We all claim to be patriots these days, but my guess is that we hardly know what it means to be one. As the glorious Fourth of July rolls around this year, I will be filled with a thankful heart for at least one of the Founding Fathers of our country, flying our flag and lighting a few more sparklers in his honor.
What we all take for granted is far removed from what actually happened. As we move into a fall presidential election, it is a good idea to be aware that slanderous politics started years ago, hasn’t changed much and won’t anytime soon.
I have just read “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, found in our biography collection. Beautifully researched, it is staggering in its readability as a portrait of a humble, illegitimate immigrant from the West Indies and his creation of — well — just the government of the United States, its strong banks, a sound financial system and manufacturing — to make us independent of England after the revolution.
It wasn’t easy. Early on, he partnered with James Madison and others who ultimately turned against him when he became the powerful secretary of the treasury and a member of the president’s three-man cabinet. We see George Washington as an elitist, slow to act and careful of his presidency; Madison, convinced wrongly that Hamilton wanted to turn our country into a monarchy; and a surprisingly deceitful and cowardly Thomas Jefferson who used others to undermine the Federalist Party idea of a powerful, centralized government because he wanted our country to be a loosely connected system of agrarian states full of untaxed farmers, planters and landowners.
I read Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” last year, so I thought I knew a thing or two about him. I now know more. In spite of a few lapses in judgment and a man with enemies galore, Hamilton was a brilliant thinker, writer and speaker to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude.
It is not surprising to me that the Broadway musical “Hamilton” won 11 Tony awards in June, as it’s such a great story. The library not only has “Hamilton: The Revolution: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical,” but also “Hamilton — The Original Broadway Cast Recording” for you to check out and enjoy.
My responsibilities here at the library include selecting books for our gardening collection. One of the latest is “All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses: How the White House Grounds have grown with America” by Marta McDowell, a gifted garden historian. This is just a delightful dig through our “first garden” as she plots its history from the beginning, sort of like visiting a garden with someone who knows it well.
Anecdotes tell us that Washington was a plant hound and a seed keeper, jumping into a carriage with John Adams for trips to the best plant nursery in Philadelphia; that the last cow to graze on the White House lawn (1912) was named Pauline Wayne; and that Herbert Hoover wanted “the help” to seem invisible, so they hid behind hedges as he passed by.
Modern gardeners have to deal with atypical problems, such as helicopter winds burning the lawn and the upshot of hosting 1,000 guests at a time. You don’t have to be a garden fan to appreciate this charmingly illustrated and entertaining book. McDowell gives all of the White House gardeners their due in a complete listing, which is a nice nod to their immense contribution.
We can learn a lot about our country’s history without having to read history books. Biographies, music, films and even gardening books tell us so much, producing very worthwhile entertainment.