Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

Founders of America

By David Luhrssen
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Most of the men who established the United States were intelligent and well read, hard working and hard drinking, according to the History Channel mini-series “Founding Fathers.” The documentary occupies two discs of a mammoth 14-DVD set, “The Founding of America,” comprised of 13 documentaries and historical recreations on the formation of the republic produced for the History Channel.

“Founding Fathers” is a good place to start, an easy but informative essay on the American Revolution, the men who led it and the women behind them. It begins with Boston’s odd couple, the urbane John Hancock and the disheveled Samuel Adams, the dandy and the demagogue who stirred up the Boston Tea Party and other incidents leading to a break with Britain. Their motivations were partly personal. Hancock’s ego was as outsize as his signature on the Declaration of Independence and he hoped a revolution would elevate his already high profile. For his part Adams was bitter over the loss of his father’s fortune from a royal court ruling. Samuel recruited to the cause his initially reluctant cousin, the pessimistic and paranoid John Adams. According to “Founding Fathers,” these three men were crucial to organizing the Continental Congress, which passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

But many Americans were against independence and the Founders were often at cross-purposes with themselves and each other. Glum George Washington, who painstakingly recreated an English country house at his Mount Vernon estate, was pleased to command the army of insurrection. The philosophical Thomas Jefferson, who pontificated about a democratic Utopia on the American frontier, owned hundreds of slaves. The wily Benjamin Franklin was late to the Revolution but broke with his son who remained loyal to the crown.

Taxes and trade were the sparks of revolt, even though the price Hancock charged Bostonians for his smuggled tea was higher than the officially sanctioned British imports. The Southern planters saw revolution as a way to throw off their crushing debt to London banks. Their motives may have been mixed but something great emerged. As one of the historians interviewed for the program says, if Washington had clung to power after his second term or Alexander Hamilton’s proposal of a president for life had been adopted, the United States might have gone down the political path of Latin America.

One or two mistakes intrude. The U.S. was not the first republic since Rome, as the narrator insists. But “Founding Fathers” does fine work in presenting the American Revolution as a complex of causes and effects driven by history-shaping individuals. Other programs in “The Founding of America” include biographies of Washington and Franklin as well as specific political and military issues instrumental to the establishment of the American republic.

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