The Locker Room

American heroes … sort of

Posted by Mitch Kokai at 06:51 AM

If one were inclined to enforce a strict application of truth-in-advertising laws upon publishing houses, W.W. Norton and Company might face some problems with its latest volume from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund S. Morgan.

Covered with a battlefield illustration of George Washington and titled American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America, Morgan’s book appears at first glance to be the latest effort in the ongoing campaign to shed new light on the American Founders.

Read the book, though, and you’ll discover something else. Sure, Washington and Franklin are there, along with other Founders in smaller doses. But this is no narrative story of the Revolutionary period. You’ll read nearly 200 pages on other topics (in a 260-page book) before reaching the Founders.

Instead Morgan has collected 17 essays — some dating back more than 70 years — that have some basis in the American colonial period. When I write “some basis,” I mean readers will encounter Morgan’s musings on witchcraft, 18th century Yale University politics, even Puritan sex.

Regardless of the topic, Morgan’s writing is constantly thought-provoking, never boring, and occasionally on point for those who chose to read the volume to learn more about the Founders. Take for example the following passage from a 1982 essay on the important role of the Anti-Federalists:

Were the Antifederalists wrong? Was Madison right? Yes and no. Representative government of the kind the Antifederalists valued in the state government was clearly what Madison did not want in the national government, and the fact that the size of the nation would eliminate that kind of representation was, for him, all to the good. Attachment to local interests was what he hoped the natonal government would overcome; natural aristocrats wee just what he wanted in the national House of Representatives. But the men he encountered there a few years later were not quite what he expected, and he was not altogether happy with the way they behaved. Nor did he find them as varied in their interests or as unable to agree in oppressing others as he had predicted. Fortunate for him that he did not succeed in securing a national veto over state legislation, for by 1798 he was trying for state veto over national legislation.

Morgan offers other valuable insights on the nature of representative government and the skills Washington and Franklin demonstrated in choosing when to act (and when to refrain from acting) in pursuit of the American cause. Armed with adequate knowledge about the structure and format of the book, you might find those insights intriguing.

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