Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Best Books of 2013

Happy New Year to all our readers, teachers, and fellow citizens who are helping to make the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute a voice in the national civic discussion and continuing education of American founding principles.  2013 has seen the publication of many important books related to history and politics related to the Founding.  We at the WJMI have invited a few scholars to reflect on some of the best books they read that were published this year (or very recently).  That is of course a different list that they might have drawn up of the best books they read this year whatever the publication date, some may quibble with some of the choices.  But, we hope that you will read over lists, enter into the conversation, and maybe even pick up one of the following books! 

Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute, and author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character. 

         One of my favorite books of the year was published by a frequent lecturer at the WJMI, David Bobb, who wrote Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue (Thomas Nelson).  Trying to restore some sanity to our national civic conversation, Bobb spends the beginning of the book with a brilliant, readable examination of humility in classical and Christian philosophy.  He then examines the virtue of humility in the character and statesmanship of George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.  Coming in under 200 pp., it is a wonderful brief masterpiece on this highly original topic. 

         In The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (Random House), Arthur Herman compares and contrasts the ideas of the great ancient Greek philosophers and their relative influence on Western philosophers in the medieval and modern world.  The book is broad in scope, written with magnificent prose, has sound judgments, and demonstrates a remarkable erudition.  It is a grand achievement. 

         Although many books on the American Founding did not always live up to my expectations, two solid books on the subject were Stephen Brumwell, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior (Quercus), and John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury).  Brumwell’s Washington is an aggressive risk-taker in war and an eighteenth-century virtuous gentleman.  Ferling’s book narrates the events, ideas, and characters of the well-known rivalry in the 1790s that shaped the America of today. 

         Daniel Hannan, an English writer and former member of the European Parliament, has written a book – Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (Harper Collins) – on the “Anglosphere” based upon extensive research and experience in politics.  In the book, he examines what Winston Churchill called the “English-Speaking Peoples” and notes that their great political success, economic growth and world leadership has resulted from the exceptional principles of individual liberty, the common law, a rule of law, property rights, and representative government as seen in its great charters of liberty: Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution. 

         In The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right (Basic Books), Yuval Levin writes an intelligent comparison of great British conservative, Edmund Burke, and radical pamphleteer, Thomas Paine.  Levin attempts to prove that Burke represents the right and Paine the left in politics.   Although he underestimates the significant political changes engendered in the Progressive Era and rise of the welfare state in creating the current political categories that he is analyzing, this important discussion of these lesser-known figures in the popular imagination is an important, thought-provoking one.   

         Coming off Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin has written another magisterial tome of history and American politics, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster).  The book compares and contrasts the progressive policies and expansion of federal and presidential power under Roosevelt and the conservative temperament and use of power by Taft.  Goodwin also shows the very close ties Roosevelt had to progressive journalists who eschewed journalistic objectivity for social activism.  Although Goodwin is a firm advocate for Roosevelt’s view and a masterful writer of narrative history, she perhaps inadvertently exposes how much of a progressive Teddy Roosevelt was in expanding federal power and creating the twentieth-century state. 

David Frisk, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, is author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement (ISI Books, 2012).

         A notable disjunction exists between intellectuals and average citizens on the Right. Ordinary people tend to assume that freedom and a governmental recognition of traditional values fit together. The intellectuals are prone to suspect that when the question is considered rigorously, they don’t. One intellectual who thinks they do is Donald Devine, a vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, formerly a political scientist at the University of Maryland and a high official in the Reagan administration. His book, America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution (ISI Books), introduces believers in limited government and traditional values to the relationship between these ideals—both of which conservatives identify with, but whose linkages aren’t often clearly expressed.

Devine does this with a combination of persuasive policy analysis and well-integrated insights from various thinkers which help to argue for the Right’s stances on current issues. His title reflects a general view among conservatives that the country has indeed lost its way, along with the author’s opinion that too many people they have accepted as their political representatives are lost as well. After watching the Reagan-era spirit of limited government recede in the George W. Bush years, Devine was among those disgruntled leaders who thought the conservative movement had been badly wounded by Republican officeholders who wouldn’t uphold its principles and probably didn’t get them. Now, with a passionate statist in the White House, he is hoping for a new Reaganism. America’s Way Back—inspired partly by the role Frank Meyer, the in-house philosopher at the early National Review, played among conservatives—offers current activists the deeper understanding of their less-government, more-responsibility platform without which they may win elections but cannot govern.

Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and author of several books including Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (University of Kansas Press) 

The year 2012 marked the bicentennial of the War of 1812, but this “commemoration” generated little interest from the American public and the media. Donald R. Hickey’s book, The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence (The Library of America), however, brings this distant war to life in a gripping manner that gives this forgotten conflict the attention it deserves.

Hickey has assembled a fascinating collection of writings that do justice to both the “great man” approach to history as well as to those interested in the experiences of “ordinary” people engaged in the conflict. All are given their due, including Native-Americans, prisoners of war, disgruntled and disloyal Federalists, newspaper editors, and key decision makers in Washington and London. While most of the causes of the conflict remained unresolved at war’s end, “Mr. Madison’s War” restored a sense of American honor and respectability. For many Americans, the War of 1812 was America’s “Second War of Independence,” a conflict that concluded the unfinished business of the American Revolution. One important outcome of the war was that it convinced James Madison that Alexander Hamilton’s proposals for a national bank, a professional military, and a vibrant manufacturing base were all in the national interest. As Hickey notes, after the war Republicans who “had been hostile to peacetime defense spending . . . embraced a sizable army and an ambitious program of naval expansion and coastal defense.” Unable to make reality bend to his Republican ideology, President Madison was forced to concede on many of the contentious points that had divided the young nation since the early 1790s.

J. David Gowdy, is the founder and President of WJMI, and the author of "Jefferson & Madison’s Guide to the Constitution" and "Seven Principles of Liberty."

         In Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone (Potomac Books), author William G. Hyland, Jr. reviews the life of the noted author Dumas Malone as a man, teacher, and historian. The ultimate focus of the biography, and of Malone’s life, was the research and writing of his six-volume biography Thomas Jefferson and His Time, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History, and is considered the definitive work on Jefferson’s life. This 38-year labor of devotion occupied much of Malone’s professional life, and constituted his crowning achievement (particularly considering that Malone struggled with pain and blindness the last 15 years of his 83-year life).  Malone’s unequaled experience in seeking to uncover and comprehend Jefferson’s character led him to confess that, “I considered him my friend.”

No comments: