At Home With The Founders – A Conversation on the American Experiment with Myron Magnet


This is thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them, I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville Kentucky.

Myron Magnet was the editor of City Journal from 1994 to 2006 and he is now the magazine’s editor-at-large. A former member of the board of editors of Fortune magazine, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008. He has written about a wide variety of topics from American society and social policy, economics and corporate management to intellectual history, literature, architecture and the American founding. His latest book is The Founders at Home: The Building of America 1735-1817. Myron Magnet, welcome to thinking in public

Magnet: Thank you so much, it is a pleasure to be with you.

Mohler: Well, it certainly was a pleasure to read your book, and you know, I can normally say that because I enjoy reading every book that crosses my desk. But there was particular pleasure in reading your book because you’re covering the American founding you are covering the historical epic that perhaps has had greatest attention from American historians, and yet you found a way to tell the story in a completely new way.

Magnet: Thank you so much! You liked my historical houses part, I take it.

Mohler: Well, I will tell you one reason why; I get to live in one of those homes, or at least a replica of one of those homes.

Magnet: Do you really? Which one?

Mohler: I actually live in a in a replica of Homewood, the house of Charles Carroll.

Magnet: Oh how wonderful!

Mohler: Yes, well, the original Homewood is now on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, but the president’s home for this institution is an almost brick-for-brick replica.

Magnet: You know, I’ve found that the reason I wanted to write about the Founders – the gimmick of the book is that each of the seven Founders that I talk about has a house that’s open to the public that you can visit, and what I discovered when I visited them is that the spirit of these guys is just palpable. You feel almost as if you’re in their presence when you walk in. It’s especially true when you walk into a place like Monticello.

Mohler: Absolutely.

Magnet: I felt like I was inside Jefferson’s mind when I walked through there. But it’s true in Mount Vernon, it’s true in the newly restored Montpelier which is just beautiful, and it just gets you so interested in the concreteness of their thought. The houses, making them so real to me, led me on to their letters and their speeches and writings. I was so fascinated to discover that this was a country that was made by people who had a vision, who really thought about what kind of country they wanted to make in which their fellow citizens could have the best possible life for man. They had a very consistent vision, which centered on liberty.

Mohler: Mr Magnet, another point you make in this book is how much attention these Founders gave to the issue of religious liberty. Not just as one amongst other liberties, but as an essential issue for understanding what this new nation must be about.

Magnet: They cared about religious liberty with a kind of intensity that can sometimes get lost now. It wasn’t just the Pilgrims who came here in 1620 who came here looking for religious liberty. There was a whole stream of people; Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers – every kind of Dissenter and every kind of Protestant fleeing from France and Bohemia, came in wave after wave in the 17th and even into the 18th centuries seeking religious freedom here.

And it’s so interesting, the guy I start with in my book is William Livingston, and I like him because he was a New York magazine editor, so I feel we have something in common. It’s funny, he’s never quite sure of where he’s going to go in his magazine, but he starts out complaining, “Wait a minute, the Anglicans of New York want to found an Anglican college and they want to use tax money to pay the professors.” That’s ridiculous, because New York is not an Anglican city or colony. Anglicans are a minority, so obviously, if you use public money it ought to be for the public purposes of all. And it’s an infringement of our religious liberty to tax us for sectarian purposes for a sect we don’t believe in.

Well it was that insistence on religious liberty that led Livingston to put forth for the first time in the North American colonies an unsystematic but extremely eloquent exposition of Locke’s idea of government by consent of the governed, and the right of the people to rebel against a tyrannical ruler.

Mohler: In your book you claim that “the American Revolution, of all great revolutions, was the only successful one.” I am in full agreement of that statement, but I would appreciate if you would spell out a bit why you made that statement and why you made that claim.

Magnet: Well, the reason I wrote the book is because – I’m not a historian by training, I’m a policy journalist. I wrote a policy magazine. And I came increasingly to think that the country that we lived in was not really the country that the Founders envisioned when they created it. And that the Constitution that the constitutional lawyers have given us is not the Constitution that the Constitutional Convention gave us.  So I wanted to go back to the beginning and see what exactly did the Founders have in mind?

And so it was a great voyage of discovery for me, and just a thrill to spend weeks reading 1200 pages of George Washington’s letters and speeches, reading the Federalist papers, and asking, ‘what did they want to do?’

Mohler: I appreciated so much the way you made the point about the American Revolution being successful in that it delivered the vision of those who led it and fought for it. And you compare it to especially the French Revolution, which basically ended up with continued despotism, and that at the cost of untold terror. And then of the Russian Revolution that led to the Soviet oppression. And then you made the interesting point that we only have one life to live, and if you imagine a life lived under those circumstances, and compare it to the lives that we now live, you really see the difference that the vision of this kind of revolution leads to.

Magnet: It’s fantastic. Of course, the reason that ours worked is very largely because the Founders were quite modest in their aims. They only wanted to make a political revolution. They didn’t want to make a social revolution. They didn’t want to have ‘common property.’ They didn’t want to make a revolution in human nature. They weren’t trying to build ‘the new Soviet man.’ They were extremely realistic about human nature. They wanted to make a government, as they said over and over again, for people as they really were, not for angels.

As Madison says in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, we wouldn’t have any need of government. What is government but the greatest reflection of all on human nature?” By contrast, of course, we remember Robespierre, in the French Revolution, saying “Have you rooted out the mental habits of despotism within yourselves?” And you know, his view was that if he didn’t think you had, off to the guillotine with you. And they were guillotining by the half a dozen a day for two years.

Mohler: Yes, you mentioned two hundred people a week for two years – an unprecedented bloodletting, even for those very bloody times.

Magnet: Amazing. And then of course, the Russian Revolution. When we think of the toll of that, it exceeds even the carnage of the Nazis. Once you start overturning things, you have to be very careful what devils you let loose. One of the really wise things that Madison said is, ‘Okay, so you set up a Constitution and a government to govern people, and give those who do the governing power to do so. But the next problem is how do you get them to govern themselves?’

And that was the genius of what the Founders accomplished. They saw that the men who did the governing would have the same fallen human nature as everybody else. And they wanted to set up every kind of protection that they could think of to make sure that they didn’t give in to the kinds of – as they would call them – ‘passions’ or ‘narrow interests’ and use that power to oppress their fellow men.

Mohler: You know, you made me rethink my understanding of not just the founding era, but some of the intellectual changes that were taking place in the 18th century. In particular, a point you make over and over again is that these conservative revolutionaries of which you were writing, were largely satisfied with the English constitution as it had operated. That unwritten constitution that had basically accepted rights and responsibilities – so long as Britain kept on honoring that constitutional understanding, the American colonists were by and large quite willing to live within that.

It was when they came to understand that Britain was itself violating that compact that they really became revolutionaries.

Magnet: That’s right. And what Burke said is that the policy which Walpole and Pitt had followed when they were Prime Ministers of England was one of ‘salutary neglect.’ Here were these colonists three thousand miles away who were churning out wealth for themselves, yes, but also for the mother country. So why would anybody mess with that? It’s only when George III came to the throne. Remember, he was the grandson of George II, his father had died. And he was a youth! He was 22 years old when he came to the throne. And he just wasn’t going to take any orders from these old men who were around him. He was going to be a king, by heaven! And that was that.

He was a very pig-headed young man, and he surrounded himself with not-very politick guys. He decided he was going to make the Americans pay for fighting the Seven Years War, a big part of which happened on the North American continent. Well, you know the Americans had already paid for it, not just in treasure but in blood. After all, that’s where George Washington cut his military experience as a great and brave commander, in what we call the French-Indian War, which is what we call our portion of the Seven Years War. And why should we pay for it again? So when George III wanted to tax people who felt they were not represented by the British Parliament, they said, ‘Wait a minute. You a depriving us of our property without letting us vote on it. And that’s a violation of the British constitution, it’s a violation of the Magna Carta, it’s a violation of everything else we hold most sacred.’

And then, to make things even worse, when the king decided he was going to enforce these new tax laws by sort of summary vice-admiralty courts that would try tax evasion cases, where it would just be a judge who decides, and no jury, the colonists went bananas! They said, ‘Wait a minute! The first thing Magna Carta guarantees you is that you cannot be deprived of your life or property without a trial by a jury of your peers!’ So it’s like everything that they held most politically sacred in the British constitution was being overturned from their point of view, and they weren’t standing for it. They wanted things back the way they were.

Mohler: In your book – and I enjoyed ever single chapter! I have to tell you that you confirmed my estimation of George Washington, and basically on the other hand you confirmed my understanding of Thomas Jefferson. But you made me think far better of James Madison and John Jay than I had in the past. And your argument even lowered George III in my estimation – below in the abysmal ranking of royalty where he stood before I began your book. But that’s one of the reasons why I loved this book so much, because it deals with these men as men. As historical figures. And you take them seriously not only in terms of their intellectual contribution and their political lives, but also their social lives; what brought them pleasure, how they understood themselves as part of a larger society.

And you introduced me to someone whose name was certainly familiar to me, but I really didn’t know so well, and that’s William Livingston. You identify him as one of the firebrands, and that argument you just made about the trial without jury – it was Livingston who quite brilliantly argued that there was only one British precedent for that, and that was Charles I and the Star Chamber.

Magnet: The Star Chamber, that’s exactly right! And when he saw New York’s royal governor trying to Star Chamber-type things, and then when George III’s government also started doing  Star Chamber-type things, he, who had been trained as a lawyer rose to be one New York’s preeminent lawyers. He also worked very hard with other eminent lawyers to professionalize the law business. He just went ape when he saw that, he said, ‘You’re taking away what is an Englishman’s birthright, and he wasn’t having it. So we owe quite a lot to William Livingston.

One of the things that struck me in the reading I did for this book is, that John Adams is saying, ‘When did the American Revolution begin? It didn’t begin at Lexington and Concord. It began maybe 15 years earlier when Americans changed their political culture, really.

Mohler: It began in the heart!

Magnet: When they changed their ideas and affections and their idea of obligation. When they changed their loyalies. And it really was because of men like William Livingston, even earlier than John Adams, had said, ‘Wait a minute. We have certain liberties.’ That was in the 1750’s that he was saying this. Both the laws of nature and nature’s God on the one hand, and the British constitution on the other hand guarantee us these, and nobody can mess with them with impunity or we will have the right to revolt.

Mohler: Mr. Magnet, in your book you actually make a point without drawing any attention to it. And I saw it come out in a way that surprised me, even though I knew many of these stories and thought I knew them quite well. You draw attention to something, but you don’t mention it explicitly, and that is this; many of these Founders had their formative political ideas shaped during the time when they weren’t men, they were boys and adolescents! It just strikes me when you consider the current social context with this extension of adolescence into the 20’s and some argue, into the 30’s.

These were young men who were making life and death decisions and framing huge political issues when they were too young to get married.

Magnet: Well and take Alexander Hamilton as an example. There he is, he is a penniless, illegitimate immigrant from the West Indies, who by an almost Dickensian set of fortunate circumstances ends up at King’s College, New York – later Columbia. And Britain imposes the Stamp Act. Then Lexington and Concord happens. So he’s still an undergraduate. What does he do? His own kind of student activism. He quits college, he joins the militia and then the army, he becomes one of the greatest artillery captains of the whole Continental army, comes to the attention of George Washington – by the time he’s 21, he’s George Washington’s principle aide, and as another one of George Washington’s generals said, he not only wrote the letters for Washington, but he got to know Washington’s mind so well that in a way he even thought for him.

George Washington would just throw this hint out, and Hamilton would write it out while he was 21 years old! Imagine!

Mohler: Well let me take you even younger than that! In your chapter on Livingston, you pointed out that he went to Yale as a 13-year old, and surrounded by the library there, as a 13-year old, began to revise John Locke in a way that served the Revolution!

Magnet: Isn’t it amazing? And even when he was younger than that, he spent a year living in the woods with his tutor, who was a Princeton clergyman – was a Yale clergymen – learning about the customs of the Indians. This was a man who had had an astonishing amount of experience even before he went to college.

Mohler: I want to talk about the idea of this ‘conservative revolution,’ because as you point out, this was a revolution with a very limited set of aims, which is why it ended up being so successful. These conservative revolutionaries wanted a society that would enable men and women to pursue their liberties, and in order to build fulfilling lives. They understood human beings as human beings in a way that the other two revolutions that we’ve mentioned, the French and the Russian, never did.

Magnet: Well, because, yes, the Founders did believe with Aristotle that man is a political animal, but they understood that he’s not just a political animal. One of the things that always touched me about the letters that Washington wrote is that he had such a vision of creating a world in which every American could live “under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” I love that vision, they had such a sense that there was a kind of domestic, relatively modest life, that people would make for themselves in their own families and in their own communities, and that’s where they would find their largest and most fulfilling meaning. This is something so different from what a man like Robespierre or Comrade Lenin would have thought of that it just takes the breath away.

