Monday, February 16, 2009

Book Review: "The Founders on the Founders"

Documentary editor John Kaminski's The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the Revolutionary Era (U. Virginia Press, 2008) is a commonplace book of quotations by and about members of the founding generation about themselves: Kaminski writes that he "collected references to character, mannerisms, physical and intellectual descriptions, and everyday activities but avoided references to political issues. I wanted to put flesh and blood on these people whose personalities we knew little or nothing about" (p. ix). Thirty people are covered in this volume, from the usual suspects (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison) to the slighty-less-usual suspects (Henry Knox, Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, John Jay). If you know your history there's probably no one in this book you haven't at least heard of, but I suspect you may find something new about them in these pages.

Kaminski has drawn on the Adamses, both John and Abigail, for a fair number of his quotations - the duo wrote often and at length about their contemporaries, and true to form held little back. John's pen tended to prick most sharply, which makes his words all the more interesting for us. His portrayals of Burr (p. 90), Franklin (p. 163, 165), and Hamilton (p. 213) are typically biting. William Pierce's sketches of his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention also find their way into the book, as do the observations of foreign observers like Luigi Castiglioni, Louis Guillaume Otto, and the Marquis de Chastellux. Other major sources are the writings of Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Washington.

A fascinating book to read through, and a good source for quotations on its subjects. There is one serious fault, however, which I feel compelled to mention: that is a lack of source notes for the quotations included. This is a most unfortunate omission. While Kaminski notes in his preface that many have been taken from the published documentary editions of the Founders' correspondence, no specific footnotes have been made available. For those in search of a more complete contextual picture than the snippet quotations provided here, simple references would have been invaluable (or at least saved some time).