Back in June we started watching the History Channel's 12-part series called "The Revolution." An appropriate series for the 4th of July season (every holiday has a season now; it can't just be one day). To really get in the mood for the big day we also watched A&E's "The American Revolution," a multi-part series first aired in 1994 (Ok, so the tapes have been hanging around for 12 years. Sometimes we just can't get to things right away.) Both shows have their own take on things, although they are laid out the same way; after all, A&E and the History Channel are owned by the same consortium. The current show, "The Revolution," probably could have been a lot shorter if they hadn't insisted on recapping not only the previous week's show, but what just happened before the commercial break.
It's a fascinating period in history, so watching both shows, as well as our annual viewing of the musical 1776 (and The Music Man; watch it, you'll see why it's included) was a great way to get into the swing of things. So what does all this TV and movie watching have to do with reading, as the title of this piece suggests? Well, I may be slightly O/C when it comes to learning - if I read one book by an author, I tend to read everything the author wrote. If I find a topic interesting, I'll read 10 or 12 books on the subject. I'll read in themes (this Lent it was the 7 books of The Chronicles of Narnia, the 3 books of Lewis' Space Trilogy and a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. Didn't have time for the Ring. One summer I read long novels: War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago and Hawaii).
So, in addition to watching holiday-related programming, I've been reading books about the founding fathers. Four Days in July by Cornel Lengyel was written in 1958 and is the "story behind the Declaration of Independence." In many ways reading the book is like watching a historical reinactment documentary. Written as a story, as opposed to a straight history, it includes what might have been a conversation between two participants in the drama, even though there is no documented evidence that these precise words were spoken. It is the spirit of what might have happened. There are plenty of quotes and notes, but it reads like an exciting story, which of course, is what the history of the beginning of our country is.
Richard Brookhiser is a tremendous writer as well as being a thorough documentarian. In America's First Dynasty (2002) he follows the course of the four great generations of Adamses: John, John Quincy, Charles Francis and Henry. From John's birth in 1735 to Henry's death in 1918, the Adams family made a great impact on American politics and society. Voluminous writers, most of the Adames, men and women, kept diaries so complete that it takes a whole library to hold them all. Like many families, the Adamses had their share of joy and sadness. The difference was that theirs was played out upon the public stage. Granted, they put themselves there, but in addition to personal ambition, they had an overwhelming sense of duty and felt it necessary to serve, even at the cost of their privacy.
Mr. Brookhiser presents these people, warts and all, as does Paul Nagel in Descent From Glory, another look at the Adams family from 1983, just after some of the papers that were previously kept from the public were opened for scholars to peruse. While Mr. Brookhiser's book focused mainly on the professional life of the subjects, Mr. Nagel delves into the diaries - and the personal lives - of the family. While he is a slight bit delicate at times, perhaps not wishing to add additional appearances of scandal, he still tells the straight story.
The current book in the pipeline is Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution by John Ferling (2000). This book compares and contrasts the lives and careers of the three men and brings them together in the struggle that gave birth to our nation.
There are still more volumes from our library on the period: Richard Brookhiser's Founding Father and Alexander Hamilton: American; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner (the short version); Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren. Then we move on to Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, although I find the events around the Declaration and the Revolution to be the most interesting.
The most fascinating thing about these men - and the others who took part in this endeavor - was how, being so greatly flawed, they could perform so brilliantly and become icons to Americans of succeeding generations. The more I read about how weak they were as human beings, the more I admire them for what they were able to accomplish. Their virtues - duty, honor, self-sacrifice, discipline, perseverance - helped them beyond their shortcomings and made them answer the call. They were needed and they responded. Would that there were men of their statesmanship and brilliance today.
I believe that there was something else that bolstered them in their arduous tasks. Faith. Modern historians like to make all the founders out to be Deists. Jefferson, to be sure, was a true child of the Enlightenment, but when Washington and Adams called upon the Almighty, they truly thought He was almighty. They viewed God as being interested and intimate, that when they prayed He heard and cared. Perhaps knowing that their prayers mattered gave them the extra strength they needed to carry on. And perhaps we could all learn that lesson from them too.