Book Review: ‘The Founders at Home’ by Myron Magnet

June 3, 2017

The reviewer, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is formerly the Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Reviewed by Mark Franke

It’s difficult being a classical liberal these days. Is one a conservative or libertarian in current political speak? To get all the way down into the verbal gutter that too frequently describes our political discourse today, does one qualify as a True Conservative? A Tea Partier? An Angry White Man? Or, worst of all, a Radical Religious Bigot (read: practicing Christian)? None of these labels are helpful in describing one’s political philosophy or fostering serious discussion of current issues. They divide conservatives rather than help us unite around core principles and most importantly advance reasonable solutions to gridlocked issues.

One would think that this is something new to American politics, brought about by modern ideologues, almost always on the right rather than the left if one were to believe everything one reads or hears in the national media. This illustration of fake news is propagated only due to our society’s pathetic lack of knowledge of our own history, especially that of our formative years through about 1820.

If you think our last election cycle was nasty, read about the 1800 presidential election and the four to six years leading up to it. Fortunately, you can. More than a handful of academic historians (McCollough, Chernow, Ellis, to name a few) have been writing about our nation’s formative years and in an accessible style that the average John Q. Public can follow — that is, if Mr. Public is willing to think beyond simplistic, thirty-second sound bites as the be-all, end-all of political discourse. Granted, working through 800-plus pages of academic biography can be a chore, albeit well worth it.

Without Readers’ Digest or Classics Illustrated to guide us these days, it is a refreshing discovery to read Myron Magnet’s recent book, “The Founders at Home.” The book is thematically structured around the ideological homes for six of our founding fathers and one family of founders while giving more than passing attention to their physical homes as representation of them as men and citizens. These American patriarchs — William Livingston, the Lee family of Virginia, George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — are grouped based on how they eventually sorted out as Federalists or Republicans. His taxonomy is conventional but with a twist:

The Firebrands — Livingston and the Lees, but he titles the Lee chapter “Conservative Revolutionaries”;
The Federalists — Washington, Jay, Hamilton;
The Republicans — Jefferson, Madison.

Washington is allocated three chapters and Madison two, while the others receive only single-chapter treatment. The treatment of Madison is instructive of the changing nature of the revolution. Magnet distinguishes Madison’s theory from his practice and I appreciate the distinction. Madison’s deep thinking on the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the essentiality of an adequately powerful central government was the touchstone of the resulting Constitution. It was Madison who persuaded Washington to lend his reputation and gravitas to the Constitutional Convention, and his Olympian albeit silent presence in the chair steered the delegates to complete a document that could unite the new nation. Much has been written about Madison’s eventual break with Hamilton and his apparent role as Jefferson’s catspaw in the partisan mud-wrestling of the late 1790s that makes today’s political vitriol look tame. (I admit to personal bias on this affair; for a more balanced view of Madison’s role, see Lynne Chaney’s recent biography.) But one thing is clear: Madison’s genius was the key ingredient in the political soup of the 1780s as the Revolution seemed destined to fail.

John Jay is the forgotten man of the new nation, and Magnet corrects that oversight. He reminds us that Jay was the third partner in the production of the public essays we know as the Federalist Papers. Magnet also works to restore Jay’s reputation as a diplomat who negotiated the best deal possible with Great Britain and, in fact, achieved more in the 1783 treaty than Britain and our putative ally France had privately agreed to grant.

So what was the common theme that united these disparate men and their approaches? It was the foundational natural right to hold and dispose of private property and government’s role in protecting this right. Jefferson’s most memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There is an interesting back story on how this became the final wording, but it is important to give credit to Jefferson’s antecedents. The importance of John Locke’s writing cannot be overstated. Jefferson’s substitution of happiness for property, by way of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, does not take property rights out of the equation but redefines them.

After all, Magnet argues, the American revolution became permanent precisely because it was a conservative one based not an appeal to overthrow a government or dispossess a plutocracy, but rather as an appeal to reinstate basic British rights based in natural law. Our forefathers simply wanted their constitutional rights restored to what they believed to be their heritage as Englishmen. Locke’s social contract theory served these conservative revolutionaries well by limiting their revolt to a simple “give us back what you illegally took from us.”

While the American revolution proved to be permanent, the French experiment did not. Perhaps the primary reason for this is its rejection of property rights. The slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” points to a different objective and logically resulted in an endgame of radicalism, violence, intolerance, bloodshed and ultimately tyranny. Likewise, the Russian revolution replaced one tyranny with an even more tyrannical and brutal government.

Magnet also argues that the founders benefited from a general acceptance of Protestantism and its birth in an earlier movement for religious freedom. Even though contemporary school children wouldn’t know this, many if not most of the early colonists came to practice a non-established religion. I’m not convinced. Religious freedom was a key issue for the colonists, but most of the men Magnet chooses to portray were non-religious deists at best or antagonistic to religion such as Jefferson and Madison.

So how did they create a nation? It was a difficult balancing act between ensuring liberty while recognizing the need for government to tax to protect that liberty. What is a tax, after all, but a legal confiscation of private property? Even the most strident libertarian will concede government’s role in providing domestic security. Let’s look to an example that Magnet features.

The controversy resolved in Hamilton’s grand financial plan was the assumption of state debts and the redemption of indentures at face value. States that had paid off their war debts, such as Virginia, opposed being taxed to redeem defaulting states. Adding to this a visceral mistrust of “stock jobbers” and bankers, the Jeffersonian party did not want to reward those who purchased war notes from demobilized soldiers at fractional values. At the same time the planter class demanded that their pre-war debts to British merchants be defeased. This, in my opinion, was the fundamental hypocrisy of the Jeffersonians. Fortunately, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison took a dinner together and worked out what may have been the last great compromise of our Founding Fathers. In exchange for Hamilton’s agreement to rally Northern support for a Southern national capital site, Madison agreed to drop his opposition to the debt assumption bill. (Disclaimer: My final paper as an undergraduate economics major was on Hamilton’s plan to make the new republic financially solvent. Some personal bias here is psychologically unavoidable.)

Several key principles were affirmed as the law of land:

There was more to it than this, of course, but these points illustrate what Magnet sets as his theme: the conservative nature of our founders in revolt.

One final advantage to this book is that it is written by journalist rather than a purely academic historian. I bring this up not to bash on college history departments but to recognize that the two professions write for different purposes, usually for different audiences, and in different styles.

This book is recommended if only to learn more about William Livingston and John Jay, two founders generally assigned to the back row of our national pantheon.
Its abiding value lies in its panoramic scope of the revolutionary period and our nation’s first years, and all this in an enjoyable read.


Leave a Reply