Presidents On Presidents

They’ve all had things to say about their fellow Executives. Once in a great while one was even flattering.

John Adams said Thomas Jefferson’s mind was “eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” Ulysses S. Grant said James Garfield did not have “the backbone of an angleworm.” Theodore Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson “a Byzantine logothete.” Wilson called Chester Arthur “a nonentity with sidewhiskers.” Harry Truman summed up Lyndon Johnson with a curt “No guts!” Read more »

The Lives Of The Parties

The two-party system, undreamt of by the founders of the Republic, has been one of its basic shaping forces ever since their time

Recently I got a letter from a friend of mine, Max Lale, the current president of the Texas State Historical Society, that gave me a quick glimpse of a vanished world. Lale recalled that on election day of 1928, when he was twelve, he accompanied his father on a mile-and-a-quarter walk to their local polling place in Oklahoma. There he waited while his Southern-born father, faced with a choice between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover, agonized over which would be worse: to support a Catholic or a Republican. In the end he cast no vote for President.Read more »

America And Russia, Americans And Russians

The Cold War was an anomaly: more often than not the world’s two greatest states have lived together in uneasy amity. And what now?

Exactly two hundred years after George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States and three hundred years after Peter the Great’s ascent to the Russian throne, a new chapter opened in the history of the relations of the two greatest states of the world. Read more »

Why Benedict Arnold Did It

To the end of his life America’s most infamous traitor believed he was the hero of the Revolution

Shortly after noon on Thursday, April 20, 1775, a weary postrider swung out of the saddle at Hunt’s Tavern in New Haven, Connecticut, with an urgent message from the Massachusetts Committee of Cor- respondence. At dawn the day before, British light infantry had killed six militiamen on Lexington Green. Anxious New Haven citizens crowded into an emergency town meeting and voted to maintain a policy of neutrality despite Massachusetts’s plea for troops and supplies. Read more »

The Founding Wizard

Two hundred years ago the United States was a weakling republic prostrate beneath a ruinous national debt. Then Alexander Hamilton worked the miracle of fiscal imagination that made America a healthy young economic giant. How did he do it?

One price of political greatness is to be forced to campaign even long after death. The Founding Fathers, particularly, have been constantly dragged from their graves for partisan purposes. The shades of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison have been invoked right up to the present by American politicians seeking to add luster to their own political agendas. Read more »

Liberté Egalité Animosité

When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.

There were two great revolutions against European monarchs in the late eighteenth century. In the first, the French nation helped Americans achieve their independence from George III. Without that help our revolution could not have succeeded. Yet when the French rebelled against Louis XVI, Americans hailed their action, then hesitated over it, and finally recoiled from it, causing bitterness in France and among some Americans. Why had the “sister republics” not embraced each other when they had the opportunity?Read more »

Trenton And Princeton

In the summer the stretch of the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey, is as alluring as any place in the country. It is green and happy and eloquent of generations of peace and prosperity: prosperity from the river traffic and from the canal; prosperity from the steady little farming communities nearby and, in more recent years, from tourism. It is only in the winter that the countryside suggests with any conviction that this was once fought-over land. Read more »

Unexpected Philadelphia

A fond, canny, and surprising tour of the town where the Constitution was born

Two hundred years ago Philadelphia was the natural place for the constitution-makers. There was nothing unexpected about that. Philadelphia had one hundred years behind her that were as respectable as they were impressive. Two generations after her solitary founder, William Penn, had set foot on the right bank of the Delaware, Philadelphia had become the largest city in North America, and the fourth (perhaps the third) largest city in the entire British Empire.Read more »

Interview With A Founding Father

James Wilson was an important but now obscure draftsman of the Constitution. Carry Wills is a journalist and historian fascinated by what went on in the minds of our founders. The two men meet in an imaginary dialogue across the centuries.

 

His red judge’s robe looked faded and theatrical by daylight. People at the bus stop stared at him, and his face flushed near the color of the robe. But he busily ignored them. Read more »

A Few Parchment Pages Two Hundred Years Later

The framers of the Constitution were proud of what they had done but might be astonished that their words still carry so much weight. A distinguished scholar tells us how the great charter has survived and flourished.

The American Constitution has functioned and endured longer than any other written constitution of the modern era. It imbues the nation with energy to act while restraining its agents from acting improperly. It safeguards our liberties and establishes a government of laws, not of men and women. Above all, the Constitution is the mortar that binds the fifty-state edifice under the concept of federalism; it is the symbol that unifies nearly 250 million people of different origins, races, and religions into a single nation. Read more »