Today is Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday meant to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, which is actually February 22nd, and all the other U.S. presidents. Why, you might ask, have I chosen to illustrate this post with the cover of a biography of Alexander Hamilton, a man who was never president of the United States?
I do so because I’m currently reading the book, and although we’ve never published book reviews on the blog and don’t intend to start now, I wanted to talk about Presidents’ Day in terms of what I’ve learned from this book, given that many of the men involved--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--did become future presidents.
Back in the Stone Age, when I studied American history, I thought I was receiving an excellent education. I took Advanced Placement U.S. History at a high school with a reputation for being one of the best in the state of New Jersey. It wasn’t until I began reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton that I realized how little I actually knew about the men who founded our nation.
I, and I’m sure many other students of my generation, as well as previous generations, were taught that the Founding Fathers were high-minded patriots who worked together toward a common goal--independence. We were taught to respect these men. They were icons. Subsequent presidents are often compared to them and more often than not, fall short of these great men. How often have you heard people lament, where are the great leaders of today?
Yes, we knew these men had their differences, the biggest being the states rights vs. federal rights argument, and of course there was the slavery issue, which pitted the colonies of the south against the colonies of the north. But we were taught that these men put personal feelings aside to work on compromises to unify the colonies and create a great nation.
What we were never taught (and maybe what high school students today are still not taught) is that these men were just as human and just as flawed as any politicians who have followed. Yes, they reached compromise but not without intense animosity and hostility that led to broadside screeds, Machiavellian maneuverings, and constant backstabbing. Fake news? It’s been around from the very beginning, and you’d be surprised by some of the biggest perpetrators.
The book, which is documented up the wazoo with footnotes referencing actual writings from the people involved, is 800+ pages long. I’m only a little more than halfway finished, given my crazy life. If you know anything about me, you know I barely have time to brush my hair, let alone carve out a few minutes of “me” time now and then. I’m juggling two teenage kids, a communist mother-in-law, a boyfriend who may or may not be a spy, a Shakespeare-quoting parrot, and all those dead bodies—not to mention debt greater than the GNP of your average Third World country. Still, I’ve managed to get in a chapter or two once or twice a week.
I don’t believe in using this blog as a political platform. I believe we are all entitled to our opinions and beliefs. It’s what makes our nation great. I have friends who believe what I believe and friends who have opposite beliefs. I respect their views and don’t let our differences compromise our friendship. However, no matter on which side of the aisle you find yourself aligned, I think we all agree that we’re living in a time of political turmoil. Many would say it’s unprecedented.
Or is it?
What I’m learning from this book is that today’s political turmoil is anything but unprecedented in the history of our nation. That insight has put quite a bit of our current political climate into perspective for me, giving me hope that eventually, as has often happened in the past, our better angels will prevail. And that's why I wanted to talk about this book on Presidents’ Day.