'The Founders at Home': Behind the scenes at the birth of America

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Journalist and historian Myron Magnet posits that the American Revolution was the most successful of its kind in history. He takes us through his argument not point by point in comparison with other nations' revolutions but through a uniquely biographical look at some of the key people in the days leading up to the war and the subsequent formation of the United States into the 19th century.

By Myron Magnet
W.W. Norton & Co. ($35).

Most of the usual suspects are included within: Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. Surprisingly the supporting cast does not include such luminaries as John Adams, Patrick Henry or Ben Franklin. The rest includes a lawyer, an entire family and the first chief justice of the United States.

Mr. Magnet takes the reader behind the scenes of these characters and their contributions. William Livingston very quietly made several key contributions through being a member of the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention and serving as the first governor of New Jersey. However, his biggest contributions were made in the mid-18th century as the editor and chief writer of a widely read news pamphlet that espoused thoughts of self-government. Consequently, his publisher was forced to cut business ties with him.

Richard Henry Lee became one of the most eloquent speakers about not only matters pressing in the days leading up to the war for independence, but also was rather prescient in his views on slavery. Arthur Lee became very prominent in London in setting up the trading of goods but later became an agent to promote independence of the Colonies. He also used his connections to have another brother, William Lee, elected co-sheriff and then alderman in London. The last of the Lee brothers was Henry, who became a daring hero during the war.

John Jay was another bit of a hidden gem in the tapestry of our early history. Jay was not only the first chief justice of New York and of the United States, but also governor of his state, president of Congress and the man who was chiefly responsible for shaping policy in foreign matters. It is in that last role as diplomat that Jay truly stands out.

Jay's most stunning accomplishment was negotiating the treaty to end the war with Great Britain that not only gave the new nation favorable terms but also circumvented France, who wished to negotiate a treaty that separated us from Great Britain and kept us dependent on the French.

The accomplishments of Washington, the Father of the nation and Jefferson and Madison, authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution respectively, are well known but greatly overshadow their colleagues.

If Jay was the "Indispensable Man" for diplomacy then George Washington was the "Indispensable Leader." Washington as a leader of men during the war kept his army of volunteers together while waging a war with Congress for materiel, food and clothing. His example was the glue that held a fledgling country together.

Washington considered resigning the presidency after his first term, due to infighting and backstabbing that rendered his office ineffective. Others, recognizing that if Washington left office the country would splinter, persuaded him to stay for a second term. The irony is that those people were the very same detractors that had him contemplating going back to Mount Vernon.

In examining Jefferson and Madison we find something a bit odd. Both were great thinkers but had a habit of waffling in many of their thoughts. The only thing they seemed set on was following the French way of thinking in regard to all things American. They embraced the French Revolution and an anti-British attitude.

While embracing independence from Great Britain, they attempted to tie us in with France. They wanted to follow their lead in how the country should be governed. This is troubling because it could have resulted in switching horses mid-stream. It would have been the opposite of what was accomplished.

From the back room dealing that rendered the office of president ineffective to the bias of a Federal Reserve to the opposition of forming a bicameral Congress, things that have made this country what it is, it is a miracle we ever became a nation.

Mr. Magnet does a wonderful job using biography to weave separate threads into a tapestry of our history. He also shows that politics and government are still the same despite changing times.

Robert Ursin (rjursinjr@gmail.com) is a freelance writer living in the South Hills.

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