Saturday, August 27, 2005

John Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who came to America in 1768 to be president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), is the latest candidate for inclusion among the Founding Fathers. In his scholarly John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame, $22.50, 220 pages), Jeffry H. Morrison argues that any one of Witherspoon’s three careers —pastor, college president and politician — should have guaranteed him the “prominent and lasting place in American history that he has been denied.” Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, and, the author argues, only “a prior commitment to his ministerial duties” (attending a conference to establish a national Presbyterian Church, where he was elected the first Moderator) kept him from playing a key role at the Constitutional Convention.

In fact, as Mr. Morrison demonstrates, Witherspoon was a man of many achievements in religion, education and politics. The author does not discuss his subject’s life before coming to America, but his renown as a preacher was considerable: According to an endnote, Benjamin Rush decided to propose to his future wife partly because of her high opinion of Witherspoon’s preaching.

At the same time, the author drops a few hints as to why Witherspoon has proved so forgettable. “Even in his day some Americans were made uneasy by the idea of clergymen as legislators,” and Witherspoon didn’t make it easier for those Americans by insisting on wearing his clerical garb to the Continental Congress and composing religious proclamations in the name of that Congress. He was also accused of favoring “a general establishment of Protestantism,” although the author argues that Witherspoon advocated nonestablishment. Mr. Morrison discusses at some length Witherspoon’s “promotion of Scottish realism over idealism” and his role in drafting the Presbyterians’ national constitution, which, he says, “provides an interesting corollary to his pro-federal Constitution stand.”

Then, in the final paragraph of his text, Mr. Morrison worries that some of the terms he has used to describe his hero — an “aqueduct,” a “carrier” of a strain of the Scottish Enlightenment — might connote passivity. He goes on make this rather curiously worded claim: “In his political thought and career we can discern, if we have eyes to see it, a miniature of the founding, and in this respect John Witherspoon was a quintessential American founder.” Moreover, Witherspoon “was present, in a manner of speaking, at the Federal Convention: five of his Princeton students, including James Madison, attended as delegates.” Is this gilt by association?

Mr. Morrison, a visiting assistant professor of politics at Princeton, has carefully researched his subject, but he doth protest a bit much in defense of his thesis, and his focus is narrow. The only mention of Witherspoon’s personal life comes in a reference to his being “defensive about his marriage late in life to a twenty-four-year-old widow. (Though what sixty-nine-year-old man would not be?)”

Incidentally, Notre Dame Press did this author a disservice in putting design ahead of readability — the book’s font looks elegant but it is far too small and gray to encourage any but the most determined readers to persevere.

Is the 600-page doorstopper biography becoming an endangered species? We have reviewed in this column several presidential minibiographies being published under the imprimatur of general editor Arthur M. Schessinger Jr. Now we have the Library of American Biography offering concise political biographies aimed at a college audience, the latest of which is Allan M. Winkler’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Making of Modern America (Pearson Longman, $20.00, 228 pages).

Mr. Winkler, who has written extensively on the politics of the Roosevelt era, is an unabashed admirer of FDR. On the domestic front, he contrasts President Herbert Hoover’s ineffective attempts to deal with the Great Depression with the confident actions of Roosevelt, who took office in 1933. The author provides an excellent summary of the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, noting that Roosevelt was a bold experimenter, embarking on dangerous legislative paths at a time of great political and economic stress.

Roosevelt acknowledged that he was feeling his way — much New Deal legislation was thrown out by the courts — but he took credit for good intentions, remarking on one occasion that “Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.” Mr. Winkler concludes that “At a time when the nation was suffering from the worst economic crisis it had ever known, [Roosevelt] restored a sense that everything would be all right in the end.”

It was Roosevelt, of course, who pressed for the Social Security Act that is now recognized as basic to our economic stability. But he was largely silent on the issue of civil rights for American blacks, in part because he relied on support from southern legislators in Congress. Roosevelt told one black leader that if he were to support an anti-lynching bill, southern committee chairmen “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass.”

In the international arena, Roosevelt sensed the menace posed by Hitler, but had to deal with an electorate traumatized by the slaughter of World War I and largely indifferent to nationalist rivalries in Europe. Mr. Winkler skillfully describes Roosevelt’s campaign to move the country away from isolationism, and toward recognition of the threat posed by Nazi Germany. One of the great ironies of history is that Germany ignored Roosevelt’s provocative assistance to Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic, only to declare war on the United States after Pearl Harbor in order to please its ally, Japan.

As a war leader, Roosevelt refrained from Churchill’s penchant for micromanagement, leaving the war largely to the generals and admirals. The author faults Roosevelt for the forced internment of Japanese Americans, but notes the overwhelming sentiment in favor of such action at the time. He lets the president off easily with respect to his demand for “unconditional surrender” by the Axis, a demand that is now known to have stiffened Germany’s resolve.

Mr. Winkler duly notes Roosevelt’s early sexual dalliances and his frequently strained relations with his wife, Eleanor. But he only hints at Roosevelt’s persistent duplicity in personal relations, as when he would dangle an appointment before several aspirants. He makes no mention of Roosevelt’s shameful failure to bring Vice President Harry Truman “into the loop” at a time when Roosevelt knew his own health was failing. Nevertheless, the author concludes that Roosevelt “was the most influential leader in the United States in the twentieth century,” and he may be right.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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