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Saturday, August 1, 1992

A Reviewer’s Notebook: Forge of Union

With the publication by Jameson Books of Ottawa, Illinois, of the third volume of his “eyewitness” narrative history of the founding of the U.S. government, Jeffrey St. John, radio and television commentator, has completed the job he set out to do. His idea was to pretend that he was “there” when General Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the other founders were deciding to cut loose from King George the Third, whose government tried to tax them without their permission.

For his volume one, Constitutional Journal, St. John pretended that he was in the room at Philadelphia and sneaking out daily reports of the new Federalist effort to provide something more solid in the way of government than the Articles of Confederation, which had staggered through seven years of war without the taxing authority needed to pay Washington’s troops.

In volume two, Child of Fortune, St. John gave a weekly recounting of the battle in the states to ratify the Philadelphia constitution. It was hard going for the Federalists to combat the anti-Federalists led by Patrick Henry, of “liberty or death” fame, who wanted to scrap the centralizing work of Madison and Hamilton. There had to be a promise of a Bill of Rights to get the Constitution adopted in recalcitrant states.

St. John’s volume three, Forge of Union, Anvil of Liberty (320 pages, $24.95 cloth), reports on the first federal elections and the creation of the Bill of Rights, a list of which was reduced from seventeen, then to twelve, and finally, with merger phrasing, to the familiar ten.

One interesting thing in St. John’s Forge of Union, Anvil of Liberty is the way in which Washington relied on Madison to keep Patrick Henry and the anti-Federalists at bay. With the Spanish and the French and the British egging the Indians on in Florida and in the Mississippi Valley, care had to be taken in pursuing a foreign policy. Monetary policy was important too: Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume at face value the debts incurred by the states during the recent war, adding them to the debts carried by the general treasury. The government’s taxing power and the projected national bank would assure repayment. Patrick Henry “could find no clause in the Constitution authorizing Congress to assume the debts of the states,” but President Washington, without fully understanding what Hamilton was proposing, backed him. “This is the first symptom,” so Hamilton wrote of Patrick Henry’s attack on debt assumption, “of a spirit which must either be killed or will kill the Constitution . . . .”

The difference between the American and French revolutions is continuously stressed through letters and documents produced by St. John. A parenthetical refrain running through the book is St. John’s boast of “a copy having been obtained by this correspondent.”

There was a savagery to the French revolutionary uprising that was, in St. John’s words, fueled by a burning hatred for the aristocracy. “This type of savagery,” says the author, “was almost totally absent during the American revolution . . . . in the last two years it has been demonstrated to a disbelieving world that it is possible, on this side of the Atlantic, to effect revolutionary political reform without recourse to mob violence and internal bloodshed. Even during the long War of Independence, the conflict was governed within specific codes of conduct that prevented it from degenerating into a savage civil conflict between people of the same cultural traditions.”

Savagery, remarks St. John, was commonplace in such collisions as those that Washington had witnessed in western Pennsylvania, but, “its appearance on the supposedly civilized streets of Paris has shocked and stunned American political leaders.”

Violence might have developed from the Founders’ failure to rid their culture of slavery. But compromise was possible here—in the so-called Northwest Ordinance territory, no slaves were permitted in new states north of the Ohio River; Kentucky and Vermont could peaceably join the union as the fourteenth and fifteenth states without provoking trouble.

New Jersey became the first state to adopt a Bill of Rights. The struggle for a permanent site of government was settled in favor of the “Powtomac” (the upper Potomac) at the expense of the Susquehanna, which was too far north.

Having emerged from the 18th century, Jeffrey St. John will be looking for something to do. He is tempted by the subject of the Cold War. But that would mean spending inordinate time with the ghosts of Stalin and Brezhnev. Better, one thinks, to stick with the 18th century. Why not a history of the Louisiana Purchase, which gave us half a continent?

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.