One of the things I liked so much about including the houses of these men as part of the story is that the houses themselves are really quite modest. And they’re just made for domestic life. I mean, go to Mount Vernon, and there’s the parlor with Martha Washington’s granddaughter’s harpsichord in there, which was given back by one of her descendants who was guess who? Mrs. Robert E. Lee. And you can just have a vision of this company sitting in this little cozy living room, listening to Nelly Custis, and that’s what they were fighting for. They wanted a life like that. Same with Jefferson, another great lover of music. And he played the fiddle, and his daughter would play the piano or the harpsichord along with him. And they’d sing.

What a nice vision of life that was.

* * * * *

Mohler: The title of Myron Magnet’s new book is The Founders at Home. And the home, even the house, plays a major role of how he plays the story. That reminds me of the fact that that metaphor isn’t new. It was Jesus himself who spoke of the wise man building his house upon a rock. What we have is a recognition that we are indeed domestic creatures. And the house in which we live says a great deal about us one way or another, inevitably. Myron Magnet helps us to understand why we know these Founders far better than we might because we know them at home.

* * * * *

Mohler: It not only humanizes these Founders who are in many ways ‘marble men’ in terms of our historical memory, it also places them in a far healthier context in which it is clear that they enjoyed dining, company, their family, and they delighted in their children, even if their children vexed them at times. They enjoyed walking on their property. Here’s George Washington, the very day he dies, walking, choosing some trees for timber.

Magnet: To cut down, that’s right. He’s still sculpting the landscape. It’s the most amazing thing. No, they loved it. And they loved it so much that when Washington was on the battlefield, in lulls between the fighting he was fantasize about his wonderful house, and wonder about where he could plant honey locust trees. And where would holly trees plant well? And should he cut down this stand over there? It’s terribly touching.

It’s also interesting – you mentioned that I have a chapter about John Jay. Well, there really isn’t a biography of John Jay. And this chapter, I hope people will think, is about as good as they’re going to get of this extraordinary and virtuous man. And when he set out to build his house at the very northern edge of Westchester county, New York, he wanted just a plain farmhouse, like his neighbors. If you go up to the John Jay homestead – now it’s been much enlarged toward the back by generations of very successful descendents of John Jay – but from the front you can see that it is just a regular Federal farmhouse of the kind that you see hundreds and hundreds of whenever you drive through any state in New England, and all over New York. He said he didn’t want a seat, he wanted a farmhouse, and that’s what he got.

Mohler: But it is clear, and you helped to demonstrate this, that so many of these men – Jefferson, Washington, and to a lesser extent Madison, perhaps, and the Lee family – they understood themselves in this new nation as standing aside history. And they were clearly trying to make a statement about continuity with classical truths and even classical patterns of architecture. With Jefferson, all these pattern-books drawn back from Pelagio, and ancient architectural sources – they were clearly making a statement about continuity with a civilization they had brought with them.

Magnet: Oh yes. And Washington had his pattern-books too. And actually, we have the pattern book from which Hamilton took his house up in Harlem. It’s the most fascinating thing to see. And you know, it’s a simply beautiful house, and yes, it’s filled with all of these Classical allusions. And by the way, with biblical allusions! If you look at the ceiling of Mount Vernon’s new dining room, you see all of these sickles and pruning hooks. I like to think, ‘wow, here’s this warrior who has stucco-ed his swords into pruning hooks. And you know that when he was presiding over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he had a Philadelphia carpenter make the weathervane that was kind of the crowning touch on Mount Vernon. And what is it? A dove of peace with an olive branch in her mouth. So it’s a continuity not just with classical times, but with biblical times as well.

Mohler: You write of Washington, following Flexner, as the indispensable man. You demonstrate just how indispensable he was. As a matter of fact, I can’t help but read that with a providential understanding of history. It’s hard to imagine how one man, so well fitted for the times, could have been provided at just the right time.

But you also humanize him. So you point out that right to the end of his life, he’s designing new military uniforms for himself, because he loves to dress up in these uniforms.

