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: In the Hands of the People

In the Hands of the people

In the Hands of the PeopleJon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author.

Thomas Jefferson was the optimist to the pessimism of a John Adams. He once remarked in their correspondence: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” A significant reason for that was his belief in the citizens of the new nation, and in the government that they had formed.  It can be readily granted that Jefferson was a flawed individual. His university was a gentleman’s university. He owned slaves who had to be sold off after his death.  It was not his example, but the ideals of equality, of the consent of the governed, of an educated citizenry, of the important of religion and keeping the state out of it, of patriotism above partisanship, the value of immigration, and of compromise.

Historian Jon Meacham has collected the statements of Jefferson on all of these topics and more around the central idea of citizenship, how it may both be trusted, and how important the practice of good citizenship would be to the future of the Republic. He groups these under eleven topics, devoting a chapter to each. Meacham provides brief introductions in each chapter, followed by quotes from Jefferson, and others talking about Jefferson’s ideas.   The last two chapters are statements by an assorted group of others about Jefferson, and by other presidents on Jefferson.

Here are a few of those quotes:

On the right and responsibility to vote:

It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

On the vitality of a free press:

But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.

On education:

It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance. This last is the most dangerous state in which a nation can be.

On threats to the Republic:

I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And, to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.

One more, from the collection of presidential quotes on Jefferson, this one from Jimmy Carter:

Thomas Jefferson conceived our United States of America as no other nation had ever tried to be–dedicated to human fulfillment, where individual liberty was guaranteed. But Thomas Jefferson also founded a university, collected a national library, planned beautiful cities, mapped the wilderness, and being a farmer, he invented a better plow!

This book comes out at a time riven with controversy where we may be greatly tempted to fear for the future of the republic. Yet it strikes me that so many of our protests concern the disparity between our ideals of unalienable rights and the equality of all, and realities that fall short for some. Jefferson would challenge us all to patriotism above partisanship, and to the hard work of responsible citizenship that seeks the common good above our personal profit.

I could wish that all of us would buy a copy, and read it as we prepare to celebrate another July 4 and look ahead to national and local elections in November, as we consider what obligations we have to one another in time of pandemic. If ever there was a time for the renewal of an understanding of responsible citizenship and civic engagement, this is time. Jefferson offers guidance both about what we must value, and why we might hope.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


lets_make_america_great_again_buttonOur president-elect is not the first to use the slogan “make America great again.” Ronald Reagan used it in 1980 when we were at the height of stagflation, energy crisis, unemployment, an Iranian hostage crisis, and a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I’m not going to discuss whether this is a similar time, which I think would be a hopelessly futile argument. What I want to explore is an observation Jon Stewart made in an interview with Charlie Rose. He noted that no one ever asked the president-elect “what makes America great?” He went on to observe that what many might understand is that America is in a competition for greatness rather than America’s greatness being a greatness of character connected with its values.

My hunch is that for many people, it is simpler. America is great if we have jobs and feel safe. Even here, the question of our character arises. Do we want America to be great on these terms just for me, or for those like me? Do we want an America where all of its people, from various social classes, and religious beliefs, and countries of origin, and racial identities, and gender identities and sexual orientations to have the opportunity for good work in a country where they feel safe from attack from others? Do we want this kind of America for those with whom we deeply differ?

That seems consistent with the kind of greatness Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence when he said,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [meaning people] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson was contending for a country where the basic equality of people was recognized simply because they were human beings, and that this was based not in some particular characteristic they had, but simply that they were created. “Inalienable” means that nothing can, or ought be done to remove these rights from the possessor. Justice in such a country always protects these rights and brings sanction against any who would impair a person’s life, liberty or happiness.

We have not always lived up to this aspiration, yet I think have always been haunted by it. Jefferson, himself a slaveholder who wanted to but never did free his slaves, confessed that the news of the disputes over admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state came “like a fire bell in the night.” We stole land from the Native people who preceded us here. We withheld suffrage from women. Yet we’ve been haunted by Jefferson’s words from the Declaration. We elected an African-American president and nearly elected a woman to the presidency. In fear, we interned over 100,000 Japanese, stripping them of their property during World War II. In 1988 we apologized and compensated the families of those interned. We’ve boasted of our nation as a nation of immigrants and yet barred our borders, humiliated those who we do permit to come, and then belatedly, we celebrate the ways they have enriched the fabric of our national life. We betray our deepest principles only for them to come back and haunt us.

The other form of greatness Stewart talked about was the idea of greatness as a competition — American dominance in the world, where we control resources, trade, and project our military might into every corner of the world, thwarting others with similar pretensions. Yet such dominance comes at a price, not only in making enemies of others disadvantaged by our dominance, but in the sheer cost of maintaining that dominance, of which our national debt of $20 trillion is but one symptom.

Yet our values haunt us even here. Our claim that all are created equal and have inalienable rights extends far beyond our borders. It gives hope to democracy movements around the world. And yet we also have to face the troubling question of whether our policies and practices around the world have indeed affirmed the equality of others or treated them as lesser beings. Can we possibly be great if we make others less?

The question before us all is whether we will act in ways that betray our deepest principles, leaving us yet more haunting regrets which must be addressed by a future generation? Or will we as a people rise to the vision of greatness that has always inspired us at our best, and expect nothing less of our leaders?


Review: Jefferson’s America

Jeffeerson's America

Jefferson’s AmericaJulie M. Fenster. New York: Crown, 2016.

Summary: An account of how Jefferson used the efforts of four teams of men comprising less than a hundred total to establish America’s hold on the lands west of the Mississippi River.

Most of us, if we remember anything of early U. S. History remember the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the explorations, up the Missouri and to the Pacific coast, of Lewis and Clark. What I didn’t realize was that while we had purchased these lands from France for $15 million, our grasp of these was tenuous, especially because of the ambitions of Spain to hold the lands west of the Mississippi. I did not realize that there were four teams of explorers and that the success of their efforts played a key role in staving off the ambitions of Spain as well as confirming the wisdom of Jefferson’s bold move in acquiring these lands. Julie M. Fenster’s account of these explorers and their expeditions showed how four teams of men with a combined total of about one hundred men, plus Sacajawea, in the case of Lewis and Clark, fended off the challenges of the Federalists and the ambitions of Spain.

The book begins with America in the 1790’s and into Jefferson’s administration, as the country sought to get on its feet, occupy the Northwest Territory, and stay out of conflicts with the superpowers of Spain, France, and Great Britain. Soon, with westward settlement, Americans were on the banks of the Mississippi. West of this was mostly land claimed by the Spanish, and the native peoples who held it first. Louisiana, and New Orleans were the place where the tension was greatest, as Americans sought to ship goods through this port, held by Spain, and then through complicated maneuvers, yielded to France, from whom Jefferson acquired the land in 1803. In truth, Spain had not given up its ambitions for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and certainly was the dominant power in Texas and the lands to the south and west. Add to this that the purchase never decisively determined the western borders of these lands.

Jefferson faced opposition from Federalists who questioned Jefferson’s constitutional power to acquire these lands, and the wisdom of an acquisition that might lead to greater international confrontation over lands of unknown worth. This book shows how four teams of explorers led by Lewis and Clark (the Missouri), Hunter and Dunbar (the Red, Black, and Ouachita Rivers), Zebulon Pike (the upper Mississippi), and Freeman and Custis (the Red River) both asserted the presence of the United States in these newly claimed lands, and furnished, through journals and materials sent back to Washington, incontrovertible evidence of the riches of these lands. Fenster follows each expedition, including the trials faced in contending with various river conditions, negotiations with Indian tribes, the reaching of the Pacific by Lewis and Clark, and the climactic confrontation between Freeman and Custis and their forty troops with over a thousand Spanish on the Red River. Here is her description of this last:

    “Viana [the Spanish commander] started by warning Freeman that if the expedition continued, his orders were to open fire.

Freeman replied, ‘The object of my expedition was, to explore the river to its source, under the instructions of the President of the U.S.’ He request the objections in writing, but Viana refused, giving his word of honor instead. Freeman had done his duty.

    The juncture had been reached at which Freeman’s control over the situation would vanish with one more move, one more word. He agreed to leave the following day. Before turning to leave, however, he thought Viana said something in Spanish to one of his men about placing his soldiers on what had become the American side of the river. Freeman told his interpreter ‘that if a Spanish guard was placed near us they should be fired upon.’ He was offering battle to a force vastly superior. A moment went by and then Viana abandoned the idea. Freeman had done what a hundred diplomats failed to do. Spain and America had a border, and it was the Red River” (p. 342).

Fenster skillfully reproduces the vast tapestry of American exploration. She weaves in figures like General James Wilkinson, a slippery character who probably acted as a double agent on many occasions, and Aaron Burr, whose plots in the southwest eventually led to Jefferson’s unsuccessful prosecution of him. She helps us understand the personal character of the explorers including the struggle with depression Lewis faced whenever he wasn’t exploring, ending in his apparent suicide en route to Washington, though this never could be definitively proven. She portrays the drivenness of Zebulon Pike, who nearly lost his feet in the exploration of the upper Mississippi, and who later pressed on in a failed attempt that nearly cost him and his men their lives to reach the peak that bears his name. As a modern historian, Fenster also observes both the exploitation of and lack of understanding of the native peoples these explorers encountered in their journeys.

Most of all, she shows the decisive role these explorers played in confirming the United States’ hold on these lands, vindicating a president who saw the opportunity offered him even though he did not have the military to sustain a fight against France or Spain at the time. Through the reports of these explorers, the way was paved for a new wave of westward settlement, and an often besieged President was confirmed in the wisdom of his bold act and these men would ever after be known as “Jefferson’s men.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Our “Great River”


At Home on the Mississippi — Currier & Ives Print

It is 2,320 miles from its headwaters in Minnesota to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed covers all or part of 31 states and parts of two Canadian provinces. That watershed extends from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the western side of the Appalachians in the east. All told, the watershed covers 1,245,000 square miles. The discharge into the Gulf of Mexico varies between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet per second. You have probably guessed that I am writing about the Mississippi River, a name which derived from a Native American word meaning “Great River.”

Water draining into the storm drain at the corner of our lot ends up in this watershed. Growing up in Youngstown, the Mahoning River was part of this watershed. So are the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers, within 5 miles of our home, which in turn receive water from local creeks, including one in our subdivision. Waters from these rivers drain into the Ohio River which in turn drains into the Mississippi.  Only during the years I lived in Toledo and Cleveland was I outside the Mississippi watershed, and then only by less than 50 miles.

I’ve been reading Julie M. Fenster’s Jefferson’s America, which is an account of how Jefferson encouraged exploration of the Louisiana purchase when he had scant resources to claim the land we had purchased from France but was still of great interest to Spain, England, as well as the native peoples living on that land. Exploration was his way of projecting an American presence, heralding the migrations, and eventual military actions to come in the future.


Mississippi Watershed

What struck me as I’ve been reading is that, by and large, this was an exploration of the Mississippi watershed. For Lewis and Clark, it began at the head of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh to the Mississippi and then up the Missouri into Montana. Eventually they made their way across the Continental Divide, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They were the most famous of the river explorers but there were others. There was Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame who was the first American to explore the Mississippi River to its headwaters in Minnesota. William Dunbar and George Hunter explored the Ouachita River and Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis the Red River. All sent back to Jefferson reports on the geography, vegetation and wildlife of these regions. Pike, Lewis and Clark also established relationships with Native American tribes, further extending our sad history of broken promises and land grabs.

Just as the river is a central feature of our national geography, it has played a central role in our national history, from becoming a highway for transportation of agricultural crops, and especially cotton, to a point of contention as North and South fought over whether newly forming states on the west side of the river would be slave or free. During the Civil War control of the river was critical to the survival of the South and decisive in the victory of the North, particularly the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1963, which may have been as critical as the North’s victory at Gettysburg the day before.

The river has always flooded, despite flood control efforts. In the lower parts of the river, it will change course. Engineers have tried to tame it, which itself may have detrimental effects, particularly in the delta region. I had the chance to see how futile this was last December when I was in St. Louis for a convention during several days of continuous and heavy rains that flooded interstates, and some of the landing areas within a mile of where I was staying.

The Mississippi watershed reminds me of how tied together we are. What I put down the drain or even how I fertilize my lawn affects people and aquatic life downstream, even as our own water supply is affected by the towns and farms to the north of us. At one time, these were our interstate highways, and still important as transportation corridors. It reminds me of how farms, rural towns, and big industrial cities, how North and South and West are all tied together–from Appalachia and Montana to the Gulf of Mexico, and how this heartland of America is the connection that holds west coast and east, north coast and south together.

Review: Private Doubt, Public Dilemma

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaPrivate Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Summary: This book, drawn from Thomson’s 2012 Terry Lectures, explores the conflict between religion and science through a look at two men who struggled with this conflict, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin, considering how they handled scientific findings that conflicted with their beliefs and the public aftermath and expresses hope for a different engagement in the future.

Are science and religious belief in conflict? Certainly much of the history of the last couple centuries would suggest this is the case. What Keith Thomson does is examine this conflict, not as two blocks of people opposed to one another, but in terms of what happens when scientific findings conflict with one’s established beliefs, creating both personal doubts and a public dilemma when one publishes these findings, knowing they will conflict with the beliefs of others.

Thomson uses two figures to portray this conflict: Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin. For Jefferson, as he was compiling his Notes on the State of Virginia, the issue was geology and the apparent great age of rock formations he was studying. Privately, Jefferson had moved from Christian faith to a vague deism, even as these findings challenged prevailing interpretations. In his case, however, he recognized that this gave his political rivals an issue and he decided to leave the matter unresolved and publicly espoused more conventional beliefs.

A similar issue faced Darwin, who at one time considered training to be a clergyman. As he came to write On the Origin of the Species, he also struggled with the implications of the theory he was proposing which denied the special creation of different kinds of species but argued that processes of natural selection could account for the rise of different species. Darwin was so troubled by all this that he relied on others to publicly defend his ideas, Aldous Huxley against Bishop Wilberforce in England, and Asa Gray against Louis Agassiz in the United States.

