Review: Friends Divided

Friends Divided, Gordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Summary: An account of the sometimes troubled and unlikely friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

They could not be more different in many respects. One irascible, the other sophisticated. One a modestly successful New England lawyer and farmer. The other a southern plantation owner. One inclined toward aristocracy. The other toward people. One was a prosaic writer, the other had a gift for elevated prose.

They also shared some things in common. Both were inveterate readers, among the most widely read of their times. Both knew tragedy in their lives. They came together around declaring their country’s independence from England. They worked together to foster their country’s relationship with France. Both were part of the first administration of George Washington, and both in turn were presidents.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon S. Wood has written here what may be the definitive account of this friendship that spanned over 50 years, ending July 4, 1826, when both men died on the Jubilee anniversary of the country’s Declaration of Independence, drafted largely by Jefferson and signed by both of them. He traces the parallel courses of their lives, the differences and misunderstandings that frayed their early friendship, and the wonderful reconciliation of their latter years giving us one an exceptional correspondence (perhaps rivaled only by that between John and Abigail Adams).

Wood begins with the very different circumstances in which they grew up, their early careers and marriages and then recounts the crisis that brought them together as signers, and then emissaries for their fledgling country in France. Adams it seemed, never understood French ways, nor had he the skills to negotiate them well. Jefferson did, so much so that he fell in love with the country. Adams always remembered his American commitments. All this becomes evident in their very different assessments of the French Revolution. We see the first signs of strain here–the monarchical tendencies of Adams, the republican ones of Jefferson, who could not see the dangers of revolution.

These strains became worse in Washington’s administration as fault lines between what became known as the Federalists and the Democrat Republicans became evident and worsened when Adams became president and Jefferson vice-president. Adams inclined toward the Federalists, although was never fully one of them, costing him the next election. Jefferson believed in the people. About the only thing the two agreed on is that they both distrusted Hamilton.

Wood covers the campaign of 1800 in which Adams lost to Jefferson. The charges and countercharges appeared to cost them their friendship. It was perhaps the first truly contentious campaign, revealing the emergence of parties. If anything the misunderstandings between Abigail and Jefferson, especially over the Alien and Sedition Act, was even worse. Jefferson and Adams wouldn’t speak for another decade.

A mutual friend, physician Benjamin Rush, played the key role of clearing the way for the famous correspondence of these two men, each explaining himself to the other. Wood recounts this developing correspondence and the most famous passages between the two. He also narrates the shift in fortunes of the two from Jefferson acclaimed while Adams forgotten to Jefferson’s financial difficulties in his last years and Adam’s increasing esteem in the eyes of his countrymen, particularly after the election of John Quincy to the presidency in 1824. Jefferson became more pessimistic about the unfolding commercial trends in the country while Adams became more sanguine.

Wood deeply regards both of his subjects, but in the end is drawn to the expansive mind of Jefferson and his vision of forging one nation out of all the varieties of people that make up our country. Yet I found myself wondering if in fact his book articulates the need we have as a nation for both kinds of leaders, both those with lofty visions and those of rock-ribbed integrity with two feet firmly planted in American soil, both those who believe in the people, and those who value institutions, and recognize the existing inequalities of people who enjoy equal rights. Without Adams, Jefferson was inclined to build “castles in the air.” Without Jefferson, Adams may have tried to fashion himself a monarch. Perhaps what Wood has given us in the story of these two men is a parable for our country, especially in this divided time.

Review: John Jay: Founding Father

john jay

John Jay: Founding FatherWalter Stahr. New York: Diversion Books, 2012.

Summary: A full-length biography of this lesser-known founder, drawing on new material tracing his numerous contributions to the beginnings of the United States.

If you gathered the founders of the United States for a photograph, he would probably be standing in the back, and we might wonder, who is he? “He” is John Jay. He played critical roles in numerous deliberations, participated in critical negotiations, and held important offices. But he was never president, or a military hero. What John Jay was, was the consummate public servant.

Walter Stahr recounts the life of Jay from his beginnings as the son of a New York merchant, raised in a religious home on a farm in nearby Rye, in a faith from which he never departed. Graduating from King’s College in 1764 with honors, he becomes a law clerk to pursue a career in law. After completing his clerkship, during a time of unrest as tensions over the Stamp Act developed, he and Robert Livingston team up to form a law firm in 1768. Some of his earliest work involved working on a commission to resolve boundary questions between New York and New Jersey, foreshadowing the work that would engage him throughout his life.