Magnet: He loves clothes! I mean can you imagine, here is yes, the ‘marble man’ as you say – and he loves to dress up! We have a letter from him when he was about 18 years old or 17, when he’s designing a frock coat for himself. And up to the end of his life, he’s still wanting ‘tasty cockades’ for his hat, and wondering if he should have slashed cuffs or not on his uniforms. They were most human, most human people, and you can see it so much in their correspondence. One of the things – from so many touching letters – when Alexander Hamilton was killed in that terrible duel in 1804, John Jay, who desperately loved his wife, (who was William Livingston’s daughter) and had lost her at a very young age, wrote Hamilton’s father-in-law, who was his good friend, a letter of condolence. And he said, ‘You know, we all know the usual topics of condolence. So I’m not going to rehearse them here. I’m just going to hope that the only Giver of comfort may be with you.’

Mohler: They were men of such emotion.

Magnet: Oh, and Washington, the ‘marble man,’ his hands shook at touching moments. He cried when he said goodbye to all his officers at Sam Fraunces’ tavern down in lower Manhattan. I mean, it’s almost unbelievable. All these guys came up weeping real tears to exchange a hug and a kiss with him, and say goodbye. And he leaves the room, too overcome with emotion to speak. And what does he do on his way home to Mount Vernon? He stops off to call on Congress to hand them back the parchment commission which they handed him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army eight years earlier. And he hands it back with a voice trembling with emotion and shaking hands, but of course he’s doing something that is profoundly symbolic too, which is demonstrating the subservience of the military to the civil authority.

That George III of whom we both formed so low an opinion heard from the painter Benjamin West who was working in London and doing a lot of work for George III and his family that Washington was thinking of just giving up and going home after his presidency. And George III says, ‘You know what? If he does that, he would be the greatest man that ever lived.’ Well, he did.

And perhaps George III was right that one time.

Mohler: Well, we’ll give him that! I also want to point out that you humanize these men in others ways as well. One of my favorite passages from your book is where you’re talking about William Livingston and his wife Susannah, who were married for many years. And after 40 years of marriage, when she had gone through 13 pregnancies, he wrote “If I was to live to the age of Methuselah, I believe I should not forget a certain flower that I once saw in a certain garden. And however that flower may have since faded toward the evening of that day, I shall always remember how it bloomed in the morning, nor shall I ever love it the less.”

Magnet: Is that not beautiful?

Mohler: It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen a husband say to his wife!

And when you treat these men and discover so many things about them, it is really interesting to me that you bring it back to a domestic sphere. And you do so with the more than symbolic reality of the house. And I have visited at least five of the houses you describe. And I have found, just as you did, the sense that you are walking amongst men and their families who were so real, that you can see even in the way they stipulated with such detail the way that a rug was to be placed in a room that they were just as we are. They were concerned with making a life for themselves.

Magnet: You know, and that nice Livingston couple had famously beautiful daughters. And when they had retired to the house they had built in New Jersey, of course there was a steady stream of young men coming to call on the beautiful Livingston sisters. And who were the people who came to call on them? Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris. I mean, just imagine what the domestic life was like there.

Governor Morris writes such a lovely letter about Sally Livingston saying, “Oh how her cheeks bloom when she’s amidst her admirers. Which she will always have around her, unless the idea ever takes her to get into love.” Well, she did, and she married John Jay. And they lived almost happily ever after.

Mohler: In terms of John Jay, you mentioned that there’s not a very good biography of him; I really was so pleased to read your chapter on him. One of the things I most appreciated was that here you have one of the Founders who had a huge way to change his mind. And you show the adaptability of someone like John Jay to reality in a way that ideologues would never have been able to adjust.

For instance, when he comes to the conclusion that America’s future lies in what he doesn’t want to see take place, that is a cooperative agreement between the English speaking peoples; the United States and the Britain against whom it had won this revolution, he makes the change, exacts the treaty, and he comes back and delivers it.

Magnet: And, of course, defies all his instructions from Congress! Here we had the financial and military support from France. Without which we couldn’t have won the revolution. But you know, with classical American empiricism, John Jay is watching very carefully, and with classic, canny American understanding of human psychology, he sees that actually, what France is doing in helping America has nothing to do with their love for America, it has to do with their own geo-strategic ambitions in outsmarting Great Britain and becoming the preeminent global power. What they really wanted to do is keep America small, weak, hemmed in by hostile powers and utterly dependent on France. And as soon as he realizes this – and you know, the French are a very subtle people, so it took considerable penetration for him to figure it out – and even so wise a man as Benjamin Franklin doesn’t see it.