Thomson argues that the public debates and dilemmas are a public manifestation of the clash between old and new knowledge and between differing sources of authority rooted in the new (scientific) and old (religious) knowledge. His hope seems to be that in time, the influence of the old authority will lessen and that religious people and scientists will co-operate on a broad range of issues from climate change to biotechnology.

What troubled me was not so much the places where science and religion conflict about understanding of the physical world. Even in Darwin’s time, theologians like B.B. Warfield were responding cogently and with an openness to the “new” scientific knowledge. Rather, it is the assumption that religion should step aside with its ethical reservations when science asserts that something both can and ought to be done. His treatment of contraception is a case in point. While I think there could be a place for dialogue with the Roman church about its categorical refusal to permit contraception by other than natural means, I found Thomson’s dismissiveness of the church’s concerns about how contraception results in the “banalization of sexuality” singularly condescending. If religious reservations on other ethical questions raised by new technology and new scientific findings are thus simply brushed aside, there is little hope for a real engagement between thoughtful scientists and religious believers. (I would acknowledge that there are certainly reactionary religious ideologues who resist any advances in science and that these often garner far more media attention than thoughtful religious believers who engage in a far more constructive fashion–Francis Collins and his BioLogos Foundation is a good example of the latter.)

What I think is part of Thomson’s problem in these lectures and this book is that he assumes only two kinds of people: either those who mute their religious beliefs because of their science, and those “fundamentalist” believers who resist the advance of science. What I wish he would have done is highlight those in Darwin’s time and ours who do the far more difficult thing–holding firm religious beliefs and rigorous science in a creative tension, taking a both/and rather than either/or approach. I think such individuals in fact represent the best “way forward” in bridging the divide, perceived or real, between religion and science in a way that allows us to address the greatest hindrances to the flourishing of human beings and the rest of, dare I say it, creation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: What Kind of Nation

What Kind of NationSummary: Simon’s book summarizes the struggle between John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson to define the character of American Federal government, focusing particularly on Marshall’s role in creating a strong judicial branch. A good book for anyone interested in post-Revolutionary War American history or in early constitutional law.

About the only thing John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson had in common was that both were Virginians. Jefferson was enamored of all things French while Marshall broke off talks with France following the XYZ Affair, in which French officials basically demanded bribes in order to enter into treaty negotiations with the young country. Marshall risked war rather than be party to this, although he characteristically stopped short of calling for war, showing the measured judgment that would characterize his career.

More than this Jefferson’s agrarian vision was for a limited federal government that allowed to states all power not expressly given the federal government. Likewise, Jefferson wanted to limit the Federalist dominated judiciary. Marshall had a very different vision of the needs of the country, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a very different vision for the place of the court as a co-equal branch of the government rather than the poor step-child he inherited.

James F. Simon gives us a vivid account of the tension between the Jefferson the Republican and Simon the Federalist. Unlike Adams and Jefferson, these two men would never be reconciled to one another. Perhaps the most famous encounter, which Simon covers in detail is that resulting in the Marbury v. Madison decision, that uphold the Jefferson administration’s refusal to deliver Marbury’s commission to serve as Justice of the Peace of the District of Columbia. This was one of a number of last minute appointments by John Adams. While this appeared to be a victory for Jefferson, Marshall based his decision on the ruling that the provision of the Judicial Act of 1789 under which Marbury brought his suit was in fact unconstitutional. What Marshall’s decision for the Court did was establish the principle of judicial review, which allowed the Supreme Court an expanded role in determining the constitutionality of legislation passed by Congress. No longer was the court the poor step-child or “least dangerous branch.”

The book goes on to describe further clashes between the two over attempts to impeach judges including fellow justice Chase, and in the treason trial of Aaron Burr. In each instance, Simon portrays a Jefferson who attempts to use political influence toward these ends only to be countered by the careful legal reasoning of Marshall. In the Burr trial, Marshall made a key ruling against Jefferson’s claim of executive privilege in withholding key evidence against Burr. Even after Jefferson was out of office, they continued to be on opposite sides of a series of states rights cases (Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee and McCulloch v. Maryland) that established precedence of federal over state law, nurturing the tensions that would eventually flare up in America’s Civil War.

In Simon’s account, Marshall comes out looking far better than Jefferson. I suspect some historians with a stronger states rights bias would see things quite differently. But what Simon makes clear is the distinctive contribution of Marshall to this day in the form of a strong federal government, limits on executive privilege and states rights, and a doctrine of judicial review which truly established the Supreme Court as a co-equal branch of government.