- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

A good antidote to the inflation of the Founding myth can be found in Something That Will

Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers (Basic Books, $24.95, 273 pages).The book is a revealing sampling of the writings of five leading Founders edited by scholar Susan Dunn. And no, this collection contains none of the hectoring of Samuel Adams.

A good rule for anyone interested in history is to turn first to original sources and this volume is a particularly valuable resource. These writings give us a true voice for each of the five Founders collected — Washington, Hamilton, John Adams, Jefferson and Madison. But many of their opinions resonate quite clearly today: thoughts on transparency in government; church-state conflicts; presidential leadership and powers; individual rights; and love and sex. It’s all here.

Perhaps the most informative statements are those articles that Hamilton and Madison prepared for what became known as the Federalist Papers. But equally fascinating is Hamilton’s private correspondence with the man he killed in the famous duel — Aaron Burr.

Equally revealing, and far more charming, is Washington’s teasing response to his step-granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis, who had earlier written about a ball she had attended in Georgetown and how disinterested she had been about the young men who danced attendance on her.

“A hint here,” Washington wrote, “Men and women feel the same inclinations towards each other now that they always have done, and which they will continue to do until there is a new order of things, and you, as others have done, may find, perhaps, that the passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed … In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflammable matter …”

How he must have chuckled as he wrote that.

If your library of American Revolution history is lacking a full copy of the Declaration of Independence I suppose this volume, The Declaration of Indepedence: A Global History (Harvard University Press, $23.95, 304 pages), is as good as any, especially if you yearn to compare the language in that document with similar announcements by such important democracies as the Republic of Vietnam, Haiti, Venezuela and (my favorite) the country formerly known as Rhodesia.

David Armitage, a Harvard University professor, has to strain a good deal to make his undeniable point that the Declaration of Independence was a truly world-shaking event that had deep impact on the freedom aspirations of people all over the world, an impact that continues today. But he misses the point on the why of its impact.

What separates the Declaration of Independence from all similar announcements of national aspiration, indeed what separates Americans from all other people, can be found in a single word in the early paragraphs — the word is happiness.

As in, “the Pursuit of Happiness.” By its listing “among” the other “unalienable” guarantees that God endowed humanity with, the Founders meant more than that people should enjoy life, have a good time, laugh it up a lot; although they meant that, too. Happy, in 18th-century usage meant fortunate, lucky, destined — the root of the word is “happenstance,” or chance. So the guarantee of a right to pursue happiness was the promise that everyone had a right to try to become better than they were born.

This one word was a revolutionary spark of explosive power. No other nation, no other people before (or in most places even today) promises the chance to try your luck in the world, to be (as the Army recruiting slogan has it) “all you can be.” Other declarations are more grandiose, more flowering and soaring in their language. None have the power of that promise.

James Srodes is the author of “Franklin: the Essential Founding Father” (Regnery Books).

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