- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Voltaire once famously observed that history was a card trick played upon the dead. Perhaps it once was. Now, it isn't nearly that interesting. Academic historians for the most part have long turned their profession into an arid irrelevancy thus leaving the rest of us in the dark about our past.
Well, perhaps not quite. Writers who would never pass muster at the American Historical Association are showing us that history writing does not belong to a single guild after all. This is especially true, it seems, when it comes to America's early history. David McCullough's bestseller was about John Adams. John Adams? Who would have thought it and yet our Founding Fathers seem hotter than ever with a trio of new books deserving notice. All three often cover similar ground, but from different perspectives and thus are instructive.
The first, James F. Simon and his What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States (Simon and Schuster, $27.50, 348 pages) may feature a clumsy title, but it does tell the reader what's in store for him. It's no secret that the Founders were often at odds with each other when it wasn't a matter of hatred flowing in every direction. Thomas Jefferson versus Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton versus Aaron Burr, Adams versus nearly everybody although in old age both Jefferson and Adams reconciled. Sort of.
The Jefferson-Marshall relationship never quite reached that extreme; both were in practice moderates John Marshall a moderate Federalist and Jefferson a moderate Republican although in private life on occasions Jefferson could sound nearly as radical as any Jacobin. As Mr. Simon recounts, Jefferson had serious problems with the third branch of government, the judiciary. Hamilton in the "Federalist Papers" on the other hand thought the judiciary the least powerful and therefore the least dangerous compared to the legislature and the executive an idea borrowed from Montesquieu.
Jefferson begged to differ and for two reasons as spelled out by Mr. Simon. First, the courts were the least democratic and the least subject to the control of the people. Second, by the time Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800, the judiciary was stacked with the hated Federalists who he thought were nothing more than ill-concealed monarchists. The Federalists didn't see it that way and considered Jefferson and his supporters as dangerous francophiles who wanted to destroy both order and liberty. Marshall wasn't that extreme, but thought Jefferson's view of the judiciary overblown and mischievous.
Looking at the Supreme Court of 1800 even the most ardent proponent of judicial restraint might agree with Marshall. The Supreme Court at that time, for example, was tucked away in a shabby committee room in the basement of the unfinished Capitol. Although Hamilton in "Federalist 78" had made an ingenious argument for judicial review, that power went unmentioned in the Constitution and the early Court decisions made no such claim. In fact the justices, most of whom clearly did not relish the job, confined themselves to narrow, legalistic decisions on second order problems.
Marshall on his appointment in 1800 would change all that, but not at once. The Court had little prestige. The lesser courts even less, especially among Republicans who hated the federal judiciary because of its enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts that were largely aimed, they charged, at Republicans. Republicans had a point, and Marshall, the Federalist, for one, knew it. As a member of Congress, the future chief justice voted for repeal of the Sedition Act. On the Court, thanks to a last-minute appointment of a lame duck President Adams, he turned to other matters. Judicial review which is the power of the judiciary to be the court of last resort on what is constitutional was established by Marshall in a series of decisions beginning with Marbury v. Madison and McCullough v. Maryland.
They remain in place, today unquestioned as a key element of our system of justice that keeps the U.S. Supreme Court the most powerful of its kind in the world. Just ask the members of the Argentine Supreme Court who are about to lose their jobs for overruling an un-elected president who chose to shut down the banks. For those who want a well written account of how all this happened, Mr.Simon's work is worth consulting.

James Madison played only a small war in the judicial wars between Jefferson and Madison, but Madison's importance to the Founding remains unquestioned. Even schoolchildren today probably are aware that Madison is the father of our constitution even though they may know little else. Garry Wills' James Madison (Times Books: Henry Holt and Company, $20, 174 pages) is one of a new series on American presidents written by leading historians.
This relatively brief essay on Madison poses one central question, well worth asking. It is this: Why Madison's greatness as a political thinker perhaps our greatest whose moderation often, but not always kept Jefferson on the reservation and the early Union intact was not reflected in his presidency which is often judged to be a failure? That it was a failure is something Mr. Wills will convince any fair-minded reader. But the reason for Madison's ineptness in office is more complex and the author is good at laying out that failure.
Madison's presidency spanned the nearly disastrous War of 1812 where America's fledgling military was itself a study in ineptitude save the U.S. Navy and Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. To be sure Madison was not alone in bringing this on. His predecessor, Jefferson, on the advice of Secretary of State James Madison, all but insured the war with Britain by his senseless embargo that strove to punish the British and French equally, but succeeded in punishing us most of all. Mr. Wills does not spare the details from which Canadian readers will no doubt derive pleasure if not surprise. But Madison was not merely unlucky, he was a poor sort of war president as the writer explains.
Just why that was so, Mr. Wills believes, is due in large part to Madison's lack of executive experience he did his best work in committee and secret, and because of his provinciality. He was not well traveled, in fact, had never been outside the United States which meant for him the Atlantic seaboard.His lack of diplomatic experience (in contrast to the Adamses, John and John Quincy, and Jefferson) only reinforced Madison's naive handling of the nation's foreign affairs. Naivete about things foreign is still a hallmark of some of our presidencies and it seems with the same calamitous results.

Richard Brookhiser reminds us that before the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and the Bushes, there was another political dynasty, in fact, America's first, the Adams family. In his America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 (Free Press, $25, 244 pages, illus.), he traces four generations, but concentrates on the successes: John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, his grandson, Charles Francis, and great-grandson Henry.The first two were presidents, the third, an amateur diplomat who nonetheless, as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James helped keep Britain from recognizing the Confederacy no small achievement. Henry Adams proved both attracted and repulsed by politics, preferring journalism and writing books to the tawdry rough and tumble politics of the age of U.S. Grant (whom Adams loathed) and Teddy Roosevelt, a man he came to despise as well.
Mr. Brookhiser's best sketch, however, is reserved for the much neglected John Quincy.Like his father, a one-term president, but unlike his father, remaining in active politics until his death, John Q. was a man on a mission and that was to rid the nation of the evil of slavery. He was a thorn in the side of the slavers and their apologists like John C. Calhoun, and although he never lived to see the 13th Amendment, Adams kept the hope alive proving sheer stubborness can be a virtue. In pointing this out we owe a debt to the author.

Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council Staff during the first Reagan administration.

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