- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

I once knew a man who had studied with an elderly law professor who had begun at the dawn of the last century as a reporter for the lamented Washington Star newspaper. In that capacity he had interviewed an aged Virginia senator who recalled being hoisted on his father’s saddle and taken deep into the country for a board of education meeting to site a new schoolhouse. Among the board members were former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Of that self-whitening sepulcher Jefferson, the senator could recall nothing. But his memory of Madison was clear for, as a little boy, the diminutive Madison (he was barely 5 feet 4 inches) was more accessible and he had paid attention to the lad.

Two points from that yarn: It was still possible for my generation to have met people who actually saw the Founding Fathers. Second, it is past time for a new full biography of our fourth president who arguably was the most important creative force in setting the architecture of the civil liberties we take for granted today.

While James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights (Oxford University Press, $28, 320 pages) is not that book, it is a good start for it cuts at once to one of the critical dramas in our history, the dogfight between Madison and the demagogic Patrick Henry, not just over the ten guarantees of civil liberties known as the Bill of Rights, but whether we would have a new Constitution at all.

Author Richard Labunski, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, has gathered valuable original correspondence between the major players and taken us away from the museum piece view of the Philadelphia constitutional convention of 1787 to where the real conflict occurred — in the fractious state ratifying conventions that followed in the year after the document was handed around for ratification or rejection.

Indeed, the tipping point was not in Philadelphia in 1787 but a year later in a steaming converted theater in Richmond. Henry and his anti-Federalist forces had demanded the right to consider amending the Constitution document on the spot. This would have effectively sent the 12 other colonies back to trying to insert their own separate interests and would have made a national ratification impossible.

Madison’s role was crucial. He knew full well the other colonies were watching Virginia’s lead anxiously during the three weeks of debate and maneuvers where Madison skillfully managed a narrow vote to take the Constitution as it was — with the prospect of added amendments to come later under the procedures set in place. That enabled the new government to be formed, it allowed the election of George Washington as president to move forward, and the rest, as they say, is what history is made of.

Mr. Labunski writes an accessible story that whets our appetite for a fuller perspective on this small, shy but crucially important figure.

• • •

Thomas Jefferson during the constitutional struggle was in Paris as U.S. ambassador but he has long overshadowed Madison and his broader legacy as a constitutional force and a wartime leader. This I believe is due to the mistaken belief that Jefferson was the smarter than of the two. Such is the cult of intelligence — and of its counterfeit, the university degree — that a man’s true nature and flaws can be papered over by his intellectual gifts.

Jefferson was smart, no doubt of that. But because of the evasiveness of his own personality and his penchant for political self-promotion, Jefferson is by far the most intriguing of our Founders.

Jefferson was one of the few Founders who had much affection for Benjamin Franklin, in part I believe because both were classic Enlightenment questing intellects. Both were deeply inquisitive about the practical improvements of everyday life, how things worked and how to make them better. But both also were deep into speculation about matters of the spirit and the human soul.

This is what is so welcome about Jefferson’s Scrapbooks: Poems of Nation, Family & Romantic Love Collected by America’s Third President (Steerforth Press, $35, 592 pages),an edited collection of the poems about love, patriotism and death that have just recently been found and attributed to our third president.

Editor Jonathan Gross, a DePaul University English scholar, has compiled 243 of the poems that Jefferson cut and pasted during his 1800-1808 presidency into notebooks made up of government stationary which he gave to his granddaughters as gifts. For a long time it was thought the girls had done the collecting but the annotations are recently judged to be Jefferson’s handwriting.

Even without Jefferson’s hand, the collection is a vital addition to the cultural history of the times. The selections include two poems by Franklin, odes on the death in a duel of Jefferson’s enemy Alexander Hamilton, and poems about romance and romantic death by women writers who have not had their art acknowledged until now.

• • •

Which brings us to Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Ivan R. Dee, $24.00, 256 pages) by Brooke Allen, who has expanded an original article that first appeared in the Nation. Ordinarily, if I don’t care for a book, I don’t bother to review it. But some comment here is in order.

Ms. Allen, who could have used the same obvious talent and effort to give us a valuable insight into the religious speculations of the Founders, instead has produced a polemic against the current crop of Tele-Tub-Thumpers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson so that the leaders of our Revolution are turned into be-wigged versions of the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

In her zeal to deny conservative Christians access to the faith of the Founders she uses selective quotes, leaps of conclusion and snide distortions of Deism, the Enlightenment and the reaction of these men to the political abuses of established churches as proof that they had no faith at all — that they were more akin to the editors of the Nation, presumably.

Because George Washington never made a published profession of believe in the divinity of Jesus, therefore he must not have believed. Skeptical comments (indeed denunciations) by Franklin, Jefferson, et al about the doctrines of various religious sects that ruled the Colonies (and opposed the Revolution) are taken as repudiations of The Creator mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

Instead, the Enlightenment (and Deistslike Jefferson and Franklin) wanted to challenge the often political doctrines of governing Christian churches not to refute either God or Jesus, but to find a way to apply the realities of reason in order to perfect a moral code that would make mankind both good and free. That the Founders were almost all Freemasons whose rituals sought to do just that is carefully ignored. This is what Jefferson with his scissors and paste pot was up to.

This wasted opportunity raises an unhappy question. What is it about faith that so annoys American intellectuals?

Washington author James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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