by Jeff Minick, Smoky Mountain News, North Carolina
From Thanksgiving dinners to football games, from the floors of Congress to Joe’s Bar & Grill, from universities to kindergartens, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Americans find themselves locked into political and cultural debates, shooting out tweets, screaming at rallies, shouting down speakers, and smearing their opponents. Civility and a sense of humor have been banished, replaced by identify politics pitting tribes of people against their neighbors whose skin color, religion, party, and gender preferences differ from their own. The abuse of language, reason, and argumentation, and the failure to define terms or to make clear what is said, only make more brutish this mix of hysteria and malevolence.
Had I a megaphone powerful enough to reach all 50 states, I would stand atop Mount Mitchell and yell, “Shut up, please! Everybody shut up!” Were I president, I would immediately issue an executive order commanding all red-faced politicos in the country to eat a chocolate chip cookie and drink a glass of milk every day at noon, and then sleep till two. Children need their naps.
I have no bullhorn, of course, and I hope never to be president of anything, but to those who, like me, are sick of all the shouting, shoving, screeching, and sham moralizing, I can offer this comfort: books.
First up on the line of defense against the Coocoo For Cocopuffs brigades is Myron Magnet’s The Founders At Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, 472 pages). In this handsomely written history, Magnet, who is the editor-at-large of City Journal, gives us mini-biographies of many of the American Founders, a history of the times in which they lived and died, and a walk inside their homes, many of which are now historical sites.
The Founders At Home should appeal to readers unfamiliar with the era as well as those who have studied it. I knew quite a bit about Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson, for example, but little about William Livingstone or John Jay. Reading of these men reminded me of the arduous tasks they faced, building a nation at a time when roads were often rutted paths and disease and fatal accidents common. Reading Magnet’s descriptions of the homes of these early patriots, which some of them designed to reflect a vision of liberty for their country, was equally captivating.
Magnet’s powers of description, his ear for tone in his writing, and his ability to unobtrusively include snippets and quotes from original manuscripts make the journey through The Founders At Home a great pleasure. Here, for example, Magnet describes George Washington’s resignation from the army and King George III’s reaction when he learns that Washington, the most powerful man in America, plans to return to his Virginia farm:
“When George III heard that he intended to return like Cincinnatus to his farm, he exclaimed with amazement, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!” On Christmas Eve 1783, private citizen Washington dismounted his horse at his beloved Mount Vernon’s welcoming door.”
Like any historian worth his salt, Magnet brings a critical eye to his subjects, but he also writes as one who clearly loves and treasures the government and the country these men and women established. If you feel lost in America these days, or if you feel America is lost, reading The Founders At Home may provide you some relief.
And if you are tired and worn from the abuse of language and the meaning of words, then I urge you to turn to Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters (Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 417 pages). Sir Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times of London, brings a lifetime of wisdom to this manual for novice and veteran writers. He writes with a fine wit — I several times burst out laughing at some of his comments — and provides readers with many examples of writing both good and bad. Evans stresses the importance of editing, contrasting, for example, Roosevelt’s speech asking for a declaration of war against the Japanese with its duller, earlier version. He introduces readers to a website, Readabilityforumulas.com, on which writers can paste passages and have the piece judged for readability and grade level of reading. (Fun, but I doubt I’ll return to it.)
The best chapter is “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,” which urges us to take steps like “Ration Adjectives, Raze Adverbs,” “Be Positive,” and “Cut The Fat, Check The Figures.” In Step 8, “Put People First,” for instance, Evans advises:
“Aim to make the sentences bear directly on the reader. People can recognize themselves in particulars. The abstract is another world. The writer must make it visible by concrete illustration. This means calling a spade and spade and not a factor of production. Eyes that glaze over at “a domestic accommodation energy-saving improvement program” will focus on “how to qualify for state money for insulating your house.”
One caveat regarding both books: Myron Magnet leans to the conservative side, Sir Harold Evans to the progressive. Does some of that prejudice slip into the writing of these two men? Of course, especially in Do I Make Myself Clear? where Evans makes no attempt to conceal his prejudices, especially his loathing of President Trump.
So who cares? Both The Founders At Home and Do I Make Myself Clear? are excellent books, the former reminding us of our roots, the latter reminding us of the importance of clarity in language.
(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher.)
May I recommend one of my candidates for the Ten Greatest Movies list—The Winslow Boy? What the 1948 British film (not David Mamet’s 1999 remake) has going for it is a brilliant director, Anthony Asquith—who ranks with such luminaries as Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, or Jean Renoir—and a stellar cast, which includes some of the most skilled actors in movie history, from Cedric Hardwicke on down, all at the top of their form. But above all these advantages, the movie’s animating spirit is its script, by Terrance Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald from Rattigan’s play, which grippingly dramatizes a principle at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon liberty—a principle that today’s America badly needs to relearn.
The story, set in 1912—when director Asquith’s father, H. H. Asquith, was Britain’s Liberal prime minister, and World War I was brewing—is simple, and it won’t spoil the movie for you if I sketch its outline. Twelve-year-old Ronnie Winslow gets expelled from Osborne, the prestigious boarding school for cadets headed for Royal Navy commissions, for allegedly stealing five shillings. Though the sum is trivial, the alleged breach of the code of officers and gentlemen is not. His father, Arthur, a newly retired Wimbledon bank manager played by Hardwicke, solemnly asks him if he is guilty—twice—and when the boy twice asserts his innocence, his father, who raised him to tell the truth, vows to vindicate the boy’s honor, whatever the cost.It proves immense. In his quest, which lasts until after Ronnie turns 14, Arthur sacrifices his health, much of his savings, and the happiness and future of his solidly respectable and eminently likable upper-middle-class family. He meets obstacles at every point. The school’s commandant tells him that, as he had no doubt of Ronnie’s guilt after hearing the details of the theft, he has no second thoughts about summarily expelling the boy, without any formal procedure or even someone to advise Ronnie or speak in his defense. He won’t reconsider the evidence or say what it was. A visit to the Admiralty Commission to threaten a lawsuit gains Arthur only a haughty declaration that he needn’t bother: a subject of the king can’t sue the king’s representatives, for the law holds that the king can do no wrong.
