A superb new perspective on America’s Founding Fathers.
Glover (The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America, 2008, etc.) explores the family lives of five remarkable Virginia planter-patriarchs who helped shaped the rebellion against England, commanded the Continental Army and led the early continental governments. At a time when fatherhood entailed responsibility for the well-being of their communities, their relatives and the social order, these dutiful gentry fathers ran their plantations, mastered their slaves and served in political office. Writing with authority, she traces the often overlooked private lives of elite men who preferred the joys of plantation life (“our own Vine and our own fig tree”) but deemed their revolutionary cause “a parental obligation.” These Virginians were Thomas Jefferson, who, like the others, inherited racial power as well as land, money and family ties; grief-stricken widower George Mason, who took care of the “lesser sort” through public service; Patrick Henry, who kept his insane wife in a basement storage room; James Madison, who struggled with a stepson’s drunkenness and gambling; and George Washington, who chose fathering a country over domestic life. Drawing on primary sources, Glover describes their rarefied lives of leisure and wealth and shows the many ways in which their political actions affected their domestic lives, and vice versa. The war prompted “a revolution in family values,” with fathers unable to exert their usual influence over a younger generation of declining virtue and morality. It also gave rise to a 19th-century world in which talent and achievement began to supersede the old hereditary power. For all that, women were still denied full civic participation (Jefferson’s granddaughter could not attend his University of Virginia), and slaves, deemed a critical part of these gentry families, remained slaves.
Well-written and immensely rewarding, this important book will appeal to both scholars and general readers.