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Founding Fathers' battles resonate in today's politics

Allies and enemies alike can only wonder what the future holds when they look to a nation struggling under a dysfunctional Congress dedicated to special interests and a widely popular president swept into office but seemingly unsure of how to move his agenda forward.

No sooner is a president inaugurated than the leaders of two parties begin maneuvering with an eye on his successor.

At the first sign of budgetary crisis, a Southern congressional leader rises to challenge the administration, insisting the government "should not artificially stimulate the economy in ways that favor one class over another." A key Cabinet member is described in the unabashedly partisan press as a power-grabbing opportunist, bent on getting rich through government positions.

A breakthrough international treaty is brokered and Congress battles to the end to stave off ratification, while a president pleads for an end to petty party politics and a return to national harmony.

Congress demands the right to see presidential papers and the president refuses, citing executive privilege.

A Cabinet-level sex scandal lurks just below the surface. A confession and apology will quiet the critics, but the stigma never will be erased.

Many wonder if the nation described as "the world's best hope," will live to see its full potential realized.

Before we dig this hole any deeper, let's be clear: We are not describing the Washington of the last 25 years. The time is roughly 1790 to 1820, three decades when men were experimenting in a radically new form of governing and developing an imperfect system that would blossom into the world power we know today.

The president pleading for an end to party strife was not Barack Obama but George Washington. It was Southerner James Madison, not Southerner Mitch McConnell, who insisted the federal government keep its hands out of the nation's businesses.

The treaty was not with the Russians but with the British. The president whose succession was being plotted the day he entered office was not George W. Bush or President Obama. It was John Adams.

It was George Washington who didn't seem to know what to do as president. It was Alexander Hamilton who was accused of enriching himself and the New York bankers at the expense of the nation. And it was Thomas Jefferson, not William Jefferson Clinton, who survived a sex scandal that has dogged his reputation to this day.

So it seems to prove the old adage: What goes around, comes around. Or maybe: It is forever thus.

The first years of our nation are often oversimplified and widely misunderstood. They are told in terms of larger-than-life heroes, marble statues and flowery quotations etched in gold leaf on government edifices never imagined by our Founding Fathers.

Authors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg will have nothing of the myths of our founding. They are established academic historians with deep backgrounds and solid credentials in this intrigue-filled period of our nation's history. Their love of this time flows through the pages of this huge work.

Both are Southern-centric, but that should not surprise us. The first shots of the American Revolution may have been fired in the Massachusetts colony, but the legislators of the Virginia Commonwealth had been debating a break from the mother country for decades. For the most part, the New Englanders sought fair treatment from the Crown over independence.

It is no accident of history that during 32 of the first 36 years after the ratification of the Constitution, the president was a Virginian. The presidential incubator was not Harvard or Princeton, it was the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.

Madison may well have been the father of the Constitution, but the constitution ratified by the 13 colonies showed little similarity to the one he carried from Virginia to Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. His model constitution was one aimed at protecting the elite and the privileged from state legislatures that are "too easily misled by self-serving demagogues." He once compared legislators to the king of England, saying: "173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one."

It was Madison who guided the document, step by step, change by change, vote by vote, through a constitutional convention made up of "rambunctious children refusing to play together properly." These guys didn't mince words. And it was Madison who strongly opposed attaching to it a Bill of Rights.

Jefferson's input was by mail from across the Atlantic, where he was representing a new nation thrust into the never-ending European power struggle. Besides diplomacy, he was collecting French wine and drinking in the ideas that would culminate in the French Revolution. Jefferson strongly urged this imperfect constitution be scrapped and a second constitutional convention be called to get it right.

Our authors mildly scoff at those who would insist on returning to the original meaning of the authors of the Constitution. It is clear from the public writings and private correspondence of the drafters of the document that they often did not agree on precisely what they meant, and that they changed their positions on the fly.

Madison and Jefferson, along with many of their contemporaries, are characterized as a mass of contradictions. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Jefferson's side-by-side writings on democracy, the inherent freedom of all men, slavery in the South and the plight of Native Americans. It is clear that when he wrote "all men," he was referring to all European white men, with a distinct emphasis on the male of the species.

But even here, while Burstein and Isenberg paint Jefferson and his contemporaries with all their warts, they take great pains to place them in their own age, their own society and their own locale. And this is all done with primary sources, not speculation or historical hearsay.

For example, Jefferson's plan to emancipate the slaves and send them all back to Africa, even those born in America, is an outrage today. It was enlightened thinking in the year 1800.

A close look at 1787-88 shows the seeds for our nation's Civil War were planted right at the drafting and signing of the Constitution. South Carolina -- and later Virginia -- was talking about secession almost as the ink was drying. That it took until 1861 for the actual fracture is a wonder.

"Madison and Jefferson" shows some unevenness over its 650 pages of narrative (the rest is extensive end notes and index), especially during the presidencies of James Madison and James Monroe. But overall, it is an example of fine writing and meticulous research. Its explanation of the common meaning of many 18th century words and phrases is a revelation.

In a good year, one or two new books are published that add significantly to the body of knowledge of American history. They are the books that will be used as reference by authors and historians for years to come.

This work qualifies as one of the best of them.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.


Madison and Jefferson

By Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg

Random House

809 pages, $35

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