BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Founding Conservatives’

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THE FOUNDING CONSERVATIVES: HOW A GROUP OF UNSUNG HEROES SAVED THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
By David Lefer
Sentinel, $29.95, 406 pages

In this splendid narrative history centered largely in the years between the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of our Constitution, David Lefer, historian and professor at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, points out that it was a chaotic period, in many ways not dissimilar to our own, “a time of war without end; of real estate crashes, rampant speculation, and mounting public debt; of popular outrage at bankers and merchants … of bitter disputes over taxation; and of such animosity between left and right that it frequently left Congress paralyzed for months on end.”

Given the turbulence and the recognizable similarities, writes Mr. Lefer, “it’s unsurprising that the Founders reacted more like us than their impassive marble likenesses would lead us to believe.” This will no doubt upset many of what Mr. Lefer calls “consensus historians.” But that, in part, may be one of his objectives.

To bring the period and its complexities to life, Mr. Lefer takes us behind those “impassive marble likenesses” and focuses largely on the men, neglected by history, he thinks are the “unsung heroes” of our Revolution.

Among them, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, drafter of the Articles of Confederation, is a primary figure in Mr. Lefer’s account of “the relatively unknown side of the American Revolution.” Dickinson, called a “conservative revolutionary” in the only biography written of him in the 20th century, was on the eve of the revolution “the second most famous American in the world, after Benjamin Franklin.” His contemporaries “credited him with single-handedly rallying the colonies in the fight against British oppression,” and “his ‘Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,’ published between 1767 and 1768, were the most eloquent defense of liberty published in the colonies up to that point and the literary hit of the decade.”

Robert Morris, “America’s first chief executive, established the United States Navy, and personally bankrolled the Continental Army, as well as much of the American economy.” Philip Schuyler, “an upstate New York patrician,” is credited by Mr. Lefer with engineering the sustained rear-guard action that led to the great victory at Saratoga, where Benedict Arnold acquitted himself with honor, and for which the ineffectual, scheming Horatio Gates attempted to take credit. (Mr. Lefer later writes of Gates’ attempts to discredit George Washington, the Revolution’s one indispensable man.)

There was John Rutledge of South Carolina, “who saved the Deep South,” as well as Edward Rutledge, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Livingston, James Duane, Carter Braxton, “and many others who played pivotal roles in the Revolution,” but who “have been largely forgotten today.”

Silas Deane of Connecticut “secured the French aid that kept the American army alive,” says Mr. Lefer, who in a chapter titled, “The Playwright and the Merchant” writes entertainingly of Deane’s efforts in France to gain backing for the Revolution, with the crucial assistance of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (creator of “The Barber of Seville”). Deane “understood the essential absurdity of what he was arguing: He was asking a monarchy to help the colonies of another monarchy set up a republic.”

Nevertheless, despite the logical inconsistency, and the stonewalling of a factious Congress, ships commissioned by Deane and Beaumarchais, with the help of Benjamin Franklin, successfully ran the British blockade in 1777, carrying “the supplies that saved the American Revolution.”

In his portraits of these and other players, in addition to deep historical research, Mr. Lefer brings a trained journalist’s eye for significant detail (we’re told that he worked for The New York Daily News and China News in Taiwan) and a novelist’s touch, not unlike Kenneth Roberts, who in the days when historical fiction was a respected subgenre, produced a series of superb historical novels set in Revolutionary America.

As for theme, writes Mr. Lefer, “This book makes three main arguments. First is that the founding conservatives saved the American Revolution . Second, the founding conservatives brought modern capitalism to America.” And third, “we should no longer look to Britain for the origins of American conservatism. Modern conservatism was born at the moment of independence [and] America’s conservative heritage reflects our nation’s unique history and culture.”

In an epilogue, Mr. Lefer concludes that the Founders created “a uniquely American type of conservatism, one that balanced respect for liberty and for property. Far from being monolithic, their ideology was an amalgam of ideas, embodying rich and variegated strands of political thought and containing within itself both the seeds of revolution and the strictures of order their philosophy stands firm, an ever faithful guide to the American right, a fixed point of wisdom and prudence for us all.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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