As resistance turns into revolution and eventually results in independence and American victory, Jay played a key role and Stahr narrates the specifics of each of the roles he played. He played the principal role in writing the constitution of New York state, a model for early state constitutions. He played a critical role in the negotiations in the Paris Peace Treaty, setting boundaries, particularly in what would become Minnesota, that defined the country’s northern borders. Under the Articles of Confederation, he served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the infant country, helping establish her relations with the world. He was one of the framers of the Constitution, and worked hard behind the scenes for its ratification. He averted a renewed outbreak of war with Great Britain in 1794 that would have been disastrous for the infant country, negotiating what became justly known as the Jay Treaty. He served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, establishing the precedent of judicial review of legislation, and refusing to decide abstract questions. He concluded his career of public service as governor of New York, presiding over the move of the seat of government to Albany.

Stahr portrays a man of rectitude and hard work whose service over a thirty year period played a critical role in creating a country. His lawyerly skill with finding the right words to establish good agreements and his even-handedness allowed him to turn conflicts into compromises and agreements. In retirement, he worked with his son in founding the American Bible Society. Throughout his life, and in his declining years, his trust in the providence of God sustained him.

This account goes into significant depth in the episodes of Jays life, tracing the back and forth and frustrations of negotiations, including two relatively futile years in Spain. What I would propose is that Stahr’s book offers us a portrait of America’s first public servant, who excelled by negotiating good agreements, establishing good legal documents, understanding the details and structure of good government, and by shaping good political and judicial institutions. Such figures may not be political rock stars, but they are essential to good government in every era. It may do us well to pay attention to people like Jay.


Review: Madison’s Gift

Madison's gift

Madison’s Gift, David O. Stewart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Summary: A biography of our fourth president, through the lens of five key partnerships he formed that helped establish a new nation.

Of the Founders of the United States, James Madison seems always to be somewhat in the shadows of the more brilliant lights of Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even Alexander Hamilton. He played pivotal roles in the Continental Congress, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, the establishment of a government under that Constitution, the formation of the first real political party, and helping the country survive a war with a Great Britain that was vastly more powerful. Yet he was soft-spoken, lacking in the skills to be a battle field leader, or the charisma that naturally commanded followings.

David O. Stewart helps us to see that Madison’s gift was his ability to collaborate substantively with personalities often stronger and different than his, bringing his own gifts of political astuteness to those partnerships. Stewart renders the story of Madison’s life through five of these partnerships:

  1. Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was far more flamboyant but the collaboration of these two in the Continental Congress, staving off soldier uprisings by coming up with financing means, and later, working together to draft the Constitution. They teamed up to write the Federalist Papers, providing a formidable intellectual defense and explication of the Constitution, that resulted in ratification of the Constitution. These Papers continue to be a primary resource for Constitutional scholars. His understanding of human failings and the systems of checks and balances between branches of government, houses of Congress, and federal and state government was perhaps his most profound contribution.
  2. George Washington. As a fellow Virginian, he worked with Washington on everything from Potomac navigation to serving as his adviser while giving leadership in Congress in how to turn the Constitution into a functioning government.  He played a pivotal role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution may not have survived.
  3. Thomas Jefferson. Both men were lovers of books, land- and slave-owners troubled with slavery and making ends meet, and Virginians. As they observed the centralizing tendencies inherent in the policies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, they came together to form the Democrat Republican party as a check against these tendancies, and effectively collaborated to elect Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe to presidencies spanning 24 years.
  4. James Monroe. This was perhaps one of the most interesting of partnerships because at the start, the two were political rivals. Later, when Madison failed to support a treaty with Great Britain that Monroe negotiated, the two fell out for a couple of years. But when tension with Great Britain were leading up to war, Madison, not nearly as accomplished in diplomatic or military matters, asked Monroe to join as his Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Despite the sacking of Washington, they were able to work together to lead resistance that basically led to a stalemate, and a settlement that unleashed American prosperity.
  5. Dolly Madison. She was a beautiful complement to the reserved Madison and presided over a social scene far more congenial than the stiff and formal receptions of previous presidents. She was fun, she dressed colorfully, and marked by her self-command. When the British were coming to sack the White House, she rescued the silver, and Peale’s painting of Washington, barely escaping herself. In retirement, Stewart describes them as the “Adam and Eve of Montpelier.” They ran footraces on the front porch of Montpelier, hosted numerous guests, and regaled them with stories. They set the pace for presidential retirements. Madison contributed significant defenses of the Constitution against the growing threat of nullification. He succeeded Jefferson as rector of the University of Virginia and participated in the 1829 Virginia constitutional convention. Dolly accompanied him on most of this, and nursed him when his health turned increasingly frail.