True enough, his solicitor tells him; but nevertheless Magna Carta, the thirteenth-century charter of English liberties, declares that “no subject of the King may be condemned without a trial,” so perhaps Arthur should ask his MP to denounce the wrong done to Ronnie in Parliament. Good advice: for the MP, seeing a chance to win favorable press as a defender of justice, is glad to oblige. Reporters readily take the bait and make the Winslow case a national cause célèbre.
The uproar catches the interest of Sir Robert Morton, England’s most eminent—and expensive—barrister, masterfully played by Robert Donat as a complex mix of eloquence, cold hauteur, ruthless intelligence, and deep but hidden feeling, a legal version of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. Morton drops in at the Winslows’ house on his way to dinner with a duchess, politely introduces himself, and mercilessly cross-examines Ronnie, until the boy stammers with confusion and his family (along with the audience) wonders if he’s been telling the truth. But after such browbeating, the great man abruptly announces that he’ll take the case, for he thinks Ronnie is innocent. Continue reading
They want self-government back.
Haunting this year’s presidential contest is the sense that the U.S. government no longer belongs to the people and no longer represents them. And this uneasy feeling is not misplaced. It reflects the real state of affairs.
We have lost the government we learned about in civics class, with its democratic election of representatives to do the voters’ will in framing laws, which the president vows to execute faithfully, unless the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional. That small government of limited powers that the Founders designed, hedged with checks and balances, hasn’t operated for a century. All its parts still have their old names and appear to be carrying out their old functions. But in fact, a new kind of government has grown up inside the old structure, like those parasites hatched in another organism that grow by eating up their host from within, until the adult creature bursts out of the host’s carcass. This transformation is not an evolution but a usurpation.
What has now largely displaced the Founders’ government is what’s called the Administrative State—a transformation premeditated by its main architect, Woodrow Wilson. The thin-skinned, self-righteous college-professor president, who thought himself enlightened far beyond the citizenry, dismissed the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as so much outmoded “nonsense,” and he rejected the Founders’ clunky constitutional machinery as obsolete. (See “It’s Not Your Founding Fathers’ Republic Any More,” Summer 2014.) What a modern country needed, he said, was a “living constitution” that would keep pace with the fast-changing times by continual, Darwinian adaptation, as he called it, effected by federal courts acting as a permanent constitutional convention. Continue reading
Tocqueville foresaw how it would come.
Alexis de Tocqueville was a more prophetic observer of American democracy than even his most ardent admirers appreciate. True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called “democratic despotism.” That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.
Readers don’t fully credit Tocqueville with being the seer he was for the same reason that, though volume 1 of Democracy in America set cash registers jingling as merrily as Santa’s sleigh bells at its 1835 publication, volume 2, five years later, met a much cooler reception. The falloff, I think, stems from the author’s failure to make plain a key step in his argument between the two tomes—an omission he righted two decades later with the publication of The Old Regime and the French Revolution in 1856. Reading the two books together makes Tocqueville’s argument—and its urgent timeliness—snap into focus with the clarity of revelation.
Isn’t a sexual revolution a kind of revolution?” a Soviet dissident, the grandson of one of Stalin’s henchmen, asked me rhetorically in the mid-1970s. Recently released from five years’ Siberian exile, he certainly knew what slavery and tyranny were. But now, he wondered, couldn’t the waning of Russia’s sexual constraints be the harbinger of wider liberty? After all, he asked hopefully, “Isn’t sexual freedom, freedom?”
It didn’t turn out that way. So impoverished was the Soviet empire that it couldn’t give its subjects the bread and circuses that pacified imperial Rome’s populace; so, to the cheap vodka drastically shortening Russian life spans, it added lascivious license. Drunken stupor; moments of voluptuous rapture: that’s escape, not liberty. Continue reading
The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. The table of contents for the twenty-fifth anniversary issue is posted here.
City Journal is a fantastic and fantastically influential quarterly magazine that I have read regularly over the years (subscribe here).To salute the magazine’s milestone, and bring the magazine to the attention of readers who might not be familiar with it, I submitted a set of questions to long-time editor Myron Magnet (now retired) and his current editor Brian Anderson, his successor.
Below is my exchange with Mr. Magnet. Let me say myself right here at the top, it is worth reading.
Power Line: What has City Journal wrought? What do you think have been your biggest accomplishments of the past 25 years?
Myron Magnet: These first two questions are really one, so let me answer them together. First, because of the seriousness of our arguments, and the rigor, intellectual honesty, and talent of our writers, we made conservatism respectable in New York City–Moscow on the Hudson, it used to be called. We were in effect Rudy Giuliani’s ideas factory–he once held up a copy of City Journal during a speech and said, “I don’t know if it’s possible to plagiarize policies, but if it is, then this is where I plagiarize mine from.” And the truth is, that we would make suggestions–about quality-of-life policing, say, or how to deal with the homeless, or how to reform welfare–and, amazingly, he often would try them out. Equally amazing, they would work. So it was very exhilarating to run a quarterly magazine with that kind of influence, and very moving to have played a role in the breathtaking rebirth of New York.
Remember that when we started, New York was crumbling. People and companies were fleeing what they saw as a dying and ungovernable city; Times Square was a monument to degradation and squalor; the parks were dustbowls populated by muggers and dope dealers; the streets and subways swarmed with madmen, sometimes threatening and sometimes merely pitiable; and, with one murder every four hours every day, we all lived in fear, so no one wanted to go out at night to restaurants and theaters, which were withering away. People from out of town, or New Yorkers too young to remember the bad old days of just over two decades ago, see the glittering metropolis of today and have no idea of the immensity of effort it took on the part of so many to create that urban wonderland out of such threat and decay. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the change: The now-trendy Lower East Side, as well as hip Williamsburg (and much of Brooklyn), were abject slums in those days, very squalid and very, very dangerous. On the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, houses and apartments that command millions today sold for under $100,000. No one wanted them.
