“Founders Lite” is the title of Jack Rakove’s review, published at The New Republic, of Joseph Ellis’s First Family: Abigail and John.
Rakove praises Ellis for publishing so many books on the founding fathers in such a short period of time, but he also notes that the book is filled with factual errors that Rakove seems to imply (although he never says it specifically) are the products of Ellis rushing so many books into print.
Here is a taste:
Having read most of what Ellis has written over this past decade, I am troubled to see how many simple points he casually gets wrong. All of us err occasionally, but Ellis’s mistakes make me wonder whether he really does suffer from a slovenly attitude toward the duty to get things right. In previous books, little matters of fact seem to stump him, such as not knowing the capital of the United States after 1783 (not Philadelphia), or the river that Jefferson and Madison would have taken between New York City and Albany (not the Connecticut), or the officers who fought the most famous military duel of 1778 (it was John Cadwalader, not John Laurens, who put a ball through the face of Washington’s military critic, Thomas Conway). Picking up an essay on the Constitutional Convention that Ellis wrote for American Heritage this summer, I note that he thinks the Constitution was written in 1789, not 1787, and cannot correctly date Benjamin Franklin’s famous plea for the delegates to open their daily sessions with a prayer…
Such errors may seem trivial when taken individually, but their recurrence is disturbing. In First Family, Ellis tells us that he has “this stubborn conviction that reading the sources with my own eyes is the only way” to work. I wholly agree in principle, but reading Ellis I begin to doubt whether his eyes can do the job. No one who takes his sources seriously could report that the First Continental Congress adjourned in January 1775, for John Adams’s diary—every working historian’s favorite source for that meeting—describes the Massachusetts delegation’s rainy-day departure for Boston on October 28, 1774, with Adams rashly predicting he would never see Philadelphia again. A source-based historian would know better than to say that the delegate who presided over the bitter congressional debates of 1779 was not Henry Laurens of South Carolina (who resigned in a huff in December 1778) but John Jay of New York, who became Adams’s chief rival for the appointment of peace commissioner. He would not report that Jefferson went to Europe in 1784 to replace Franklin as minister to France. And he would not hold that the Constitution requires the vice president “to remain silent during debates,” which it does not. Even the year of John Quincy Adams’s appointment as secretary of state comes out wrong.
But Rakove does not stop there. He also chides Ellis for errors of interpretation, for failing to offer anything close to a sophisticated analysis of the John and Abigail, and for liking Adams too much. If readers really want to know more about this famous revolutionary-era couple, Rakove suggests that they should go to Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams or Edith Gelles’s Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage.
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