The Founding Generation

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The Founding Generation

Tom Brokow coined the term “The Greatest Generation” when he wrote his book, by the same name, about those who grew up during the Great Depression and helped to win World War II. The following books all feature what I like to think of as The Founding Generation, those individuals who grew up as British subjects and whose hard work and ingenuity started this great nation of ours.
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis
One of my “go to” books when folks ask for reading recommendations, this is a collection of 6 incidents, each one a chapter, in the early history of this country. Some of the subjects are well-known, such as the Hamilton-Burr duel, which opens the collection, and the special relationship that existed between John and Abigail Adams. Others are more obscure: Benjamin Franklin attempted, a month before he died, to force Congress to acknowledge the incongruity of slavery with the revolutionary principles of his new country, and the dinner that established the location of our country’s new capital in exchange for debts paid, are also here. Washington’s Farewell Address, where he announced his retirement from public life by offering his fellow countrymen advice for the future, is included, as is the touching reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson after years of estrangement. Ellis won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in History for this title.
Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
A book about the women behind the men, and their contributions to founding this nation. While the men were fighting or legislating, their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters were running the businesses, the farms, and sometimes defending themselves and their families from threats, both British and local. Written in chronological order, it tells the history of the struggle for independence but from the women’s perspective. They agonize over events – will there be war? – and use their wit, wealth and connections to help influence policy. Roberts uses mostly diaries and letters to introduce us to the heroines who sacrificed for our country as there is, unfortunately, little written about them in contemporary sources. The book concludes with a “Cast of Characters” so readers will know who was related to who and, appropriate for the era, recipes from Harriott Pinckney Horry and Martha Washington.

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf
Our first four presidents were all gardeners and farmers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all had a love for the indigenous trees and plants of North America and did all they could to cultivate and promote them. Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier were beloved by their owners and the men spent much of their time away from home planning and fretting over them. Washington was planning gardens for Mount Vernon while at Valley Forge, and Wulf calls his “the first truly American garden.” James Madison was our first “environmental” president, speaking out against soil erosion and the exploitation of timber resources. Jefferson was always renovating and tinkering with his Monticello gardens, and defending American flora and fauna to his mostly French counterparts, who insisted that America degenerated plants and animals brought there from Europe. Even people didn’t thrive in America! Benjamin Franklin put that notion to rest when he attended a dinner party in France, where the Americans were on one side of the table and the French on the other. Franklin said, “Let both parties rise, and we will see on which side nature (has) degenerated.” He told Jefferson that the Americans were all of the “finest stature,” while the French were all diminutive, America’s harshest critic there “a mere shrimp.”

Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language by Rosemarie Ostler
Contrary to the title, this book is not limited to this country’s early history, it just begins there. Americans needed to decide which linguistic model they would follow, the “superior speech” of England, or the new speech patterns being adapted by Americans. Noah Webster was one of the first to champion this new, American English. And this was an important debate, as good grammar was considered the foundation of a solid education, and grammar books were big business. Grammar books were an educational lifeline for the poor and those too geographically isolated to take advantage of formal schooling; in the early days, many families only owned two books – the Bible and a grammar primer. Of course, it also helps leaders to speak to people in their language; both Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were immensely popular in part because of their down-to-earth speech, which helped propel them into the White House. Language is a very fluid science, and continues to change and evolve, some changes accepted by linguists and lexicographers, and others not. Case in point – the word ain’t. It’s always fun, too, to see the new words to be considered “dictionary-worthy.”

Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine by Dave Dewitt
Our Founding Fathers also had a strong influence on the food of their new country. As we have seen, our first four presidents were actually farmers, and their influence can be seen from agriculture to fine dining. Our first colonial staples were corn, cod, pork and rum. Dewitt goes on from these to describe various impacts on our food culture. Franklin and Jefferson, strongly influenced by their years in France and England, brought the concept of fine dining from the Old World to the New, and Cajun, Native American and African cultures, among others, left their influence as well. Jefferson was one of the first individuals to attempt to make fine wines here in America with French grape stock. In addition to farming at Mount Vernon, Washington had a distillery on the property. An appendix lists historical sites with local restaurants that serve authentic period food. The book also includes recipes, ideal for your next July 4th picnic!