When the planes hit the towers on 9/11, our Fall issue was just ready to go to the printer. We tore it up and started over, on the view that this was our city and we needed to address the question of how to rebuild it and keep its economy vibrant immediately, so we even got some architect friends of ours to redesign the street grid at the World Trade Center site, and we asked our friend the great Scottish sculptor, Alexander Stoddart, to design a memorial to the victims, infinitely more fitting and moving than the vacuous hole-in-the-ground, void of meaning, that ultimately took form there. We also needed to learn and explain who our enemies were and how to protect ourselves from them, so we were early to examine the nature of Islamism and to understand that, while we must protect the rights of Moslem-Americans, we must carefully screen future Moslem applicants for immigration for Islamist sympathies.
Power Line: Where does City Journal fit in the conservative intellectual universe?
Myron Magnet: Though we are true free marketers, we are not libertarians, because we share the Founding Fathers’ belief that men are reasoning rather than reasonable creatures, with complex motives that ensure that even in business, men don’t always pursue their rational self-interest, and certainly not the long-term rational interest of their city or nation. Though we are full-throated fans of business, we hate crony capitalism, which in our state, with its two legislative leaders currently on trial for bribery and corruption, is a way of life. While we believe in free trade and the free movement of capital, we are more skeptical about the free movement of labor, since we believe that one pair of hands is not interchangeable with another, for those hands are attached to a head, a heart, a skill set, and a culture. Especially now that we have a giant welfare state and little agreement about what kind of culture we’d like immigrants to assimilate to, we’d like to choose our immigrants based on how they and their children can add to the wealth and well-being of the nation, to become creators of prosperity rather than dependents. And since we are not based in Washington, we are willing to examine and question every orthodoxy and consider every new policy idea, whether or not it has a realistic chance of passing into law now. Moreover, some of us belong to the “question authority” generation, and started out to the left of center. So we know that experience has changed our views–which makes us take nothing for granted and question everything, even our own assumptions.
Power Line: I love the magazine’s cultural coverage. Conservatives seem to be on the losing end of the culture wars. What have you sought to do with your cultural coverage?
Myron Magnet: We believe that culture–ideas, beliefs, ideals, loyalties, and mores–shape a nation more powerfully than political or social policies, which are themselves originally shaped by culture. So we have devoted a lot of attention to how to strengthen families, how to raise and educate children to succeed, how sexual mores are changing both for good and for ill. Literature, television, journalism, entertainment, of the past as well as the present–all these are transmitters and shapers of culture, so we examine them seriously, if sometimes a little lightheartedly. And sometimes censoriously: does gangsta rap do anything to uplift the urban underclass, or does it degrade it? We’d prefer a culture that nurtures every imaginable variety of human excellence. That’s what the ideal city, a theater of talent and ambition, is for.
As we are at base an urban-policy magazine, we take very seriously Winston Churchill’s profound observation, which has everything to do with cities: “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” So we are passionate about architecture, resolutely opposed to those modernist and postmodernist starchitects who believe that buildings are machines for living rather than enhancements of humanity. For them, people are interchangeable cogs or ants in an ant colony, not humans with souls.
Our belief in the primacy of culture made us perhaps the first conservative magazine to express deep skepticism of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” in Iraq, much as we supported President Bush and the war. You can’t make democratic republicans out of tribal people with fanatical religious hatreds against one another and the rest of the world. America’s democratic liberty is an immense cultural achievement, centuries in the making.
Power Line: I can’t go without asking about Heather Mac Donald. She has been an inspiration to me and made herself something of a national resource on the subjects she writes about. I’m sure I’m not alone. Can you say anything about Heather’s contributions?
Myron Magnet: When I took the helm of City Journal in 1994, we thought that, to save the city, we’d need to solve all its problems at once: crime, taxation, regulation, education, rent control, and so on. We discovered that, with such a rich inheritance from the past–museums, orchestras, opera companies, theaters, restaurants both fancy and homey, beautiful buildings, global banks, universities–all we needed to do was make people feel safe in the streets, their homes, and their hotels, and tourists would flock in, New Yorkers would go out, and the city would flourish.
Heather made herself City Journal’s–and the nation’s–Number One expert on policing, aside from Bill Bratton, Ray Kelly, and their top deputies. In the early days of the magazine, she was the principal explainer to the public of what Bratton and Giuliani were doing about crime, and enough people found her sufficiently persuasive to support the NYPD, let it do its job (despite constant carping from the academic criminologists and the New York Times), and appreciate the miracle it wrought. Now that police are under attack nationwide and what Heather dubbed the “Ferguson Effect” has made cops back off, with a resultant jump in crime, Heather is once again the nation’s most tireless and persuasive defender of activist policing. She knows everything there is to know about the subject, from how to train cops, deploy them, mange them, and assess their performance, so that they don’t solve crimes after they have occurred but instead prevent crimes from happening in the first place–something no one imagined could be done before City Journal and the Manhattan Institute, its publisher, suggested it could.
In my first years running the magazine, I’d spend hours every week on the phone with Heather, as she’d worry over every detail of her story, to make sure the logic had no holes, the argument was fair, her answers to possible objections persuasive, and so on. These were among the most intellectually stimulating conversations I dare say any editor ever had. And I know that, in addition to her scrupulous intellectual honesty and rigor, her amazing intelligence, her stringent perfectionism, Heather (a lapsed lawyer) is as curious as any scientist and as brave as Hercules, willing to go into any neighborhood in any city, ask any question of anybody, and get answers that illuminate. Intellectually courageous as well, I might add, for when we started, to suggest that criminals, not “society,” were responsible for crime was immediately to be shunned as racist. But of course the greatest beneficiaries of New York’s crime drop are residents of minority communities where crime was worst. Now that residents don’t have to be afraid to let their kids ride bikes outside or go to the corner store for bread, civic life can again flourish there.
