Book Review: Founding Feuds

Founding Feuds:  The Rivalries, Clashes, and Conflicts That Forged A Nation, by Paul Aron

It is fairly inevitable given the great deal of attention that is given to our nation’s Founding Fathers [1] that someone would seek to look at their feuds and quarrels as being a source of our nation’s strength rather than a sign of the common fallen nature that they shared along with us.  As a person who has been prone to my share of feuds and quarrels with other people, the subject of the book was definitely one that I could relate to, without question.  The author, moreover, does a good job at framing the reason for the conflicts, and the fact that the conflicts show a greater richness about the humanity of the Founding Fathers than might otherwise have been the case.  The way that they treated rivals and people with whom they disagreed had a lot to do with the sorts of qualities that they embodied as well as the national culture that they helped to form.  In looking at the disagreements of the Founding Fathers, in other words, we help to see the conflicts that shaped our own conflict-ridden age, something most of us could better understand.

The roughly 150 pages of text (another 50 some pages are in footnotes documenting the conflicts) look at a series of feuds and quarrels that reveal something fundamental about the Founding Fathers.  Let us examine these quarrels in turn.  Silas Deane and Arthur Lee were two colleagues in the early efforts at diplomacy with France that fell out.  George Washington sought to recover without success his brave and spirited runaway slave Henry, who died mysteriously somewhere in Africa.  Benjamin Lincoln and Daniel Shays found themselves on opposite sides of a populist quarrel over Massachusetts debts to Revolutionary debtholders.  Patrick Henry opposed James Madison over the Constitution in Virginia.  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson sparred over the destiny of the United States in Washington’s first-term cabinet.  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson quarreled in the immensely partisan struggles of the late 1790’s.  John Adams and Alexander Hamilton then quarreled over their mutual personality differences and mutual mistrust.  Thomas Paine and George Washington quarreled over Washington’s chilly reserve in the face of Paine’s problems as a result of his radicalism abroad.  Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon had a brawl with weapons in Congress over the partisan politics of the 1790’s.  William Cobbett and Thomas Paine had a newspaper war over their political disagreements.  Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton long sparred in New York politics before their quarrels ended in a deadly and infamous duel.  Not too many years later, the simmering quarrel between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ended up in a trial for treason.  Equally unsurprising, this trial was the occasion for a longstanding political quarrel between Virginian relatives Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall over their differences in worldview.  Thomas Jefferson’s political pragmatism in the presidency then led him to fall out with antifederalist cousin John Randolph, who formed the Tertium Quids in response.  Then Thomas Jefferson had the temerity to quarrel with freed slave poet Phillis Wheatley, whose elegant neoclassical poetry contradicted his own racist views of black artistic and creative capabilities.  The book then closes with John Adams quarreling with amateur historian Mercy Otis Warren over his historical reputation, a fitting way to close a book about quarrels and historical reputations.

This is a short book but the quarrels it discusses are worth remembering even though many of them will be familiar to those who read a lot about the period of the early American republic.  Some people were pretty famous haters–John Adams was a prickly and sensitive person and so he had quarrels with many people but was also willing to let bygones be bygones at least some of the time.  Thomas Jefferson was a pretty notorious hater, for all of his historical importance, largely because he appeared to have problems whenever he was not in control and other people were constantly showing themselves to be beyond his power of domination.  The case of George Washington is a rather sympathetic one, at least to this soul of restraint, in that Washington’s reserve led him to have fewer outright feuds and quarrels than most people had his icy reserve was not one that captures our own hearts.  Perhaps we need others to be humans and cannot bear to see others as marble heroes.  Our age is one that must tear down every image except our idolatrous self-image it seems.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Founding Feuds

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Bizarre Politics | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s