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If you’re a serious Christian, you probably re-read the scriptures – or, at least, dip into favorite passages – with some frequency; in the same way, if you’re serious about being American, there are worse ideas – especially in these times when America is undergoing its most urgent existential crisis since the Civil War – than to return as often as your schedule allows to the lives of our Founding Fathers. Even in these toxically woke times, every publishing season brings new books about one or more of the great men who created this country, precisely because there are so many book-buyers who have yet to cease being inspired by the subject. The thirst for yet another retelling of these men’s oft-told stories has led not only to shelves full of biographies – among them a good many very fine ones, each with its own particular strengths – but also to such major cultural phenomena as the magnificent 2008 miniseries about John Adams and the mega-hit 2015 Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton.
The veteran historian, journalist, and political commentator Michael Barone modestly describes his highly engaging new book, Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders, as a collection of “little essays.” And yes, they are essays, in the sense that Barone doesn’t intend to provide comprehensive accounts of the lives of his six subjects, let alone to try to tell the whole story of the Revolution, but rather to focus on the role that maps and, more broadly, geography – including cultural, social, and economic geography – played in their political thought. Although the meticulously drawn maps in today’s historic atlases can give us the impression that the Founders lived in a continent of fixed (if frequently shifting) borders, that “impression of certainty and settledness,” explains Barone in his introduction, is misleading: all of them lived along the Atlantic seaboard in colonies – and then states – “whose boundaries were not all clearly defined and whose backlands had never been accurately mapped.” Hence the maps in their heads, in addition to being shaped in large part by their own travels and reading, “were full of contingencies, of what the new nation they hoped they were creating would look like and be like.”
This isn’t to say that Barone applies his premise in an overly stringent way. He’s not above detouring from his thematic focus to tell a colorful story or serve up a surprising detail. What he does – and what one should do in a book like this – is to wear his theme lightly, using it as a means of viewing familiar figures from a new window. So it is that his opening chapter, on Benjamin Franklin, emphasizes the fact that Franklin, in his lifetime, not only saw more of America than his fellow Founders; he probably saw more of it than anybody else alive.
And that made a difference. Because while everyone knew that America was vast, Franklin, at a relatively young age, had seen enough of it in person for its sheer scale to leave a lasting impression on him, leading him to apply his lively imagination to extensive reflection on the question of just what course its settlement and development would take far into the future. So it is that in his brief 1749 work, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., Franklin prophesied that the English-speaking population of North America, which at the time was “upwards of One Million,” would double every 25 years, so that after a century “the greatest number of Englishmen” would be “on this Side of the Water.” And this, Barone points out, “is exactly what happened: By 1851, there were more people living in the United States than in England” (although by then, needless to say, they had long since ceased to identify themselves as English).
After spending much of the first half of his life traveling around the New World, Franklin spent much of the second half in Europe – “from 1757–62 and 1764–75 in London, and 1776–85 in Paris.” The fact that Franklin was, as historian Samuel Flagg Bemis put it, “the greatest man whom the New World had yet produced” and, “with the possible exception of Voltaire, the best-known person in the world,” was an advantage in his successful effort to persuade the French to agree to place America’s western border at the Mississippi River, far further west than they had originally wanted. A Mississippi border was important to Franklin because he’d “foreseen the surge of American settlers west of the Appalachian chains” and would therefore “not give up the territory that he was sure awaited them.”
From Franklin, we move on to George Washington, who before being president was a military hero, and before that was, of course, a surveyor, “carefully imposing a mathematical order on disorderly nature.” Barone (who, I should mention, is skilled at finding insightful bits in other writers’ work and generous about giving them the proper attribution) quotes Washington biographer Noemie Emery as saying that “[s]wift appraisal of the tangible world would always be his mental forte”; and Barone further cites historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick as underscoring Washington’s preoccupation with settling, cultivating, and bringing commerce to the western territories. Although a son of Virginia, Washington, as a military strategist, viewed New York from an early stage as the red-hot center of the colonies (even though its population was only a bit more than half that of Philadelphia); hence the slowness of New Yorkers to support the Revolution worried him far more than the loyalism that was widespread in the Carolinas and Georgia.