Two final points. Heather can write about anything, from “Hip Hop 101″ at a “progressive” NYC public school to affirmative action and its fruits in the universities to classical music. Second, we have been blessed with a brigade of great writers, who made City Journal what it is.
Power Line: What would you like interested readers who are unfamiliar with the magazine to know about it?
Myron Magnet: Take a look at the website here — it’s free and unencumbered by any advertising, and judge for yourselves.
What kind of nation did the Founders aim to create?
By Myron Magnet — July 3, 2015
Men, not vast, impersonal forces — economic, technological, class struggle, what have you — make history, and they make it out of the ideals that they cherish in their hearts and the ideas they have in their minds. So what were the ideas and ideals that drove the Founding Fathers to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government, one formed by reflection and choice, as Alexander Hamilton said, rather than by accident and force?
The worldview out of which America was born centered on three revolutionary ideas, of which the most powerful was a thirst for liberty. For the Founders, liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who have a keen knowledge of its opposite. They understood it in the same way as Eastern Europeans who have lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or Jews who escaped the Holocaust. Continue reading
Trigger warning: may offend the illiberal or intolerant
Shut up or die. It’s hard to think of a more frontal assault on the basic values of Western freedom than al-Qaida’s January slaughter of French journalists for publishing cartoons they disliked. I disagree with what you say, and I’ll defend to the death my right to make you stop saying it: the battle cry of neo-medievalism. And it worked. The New York Times, in reporting the Charlie Hebdo massacre, flinched from printing the cartoons. The London Telegraph showed the magazine’s cover but pixelated the image of Muhammad. All honor to the Washington Post and the New York Post for the courage to show, as the latter so often does, the naked truth.
The Paris atrocity ought to make us rethink the harms we ourselves have been inflicting on the freedom to think our own thoughts and say and write them that is a prime glory of our Bill of Rights—and that its author, James Madison, shocked by Virginia’s jailing of Baptist preachers for publishing unorthodox religious views, entered politics to protect. Our First Amendment allows you to say whatever you like, except, a 1942 Supreme Court decision held, “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” though subsequent decisions have allowed obscene and profane speech. A 1992 judgment further refined the “fighting words” exemption, ruling that the First Amendment forbids government from discriminating among the ideas that the fighting words convey, banning anti-Catholic insults, for example, while permitting slurs against anti-Catholics. In other words, government can’t bar what we would now call “hate speech”—speech that will cause “anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”
This expansive freedom prevails nowhere else on earth. European countries, and even Canada, have passed hate-speech laws that criminalize casual racial slurs or insults to someone’s sexual habits. An Oxford student spent a night in jail for opining to a policeman that his horse seemed gay. France, which has recently fined citizens for antigay tweets and criminalized calls for jihad as an incitement to violence—a measure that our First Amendment would allow only if the calls presented a “clear and present danger”—also (most improperly) forbids the denial of crimes against humanity, especially the Holocaust. The pope has weighed in as well, with the platitude that no one should insult anyone’s religion—or his mother. Continue reading
THE ONE AND ONLY.
by JAY NORDLINGER May 27, 2015 2:36 PM
My Impromptus today is kind of unusual. (I know, no different from the norm.) What are the least overrated places you know? In other words, places about which the hype is true. And what are the most overrated? I brought up this topic a couple of weeks ago, and, today, I report reader responses. One of those responses is this: Least overrated: Mount Vernon. Warm, approachable, understandable. Most overrated: Monticello. As much as I love Jefferson, his home leaves me cold, especially when compared with Mount Vernon.
I brought this opinion — this pairing — to the attention of Myron Magnet. Why? Well, Myron knows about everything. But he is especially knowledgeable in this area, as the author of The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817. He was good enough to write a comment, which I’m so pleased to share with you.
The “reader’s comparison surprised me,” he begins. “In truth, both houses are profoundly moving to visit, haunted as they are by spirits of the great statesmen and amateur architects who, as a lifetime hobby, spent years planning, building up, repairing, perfecting these outward embodiments of their inner vision of the kind of domestic life they were building a nation to make possible. By contrast with your correspondent, in politics I love Washington, while the only Jeffersonian political principle I agree with is that all men are created equal. So I like the Burkean approach Washington took to enlarging and improving Mount Vernon, not altering structures that worked fine as he added new and improved sections of the house. The result is a house that, for all its attempts to look classically symmetrical, is endearingly lopsided, with the rooftop lantern 18 inches off center, and a different number of windows under each half of the pediment over the entrance portico. Jefferson, by contrast, is a rationalist’s rationalist, with the plan of Monticello an endlessly interesting, complex, but always symmetrical puzzle of abstract geometrical shapes forming a brilliantly harmonious whole. Well, I like rationalism — in architecture, if not in politics, where it led Jefferson to his monstrous views on the French Revolution. There is however one truly disturbing thing about Monticello, and that’s the care and trouble Jefferson took to hide the economic reality of slavery that supported the whole operation, putting the service wings half-underground and devising ways to bring food and wine into the dining room without a human being having to carry it in. I suppose one should give him credit at least for being ashamed of slavery. As Dr. Johnson said of that proto-Darwinian, the Scotch judge Lord Monboddo, who believed that men were descended from monkeys, If one has a tail, one should take pains to conceal it; but Monboddo flaunts his with pride.”
Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/418942/magnet-school-jay-nordlinger
What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?
Man is a political animal, but he is much more.