So he says, ‘Okay, if this is what they want to do, I’m not letting them get away with it. And he then proceeded to make a treaty with Britain, which made our borders so much more expansive than the French ever dreamed we could get. He, at that particular moment of the treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, he was the indispensable man.

Mohler: You know I had to smile when I considered the politics of what was taking place when he and his French interlocutor were raising the issue of where the western border of the United States was, and they agreed to come back and share their maps, and the French map was – let’s just say very much to the French advantage. It would have been a different nation.

Magnet: There wouldn’t have been a Midwest.

Mohler: And the people in the United States today often just take, well, I guess this comes naturally- take for granted what we are as a nation without understanding either the men or the ideas that brought it about. But you are a very contemporary thinker after all and I’m a devotee, an admiring reader of The City Journal, have been for many years


Magnet: O, thank you.

Mohler: And so you have a very contemporary interest. So take us from the Founders to today and what is it that we are in grave danger of failing to understand that would be essential for us to know what America must be now as well as then.

Magnet: Well, let me start with a really small thing. Madison said, “if you ever see the legislators passing laws for the citizens from which they exempt themselves, you will know that you are living in anything but a democracy.” Well, we’ve lived to see it. These were guys who were so suspicious of human nature’s propensity for, I mean for… they understood long before Lord Acton was born, that power tends to corrupt and so they did not wish to put very much power in the hands of any government whatsoever. They wanted a small government; powerful enough to protect them form outside aggression from the English, as it happened in those first two times. But that was it. They didn’t want the government to do anything else for them. So when the Constitutional Convention, for example, Madison wanted to give the government the power to build canals and highways and his fellow members of the Convention said, “that’s gonna cost too much money, we don’t wanna to that. If states wanna build highways, they can do it. But, no we’re not doing it.” And so, sure enough, Madison, on his last day as President in 1817, vetoed a bill that was going to have the federal government build roads and canal and said, “it’s not that I don’t think they’re important, but if you want the federal government to build roads and canals, pass a constitutional amendment.” And the government is a government of limited and enumerated powers. Now he said, “you can set about just where exactly the limits are and you can argue just about what is necessary and proper to carry into a effect those nineteen limited and enumerated powers set forth in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution.” And you know, they had very ferocious arguments about that, you know Hamilton and Madison between them, from very early on. “But the one thing you cannot do,” said Madison, “is convert a limited government into an unlimited government.” And when you have a President who comes along and says, “I’m gonna take over a sixth of the economy,” and a majority in Congress, a bare majority in Congress that says, “fine, you can do this and you can write a bill and we’re not even gonna read it and we’re just gonna ram it through by a bare majority, and incidentally this isn’t a tax,” and then you have a Supreme Court, “Well, wait a minute, it is a constitutional law because it is a tax, and the Congress has the power to tax,” and then the President by decree says, “wait a minute, this bill doesn’t’ work because we’ve made it so sloppily so I’m gonna change things by edict.” Madison, Hamilton, Washington, John Jay, Jefferson, they would be spinning in their graves over this; this giant dictatorial government which does everything by rule-making-fiats rather than laws made by the people’s selected representatives; that is not what the founder had in mind and it’s not the government they created.

Mohler: Your newest book, The Founders at Home, has received a very warm reception in the publishing world amongst historians and I certainly want to commend it, but It leads me to ask you, because I’ve enjoyed so many things you’ve written in the past; What’s next?

Magnet: You know, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I never expected to write this book. I went to Monticello just because my wife said, “c’mon, you’re interested in architecture and you love the Founding Fathers and we’ve never seen Monticello, and Mount Vernon, and Montpelier; and don’t you think it’s time we did it?” And I said, “Well, that sounds kind of like fun.” And we went down there and I walked into Monticello and it was like I walked into Mr. Jefferson’s mind…

Mohler: Yes, I love the feeing…
Magnet: I knew him and I thought, “I have to write about this, I have to write about this.” And then I played this tiny role in the restoration of Hamilton Grange which is just up the street from where I live in New York and I was trying to raise money for the restoration and went to see one of my tycoon friends who said, “sure, I’ll help out, but what you could do is write about it and publicize it.” So I wrote another piece about a founder as his home and I thought, “gee, here’s two of them, I guess there’s a book and it’s a book that will answer a question which has been bothering me for a very long time which is: Where did we start from and how did we get from there to here?”

