the form of universal rules and tolerance for others but in our own feelings and the meaning we get from belonging to a group.

Rousseau sees the modern mental division of labor as artificial and oppressive and holds out the nation-state as the unifying organizing principle to return us to our natural state and remove our feelings of loneliness and alienation.  His noble savage is a nostalgic seeking of a mythical past of unity and internal coherence. Instead of pluralism, unity and conformity.

This temptation is at the root of all modern politics :

It is my contention that all rebellions against the liberal order or the Miracle are not only fundamentally romantic but reactionary.  They seek not some futuristic modern conception of social organization. Rather they seek to return to some form of tribal solidarity where we are all in it together.  Romanticism is the voice through which our inner primitive cries out “There must be a better way!

Which brings us into the realm of current politics, which Goldberg introduces by detailing how the Progressive Era drank deep from Rousseau and thus sought to undermine the Miracle.  He then highlights how the corrupting influence of the romantic/reactionary impulse from both the left and the right is undermining liberal democratic capitalism in America.

On the left, progressives fundamentally reject limited government and institutional pluralism seeking instead a government run by unelected elites; supposedly for the good of the masses.  Seeking flexibility to re-interpret the Constitution in light of their ideology, masquerading as science, they give government more and more power with fewer and fewer checks and balances.

The result is the modern administrative state; vast swaths of government virtually unaccountable and yet controlling practically every area of our lives.  At the same time, the modern left is obsessed with identity politics; tribal groups and power rather than individualism and equality. In the name of freedom and equality they undermine the very system that has brought increased wealth and opportunity to so many.

The troubling part is that instead of defending and strengthening the values and principles that created the Miracle, those on the right seem intent on joining the left.  Tired of being attacked as racist bigots, having their faith squeezed out of the public square, and often out of anxiety with the centrifugal forces of the globalized culture and economy, many on the right are increasingly engaging in tribalism, populism and their own form of identity politics.

Valid concerns about the power of the administrative state and the damage another four or eight years of progressive ideology could do, conservatives seem willing to embrace a figure, Donald Trump, whose character and philosophy reflects the weakness in our culture not its restoration.

Trump represents the romantic/reactionary impulse toward tribal unity, an emphasis on feelings and power rather than ideas and principle, and the hope of a return to a mythical past. Instead of character and ideas, the true meaning of conservatism, they seek power and winning at all cost.

Under attack from the left and the right are the very values and ideals that sustain our civilization.  Democracy, free speech, free market capitalism are all increasingly treated with hostility. If the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves shape our society, then these dramatic changes in rhetoric should be deeply concerning.

So what is the answer?  Be grateful for our inheritance and fight to pass it on to the next generation.  Goldberg knows this is a never-ending battle:

There are not permanent victories. The only victory worth fighting for–because it is the only victory that is achievable–is to hand off this civilization to the next generation and equip that generation to carry on the fight and so on, and forever.  We cannot get rid of human nature and humanity’s natural tribal tendencies. But we know that, under the right circumstances, our tribal nature can be grafted to a commitment to liberty, individualism, property rights, innovation, etc. It happened in England, accidentaly, but organically


And we cannot be forced to stay committed to our principles. We can only be persuaded to.  Reason alone won’t carry the load, but the task is impossible without it. Parents must cultivate their barbarian children into citizens, and the rest of us must endeavor to keep the principles of our civilization alive by showing our gratitude for it.

In essence, Goldberg argues that defending and passing on the underlying principles of our civilization must take precedence over both our tribal instincts and our day-to-day partisan battles.  If left and right join together in reactionary populism they will destroy the very thing they both claim to want to preserve and defend.

That is the Suicide of the West.

Next, critics of SOTW.


The Strategy of Victory by Thomas Fleming

George Washington – one of the most written about figures of the American Revolution – is a fascinating individual on so many levels. Thomas Fleming in The Strategy For Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution gives his perspective of Washington as the general who led the colonies to victory.

Earlier in my life, I thought that Washington was a mediocre general who was fortunate to keep an army together until the French poured money, material, and men into the war effort. However, that view has changed significantly as I  studied the war more thoroughly.  Washington did the best he could with the scant resources allotted to him. Not only that, but he preserved the tiny American army against the more veteran and better-equipped British army.

Fleming does a masterful job of depicting Washington as a general who learned from his mistakes and changed his strategy in the middle of the war. He not only changed his own thoughts on strategy, but also those of his chief subordinates. As Fleming so adeptly writes, Washington realized that the American army could not continue with a Bunker Hill strategy expecting the British to bash themselves against stout defenses manned by state militia. Washington changed to a strategy of preserving a professional army and coordinating that army with supplementation from state militias. This strategy was one that worked in a number of battles – especially when the militia was used properly.

Fleming highlights the winning strategy  in several battles. He details the plans of, and their execution by, Washington at Monmouth Courthouse, Benedict Arnold at Saratoga, and Daniel Morgan at Cowpens. Cowpens was the epitome of Washington’s strategy on using the militia. Fleming goes into great detail on Morgan’s excellent use of a small core of Continental troops with a larger number of state militia.

Fleming’s book is an excellent analysis of Washington’s expert handling of the American war effort during the American Revolution.

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America by Michael C. Harris

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris is the 2015 winner of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond Book Award. It is a winner for good reason. It is an excellent analysis of the battle.

Here is a summary of the book from the publisher:

General Sir William Howe launched his campaign in late July 1777, when he loaded his army of 16,500 British and Hessian soldiers aboard a 265-ship armada in New York and set sail. Six difficult weeks later Howe’s expedition landed near Elkton, Maryland, and moved north into Pennsylvania. Washington’s rebel army harassed Howe’s men at several locations including a minor but violent skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware on September 3. Another week of hit-and-run tactics followed until Howe was within three miles of Chads’s Ford on Brandywine Creek, behind which Washington had posted his army in strategic blocking positions along a six-mile front. The young colonial capital of Philadelphia was just 25 miles farther east.

Obscured by darkness and a heavy morning fog, General Howe initiated his plan of attack at 5:00 a.m. on September 11, pushing against the American center at Chads’s Ford with part of his army while the bulk of his command swung around Washington’s exposed right flank to deliver his coup de main, destroy the colonials, and march on Philadelphia. Warned of Howe’s flanking attack just in time, American generals turned their divisions to face the threat. The bitter fighting on Birmingham Hill drove the Americans from the field, but their heroic defensive stand saved Washington’s army from destruction and proved that the nascent Continental foot soldiers could stand toe-to-toe with their foe. Although fighting would follow, Philadelphia fell to Howe’s legions on September 26.

Although the writing is a bit dry at times, the scholarship is excellent. Harris uses many different original and secondary sources.

One of the many items that stuck out to me is Harris’ debunking of several myths surrounding the battle. For example, he exposes the myth of Thomas Cheyney, a local citizen, who in previous has been credited with “saving” the American army. Based on Harris’ research and strong conclusions, there is no evidence that Cheyney warned Washington of the flank attack.

The book also thrives in the details. Harris in many instances lists the names of those who are killed or wounded in a particular part of the battle. That example and his efforts to pin down the timing of each movement give the reader an intimate understanding of the figures and events surrounding this important battle in the American Revolution.

Harris also equally criticizes Washington and Howe. He blames the failure of the campaign (Howe succeeded in capturing Philadelphia, but he failed to join with General Burgoyne in New York) on Howe’s indecisiveness and slow travel from New York City to Maryland.  Harris also points out that the slow travel cost the lives of horses needed for the campaign – as a result, he had few cavalry to call on for scouting and chasing Washington’s defeated army.

Harris also rightfully puts some of the American loss on Washington. He did not properly reconnoiter the battlefield.  Thus, Howe knew more about the layout of the land than Washington and was able to flank the American army. In addition, Harris highlights that even though Howe was known for his flanking movements, Washington was still surprised by Howe’s flanking at Brandywine.

Here is an interview with the author from the publisher.

The Swamp Fox by John Oller

Although at first blush the title of John Oller’s The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution seems a bit hyperbolic, but after reading it, I agree.

A brief summary from the publisher:

In the darkest days of the American Revolution, Francis Marion and his band of militia freedom fighters kept hope alive for the patriot cause during the critical British “southern campaign.” Like the Robin Hood of legend, Marion and his men attacked from secret hideaways before melting back into the forest or swamp. Employing insurgent tactics that became commonplace in later centuries, Marion and his brigade inflicted losses on the enemy that were individually small but cumulatively a large drain on British resources and morale.

Oller’s biography of Marion is the first in nearly 40 years of a pivotal leader in the American Revolution – even though most people have either not heard of or read much about Marion. The Patriot starring Mel Gibson was a loose depiction of his life – a very loose depiction. Oller quickly gives the measure of the man – quiet, modest, superb leader, quick learner, and great tactician.

Oller believes that the Revolution would have failed without Marion stepping into the gap to fill the void for the Patriot cause – I agree. Marion did this in the summer of 1780 after the fall of Charleston and the British victory at Camden. Marion stepped into the gap by waging guerilla warfare when there was no other organized force in the field for the Americans. He successfully pinned down British and Loyalist forces until American Continental troops arrived in the area.

Even though Marion was overshadowed by more flamboyant and outspoken leaders (Light Horse Harry Lee, Nathanael Greene, and Thomas Sumter), Marion was consistently a steady presence in South Carolina. He made mistakes (and owned up to them for the most part), but he learned from those mistakes and hit the British harder in the next engagement. He was successful despite using mainly militia (periodically called out to serve for short periods between times of farming).

An excellent book that describes the exploits of one of the saviors of the American Revolution in the South.

In the Mail: Lion of Liberty

Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation by Harlow Giles Unger

Library Journal

In this engaging popular biography, Unger (The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness) recounts the career and examines the political and moral philosophies of the persuasive anti-Federalist best remembered for the American Revolution’s rallying cry, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Unger focuses on Henry’s radical views on individual liberty and states’ rights as well as his vehement opposition, as Virginia’s governor, to strong presidential powers. Unger argues that Henry, who feared an American monarchy, used his theatrical oratorical skills, developed as a successful young defense attorney in rural Virginia, to win nation-shaping political arguments. An appealing element here is the wealth of excerpts from Henry’s legendary speeches and revealing letters, seamlessly woven in with Unger’s narrative. Appendixes include the entirety of Henry’s legendary “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech and a letter outlining his views on slavery. VERDICT Lacking new information and perspective, this title is a good choice for general readers seeking a relatively brief account of Patrick Henry’s political activity and contributions to early America. However, scholars and even well-informed lay readers won’t be satisfied.