An Interview with Richard Brookhiser

Richard Brookhiser is an author I admire a great deal. His insightful and elegant “moral biographies” are a great read and full of great history. Trust me, as someone who has spent some time in graduate school, this is a rare quality. Brookhiser is also a Senior Editor of National Review. If I remember correctly he was an intern at NR at a very young age and has been there practically ever since. Mr. Brookhiser is also a columnist for the The New York Observer and his writings have appeared in “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic Monthly,” and “The New York Times.” If you think you have him pegged read his interesting testimony before Congress on the use of medical marijuana.

Brookhiser’s most recent book is Gentleman Revolutionary : Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, an engaging biography of largely unknown founding father. In addition to this book, he has written several others including “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington,” “Alexander Hamilton, American,” and “America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918.”

I thought this would be a great time to ask Mr. Brookhiser a few questions and he graciously agreed. I will post a review of the book soon but let me peak your interest with some Q&A.


Q: Why is Gouverneur Morris a largely unknown historical figure?

A: He does not fit our template for a Founding Father. He would do his public duties well, but he enjoyed his private life too much.

Q: What skills or attributes did Morris have that made him such an excellent
candidate to write/polish the language of the Constitution?

Morris was a sparkling writer and a brilliant speaker. He made a great impression at the Philadelphia Convention, where he spoke more than any other delegate even though he missed the whole month of June, so when the Committee of Style had to pick a draftsman, he was an obvious choice.

Q: Morris had a wooden leg and is hardly handsome in the traditional sense. What made him attractive to the opposite sex?

A: He was smart, funny and rich, which never hurts. He also listened to his women friends. When I told a male friend that, he urged me not to write that down-it would raise the bar too high for the rest of us.

Q: Morris witnessed the American and French revolutions up close. What do you think he perceived as the crucial difference between the two?
Similarities?

The great difference was that Americans had a century’s experience of self-rule in their colonial governments (Morris’s father, unlce and grandfather had all been colonial-era politicians.) Frenchmen, living under absolutism, had none. The French, he wrote, “want an American constitution⿦without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support” it.
He saw no similarities, apart from the fortuitous reappearance of several figures in both revolutions-Lafayette, Thomas Paine.

Q: We tend to view ugly partisanship or personal attacks as a modern
phenomenon but New York politics were rather rough and tumble in Morris’
day. How would you compare the political battles then to current
controversies?

The heights of controversy were higher, the depths were lower. We don’t write Federalist Papers now, nor do we write merry racist poems about Sally Hemings.

Q: When “The Rake” did finally settle down it was not without controversy.
How would you describe his relationship with the Randolph clan?

The Randolphs were a proud, prominent and slightly crazy Virginia clan, and Morris fell afoul of their internal divisions. Nancy, whom he married, he loved dearly. Her cousin John, who accused her of being a prostitute and a double murdress, was more difficult to deal with.

Q: What is in your mind the legacy of Morris?

The Preamble of the Constituion, especially the words “We the People,” which prophetically shift power from the states to the people. Lincoln would begin the Gettysburg Address by recalling the Declaration-“the proposition that all men are created equal.” He ended it by recalling the Preamble-“that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Q: As one who writes “popular biographies”, how important is non-academic history in the US? What impact do you think it has on culture, etc.?

There is a great hunger for history that teaching and our own civic rituals hardly satisfy. Popular books take up the slack. Witness David McCullough’s best-sellers.

Q: What led you to begin writing on the lives of American founders? What were you hoping to accomplish in writing these works?

I began with Washington, following an interest that had awakened in college, and then was led on to the others. I want my readers to understand and admire great men.

Q: What authors/writers inspired you?

Garry Wills taught a course at Yale my freshman year on Thomas Jefferson, which also included quite a bit of Washington. That was the beginning.

Q: Besides writing critical acclaimed books you are also a journalist. As a
Senior Editor at National Review what is it like to write for the New York
Observer
?

The Observer is like four journals of opinion in one, plus bright coverage of New York. It is a delight to appear there. Who else carries Hilton Kramer and Simon Doonan?

Q: I have to ask: Do you read blogs (besides The Corner)? Any in particular?

I read The Daily Dish and Instapundit. After 9/11 I read Debka until I figured out how it works. Half of it is stuff that Israeli intelligence found interesting twenty four hours ago. The rest is stuff that made some Israeli intelligence agent say, “Why are you putting this crap on my desk? Give it to Debka.”

Q: One last question: Could you explain again why you drive a 1977 Camero?

It belonged to my mother-in-law. It has a tiny trunk, it doesn’t corner well, and it’s worthless in snow. But it loves hills and straightaways. I also like the 265 air conditioning–two open windows, going 65 mph.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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1 Comment

  • That was a decent Q&A. When writing such a biography does one distinguish all the facts or consider some exaggeration?

    The new layout looks good btw. Better use of blog real estate.

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