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Forged in friendship

Books

Forged in friendship

How the United States began

Edward Larson mentions Donald Trump once in his clear and thoughtful new book, Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership (William Morrow, 2020): “Objecting to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Donald Trump sharply asked, ‘I wonder, is it George Washington next week?’” Larson seems on Trump’s side in pushing back against revisionist history: “Despite their flaws, Franklin and Washington have held up better under examination than most leaders of any age.”

Franklin and Washington were instrumental in giving us an Independence Day to celebrate and a Constitution that’s kept us going for 233 years since its writing. But from the way publicists were promoting Larson’s book earlier this year, potential reviewers might think it’s all about Trump. The press release sent to me and hundreds of others said Larson points to the problem with executive power, which Trump purportedly overuses; checks and balances, which Trump upends; the Electoral College, which elected Trump; and foreign interference in U.S. elections, from which Trump purportedly benefited.

The publicist probably knew her audience: Reviewers will pay attention if they can find ammunition to use against Trump. But that’s unfair to Larson, who tells a buddy story of how an extraordinary Pennsylvanian and an extraordinary Virginian worked together to create a nation. They could not, though, take care of the tragedy that led to the Civil War. Franklin in 1787, as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, signed a petition saying, “The blessings of liberty … ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of Color, to all descriptions of People.” Washington missed an opportunity to become not only the father of our country but the father of liberty for all. 

In writing about Washington two decades ago I described his ambivalence toward slavery, which led him about every seven years to examine ways to end it. Larson tells the personal story I missed: When Washington was president in 1790 and Philadelphia was temporarily the national capital, he “began rotating his house slaves back to Virginia … to avoid a Pennsylvania law liberating slaves held within the state for more than six months. … Washington’s chef, Hercules, so heartily protested his fidelity that Washington exempted him from the policy. When the time came for him to return to Virginia, Hercules fled. Martha’s favorite attendant, Ona Judge, did so too. By this time, Washington had signed the nation’s first fugitive slave act into law and used every means it offered to retrieve his runaway bond servants.”

Washington died in 1799, shortly after confirming in his will that his slaves would be freed upon his wife’s death. Larson notes, “Delaying until death to reveal his intention of freeing his slaves, and then postponing their release still longer, drained the act of its potential political and social significance.”

BOOKMARKS

Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All, edited by Art Lindsley and Anne Bradley (Abilene Christian University Press, 2019), has good chapters on the theology and history of religious liberty and its relation to economic and political freedom. Gail Baker’s Matzah Balls to Communion Wafers (Resource, 2019) is a memoir of movement from Judaism to Christianity.

Nearly two millennia ago the Roman essayist Suetonius acidly described antics of emperors like Nero and Caligula: How to Be a Bad Emperor (Princeton, 2020) is a handy new selection and translation by Josiah Osgood. Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947 (Other Press, 2019) stylishly tells the story of a past year—reported as if it were a Twitter feed—but her selection tilts toward the Arab side in what became Israel, and Åsbrink sees neo-fascism under every rock. Jordan Raynor’s Master of One (WaterBrook, 2020) is a dose of discipline for folks going in a dozen directions and wasting their talents.