NATIONAL TRUST PHOTO LIBRARY/ART RESOURCE, NY
A headless body in a topless bar would not have surprised political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
The late political scientist James Q. Wilson used to caution, with his elegant precision, that it’s not enough to have political opinions. You also need facts—which, for him and his brilliant colleagues at The Public Interest of the 1960s and 1970s, meant data. You think this policy will produce that outcome? Okay, try it—and then measure what happens. Did you reduce poverty? Raise test scores? And you had also better comb the data for consequences you neither expected nor intended, for all policies must stand or fall by the totality of their results. Remember, too, Wilson and his colleagues used to insist, that correlation is not causation: if two things alter more or less in tandem, that doesn’t by itself prove that one of the changes produced the other. They may be independent of each other, or some as-yet-unnoticed third force may have sparked both of them. Data don’t speak for themselves but require interpretation—which may or may not be correct. It’s art, not science.
This warning proved a powerful corrective to the liberal ideology about social policy that reigned in the 1960s—pious, unproved platitudes about “root causes” that gave birth to the War on Poverty, whose dire consequences, including an ever-more-deeply entrenched underclass, still bedevil America. But Wilson’s rigor tones up only one of the areas where political thought and discourse tend to be flabby. At least two more elements, well known to political philosophers since antiquity but often ignored today, are essential to intelligent political thinking. You have to have some understanding of psychology—of the minds and hearts that motivate the individuals who are the stuff of politics—and you have to know something about culture, the thick web of beliefs and customs that shape individuals and their social world at least as much as public policies do. Continue reading
How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founders’ Homes
Mount Vernon and Monticello nearly vanished.
Every day for the last 200 years, boats gliding along the wide Potomac have blown their horns or clanged their bells as they pass Mount Vernon, in festive tribute to the estate’s revered creator, George Washington. The tradition began, legend has it, when Admiral George Cockburn, sailing back from torching the city of Washington in the War of 1812, tolled his flagship’s bell as he passed Mount Vernon in 1814, though whether as a chivalrous salute to the memory of an officer of world-historical genius or as a sarcastic taunt after burning the city that bore the great general’s name legend doesn’t say.
What is certain is that one such foghorn blast on an autumn night in 1853 startled a South Carolina lady returning home by steamer from Philadelphia, and she came up on deck to see what the commotion was about. In the bright moonlight, she saw the cause all too plainly: Mount Vernon—but a Mount Vernon moldering into ruin, its veranda sagging, its untended lawns waist-high. “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington,” Louisa Cunningham wrote to her daughter. “It does seem such a blot on our country!”
That letter set in motion an extraordinary drama of historical preservation that will seem almost incredible to the 1.1 million visitors each year who see today’s superb Mount Vernon, sparkling with reverent care and bustling not just with tourism but with world-class scholarship. And the same is true of the 440,000 annual visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, also designed, like Mount Vernon, by an amateur-architect Founding Father and embodying in concrete form its builder’s deepest longings and ideals. (See “Monticello’s Shadows,” Autumn 2007.) The home of the author of the Declaration of Independence—perhaps America’s most beautiful house—was once similarly falling into ruin, before being saved in the most unexpected, almost operatic, way and transformed, like Mount Vernon, into one of the nation’s premier private philanthropies.
It’s sagging porch propped up by poles, Mount Vernon was moldering into ruin before an all-women charity restored its original luster.COURTESY OF THE MOUNT VERNON LADIES’ ASSOCIATION Continue reading
Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books, 376 pp., $27.99)
Unlike those mega-biographies that bury their subject’s chief accomplishments under 900 pages of undigested detail, Richard Brookhiser’s compact, profound, and utterly absorbing new life of Abraham Lincoln, Founders’ Son, leaps straight to the heart of the matter. With searchlight intensity, it dazzlingly illuminates the great president’s evolving views of slavery and the extraordinary speeches in which he unfolded that vision, molding the American mind on the central conflict in American history and resolving, at heroic and tragic cost to the nation and himself, the contradiction that the Founding Fathers themselves could not resolve. Continue reading
It’s Not Your Founding Fathers’ Republic Any More
Presidents, Congresses, and courts are creating an elective despotism.
How far have we distorted the Constitution that the Founders gave us, and how much does it matter? A phalanx of recent books warns that we have undermined our fundamental law so recklessly that Americans should worry that government of the people, by the people, and for the people really could perish from the earth. The tomes—Adam Freedman’s engaging The Naked Constitution, Mark R. Levin’s impassioned The Liberty Amendments, Richard A. Epstein’s masterful The Classical Liberal Constitution, and Philip K. Howard’s eloquent and levelheaded The Rule of Nobody (in order of publication)—look at the question from different angles and offer different fixes to it, but all agree that Americans need to take action right now.
THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NYC
Before we scramble, though, we had better understand just what happened. There’s no single villain. As these books show, all branches of government conspired over more than a century to turn the Constitution that the Framers wrote in 1787, plus the Bill of Rights that James Madison shepherded through the first Congress in 1789 and the Fourteenth Amendment ratified in 1868, into something their authors would neither recognize nor endorse. Continue reading
Liberty or Equality?
The Founding Fathers knew that you can’t have both.
With the fulminating on the left about inequality—“Fighting inequality is the mission of our times,” as New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, summed up the theme of his postelection powwow with President Barack Obama—it’s worth pausing to admire anew the very different, and very realistic, modesty underlying Thomas Jefferson’s deathless declaration that all men are created equal. We are equal, he went on to explain, in having the same God-given rights that no one can legitimately take away from us. But Jefferson well knew that one of those rights—to pursue our own happiness in our own way—would yield wildly different outcomes for individuals. Even this most radical of the Founding Fathers knew that the equality of rights on which American independence rests would necessarily lead to inequality of condition. Indeed, he believed that something like an aristocracy would arise—springing from talent and virtue, he ardently hoped, not from inherited wealth or status.
