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Clear, Accessible, Accurate
on June 29, 2009
Brion McClanahan has written a gem of a book with The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers. Here we get a sense of what the founding generation was really like and what they really believed and did, not the sensational, trivial and silly portrayals that we so often get from non-academic sources such as the History Channel and PBS. As for the academics who write on the Founders, far too many come to their subject with veiled (and some not so thinly veiled) agendas that it is difficult to know who exactly these men were. The great virtue of McClanahan's guide is that it is rooted in that which all good and true history is grounded, the primary sources. As McClanahan himself asserts, if you want to know what the Founders really thought, then simply read what they wrote. When you do, as McClanahan has done, you truly do find a generation of brilliant men who believed in liberty and were willing to fight to secure it.
The book is divided into two parts with the first touching on several contemporary myths about the Founders. Here you will find excellent dismissals of the myths surrounding the Founding generation's supposed egalitarianism and support for democracy. McClanahan demonstrates what any honest and knowledgeable historian of the period knows; the Founders did not believe in equality as it is presently conceived and they certainly were not unreserved advocates for democratic government. In doing this McClanahan reminds us that the Founders created a Federal Republic, not a mass, egalitarian democracy, and an appreciation of the differences between these forms of government is an essential starting point to understanding the history of the early American Republic.
Other myths exposed include Benjamin Franklin's legendary brood of illegitimate children, Alexander Hamilton's homosexuality and George Washington's alleged affair with Sally Fairfax, his neighbor's wife. And, of course, what expose' of founding myths would be complete without a discussion of Thomas Jefferson's supposed affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, the evidence for which is circumstantial and inconclusive although it is often asserted as fact these days.
McClanahan also does an excellent job of demonstrating just how conservative the American Revolution actually was in that American Patriots were not asserting radical new doctrines inspired by Enlightenment philosophers but principles grounded in the traditions of English liberty and American colonial experience. This was the key feature of the American Revolution and why it differed so remarkably from that of the French.
Also on offer are brief but thought-provoking discussions of several important contemporary issues like gun control, the role of religion in American life, federalism, and monetary policy, all in relation to what the Founders would have thought about these issues if they were alive today.
As good as the first part of the book is, however, the best is probably the brief biographical sketches of the Founding Fathers themselves. The "Big Six" are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. McClanahan delves into each man's life with an eye to expose the modern, presentistic mythology that has encased these men in the popular imagination, and we find that while the names are familiar much of who these men really were has been lost or willfully forgotten. McClanahan uncovers them for everyone to see.
In addition to the "Big Six," McClanahan rediscovers 14 "forgotten founders" that every American should know about. These include names such as Elbridge Gerry, from whom we get the term "gerrymander," the great partisan warrior Francis Marion, inspiration of Mel Gibson's The Patriot and John Taylor of Caroline. We are also treated to very iconoclastic and revealing reappraisal of John Marshall as both a member of the Founding generation and early American jurist.
In all, this is an outstanding introduction to the Founders, one that is an antidote to the indoctrination so many Americans receive in school and the popular media when the topic is the beginnings of the United States. It is highly recommended and makes for the perfect gift for yourself or someone with a yearning to know more about the Founding Fathers.