Mohler: Well, I found the book absolutely fascinating and, Mr. Magnet, the only thing I would suggest is that your work isn’t complete and your journey isn’t finished until you go see Homewood in Baltimore, the home of Charles Carroll, you’ll enjoy that one too.

Magnet: Yes sir.

Mohler: Well, God bless you, sir. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.


Magnet: Thank you, sir. It is such a pleasure.

Mohler: Myron Magnet’s new book, The Founders at Home, will be of interest to anyone who is interested in the American founding era, in the intellectual moment of the eighteenth century, and in the men who largely shaped that story in terms of serving as those who would found the American experiment in ordered liberty. But they weren’t just men, they were men and women, husbands and wives, they were sons and daughters, and the domestic context of the American founding era is something that has received much too little attention and that’s why Myron Magnet’s book is not only so interesting, but so important. It arrives at a time when many Americans are thinking in an entirely new way about the domestic realities of our own time and yet, here we have a very subtle, but ever clear affirmation of the importance of family, of husbands and wives and their children, of the establishments of families and the nurturing of those relationships, of the joys these founders had in their own homes with their wives and their children, and, as is the case in every family, there were vexations and joys mixed together. There were hopes and dreams, there were moments of joy and there were also moments of great sadness as was especially the factor in this founding era. There were so many children who did not live to adulthood or even to adolescence.

There are so many issues that Myron Magnet brings to our attention as I enjoyed raising in conversation with him. The fact that so may of these founders had their founding philosophies and convictions arise in their youth, indeed in their boyhoods and in their adolescence. You have William Livingston going to Yale at age 13 and revising John Locke’s understanding of liberty. You have George Washington losing his father at age 11, later remembering it even it as age 10, as Magnet says, “demonstrating just how traumatic the loss of his father was to young George Washington.” You have George Washington attaching himself to his older brother, his brother becoming as a surrogate father to him, and then you have George Washington coming into his own at a very young age. First of all as a surveyor, and then as a great army leader, eventually a great officer and a general.

You also have a frank depiction in this book, The Founders at Home, of the relationships between and among these Founders. After all, he separates the book into those who were the fire-brands and the Federalists and the Republicans, and to mention the Federalists and the Republicans is to mention two alternative understandings of how the American experiment in ordered liberty was to be organized. He also points to the reality of George Washington, that indispensable man who was President, found it far easier to demonstrate what the presidency was than to actually bring together his own warring cabinet over so many of the domestic issues of the day. Politics is a constant in terms of American life. Aristotle was right about life, we are political animals, but we are more than that and Myron Magnet helps us to understand why we are more than that and we are the beneficiaries of the vision that he helps us to see in his book, The Founders at Home: The Building of America 1735-1817.

I think there’s another issue that bears our attention here. So many academic historians have looked at the same people, looked at the same time, looked at the same founding era of the United States and seen less, less than Myron Magnet saw in looking at this domestic perspective into their lives. That is not to depreciate the academic study of history. It is to say that sometimes, it takes someone outside the guild to see questions that have not been asked and to bring something as subtle as this domestic perspective to our understanding of the founders. As we understand worldviews of crucial importance, and in the telling of this story, we see the worldviews of these crucial individuals on the world scene and in our national history come together, and we are the beneficiaries of the revolution they led, the revolution they won, the revolution they shaped, and the revolution, as Adams said, “was borne in the heart long before it was won on the battlefield.”

Well, like every good book, The Founders at Home continues a conversation. It’s a conversation I’ve enjoyed having with its author, Myron Magnet. It’s a conversation I hope will continue as you think about these issues on your own and as future authors and historians decide to come back to this era to consider some of the same questions and to tell us even more.

Many thanks to my guest, Myron Magnet, for thinking with me today. Before I close I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on June 23 to 26 or June 30 through July the 3rd for the 2014 D3 Youth Conference. Designed to develop student’s understanding of leadership, worldview, and missions, D3 will set the foundation for discipleship and will forge friendships of likeminded Christian young people. For more information, go to

Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public, until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.



Interview Transcript

Myron Magnet was the editor of City Journal from 1994 through 2006, and he is now the magazine’s editor-at-large. A former member of the board of editors of Fortune magazine, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008. Magnet has written about a wide variety of topics, from American society and social policy, economics, and corporate management to intellectual history, literature, architecture, and the American Founding. His latest book is “The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817.”