In the greatest of the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison explicitly pointed out the connection between liberty and inequality, and he explained why you can’t have the first without the second. Men formed governments, Madison believed (as did all the Founding Fathers), to safeguard rights that come from nature, not from government—rights to life, to liberty, and to the acquisition and ownership of property. Before we joined forces in society and chose an official cloaked with the authority to wield our collective power to restrain or punish violators of our natural rights, those rights were at constant risk of being trampled by someone stronger than we. Over time, though, those officials’ successors grew autocratic, and their governments overturned the very rights they were supposed to protect, creating a world as arbitrary as the inequality of the state of nature, in which the strongest took whatever he wanted, until someone still stronger came along.
In response, Americans—understanding that “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people,” as Jefferson snarled—fired their king and created a democratic republic. Under its safeguard of our equal right to liberty, each of us, Madison saw, will employ his different talents, drive, and energy, to follow his own individual dream of happiness, with a wide variety of successes and failures. Most notably, Federalist 10 pointed out, “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.” That inequality would be a sign of the new nation’s success, not failure. It would mean that people were really free. Continue reading
I spent Presidents’ Weekend in Orange, Virginia, celebrating the inauguration of the restored Old Library at Montpelier, at which I was thrilled to be the speaker. With its breathtaking view out to the Blue Ridge 17 miles away (and uncharacteristically snow-covered that February Sunday), the serene, sun-filled, second-floor room is where James Madison began preparing throughout the spring and summer of 1786 for the Constitutional Convention that opened on May 25, 1787. Indefatigably, Madison pored over hundreds of books that his best friend and Piedmont neighbor, Thomas Jefferson (then U.S. minister in Paris), had sent him by the crateful from the shops of Europe—tomes on history and political philosophy in English, French, and Latin that Madison felt sure would provide him with clues as to why earlier democracies and confederations had failed, so that he could outline a plan for an unprecedented, and unprecedentedly successful, large-scale democratic republic. He summarized his conclusions in a handwritten pamphlet, which he consulted often during the Convention’s debates, before mining it for three of the 27 Federalist Papers that he wrote. We revere Madison, properly, as the Father of the Constitution; it’s in this room, a sacred shrine of American liberty, that the shape of that immortal document first came into focus.
It was thrilling, too, to see the progress the Montpelier Foundation, now under the dynamic leadership of Kat Imhoff, has made on the restoration of Montpelier’s interior since the last time I saw the house in 2010. The entire project has been Herculean, given the mansion’s confusing evolution. Madison’s father, a rich, third-generation Virginia planter, had built the core of the house in the 1760s. A two-story, five-bay Georgian brick structure—that is, it had two windows on each side of its central front door—it was then Orange County’s biggest residence, commanding 5,000 acres of lush Piedmont farmland. When Madison married Dolley Payne Todd and temporarily retired from government in 1797, he added what was in effect an attached townhouse, three bays wide, to his parents’ residence. The result was a still-symmetrical eight-bay house, with three pairs of windows punctuated by two doorways. A new columned and pedimented portico embraced the two doorways and emphasized the house’s symmetry further.
Starting in 1809, during the first of his two presidential terms, Madison began building one-story wings on either side of the house, surmounted by roof terraces enclosed by Chinese Chippendale railings, all designed with advice from his friends Jefferson, Capitol architect William Thornton, and White House interior designer Benjamin Henry Latrobe. One wing housed a grand library; the other provided new quarters for his widowed mother, who lived with him and Dolley until she died at 97 in 1829. An imposing pedimented and fan-lit central doorway, with a new demi-lune window in the portico’s pediment directly above, provided a stately presidential focal point for the perfectly balanced mansion.
Of course big changes took place in the interior as well over that half-century. Madison’s 1797 addition had a first floor entirely separate from his parents’, in order to give him and his little household—Dolley, Dolley’s young son from her first marriage, and Dolley’s youngest sister—some privacy, and perhaps to spare the elder Madisons some childhood commotion as well. The second floor, reached by separate staircases for each generation, was all interconnected, however. Madison’s presidential expansion of the house broke down the first-floor barrier, created a splendid drawing room suitable for presidential receptions, and added a sumptuous chimneypiece to the dining room. Adorning the dinner table, which could seat 18, was a service of Vieux Paris pocelain, bought from the Nast factory in 1806.
This complex evolution is easy to relate, but it took years of painstaking effort by restorers to reconstruct it. Why? Because in 1901, gunpowder and chemical magnate William du Pont, Sr., bought the house, already repeatedly altered from the moment an impoverished and widowed Dolley had to sell it in 1844, and he swallowed up the remains of Madison’s mansion in a gargantuan enlargement from 22 rooms to 55, smashing through chimney-pieces, paneling, and other impediments in the process. His daughter Marion turned the house into the hub of a thoroughbred horse-breeding and horse-racing enterprise, installed an art-deco living room, more garish than stylish, in Mother Madison’s quarters, and dug out the cellar to build a gym for her husband, cowboy-movie-idol and Cary Grant’s longtime close friend and California housemate, Randolph Scott. The result was a hulking pink-stucco bunker with a metal roof. As a stab at comely proportion, the du Ponts lengthened the portico columns to the ground; they had originally sprung from the top of the stairs. It’s only justice to add that Mrs. Scott left money in her will, and instructions to her heirs, that helped put Montpelier right.
I first saw the house in 2007, when restorers had demolished most of the du Pont additions, chipped off the stucco to reveal the warm rose-colored handmade brick of the original house, recreated the early-nineteenth-century presidential floor plan, and removed the waterlogged du Pont plaster from the interior, leaving only the original laths, hand-cut between the 1760s and 1810 or ’12, when Madison’s final renovation was complete. Walking through Montpelier then was an eerie experience, since I could see between the laths from room to room to room, as if I were in a ghost house. By then, restorers had moved Marion duPont Scott’s art deco extravaganza to a visitor center.