Stewart, like many other scholars of this period, writes about the struggle with the question of slavery. For Madison, the issue was personal as well as Constitutional. He recognized that the contradiction between enunciated rights and aspirations, and the compromises of slavery carried the risk of tearing the country apart. Yet he incarnated the difficulty of what he wanted to do on principle, and the economic realities of his situation. He never emancipated his slaves.

Stewart helps us to see that leadership, and presidential, greatness may take different forms. In Madison’s case, a combination of intellectual gifts and capacity for collaboration was crucial for the work of crafting a government from scratch. To collaborate with markedly different personalities suggests a great sense of personal security and sense of self. His willingness to contribute his own astute wisdom while letting others claim the limelight resulted in enduring good for the nation. Stewart’s focus on Madison’s collaborations brings to light his distinctive form of greatness.


Review: Rush


Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding FatherStephen Fried. New York: Crown, 2018.

Summary: A full-length biography of this doctor-founder of the American republic covering his personal life and beliefs, advocacy, war service, and friendships with the Founders, and estrangement from Washington.

He turns up in almost every biography of an American founder or account of the American War of Independence. He played a pivotal role in battle field hygiene, the training of American doctors, and in the field of mental illness. His profile adorns the logo of the American Psychiatric Association. But one has to look hard for accounts of the life of Dr. Benjamin Rush until recently. Even John Adams expressed displeasure that Ben Franklin received far more notice although he believed Benjamin Rush the better man. In the past year, this balance has begun to be redressed. Harlow Giles Unger, who has written on most of the Founders has published a biography on Rush.

A fellow Philadelphian, journalist Stephen Fried, has completed what may be the definitive account of Rush’s life, using a growing archive of Rush’s correspondence and other documents, to give us a many-faceted portrait of one of America’s most distinctive Founders.

He begins with a spirited young boy who lost his father before turning six, lived with an aunt and uncle while attending Reverend Samuel Finley’s school. He graduated from Princeton at fourteen, apprenticed under Dr. John Redman for the next five years, and then went to Edinburgh for medical studies.

On his return, he is offered a chair in Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, while alienating two of his mentors, John Morgan and William Shippen over credits on publications. With Shippen, this is just the beginning.

He is friends with nearly all the Founders, particularly as their paths crossed in Philadelphia. His welcome and advice to John Adams was critical in winning the support of the other colonies to the resistance that began in Massachusetts. He was highly esteemed by Franklin and succeeded Franklin as chair of the Philosophical Society of which they were both a part. He was a sounding board to Thomas Paine as he composed Common Sense. He is one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Like others, he sets aside personal interests to head a surgical department for the war effort, and confronts horrible battlefield conditions and Dr. Shippen’s mishandling of funds and resources as Surgeon General. His efforts to protest this ultimately fail, but here, as elsewhere, his pen achieves what he otherwise could not in his manual for battle field hygiene, implemented over the next hundred years and saving many lives. The other, and more profound controversy of the war concerned an unsigned letter he sent to Patrick Henry expressing reservations about Washington’s leadership. Henry passed the letter along to Washington, who recognized Rush’s handwriting. Relations were never warm, thereafter. In later years, he expressed both regret for the letter, and admiration for Washington.

The same passion that got him into trouble also made him an effective advocate with many causes. He was a devout believer, but participated in both Presbyterian and Anglican congregations and was an early proponent of religious tolerance. He loved conversation with skeptics like Jefferson while remaining orthodox in his own beliefs (even reciting an Anglican prayer book prayer on his deathbed). He advocated for the rights of blacks and the abolition of slavery (although he owned a slave that he only eventually and quietly emancipated) and helped start the first African church in Philadelphia. He was a proponent of education, founding Dickinson College, and advocated for the education of women. Perhaps most significant, with his appointment to the Philadelphia Hospital, he noticed the poor conditions of those suffering from mental illness, campaigning for separate and more humane treatment facilities. One of the most poignant aspects of this focus was that his eldest son John was one of his patients. He pioneered occupational therapies and treatments for addiction.