Over the years, indeed, Washington found himself increasingly fonder of the North than of the South. Impressed by “the industriousness of the Yankees, their rapid adoption of manufacturing, and the cleanliness and bustle of their towns,” he was “taken aback” by the South’s “desolate fields, shabby homes, scenes of poverty.” He also became more and more critical of slavery, so much so that he once told Edmund Randolph that in case the two regions were to split up, he’d side with the North. But in truth Washington (whom Barone describes as reading maps “from east to west,” of thinking “horizontally”) thought that North-South divisions were less “threatening to the Union” than those between East and West.
Barone’s third subject is Thomas Jefferson, whose father, Peter, was partly responsible for an important early map of America; the son’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1795), actually opens with a map of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania that was based on his father’s and that the author described as being “of more value than the entire book.” Like Washington, Jefferson had a lifelong interest in surveying; he “spent hours poring over maps in his study” and, according to historian Joel Achenbach, “grew up with maps in his head” that “remained there his entire life and into his presidency, when he began filling in the blank spaces, sending Lewis and Clark up the Missouri.”
Presciently, Notes anticipates, in Barone’s words, “the rise of the great river cities – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis – that grew mightily in the middle third of the nineteenth century,” and can perhaps even be said to foresee “the rise in the last third of the century of the industrial Great Lakes cities—Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee.” It was Jefferson who, in 1784, first suggested that western lands “be administered as territories subject to Congress and be admitted in time as full states, of equal status with the original thirteen”; it was he who coined – kind of – the names of Illinois (“Illinoia”) and Michigan (“Michigania”); and it was he who proposed legislation barring slavery in the territories after the year 1800, in hopes, as Richard Bernstein put it, “to encourage the spread westward of a republic of individual farmers, each tilling his own land and committed to personal and national independence and liberty.”
Jefferson’s nemesis among the Founders was, famously, Alexander Hamilton, who grew up in Nevis and St. Croix at a time when the Caribbean was anything but a backwater: “sugar-producing Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) was the jewel in France’s colonial crown and sugar-producing Jamaica in Britain’s.” At 13, Hamilton went to work for a mercantile house where he acquired the beginnings of a first-rate education in what we would now call economic geography. While still a teenager, he moved to New York in 1772 and soon became an ardent revolutionary, rhapsodizing (with an enthusiasm that perhaps only a man raised on tiny Caribbean islands could muster) over “the economic promise” of “this vast continent” and arguing that “the boundless extent” of its territory, combined with “the whole temperament of our climate, the luxuriance and fertility of our soil, the variety of our products, the rapidity of our population, the industry of our country men and the commodiousness of our ports,” made independence from Britain a no-brainer.
Hamilton was brilliant – and confident in his brilliance. He was certain that “the relatively narrow geographical margins between the Atlantic and the Appalachian ridges” (as contrasted to the broad, war-weary plains of Europe) favored American prospects of victory should a revolution break out. He had no doubts that America, a couple of generations hence, could become a “formidable” naval power, more than capable of self-defense. And as he continued to ponder the financial implications of republican government – a topic of inquiry that barely existed at the time – he put to use his observations of the Venetian, Swiss, and Dutch republics, as well as of the economic powerhouses of the day (Britain, France, and Spain), in formulating ideas for how to organize the economy of the world’s first truly large-scale republic. At a time when sustained economic growth was almost unheard of, he decided that if the American economy could be organized in the right way, the combination of large families and the admission of “emigrants from all parts of the world” could lead to economic growth on a well-nigh unprecedented scale. Jefferson, as Barone reminds us, “looked forward to an America that would remain almost entirely agricultural, with a yeoman class heading west but somehow remaining deferential to landed leaders like himself”; but the America that took shape over the course of the 19th century was essentially the “commercial and industrial” nation that Hamilton had envisioned and for which he had so shrewdly laid the groundwork.
Barone’s fifth subject, James Madison, was also guided largely by his mental maps. Observing as a young man that the British victory in the French and Indian War had encouraged thousands of “Virginians and Scots-Irish migrants” to head “southwest down the valleys between the ridges and through the Cumberland Gap into the county that Virginians called, and spelled in multiple ways, Kentucky,” he sensed “that the future arc of American migration would swing to the southwest and that the chief avenue for the export of their crops would be the Mississippi River.” Which meant, to Madison, that “the free navigation of the Mississippi River to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico that the British had been granted in the 1763 Treaty of Paris” – but that Spain had denied to the U.S. after the latter’s independence – was vital to America’s future.