When I returned three years later, restoration chief John Jeanes showed me how his crew had plastered the interior with the original lime, sand, and horsehair formula, and re-roofed the house with 30,000 hand-carved old-growth cypress shingles, copied from some original cedar ones found in the attic—but so much tougher that the new roof, Jeanes predicted, would last 100 years. He showed me too how careful removal of layers of paint on the sides of the window frames had revealed the outlines of the original chair rails, so his team could reproduce them precisely. One of the second-rate old-master paintings that had adorned the drawing room hung in its original position, and copies of the others, along with portraits of Madison’s Founding Father colleagues, hung where the originals had been. Some pieces of the old house had turned up during the restoration—a hearthstone that had fallen into the basement, for instance, a doorway that the duPonts had relocated—but the few bits of furniture in the rooms only punctuated their emptiness, since Dolley’s wastrel son, a drunkard and gambler whom Madison once bailed out of debtors’ prison, had sold off most things of value after his stepfather’s death.
The intervening four years have produced a miraculous change. Furniture said to have belonged to the Madisons has poured in from eager donors, and many pieces, after rigorous vetting, have turned out to be genuine. Museums have loaned Montpelier items known to have come from the house. Every furnished room displays original Madison pieces, from the two sideboards in the dining room to a tea table in Mother Madison’s sitting room that she probably acquired even before she and her husband built Montpelier. An original Montpelier chimneypiece turned up in a nearby farmhouse and is now back where it belongs.
From poring over documents, restorers had a fairly detailed idea of what was in the house during the Madisons’ period, and, in cases where original pieces had vanished completely, they often could replace them with almost identical ones. Madison had bought a square piano from a Philadelphia maker in 1794, for example, and Montpelier now has one made by the same firm that very year. The house displays an ivory chess set identical to the original one, of which only a few pawns turned up in a Montpelier rubbish heap, and a mahogany case of plaster portrait-medallions of philosophers, made by the same Italian craftsman who made the Madisons’ now-lost set, stands near it in the drawing room. The Madisons owned some painted Louis XVI drawing-room chairs that they had probably bought when George Washington auctioned off some of his presidential furniture on his retirement to Mount Vernon at the end of his second term. Washington had bought the originals, made by a Parisian cabinet maker named Lelarge, from a departing French ambassador, and he had a Philadelphia craftsman make copies to enlarge the set. Six of the Madisons’ chairs still exist in various collections, including one at Montpelier. Some are French, one complete with Lelarge’s stamp; some are President Washington’s American copies. The Montpelier Foundation has recently bought ten almost identical ones, stamped Lelarge, to adorn the drawing room.
During the restoration, a workman on a tall ladder found a bit of red flocked wallpaper stuck to the top of a drawing-room window frame, though the thumbnail-sized scrap was too small for curators to make out what the original pattern was. Reasonably, they chose a red-flocked pattern popular in the early nineteenth century. A two-century-old mouse’s nest found inside one wall contained a scrap of a letter in Madison’s hand and some threads of crimson silk—evidence for restorers to surmise that this was most likely the crimson of the silk damask that Dolley had ordered from France in 1816 for the curtains and upholstery of Montpelier’s drawing room, now reproduced in fabric and color, if not in pattern. Tack holes in the drawing-room and dining-room window frames suggested how the curtains originally hung; but no shred of evidence remains for the pattern of the dining-room curtains or wallpaper, though it’s hard to imagine that the flamboyance the restorers chose would have displeased the exuberant Dolley.
And finally, the Old Library—the goal of my pilgrimage—has got some 900 of its 4,000-odd books back. They’re not Madison’s originals, but they are the same works, largely in the same editions he owned—from Cicero’s writings and Bacon’s essays to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. “The past should enlighten us on the future,” Madison once wrote: “knowledge of history is no more than anticipated experience.” In these volumes is enshrined some of the knowledge that informed our Constitution. The ink splatters Madison made while taking notes on them—original splatters, not copies—still adorn the heart-pine floorboards of the hushed room, where Madison listened to such great effect to the eloquent voices of our civilization’s sages.
Photographs courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation
I hope every American will get to see Mount Vernon, because it breathes the spirit of our greatest president and makes the Founding seem more alive and real than any history textbook can do. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which restored and maintains the estate, has done an extraordinary job of preservation—even down to buying up the land across the Potomac, so as to keep the pristine view George Washington saw—and its various exhibits and publications form one of the great treasure troves of American historical understanding. This wonderful philanthropy offers the following virtual tour of the house, to whet your appetite until you can see it in person. Just click on the photo to get started. If at any point you get stuck, just click on the “Mansion” tab, and you will be able to cybertransport yourself to any room in the house:
When you visit, leave time to make the short drive down the road to visit Gunston Hall, home of Washington’s friend and ally, George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It is a perfect example of a republican gentleman’s rich but down-to-earth house. Click on the photo to begin the slide show:
Incidentally, portions of the house that belonged to Washington’s English ancestors still exist in Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire, built by Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s five times great grandfather, in the mid-1500s.
The entrance porch was completed soon after Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne and Lawrence Washington displayed his loyalty to the new Queen by depicting her coat of arms and initials in plaster-work upon its gable.
Just above the door you can find the Washington family’s own coat of arms carved in stone – the ‘mullets and bars’ depicted resemble ‘stars and stripes’ and are widely believed to have influenced the design of the American flag.
If you visit the Lee family’s Stratford Hall in Virginia, stop in at George Washington’s idyllic birthplace, just up the road at Pope’s Creek. The original house is gone—there’s a slightly miniaturized 1930s’ version of Gunston Hall instead, for reasons obscure to me—but the site is breathtaking, with flocks of swans and geese in the heart-meltingly beautiful inlets of the Potomac, and you are likely to see a bald eagle overhead. The name of the National Park Service ticket-taker when I visited was Pocahontas, and you can’t get much more early-Virginia than that.
