The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation
By Nancy Rubin Stuart
Beacon, 315 pp., $28.95
The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson
By Kevin J. Hayes
Oxford University, 752 pp., illustrated, $34.95
Amid the ongoing debate about the Founding Fathers - Is John Adams still underrated? Was Thomas Jefferson an unforgivable hypocrite? - one proposition recurs in the annual crop of books timed for publication around the Fourth of July. This was a generation of highly literate politicians. Adams and Jefferson, for example, became indispensable men of the Revolution in part because of their literary skills.
This year's yield of biographies of Founders includes two very different but rewarding studies. The more concise and readable of the two focuses on a founding mother who wrote in part because that was one way a woman could contribute to the Revolution. The other takes a bibliophile's magnifying glass to Jefferson, currently our most criticized founder, and uses it to brush some of the dirt off his besmirched name.
In the first, "The Muse of the Revolution," we learn that Mercy Otis Warren got a terrific education thanks to an uncle who tutored her and her older brother, patriot firebrand James Otis. She married a friend of James's, the politically active merchant James Warren. Though she eventually had relatives on both sides of the controversy and never went in for politicizing everything, she did learn early on how difficult it can be to separate the personal and the political, especially in revolutionary times. By the time she started writing plays satirizing the Tories, her brother had suffered physical and mental wounds because of his activism that left him a shadow of the man he'd been before he became, as Mercy later called him, "the first champion of American freedom." Later, she would watch her sons and husband suffer career setbacks in part because of their uncompromising stands on the issues during and after the war.
Nevertheless, in the course of writing seven plays and several published poems, "Mrs. Warren," as she was known, won praise as a kind of revolutionary muse from the likes of John and Abigail Adams, who became close friends. She certainly saw herself as playing a significant role, which did not necessarily require her to challenge contemporary sex roles. That's enough for author Nancy Rubin Stuart, who is uninterested in "theoretical" questions like whether Warren was really a feminist.
Still, there's plenty in Stuart's pages for those interested in the drama of the woman writer in Western culture. Warren wrote to her son that she had "ever considered human nature the same in both sexes," but she showed a special flair for the melodrama in revolutionary politics. She knew what she was good at. Already in 1775 she was thinking of writing a history of the Revolution, referring to it in early 1776 - before independence - as "her book." Over the next 30 years, through family tragedies, she used her connections to gather original material and publish one of the most interesting early histories of the Revolution. Part of its charm came from her personal acquaintance with figures like John Adams, who turned out to be less than charmed when his friend turned her sharp pen on his political career.
Stuart does better with the personal than with the political or the literary aspects of Warren and her world. She accepts the worldview of the Boston patriots at face value, sometimes repeating its very terms of disdain for Britain's "voracious maw." She hardly lingers over Warren's published writings - we hear more about her letters and her personality than her plays or her magnum opus. One suspects that this is because Warren seems, now, more accessible and likable as a person and a woman than as a writer and propagandist.
Jefferson has suffered recently in books like Jon Kukla's "Mr. Jefferson's Women" for his seeming misogyny as well as his racial attitudes. Where Fawn Brodie, in her 1974 blockbuster "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History," made a psychological Rorschach test out of Jefferson's inability to grieve for his mother's loss of her house by fire, Kevin Hayes points out in "The Road to Monticello" that Jefferson lost one of the best libraries in Virginia when Shadwell burned to the ground - which is why he focused on that in the one surviving letter that mentions the event.
This might seem downright insensitive were it not for how successful Hayes is in making a story out of Jefferson acquiring, reading, writing in, distributing, and generally riffing on his books. Bibliography does not often make for great narrative history, but Hayes has found an ideal subject. For Jefferson, books were not an escape from people: They connected him to the world. They began and punctuated conversations that lasted for years, and sometimes a lifetime. Hayes brings those passions and conversations to life. He stints on the controversial matters, letting Jefferson lead him by the nose away from slavery, financial difficulties, political embarrassments, and anything else Jefferson didn't dwell on or enjoy reading or writing about. His Jefferson is all consciousness - and no subconscious.
But that's what biographers usually do, and especially biographers of founding fathers and mothers. These books are both full of praise for their subjects, but along the way we see revolutionary leaders criticizing each other. If only because we attend to the Founders' harsh as well as eloquent words, the debate about their relative virtues and, more important, what they stood for goes on as predictably and portentously as the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
David Waldstreicher teaches history at Temple University and is the author of "Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution."