Myron Magnet, editor-at-large of City Journal, set himself no small task in writing his latest book. The Founders at Home is an intertwined series of biographies that, in his own words, “together help explain why the American Revolution, of all great revolutions, was the only successful one, resulting in two centuries and more of unexampled freedom and prosperity.” This, in contrast to the French Revolution, which, “illuminated by America’s example and Enlightenment thought, began in blissful optimism but collapsed into a blood-soaked tyranny much worse than the monarchy it deposed,” spawning a militarist police state under Napoleon Bonaparte that “roiled Europe and half the globe for over a decade with wars of grandiose imperial aggression that slew at least three million.”
And to what end? After a quarter century of turmoil, “[t]he Bourbon monarchy, minus the Enlightenment of its earlier incarnation, settled plumply back on its throne.” And let’s not forget the 20th century’s three yet bloodier and more destructive revolutions, in Russia, China, and Mexico, where, even now, people are still digging themselves out of the rubble.
In the early pages of this entertaining and illuminating book, Magnet hones in on a small but telling difference—a mere matter of a few words—that helps to explain why the American revolutionary experience transcended its roots in the English and European enlightenments, and avoided the disastrous excesses of subsequent revolutions:
The Founders…announced their nationhood by significantly changing John Locke’s catalog of natural rights. The shift began in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, in which George Mason emended Locke’s right to “Lives, Liberties and Estates” to “Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.” Two months later, Thomas Jefferson penned the final pithy formulation of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of happiness! Who but the Americans made a revolution to vindicate the paramount right of each individual to try to make the most of his own effort as he sees fit?
That eternal pursuit, imperfect but unstoppable, continues to the present. It is a mixture of hope, persistence, and innate optimism reflected in little everyday ways as seemingly insignificant as that positive, quintessentially American admonition to “Have a nice day!” A key reason our revolution succeeded, Magnet argues, was its strictly limited scope: The Founders sought “only liberty, not equality and fraternity.” Theirs was a political revolution, not a social or economic one, probably only possible in a New World setting grounded in hope and not seething with “an Old-World intensity of social rancor or class rage.”
Which is not to say that the Founders thought and acted as one man. From the very beginning, there were serious divisions: Southern planters versus Northern financiers; wealthy landowners versus small yeoman farmers and frontiersmen; zealots, cranks, and opportunists versus enlightened pragmatists. But at every crucial juncture, common decency and common sense prevailed, and the concept of “a more perfect union” trumped regional, class, and religious differences among the best of our leaders. Indeed, if there is one paramount truth that readers will take from The Founders at Home, it is how extraordinarily lucky we were that the foremost of the enlightened pragmatists, George Washington, prevailed over flashier, more facile intellects of weaker character and judgment, both in war and in peace.
Magnet’s leitmotif as he recounts the lives and interactions of men as different as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, John Jay, and a large, colorful supporting cast, is to use the homes they lived in—and often built or rebuilt to their own specifications—as a point of entry into understanding their characters and their conduct. We learn how, often in tandem, they and their homes evolved over time.
Magnet’s emphasis is sometimes misplaced—though that is unavoidable in a book covering so many major characters and events. In Magnet’s pages, as in his own life, John Adams comes up a bit short. Although incorruptibly honest and a political thinker of the first order, the short, pudgy, insecure Adams, mockingly dubbed “His Rotundity” by his presidential detractors, was a psychological accident waiting to happen as first executive. His hair-trigger temper—and his opponents’ calculated exploitation of it, using the gutter press to slander and provoke him—led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1796, the one black mark in the public life of a principled patriot who was also a brilliant legal mind and a model husband. Compared with those of most of his peers, Adams’s marriage to the indomitable Abigail had a surprisingly modern quality to it, based as it was on mutual respect, intellectually as well as personally. Centuries later, reading their correspondence, one is still impressed by their candor, by the depth of their love for each other, and by how much they lived a shared life of the mind unmatched by any other founding couple. As the hands-on proprietors of a working New England farm, which operated without the benefit of mass slave labor, the Adamses came close to the early American ideal of a nation of independent, small landowners—much closer than pampered plantation owners like Jefferson, who lived aristocratic lives complete with a sense of entitlement to political power and a scorn for fellow citizens of humbler origin.
Aside from his largely justifiable reservations about John Adams, Magnet makes a cumulatively more powerful case for the Federalist wing of the founders—especially Washington and Hamilton, men of action and practical vision who had risked their lives during the Revolutionary War—than for theoreticians like Jefferson and Madison, whose vaunted idealism went hand-in-hand with a core loyalty to the plantation-owning class of landed Southern slave-owners of which they were both members. Only Washington, the greatest Virginian of them all, was able to see beyond his place and class, laying the foundation for a cohesive central government, advocating a strong national defense and a sound national financial structure, and embracing a vision for the future—much of it articulated for him by Alexander Hamilton—that actually grew into the America we know today.
On what Magnet might call the home front, Washington’s Mount Vernon (left)—stately but practical, efficiently run with humanely treated and eventually emancipated slaves—stands in stark contrast to Jefferson’s Monticello—undeniably beautiful but ostentatious, brilliant but built atop a mountain of debt accumulated by an owner who consistently lived beyond his means and viewed his slaves a cash crop, writing to one of his overseers, “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm, what she produces is an addition to capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.” On the other hand, as Magnet points out, Washington refused to “sell or rent out his slaves, for that would mean breaking up slave families,” and would tell a visitor to Mount Vernon that, “I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a bond of common principle.”
One comes away from The Founders at Home impressed anew with the collective genius of that truly greatest of generations, but respecting some of its members more than others: George Washington as both an aristocrat and a gentleman; John Adams and Alexander Hamilton as modest individuals who, while they could never pass for aristocrats, were always thorough gentlemen; Thomas Jefferson as one who, while undeniably an aristocrat, wasn’t much of a gentleman at all. Despite a few minor errors and bursts of hyperbole—Baron von Steuben, for example, never wore “a golden waistcoat” and, far from being “a humbly-born Prussian infantryman,” was the son of a general officer, even though he never rose above the rank of captain in the Prussian service himself—Myron Magnet has done an exemplary job of portraying our fascinating founders both as remarkable individuals and as members of a flawed and quarrelsome team that still somehow managed to give life and meaning to the America we are blessed with today.