When John Jay retired after two terms as governor of New York in June 1801, after serving as the first chief justice of New York State and of the United States, as president of the Continental Congress, as secretary for foreign affairs, and—most important—as the U.S. diplomat who stamped his vision on America’s foreign policy for generations to come, he moved into a plain yellow house in Katonah, at the northern edge of Westchester County. Even though he’d lived in one of New York City’s grandest mansions, he didn’t want a “seat,” his son wrote; he wanted a plain farmhouse, just like his neighbors’. The only difference between his house and hundreds more built in America in the first two decades of the nineteenth century was that it was a bit bigger—and built like Old Ironsides. As one friend said of the solidity of the house and its furnishings, and of Jay’s religiously upright life—“all his conduct seemed to have reference to perpetuity in this world and the next.”
Have a look at this slideshow of the John Jay Homestead. Just click on the photo:
Though we now best remember Jay as our first chief justice, his most important accomplishment was as a diplomat. He negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. Ignoring Congress’s instructions to coordinate closely with America’s French allies and keep French diplomats informed of all his communications with British negotiators, Jay quickly understood that France and America had different interests and aims in the final peace settlement. France wanted America to be a much smaller and weaker country than Americans hoped for–a country surrounded by hostile powers, at loggerheads with England, and thus perpetually dependent on France. Consequently, Jay negotiated with his British counterparts without informing the French foreign ministry of his actions and intentions, and at last succeeded in getting agreement to a treaty that left America a much bigger and more powerful nation than France had wanted and that even Congress had thought possible.
Here are the signatures on the Treaty of Paris, including those of Jay’s fellow American commissioners, who played minor and unimportant roles in hammering out the treaty, as well as that of British negotiator David Hartley.
On November 30, 1774, a 37-year-old Englishman—an ex-privateer, ex–corset stay maker, ex–tax collector (fired twice for dereliction of duty), and ex-husband (also twice over)—arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket. The old philosopher’s praise was understandably restrained. This “ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote, would make a useful “clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor.” Four months later, however, the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord galvanized the newcomer’s hitherto aimless life into focus and purpose. “When the country into which I had just set foot was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir,” he recalled. “It was time for every man to stir.” And so, adding a final “e” to soften the surname he was born with, he began to write under the byline “Thomas Paine.” Continue reading
Americans have long treasured their right to worship as they choose.
Wall Street Journal, Nov. 26, 2013 7:18 p.m. ET
In the fall of 1621, some 50 of the Puritans who had left the Old World in search of religious freedom sat down in their tiny thatched hamlet of Plymouth with their Wampanoag neighbors to feast on turkey, venison, corn and cod. They also gave thanks for surviving their first terrible New England winter, whose cold and privation had carried off half their community.
Continual waves of pilgrims fleeing religious persecution would follow them across the sea. Their sense of providential escape from foreign oppression stayed vividly alive in the American memory, and ultimately helped guide the Founding Fathers to make a revolution and fashion a new kind of government.
Hard as it is to believe at this distance of time, British law once jailed non-Anglican Protestants like the Pilgrims for worshiping as they chose. The law also barred them from the universities and public office. Thousands of Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others left their native land, bringing to the New World their Dissenting tradition of self-government, individualism and personal responsibility. They had long run their own congregations, hired and fired their own ministers, read the Bible and freely judged its meaning for themselves. They believed that each individual has a direct relation to God independent of, and higher than, any worldly authority.
As late as the 1750s, Constitution-signer William Livingston was still reminding readers of his influential magazine, The Independent Reflector, how “the countless Sufferings of your pious Predecessors for Liberty of Conscience, and the Right of private Judgment” drove them “to this country, then a dreary Waste and barren Desert.”
Decades later, Chief Justice John Jay wrote a gripping account of how his grandfather, a French Protestant, had returned home from a trading voyage abroad in 1685 to find his family and neighbors gone, their church destroyed. While he had been away, Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had extended religious toleration and civil rights to Protestants for almost a century. Jay’s grandfather was lucky to be able to sneak aboard one of his ships and, like many others, sail away to freedom in the New World.
With this long history, Americans have had an almost physical thirst for liberty, as people do who truly know its opposite, like Eastern Europeans who once lived under communist tyranny. Long before Emma Lazarus wrote her Statue of Liberty verses about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, George Washington noted that for “the poor, the needy, & the oppressed of the Earth,” America was already “the second Land of promise”—the Promised Land. It offered, said James Madison, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”
That thirst for liberty led the Founders to revolt when they thought that George III was squeezing upon them the tyranny that had crushed their forebears. It also led them to hedge their new government with every safeguard to keep them free.
To protect life, liberty and property from what they called the depravity of human nature—from man’s innate capacity for inhumanity to others—the Founders knew they needed some kind of government armed with power. But since the officials who wield such power have the same fallen human nature as everyone else, who can be sure that they won’t use it to oppress others? Who can guarantee that imperfect men wouldn’t turn even the democratic republic the Founders were creating into what Continental Congressman Richard Henry Lee called an elective despotism?
The Constitution they wrote in the summer of 1787 explicitly limited government’s powers to what they deemed absolutely essential. They divided and subdivided power, and they made each branch of government a watchdog over the others. But they also recognized that constitutions are only what they called “parchment barriers,” easily breached if demagogues subvert the “spirit and letter” of the document.
In the first State of the Union address, George Washington stressed that the ultimate safeguard against such a danger is a special kind of culture, one that nurtures self-reliance and a love of liberty. “The security of a free Constitution,” he said, depends on “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them.”
If citizens start to take liberty for granted, he said, the spirit that gives life to the Constitution will flicker out, for “no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”
It’s that culture of liberty we nourish by recalling that our forebears came to these shores in search of freedom—and by giving thanks that they found it.
Mr. Magnet is editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. His new book is “The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817” (Norton).