Review of Andrew S. Curran’s “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely,” New Republic (2019)
The early months of 1743 brought Denis Diderot’s career as a con artist and freeloader to a shameful end. His own father committed him as a prisoner to the Carmelite monastery in his hometown of Langres in eastern France, hoping to prevent his 29-year-old son from doing further harm to himself and others. Denis came from two respectable families: His father was a successful manufacturer of knives and surgical equipment, and his maternal uncle was a priest and administrator at Langres Cathedral. His parents and siblings cared deeply for him, and he received a first-class education. He could blame no one but himself.
Review of Gordon Wood’s “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” Medium (2018)
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson met for the first time in the summer of 1775. Still in their thirties, they had been elected delegates to the Second Continental Congress, Adams from Massachusetts and Jefferson from Virginia. It was a desperate hour. Only weeks before, British regulars and colonial minutemen had fired on each other at Lexington and Concord. The American colonies were in open rebellion. Representatives from all thirteen colonies hastened to Philadelphia to plan their next move. The meeting between Adams and Jefferson was the beginning of a friendship that would last more than half a century. It expressed, like no other relationship of the era, the ambiguity and drama of the American founding.
Review of Sam Rosenfeld's "The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era," LSE Review of Books (2018)
In September 1950, a committee of the American Political Science Association (APSA) published a report highly critical of political parties in the United States. Titled ‘Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System’, the report openly questioned the ability of the two major parties, Democratic and Republican, to manage post-war governance, and it predicted a fundamental crisis in US politics unless the parties could be reformed. The situation was so dire, in their view, that the authors directed their findings not to other scholars but to party leaders, office holders and ‘everyone interested in politics’ in the hope of bringing about ‘a fuller public appreciation of a basic weakness in the American two-party system’. And what was this weakness? The two parties were insufficiently polarised. Because nothing distinguished them from one another, they failed to give voters a real choice between governing agendas.
Review of Russell Shorto's "Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom," Chicago Tribune (2017)
Contrary to popular belief, the American Revolution wasn’t a war between England and America. It was a civil war within the British Empire, with causes and consequences reaching around the globe. Its key players included Americans who fought for the king, Britons who fought for the colonists, Portuguese Jews, Dutch Calvinists, Spanish and French Catholics, African Muslims, Iroquois polytheists, natives and Europeans, slaves and free men, men and women.
Review of Daniel Mark Epstein's "The Loyal Son: The War in Benjamin Franklin's House," New Republic (2017)
In late 1772 Benjamin Franklin received a startling package from an unknown sender. It was a collection of letters from several high-ranking colonial officials in Massachusetts written to Thomas Whatley, an assistant to Britain’s prime minister. Their subject was the ongoing unrest caused by the Stamp Act, which imposed the first direct taxes on colonists, and by other legislation the people in Massachusetts judged oppressive and tyrannical. The officials reported that the colonists had started an insurrection: The king’s property was being vandalized and his officers harassed. Mobs controlled the streets, forcing British soldiers to seek safety on an island in Boston Harbor. Only a strong show of force, the officials insisted, would restore peace.
Op-Ed: "'Nuclear Option' Is Short-Sighted," Albuquerque Journal (2017)
Last Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans employed the “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to make it impossible to filibuster Supreme Court nominees. The move cleared the way for Neil Gorsuch to be confirmed to the highest court on Friday and to be sworn in this week. It’s a decision that Republican senators will likely regret. So will we.
Review of Michael J. Klarman's "The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution," New Republic (2016)
Throughout the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention labored to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new frame of government. While the convention nearly broke down several times over slavery and the apportionment of representation among the states, by late September the delegates had achieved their goal and produced a new constitution—the one Americans still live with. No delegate was completely satisfied with the process or the results; of the 55 who attended the convention only 39 signed the finished document. Overall, though, the signers were pleased with the system they created. James Wilson of Pennsylvania judged it, “The best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.” Next, the Constitution was sent to the states to be debated and, the Framers hoped, ratified.
Review of Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf's "'Most Blessed of the Patriarchs': Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination," New Republic (2016)
At a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, President Kennedy remarked, “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” The witticism is apt, yet we might wonder if Jefferson ever dined alone. So large and varied were his accomplishments and failings, and so profound his contradictions, he might appear to us as a whole community of geniuses and devils rather than a single man. The title of a major 1996 biography, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis, reflects the challenge. Although Jefferson’s capacious inner and outer life is as well documented as anyone’s from the revolutionary era, he remains a mystery.
Review of Sarah Bakewell's "At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others," Newsday (2016)
Here’s a startling thought. Consider what you are doing right now without realizing you’re doing it. For example, you are reading the English language written in the Roman alphabet, even though thousands of languages and writing systems have existed, and you would just as easily use one of them instead if you had been born in a different time or place. You are probably flipping pages of a newspaper or clicking through a website rather than, say, turning through a scroll or listening to these words spoken out loud. And there’s a good chance you are wearing pants and a shirt rather than a grass skirt, kimono, sarong or toga. In fact, if you had been born elsewhere, everything about you might be different.
Review of Geoffrey Cowan's "Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary," The Boston Globe (2016)
Amid the audacious (and highly watchable) political mudslinging of the presidential primary season, it’s easy to forget that these contests are a relatively recent invention and that since their inception they have been an uneasy mixture of philosophical substance, party infighting, and outrageous theatrics. Enter Geoffrey Cowan with his timely and enjoyable new book, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.” Cowan, a lawyer and academic, was a major force in reforming the Democratic Party’s nominating process after its turbulent 1968 convention, giving him unique insight into the complicated politics and personalities of the great Republican upheaval of 1912, which saw the creation of the modern system.
Review of Joseph J. Ellis, "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789," Minneapolis Star Tribune (2015)
When the Continental Army and its French allies won the culminating victory against the British at Yorktown in 1781, what had they accomplished? They won independence, certainly, but what kind? The question remained whether the United States would be a single nation or a confederation of 13 sovereign nations.
Review of Charles Slack's "Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech," Minneapolis Star Tribune (2015)
In the autumn of 1798, Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. He was the first person convicted under the new Sedition Act, recently signed into law by President John Adams. It was now a crime “to write, print, utter or publish … false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” As a reckless critic of Adams and the New England political elite, Lyon made an irresistible target.