Saturday, December 11, 2004

The First American by H. W. Brands

Gosh, it took me a long time to read this book. Some days I was lucky to get ten pages read. Having two kids is really starting to eat into my free time. It was a good read, I just wish I could remember the stuff in the first hundred pages.

Here’s something I do remember from the last hundred pages. Our bicameral legislature was one of the great compromises of the Constitutional Convention. The small states wanted representation by state and the big states wanted representation by population, so we get the House with one Representative per 10,000 people and the Senate with two Senators per state. Another great compromise was that a slave would count as three-fifths a person when calculating how many representatives a state got.

The first American, by the way, was Benjamin Franklin, and this was a biography of his life and times. And quite a life it was. The most famous person in the world during his lifetime and part of every major step in the birth of the American nation. On the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, chief negotiator charged with gaining France as an ally, co-chair (with George Washington) of the Constitutional Convention.

One of the most interesting things about him, of course, was how staunch a loyalist Briton he was until he was publicly humiliated in front of Parliament. Seeing first hand how the sickness of political corruption worked there, he decided that America’s destiny lay elsewhere, and dedicated himself from that point onward to its separation from Britain. His son William stayed loyal—he was the Royal Governor of New Jersey—and the two never saw eye to eye again. May not have even seen each other again except for a brief meeting in England after the war when William had moved back to the mother country and Ben was on his last trip home from France. There’s a story in there somewhere.

When the natural weakness and imperfection of human understanding is considered, with the unavoidable influences of education, custom, books and company, upon our ways of thinking, I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all the doctrines he holds, are true, and all he rejects, are false.
Benjamin Franklin

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