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Republicanism means self-government, and so republican liberty does not mean living without restraint, but rather living in accordance with a law that you have dictated to yourself. Hence the especially strong need of republics to recur to their founding principles and their founding narratives, in a never-ending process of self-adjustment. There should be a constant interplay between founding ideals and current realities, a tennis match bouncing back and forth between the two.

And for that to happen, there need to be two things in place. First, founding principles that are sufficiently fixed to give us genuine guidance, to actually teach us something. That such ideals should be open to amendment is, perhaps, the least important or valuable thing about them -- which is precisely why a living Constitution is not really a Constitution at all. This is why I compare a founding to a promise or a vow, which means nothing if its chief glory is its adaptability. The analogy of a successful marriage, which is also, in a sense, a res publica that must periodically recur to first principles, and learn to distinguish first principles from passing circumstances, is actually a fairly good guide to these things.

Second, there needs to be a ready sense of connection to the past, a reflex for looking backward. And that is no easy matter. Cultivating it ought to be one of the chief uses of the formal study of history. Or so one would think. But the fostering of a vital sense of connection to the past is, alas, not one of the goals of historical study as it's now taught and practiced in this country. Nietzsche saw a certain kind of abuse of history, along these lines, coming long before it was even a germ of a possibility on these shores. But it has reached a kind of full flower in the present day. This has been particularly true of the study of the American founding, as it has been for a century now, since the early sallies against the Founders by Charles Beard; but it is more generally true of the entire profession of history.

This is a highly ironic development. The meticulous contextualization of past events and ideas, arising out of a sophisticated understanding of the past's particularities and discontinuities with the present, is one of the great achievements of modern historiography. But that achievement comes at a very high cost, when it emphasizes the pastness of the past so much as to make the past completely unavailable to us, separated from us by a impassable chasm of contextual difference.
-Myth and Memory in the American Identity (Wilfred M. McClay, October 12, 2005, The Lehrman Lectures - The Heritage Foundation)

I'm just old enough to be a member of what will hopefully be the last generation to have gone through school while academia was completely dominated by the Left. Younger folk may find it hard to believe, but in the early 1980s we still had college professors who would condescendingly assure as the the Soviet Union had the superior system and the days of the American liberal democratic free enterprise system were numbered. Even more prevalent than such out and out Marxists though were those who blithely assured us that American history (actually the history of all of Christendom) was one long tale of selfish white male landowners oppressing their betters--women, blacks, Indians, etc. Now, even at the very depths of the 1970s you didn't have to be a wahoo patriot to notice that America seemed like rather an okay place, especially by comparison to everywhere else, so the intellectual Left had a lot of heavy-lifting to do. From at least the time of the Beards' Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and continuing even today in t6he work of folks' like Garry Wills, they eagerly took up this task, assailing the Founders, the framework they established and the nation that resulted. Thomas Jefferson, despite being a slave-owner, escaped much of the opprobrium, because he was opposed to the right people, the Federalists, and, with his insipid support for the French Revolution, a friend of the right ones too. James Madison, always overshadowed by Jefferson, managed to escape with his reputation mostly intact too. But three men--George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton--got taken repeatedly to the rhetorical woodshed. By the time I got to school Washington had been rendered a kind of sexless, wooden, incompetent figurehead fronting for a gang of robber barons. Adams and Hamilton, like Madison smaller targets, had been so thoroughly disposed of that they were hardly even mentioned anymore. But the one thing all good men of the Left could agree on was that the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution had been at best problematic and at worst terrible crimes perpetrated against the lower classes, minorities, and even the environment. If George Washington was the Father of the Country, it was a bastard of which he would be ashamed, were such an odious oligarch capable of shame.

This all began to change with the advent of Ronald Reagan, coming just after the Bicentennial may have helped, as a new generation of scholars and feisty laymen restaked a claim to the Founders as heroes. With conservatism in the ascendant, it no longer sufficed to try and dismiss men and ideas just because they were not what modernists would consider progressive. And with conservative ideas regaining legitimacy and the United States so rapidly recovering in economic and military terms that the system the Founders had established suddenly seemed uniquely resilient and fore-sighted, the time for revival was ripe. Soon professional historians like Forrest MacDonald were taking a new look at the ideas that lay behind the Revolution, rather than the imagined class warfare, and informed amateurs like Richard Brookhiser were embarked on the effort of rehabiliting the reputations of individual Founders. That all came to a head with David McCullough's uber-bestseller, John Adams, in which even the prickliest personality among them was discovered to be quite lovable in his own way. With Jefferson on the run, thanks to new questions about his relationship with Sally Hemmings, and old questions about his role in the maintenance of slavery generally, the tide certainly seems to have turned.

To date the best of the new crop of books I'd read on George Washington was Richard Brookhiser's Founding Father, but that's more in the nature of a biographical essay, while this fine book is a much more detailed history that while it focuses on a discrete period of Washington's life nonetheless allows us to see and admire him anew. Taking his start from the famed Emmanuel Leutze painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, Mr. Fischer stands the liberal revisionists on their heads by pointing out all the iconic imagery in the artwork and then explaining why it's quite accurate, rather than deconstructing it. In the pages that follow he demonstrates how this was just the most spectacular instance in which Washington demonstrated his military capabilities--capabilities that it had become common o cast aspersions on. In particular, he shows us what a difficult task Washington faced in integrating and leading the various factions of American rebels--prickly New Englanders, aristocratic Virginians, unpredictable backwoodsmen, and all the rest--and forging them into a coherent national fighting force all while dealing with Congress at the same time. As Mr. Fischer concludes, the improvisational skills and strategies that Washington demonstrated would become a permanent feature of American affairs as we tried to balance the urge for independence with the cohesion needed for a functional state and society. As he sketches themes that were particular to Washington's leadership and his character and those that he seems to have transferred to the young nation almost by osmosis, Mr. Fischer restores and even elevates the reputation of the Father of the Nation. It's a fabulous book.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

David Fischer Links:

    -Faculty -> History Department -> Brandeis University: David Hackett Fischer
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Washington's Crossing
    -ARTWORK: George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851 (Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, American, 1816-1868)
    -EXCERPTS: from Albion's Seed
    -BOOKNOTES: Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer (C-SPAN, July 17, 1994)
    -AUDIO: Washington's Crossing of the Delaware: Against the Elements and the Odds, a Revolutionary Turning Point (NPR Weekend Edition, 12/28/03)
-ESSAY: The Complicated Legacy of the Folkways of the American South (John F. Doherty, 5/28/24, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Americaƍs Scotch-Irish And The Rove Rationale (Steve Sailer, June 15, 2003, V-Dare)
    -ARCHIVES: The New York Review of Books: David Hackett Fischer
    -ARCHIVES: "David Hackett Fischer" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (Michael Knox Beran , National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (Joseph J. Ellis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (W.J. Rayment, Conservative Bookstore)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (Woody West, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (Edmund S. Morgan, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Washington's Crossing (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)
            The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History by David Hackett Fischer ( Thomas J. Archdeacon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Great Wave (David E. Runkle, Research Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis )
    -REVIEW: The Great Wave (John H. Munro, EH.Net)
    -REVIEW: of The Great Wave (GILBERTO R. LLEONART, Florida International University)
    -REVIEW: of David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (Mark R. Cheathem, H-South)
    -REVIEW: of African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals By David Hackett Fischer (John Wilson, Modern Age)

Book-related and General Links:

-ARTWORK REVIEW: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1851) (Jonathan Jones, March 8, 2003, The Guardian)