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Book Review: Founders as Fathers

By (September 21, 2014) No Comment

Founders as Fathers:founders as fathers cover

The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries

by Lorri Glover

Yale University Press, 2014

American history professor Lorri Glover (her full title, if you’ve got some spare time, is John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair, Department of History, Saint Louis University) has a fascinating subject for her latest book, Founding Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries: what were the interweavings of social, family dynamics and the explosive political dynamics of the revolutionary era. This kind of multifaceted inquiry is always welcome, and Glover is a tremendously enjoyable writer, hardly at all given to the kinds of academic obfuscation one might expect of a Chair.

But she’s chosen an inherently troubling subject, and she’s written a troubling book about it.

Despite that book’s subtitle, her subject isn’t American Revolutionaries in general but rather a quintet of the most famous and powerful Virginian figures of her day: George Mason, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. She only glancingly examines the family lives of the great colonial men of Boston or the Middle Colonies; she spends the entirety of her book investigating the home lives of these five men and how those family lives shaped their public lives. History buffs hailing from New York will raise eyebrows at Glover’s matter-of-fact assertion that “We begin in Virginia, for the story of the creation of the American Republic is in large measure the story of Virginia” (history buffs from Boston might have more violent physiological reactions to this than eyebrow-raising), but there can hardly be any disagreement with her assertion that “the plantation masters who presided over the largest, oldest, and most influential of England’s North American colonies were used to their word holding sway; they instinctively preferred to take the lead and were loath to yield power to (or take criticism from) other men.”

She consults a vast array of primary sources in order to analyze these five proud men, but there’s a strange complacency in some of her summarizing characterizations. “In the plantation culture of colonial Virginia,” she writes, “a respectable father not only raised dutiful children and secured his household’s finances but also provided for extended kin, ran a thriving estate, mastered slaves, and even served in political office.” As the children’s game goes, one of these things is not like the others, and in order to keep her narrative walking forward in good scholarly cadence, Glover must almost constantly avoid that flat fact. About her subjects, she tells us “they were first and foremost planters; they made their living from agriculture and spent their formative years on plantations, their lives defined by family, neighbors, and slaves.”

But this is patently untrue, as Glover knows as well as anybody; these men were first and foremost slave masters. Without that horde of forced labor, none of their economies could stand.

Our author is a spirited guide to the enormous amount of biographical research she’s done on these men, and Founders as Fathers has many delightfully atmospheric passages like this one:

In part, the shared world of men and women derived from long-standing Virginia planter traditions The men and women who occupied Virginia’s great houses created in the colonial era a common gentry culture built on racial and class power. Their zeal for refinement led elites to work hard to comport themselves in a dignified manner, appear well-read, make sparkling conversation, play musical instruments, dress fashionably, and inhabit graciously appointed homes. Much of that genteel lifestyle bore no gendered dimensions but rather fostered close connections among siblings, spouses, and kin. Thomas Jefferson grew up playing music with his favorite sister, Jane, for example. George Washington became a gentleman under the tutelage of his half-brother Lawrence and Lawrence’s wife, Anne Fairfax. James Madison was only drawn out of his shell by the vivacious and enchanting Dolley.

But even in these evocative passages, there are deeply problematic tics, things like “planter traditions,” “gentry culture,” “genteel lifestyle.” These tics are of a piece with her alarmingly comfortable use of the adjective “patriarchal,” of a piece with that blandly inserted resume item “mastered slaves.” In one of her eight chapters, she addresses directly the question of slavery and its possible affect on her main theme, but how can a single chapter – how could an entire book – possibly be enough on that question? Glover writes about how her influential Virginians never reconciled their high-sounding Enlightenment values – as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution – with that “mastering slaves” business, but it’s how she writes about it that gives rise to a certain amount of alarm. “Unlike other elements of their changing familial values,” she tells us, “Virginia patriots’ attitudes toward the black members of their plantation households – the men and women they constitutionally designated ‘other persons’ – remained impervious to revolutionary principles.”

Black members of their plantation households? Black members of their plantation households?

The hard truth Founders as Fathers almost entirely avoids is the fact that, unlike their Northern counterparts, Glover’s quintet weren’t just actively dutiful heads of their respective families, they were also actively dutiful destroyers of the families of others. These men were caring and responsible heads of their own families, but they were every bit equally ruthless slaveowners, men who authorized the whipping of fathers in front of their wives and children, the whipping of mothers in front of their husbands and children, and the sale of children from their parents into the hands of other slave owners (and who were in the meantime pitiless about those children; as the Father of his Country told his overseers about the slave children of Mount Vernon, “Soon as they are able to work out, I expect to reap the benefit of their labour myself”). By any ethical standard – very much including all the ethical standards of their own day – Mason, Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Madison were warped, diseased parodies of fatherhood, and a book that deals with them in detail but only so briefly and leniently confronts that fact is a book that’s badly missed the opportunities of its own existence. Founders as Fathers is and must be primarily about slavery, and the pity is that it so seldom seems aware of that fact.