Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

8.11.04

What I've been reading

The latest book I've finished is American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns by Richard Rosenfeld. It's a massive book, with the narrative coming in at just over 900 pages, plus over 2000 endnotes and a bibliography and index, so it took me a while to read. It was well worth it, however.

American Aurora tells the story of a Philadelphia newspaper published in the 1790s and early 1800s. It is must reading for anyone who likes American history, and should be must reading for anyone who believes in one version of history (like our current president). Anyone who thinks George Washington is the most virtuous and wonderful person in American history might want to read it, too. The author accuses him of murder in this book, as well as being an incompetent general who had to be goaded into fighting a battle with the British during the Revolution.

The Aurora was published by Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, and later by William Duane. This book shows the contentious beginnings of the American Republic and the battles fought and lost by those people who wanted to establish a pure democracy. It largely concerns itself with the later days of John Adams' presidency (Adams comes off the worst of all the Founding Fathers; Rosenfeld has nothing nice to say about him) and the controversial election of 1800, which was the first in American history with a change in political party at the top. Adams is accused of wanting to establish a monarchy, and the Aurora sees itself as the leading mouthpiece of the Democratic-Republican party, led by Thomas Jefferson, which wants to take power away from the central government and give more to the states. It was the biggest issue in the founding of the Republic, and remains an issue today. The book also goes over the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention in a fresh way, focusing on the French contribution to the war and how Ben Franklin was defeated at the Convention when he tried to establish a one-house legislature.

There are many interesting things about this book. One is the way it's structured. Rosenfeld takes the role of William Duane, the second editor of the Aurora, and creates a first-person narrative. However, Duane's voice is a minor part of the book. Most of it is edited sections of the Aurora and two Federalist papers in Philadelphia, which hurled invective back and forth at each other for years. Rosenfeld also quotes extensively from letters, so that most of the book is simply the primary sources recreated for the reader. Occasionally Duane's voice will intervene, but usually the sources speak for themselves.

This method does two things. One, it makes the book difficult to read. That's part of the reason why it took me so long to finish it. There's no narrative thread pulling everything together. Some of the sections Rosenfeld chooses to insert are tedious -- do we really need to know how many toasts were drunk to Ben Franklin's memory? The other thing Rosenfeld's method does is make the tension seem much more immediate. Despite the difficulty in getting through the book, you really are drawn into the factious fighting of the day. These were newspapers that didn't even try to hide their affiliations, and the insults to each other were printed on the front page for all to see. Compared to today's world of restrained politeness, it's rather refreshing.

The book is, of course, ridiculously one-sided. Ben Franklin is the saint who could have ushered in a utopian paradise in the U.S. if only he hadn't been thwarted by evil, small-minded men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The obvious slant is fine with me, however, because you know it's there. The book is also remarkably relevant to the present day (it was published in 1997). We think that we're divided in this country today. Well, we always have been, and occasionally it's been worse. The years 1798-1800 saw the Alien and Sedition Acts (worse than the Patriot Act) and the country on the brink of war with France. It saw riots in the streets and a newspapermen jailed for daring to question the president's policies. It's amazing to read the arguments both for and against the government in this book and realize we really haven't come all that far. We're still unwilling to compromise and examine the position of the other side. Reading this book may depress you because you realize we haven't changed, or it may elate you, since you realize we've been fighting like babies for 200 years and the country's still going strong. Either way, it's a book you should read.

American Aurora is a fascinating look at early American history. Certain people (unfortunately, many in positions of power) want us to believe that there is one version of history. This book proves there's not even one version of the history we all think we know. Just for that, it's worth reading.