As a doctor, Fried’s portrait is of a dedicated, even heroic figure, tragically wedded to the dubious or even harmful methods of his day, notably the bleeding and purging of patients, which may have hastened mortality in a number of cases. His medical treatises often are extended defenses of these measures. Still, he remained in Philadelphia through a horrendous yellow fever epidemic, contracting (and surviving) the disease himself. He was considered one of the leading medical figures of the day, consulting with Lewis and Clark, provisioning them with medicines, including what they reported to be a very effective laxative! His greatest medical contribution may have been the hygiene and sanitation measures he recommended for the military that no doubt reduced the number of deaths from conditions in military camps.

While Rush’s correspondence got him in trouble in the early part of his life, at another point, he was responsible for a reconciliation that led to a most amazing exchange of letters. For a dozen years, Adams and Jefferson had been estranged from each other since the election of 1800. Rush was friends with both. He began by sharing a “dream” with Adams (a common device in their letters) about Adams and Jefferson resuming their friendship. Slowly, he helped the two of them resume correspondence, which eventually swelled to over 280 letters before both died July 4, 1826, fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence with Rush. Both would outlive Rush, who died either of typhus or tuberculosis in 1813.

Altogether Rush and his wife Julia had thirteen children, a number dying in infancy or youth (not uncommon at this time). Richard, the second born served in both the Madison and Monroe administrations in cabinet positions while James followed in his steps as a physician and became a prominent figure, marrying into wealth.

Fried’s portrayal drew me in by exploring this distinctive man in his greatness and flaws. His youthful ambition and sense of rectitude overpowers his judgment of what is both appropriate and possible. He could be quite prickly in defending his own reputation, especially during the yellow fever epidemic, where his methods, if not his dedication, could be questioned. He shines in his friendships, his advocacy, and his love for his wife. He also seems something of a tragic figure as he watches the dissolution of his eldest son’s sanity, and the hopes that he would follow in his steps. I suspect he wasn’t an easy man to have as a father.

Fried has done us a great service. He has chronicled in full the life of one of the Founders who obviously deserves far more attention than he has received. Instead of being a bit player in the stories of others, we are introduced to Rush on his own terms, and begin to understand why he was in all the other stories. Were it not for him, we would not have the sparkling correspondence between Adams and Jefferson and the humane treatment of the mentally ill. You might say, he was the doctor who assisted at the birth of a nation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution

God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the relationship between religion and our national life in the U.S. were a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated”. Truth is, it always has been, according to Thomas S. Kidd.

In this “religious history of the American Revolution” Kidd gives us a highly readable yet nuanced account of our early religious history which avoids either the “Christian America” or “secular state” options. Nothing illustrates this more than the relationship between Baptist evangelist, John Leland and Thomas Jefferson. These were strange bedfellows to be sure and yet both were agreed on one crucial issue, the disestablishment of religion and the promotion of religious liberty for all Americans.

Kidd documents that this passion for liberty, first from the British establishment, and then from any establishment of a particular church was in fact the meeting place between much of the evangelical movement that arose out of the first Great Awakening, and the by and large Unitarian deists and skeptics who were among many of our “Founding Fathers”. Both recognized the vital importance of religion in energizing the rebellion against Great Britain, which accounted for the wide support of military chaplains during the war. Both recognized the importance of religion for the encouragement of sacrifice and public virtue. And both opposed state supported churches that privileged one denomination with tax revenues, and often excluded from public office those unwilling to meet religious tests.

The book also chronicles the fateful concurrence particularly between New England religious leaders and Thomas Jefferson in the statement in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights”. Intended to assert American equality with the British, it also underscored the deep inconsistency within our country of oppressing Native Americans and enslaving Africans. Kidd explores how this piece of our religious history set up a tension not only between sections of the country but even within the lives of people like Jefferson who both trembled at the consequences of slavery for the country and yet held slaves until he died.

What Kidd argues is that the evidence of these early years presents a picture of public expression of religious faith without state establishment of religious institutions. None envisioned the complete exclusion of matters of faith from public life. In fact, the disestablishment of religion was believed to be a vitalizing factor that even contributed to subsequent religious awakenings and the exceptional vibrancy of religion in American life, a fact noted by de Tocqueville. He sums up the agreement between the evangelicals and the founders as follows, “The founders’ religious agreement was on public values, not private doctrines” (p. 254). He warns against things like divine providentialism supporting every conceivable conflict and the kinds of “Christian America” rhetoric seen in some quarters today. Yet none of this argues against the importance of religion in public life, particularly to advance commonly held values.

The only reservation I have here is that this can sometimes smack of a pragmatism that uses religious faith for political ends. While people of faith should be welcomed in public life and discourse, they also need to be watchful for being used (and duped) for political ends inconsistent with their most deeply held principles.

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