A vivid political history of the earliest and most unstable years of the American republic.
Focusing almost exclusively on the Founding Fathers, American Heritage columnist Weisberger examines the political infighting surrounding the first presidential elections. Fortunately, the narrative is charming enough to make anyone familiar with this period want to read on, thanks to the author’s happy talent of sketching each larger-than-life character in the most humane lines. Washington is initially high-minded and noble, but as his administration progresses he grows partisan and reactionary. Adams is the reverse: impatient and reactionary during his first years as president, he eventually grows aloof and distant as he suffers in the storm of partisanship he helped create. Those disgusted with the role that money, the press, and political parties play in contemporary US politics will be sorry to find that yesterday wasn’t much better. Brilliant but flaky Jefferson, as well as brilliant and scheming Hamilton, were the first to exploit political parties—the Republicans and Federalists. Both also directly controlled newspapers, political appointments, and various financial interests and old-boy networks to achieve their ends. And the parallels don’t end there: Hamilton was involved in a sex scandal and gave individuals lucrative insider information to keep the affair under wraps. Foreign policy emergencies also contribute to the intrigue: the “quasi-war” with France was instrumental in fomenting partisanship, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed during the war, gave Republicans much-needed ammunition in their campaign against Adams. Weisberger’s tone grows wistful and nostalgic as the narrative ends, but he consistently masters his material, especially when he discusses censorship and the press, leading readers to trust his judgment. He views the growth of parties as a natural by-product of democracy, implying that not much could have been accomplished otherwise. While this conclusion isn’t exactly new, readers still boning up on the subject will find a comprehensive introduction here.
A must-read for armchair historians and budding scholars; for experts, an excursion on well-trodden ground.