Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin [Buy Now]
By Bill Kauffman
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 225 pages, $25
The common thread running through Bill Kauffman's work is his admiration for the local in the face of the monolithic American empire.
This, of course, makes Kauffman by definition a champion of the lost cause, and for that reason alone, he is one of the most interesting writers on the American scene today.
In his newest book, Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin, Kauffman is treading in unfamilar waters. While the trials and tribulations of the Republic's most eccentric anti-Federalist are well within Kauffman's purview, this is his first book-length biography, something that could make even the most adoring fans skeptical.
But if you enter a skeptic, you'll leave a firm believer in Kauffman's versatility.
Maintaining the usual wit of his previous offerings, Kauffman treats us to a barrage of quips and insights we've come to expect from the folksy patriot of Batavia, New York — all the while keeping an eye on the seriousness of the project at hand.
Though the book is primarily a biography of the early American political figure, it doubles as a spirited defense of those who fought against Constitutional ratification in Philadelphia.
As Kauffman aptly notes, the Founders are often revered as the designers of a "federal compact," wary of the dangers of big government tyranny.
In fact, it was the "anti-Federalists" who were the true advocates of self-government, and Martin was their most spirited proponent.
One of the implied theses of the book is that history is written by the winners, and we are all worse off for it. Kauffman is at his best noting Martin's unfair treatment by Constitutional scholars and historians, who have for the most part regarded him as "the town drunk, the class bore, the motormouth."
Kauffman thoroughly debunks this as obtuse obstructionism. In fact, Martin was a relatively modest participant at the Constitutional Convention. His attachment to the Articles of Confederation was predicated on a reverence for local government as well as the illegality of the usurpation of power promoted by Hamilton, Madison and the gang.
Martin, a lawyer by trade, New Jerseyian by birth, and Marylander of the heart, quickly emerges as not only a victim of "consensus history" but indeed as a prophet of things to come.
To Martin, the Virginia Plan was a complete and total betrayal of the public trust, allowing for a national government that was unimaginable in scope.
The end result would be the domination of the small by the large, an empire at home and abroad and a national apparatus with its nose poking into everyone's business.
As Kauffman notes: "Martin foresaw a national state that, equipped for aggressive war, would wage aggressive war."
It's hard to see where Martin was wrong on that count.
Aside from the specifics on Martin (and they are aplenty), all of the intricacies one would expect from Constitutional scholarship are here. Kauffman is familiar with the arguments about the role of land speculation in ratification that is rare in pop history text. His appraisal of the complex role of the "peculiar institution" (i.e., slavery) is more honest than most.
No doubt a book like this is a tall order. Though Kauffman is an admirer of Martin, he acknowledges that Martin is "alternately endearing and infuriating." To make matters more difficult, the anti-heros of the story are well-respected figures like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, whom Kauffman joyfully points out was a "West Indian bastard," with no loyalty to hearth or home.
And yet Kauffman succeeds as he so often does, hurdling the mountainous myths of history with ease, and painting a sympathetic portrait of cause lost — but now at last — not forgotten.