Founding Partisans by H.W. Brands book review


“In every political society, parties are unavoidable.” So wrote James Madison in resignation when the United States was still only a few years old.

For a time, the Founders had dared to imagine otherwise: Many of them thought partisanship to be a toxic byproduct of broken political systems in the Old World. The Revolution therefore promised America not just independence from Britain, but freedom from “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.”

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That dream didn’t quite come to pass. Our nation’s first political parties formed in the churn of events following the Revolution, anyway — and an entirely new, purely American tradition of partisanship began. H.W. Brands’ latest book, “Founding Partisans,” is a compelling retelling of how that happened.

It is difficult to find a chapter of American history that Brands has not already written a book about (two of his works, “The First American” and “Traitor to His Class, have been Pulitzer finalists). His industry is intimidating, as is his ability to blend efficient research with solid prose. Brands puts these to good use in “Founding Partisans.”

His narrative begins during the Revolution, as the Founders grapple with the finer details of how they might govern their nation in the subsequent peace. Certain things had already become clear: The Articles of Confederation were insufficient to the task, as was the leadership of Continental Congressmen (“Folly, caprice, a want of foresight, comprehension, and dignity characterize the general tenor of their actions,” grumbled Alexander Hamilton).

Brands recounts what follows in brisk detail. The new Republic fine-tunes its system of government while lurching between crises. Constitutional emergencies, fiscal dilemmas, insurrections against the government and further hostilities with Europe come and go; soon enough, wartime allies are political rivals. From this mire emerges the ancestors of all subsequent American political parties: the Federalists and the Republicans.

Brands ably guides the reader through the distinctions between these movements and their leaders. The quirks distinguishing complex men like Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton are convincingly depicted — as are the differences in their ideologies. “With the other founders he had hoped for a politics without parties … of republican virtue,” Brands writes of Jefferson. “But after Hamilton and the Federalists defined virtue as whatever expanded the reach of the central government and padded the purses of the wealthy …[Jefferson] and other defenders of the people had no choice but to organize in opposition.” Similar authenticity in voice captures the other characters at play.

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None of this is to say that Brands skimps on showing how venomous things between America’s first politicians and their parties became. They all hastened to assume the worst of one another: Jefferson, watching the government amass power and assume state debt, concluded that Hamilton’s Federalists were royalists and corrupt financiers who had been plotting “to betray the people” since independence.

Federalists, conversely, thought Republicans ideologically deranged to the point of near-treason. Blind infatuation with a hostile (and anarchic) France, faith in state sovereignty, Luddite opinions on public debt — all of these seemed like symptoms of a deeper mania among Jefferson’s followers.

And so, the knives came out quick and often. The parties established mouthpieces in the media to lambaste one another. Gossip about the personal lives of leaders was a favorite topic — with Hamilton and Jefferson providing good grist for the rumor mill. Come Independence Day, 1788, celebratory toasts by one party included wishes of “never-dying remorse, pain, poverty and contempt” for their opponents.

The only person who rose above the discord was the one technically presiding over it. George Washington’s reluctance for power made him the perfect person to wield it — and among the most vital ways he pioneered the presidency was how he used its authority to caution the nation against political infighting. Ideological differences in democracies were “unavoidable.” But losing “charity in deciding on the opinions and actions of one another” (replacing it with “wounding suspicions and irritating charges”) risked seeding a fatal gangrene into American life. Washington felt compelled to repeat this message upon leaving office.

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It might well be asked, then, how the Republic made it past its first decade, let alone to the present day. Here Brands leaves us wanting slightly more. “Founding Partisans” is a work focused more on the divisions that emerged between our Founders, rather than their management.

But the author places sufficient hints throughout the text: From the Constitutional Convention through to the “era of good feelings” Brands describes in his closing pages, our early leaders graced us with crucial moments of good-natured compromise which kept the great experiment going. Voters rewarded them for doing so — as democracies, after all, are typically self-correcting, and inevitably citizens get bored with cynicism.

Some of our Founders’ détentes are easier to admire than others. It is hard not to smile at Gouverneur Morris’s adamant refusal to accommodate slavery: “Mr. Govr. Morris … reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern states or to human nature …[declared he] must therefore do it to the former.”

But few anecdotes continue to highlight the importance, tradition and even inevitability of political reconciliation in America than one of Brands’ closing parables: the unlikely late friendship that blossomed between Adams and Jefferson. The way the two legendary statesmen finally overcame deep ideological grievances, in favor of enjoying their shared experiences, has inspired Americans of every era since.

Privately, though, another thing brought the former presidents together: a joint relief that, “thank god,” they were out of politics.

C.W. Goodyear is a historian and the author of “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier.”

Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics

Doubleday. 464 pp. $32.50

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