While Hamilton’s “mental map” focused “on the invisible lines of trade routes across the Atlantic and potentially farther around the world,” notes Barone, the younger Madison’s mental map – at least as far as the next couple of generations were concerned – focused on the areas “west and southwest” of his native Virginia, which he saw as the immediate future of American expansion. Nonetheless, one of Madison’s major contributions to that expansion wasn’t to the west but to the south: as president, he insisted, as he had ever since 1803, “that the Louisiana Purchase included West Florida.” He backed up the claim with (what else?) an old map – in response to which the French ambassador replied contemptuously: “Maps are not titles.” But Madison, a tiny man who had always been viewed as gentle and peaceable, even timid, ordered the forced annexation of West Florida – leading Henry Adams to refer to him as, in Barone’s words, “the only American president to have expanded the continental United States not by treaty or declaration of war but by ordering troops to seize it.”
Who is Barone’s sixth Founding Father? John Adams? Sam Adams? John Hancock? John Jay? No. The answer is Albert Gallatin, a name unfamiliar to many, and, strictly speaking, not exactly a Founding Father. Raised in Geneva, Gallatin emigrated to America in 1780, at the age of 19, and after teaching French at Harvard for two years traveled southward and accumulated some famous friends before deciding “to settle far west of the seaboard.” Soon he had acquired a pretty extensive “acquaintance with the geography and demography of the newly independent United States of America,” along with a “vision of how the seaboard settlements could be linked to the vast interior by linking the Potomac and Ohio Rivers” and a “sense that America’s growth would come from expansion to the vast lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi.”
Serving as Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin helped Madison – who was, of course, Jefferson’s Secretary of State – talk their boss “out of his ‘romantic ideology’” – notably, his idealization of the French Revolution – “into more practical policies.” When asked by Jefferson “to examine Treasury accounts for ‘the blunders and frauds’” of Hamilton, his predecessor at Treasury, “Gallatin, to his surprise, found ‘no blunders, no frauds,’ but rather ‘the most perfect system ever formed.’” This in spite of the fact that while Hamilton “cast his eyes eastward, basing his policies on a vision of seaboard America connected over oceanic trade routes with Britain and other European nations and their Caribbean colonies, Gallatin…cast his eyes westward, basing his policies on a vision of agricultural America expanded ever to the west.”
It was Gallatin who, when Napoleon shocked the Jefferson Administration by offering to sell it the entire Louisiana Territory, was tasked with finding the $15 million to pay for it. It was also Gallatin several of whose visionary proposals, as Barone puts it, “had to wait for the twentieth century: His ‘Great canals, from north to south, along the Atlantic Coast’ anticipated the Intracoastal Waterway, and his ‘great turnpike road from Maine to Georgia’ foreshadowed US 1 and Interstate 95.” At first I wondered why Barone included this relatively obscure figure in his book, but by the end of his essay on Gallatin it’s clear that the man from Geneva played a key role in many crucial episodes in the young Republic, not least by bringing together in an inspired way, and to the immense and longstanding benefit of American growth and prosperity, elements of both the Jeffersonian and Hamiltionian visions of America’s future – specifically, the former’s “philosophy of minimal national government” and the latter’s “system of national finance.”
Like any good book about the Founders, Mental Maps of the Founders is a lesson in humility. What brilliant men they were! Barone reminds us that because Washington turned down a throne, George III judged him the greatest man of the era, and that Talleyrand (who’d met the likes of Napoleon, Metternich, and Louis XVI) said the same thing about Hamilton. Yes, they were all personally ambitious; but they were also men of nobility and honor, willing to sacrifice mightily for the Republic to which they committed themselves heart and soul. Each, in his own way, led by his own mental maps, contributed immensely to America’s development; taken together, they encouraged their fellow Americans to look in every geographical direction – whether for the promise of ever-expanding settlements and commercial productivity in the western wilderness or for the promise of ever more robust activity along the Atlantic trade routes. At a time when our own leaders in Washington, D.C., are, with very few exceptions, intellectual and moral pygmies without maps (or much of anything else) in their heads, when the current occupants of the White House are cynically and selfishly betraying every principle for which the Founders were willing to sacrifice all that they had, and when spoiled, privileged young Americans who know absolutely nothing of history raze statues of these extraordinary men, Barone’s book is at once a stirring reminder of how very much we owe to them for whatever it is we have left of our glorious national inheritance, and a spur to fight ever more vigorously the vacuous, malevolent enemies of their towering legacy.