- - Sunday, December 27, 2020

The rich tapestry of America’s colonies is depicted with distinctive themes like liberty, freedom and democracy. Yet, the young nation’s powerful heartbeat was most often heard in Virginia.

Four of America’s first five presidents came from this state. These great men, who were inspiring, patriotic and occasionally flawed, helped form the Virginia dynasty.

Lynne Cheney, an author, historian and former second lady, examines this fascinating period of dynastic political rule in “The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation.”

Although they lived in the “most English of the colonies,” Virginia was on “the periphery of civilization, where the dictates of tradition had less force.” Many Virginians understood their state’s influence in politics and capitalism, supported liberty and morally opposed the brutal concept of slavery. 

This was the foundation that begat George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, and they took up this mantle with intelligence, courage and honor.

Washington, the first president, was a combination of “powerful physique and gentlemanly manner.” His storied military career began in the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. While Mrs. Cheney notes Washington “was not a brilliant general, although there were moments of brilliance” she acknowledges he was “determined and honorable, someone who towered above other men not only in stature but also in character.”

The legendary general was far from perfect. He possessed a temper and had “little tolerance for those whom he perceived as weak.” Washington had a surprisingly thin skin, and was “averse to being lectured about his ignorance of public opinion.” The Father of the Country even believed the intellectual concept of democratic societies was a “threat to the Union” rather than a blessing.

Jefferson, the third president, was a “man of the people … with a soaring imagination, he was a master of language, able to set forth ideas that would inspire generations.” He was fascinated by politics, art, architecture, literature and the sciences. His intelligence, philosophical outlook and thought-provoking writing set him apart from other great men. This included the second president, John Adams — his Massachusetts-born friend, enemy and political rival rolled into one.

Yet, this “speculative master of grand ideas” had elaborate dances with complexity and social anxiety. He simultaneously acknowledged racial inferiority and condemned bondage, for instance. It’s a “measure of the time in which he lived,” Mrs. Cheney writes, “that Jefferson feared condemnation not for what he said about race, but for denouncing slavery.”

And while supportive of a free press, he wrote this to Edward Carrington in 1787, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Madison had an equally brilliant mind with profound interests and ideas. He was “not only deeply knowledgeable and politically creative, he also had persistence.” While he had reservations about parties like Washington and to a lesser extent, Jefferson, he believed they were “inevitable” and served a “useful purpose by providing checks on one another” in the nation’s budding political system.     

The fourth president skillfully played the political game. He obviously had private opinions about his contemporaries, including occasional doubts about Washington’s leadership and temperament, but built sensible public alliances to achieve success. He also supported measures that he would have likely opposed in his congressional days, including the need for a national bank a la Alexander Hamilton and reducing the size of the army while increasing the navy’s.

Of the four presidents studied in “The Virginia Dynasty,” the sections on Monroe are the most fascinating. Mrs. Cheney notes he “lacked the intellectual prowess of a Jefferson or Madison,” and gave the appearance of a “symbol of the dynasty’s winding down.” Nevertheless, he served the country faithfully in Congress, cabinet and ministerial posts — and ultimately learned “one of the secrets to being a good president: Listen to smart people.”

Monroe was a trusted ally to Jefferson, and “took every word and suggestion … straight to heart.” He corresponded with both Jefferson and Madison, and called upon their intelligence, experience and talents. He employed the sage wisdom of John Quincy Adams, his secretary of State and one of several cabinet members whose “skill and knowledge exceeded his.” These friendships and relationships strengthened his presidency. 

Lynne Cheney has woven an exquisite volume of four Virginia-based presidents’ personal stories, insights and complex personalities. She emphatically proved this political dynasty helped build America’s important political cornerstones that will continue to be cherished for generations to come.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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By Lynne Cheney

Viking, $36, 448 pages

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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