10/5/17

Books that transcend the divisiveness


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.)

07/4/15

The Vision of the Founding Fathers

natl review logo

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?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

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

05/30/15

Magnet School

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THE CORNER
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

02/19/15

What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?

cj_headerWinter 2015
What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?
Man is a political animal, but he is much more.
Hobbes
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

12/20/14

How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founders’ Homes

cj_header
Autumn 2014

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.
mount vernon in ruins
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

12/16/13

Visiting Mount Vernon

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:

Mount vernon virtual tour cover

 

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:

Gunston Hall virtual tour cover

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.

Sulgrave Manor in 1898
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.

The Washington Crest over the door of Sulgrave Manor

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.
Pope's Creek

11/28/13

Giving Thanks in the Land of the Free

Wall Street JournalOPINION

Americans have long treasured their right to worship as they choose.

By
MYRON MAGNET
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.

WSJ illustrationGetty Images

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).

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304655104579165800736157752?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTTopOpinion

08/12/13

Mount Vernon

The house that our greatest president designed himself

Please click each image to enlarge it and view its caption.