The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution

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“It is not only the cause, but our manner of conducting it, that will establish character.”
—John Dickinson, 1773
A nation at war and widespread mistrust of the mil­itary. A financial crash and an endless economic crisis. A Congress so divided it barely functioned. Bitter partisan disputes over everything from taxa­tion and the ...
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The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution

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“It is not only the cause, but our manner of conducting it, that will establish character.”
—John Dickinson, 1773
A nation at war and widespread mistrust of the mil­itary. A financial crash and an endless economic crisis. A Congress so divided it barely functioned. Bitter partisan disputes over everything from taxa­tion and the distribution of wealth to the role of banks and corporations in society. Welcome to the world of the Founding Fathers.
According to most narratives of the American Revolution, the founders were united in their quest for independence and steadfast in their efforts to create a stable, effective government. But the birth of our republic was far more complicated than many realize. The Revolution was nearly derailed by extremists who wanted to do too much, too quickly and who refused to rest until they had remade American society. If not for a small circle of conservatives who kept radicalism in check and promoted capitalism, a strong military, and the preservation of tradition, our country would be vastly different today.
In the first book to chronicle the critical role these men played in securing our freedom, David Lefer provides an insightful and gripping account of the birth of modern American conservatism and its impact on the earliest days of our nation.
Among these founding conservatives were men like John Dickinson, who joined George Washington’s troops in a battle against the British on July 4, 1776, and that same week drafted the Articles of Confederation; James Wilson, a staunch free-market capitalist who defended his home against a mob of radicals demanding price controls and in the process averted a bloody American equivalent to Bastille Day; Silas Deane, who mixed patriotism with profit seeking while petitioning France to aid America; and Robert Morris, who financed the American Revolution and founded the first bank and the first modern multinational corporation in the United States.
Drawing on years of archival research, Lefer shows how these and other determined founders cham­pioned American freedom while staying faithful to their ideals. In the process, they not only helped defeat the British but also laid the groundwork for American capitalism to thrive.
The Founding Conservatives is an intellectual adven­ture story, full of gunfights and big ideas. It is also an extraordinary reminder of the punishing battles our predecessors fought to create and maintain the free and prosperous nation we know today.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The American Revolution’s more conservative members get a second look in this solid new history. Lefer, a professor of engineering at N.Y.U.’s Polytechnic University, argues that American conservatism began not with the writings of Irish politician Edmund Burke, but with a handful of revolutionaries who’ve been overshadowed by their better-known founding brothers. The author focuses heavily on James Dickinson, whom Voltaire dubbed the “American Cicero” for his Farmer’s Letters newspaper column in The Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser, which in the 1760s rallied support against British taxes by encouraging colonists to boycott goods from England and publicly protest. Lefer also profiles Silas Deane, America’s first representative to France; Philip Schuyler, a major general who fought against the British; and Robert Morris, the merchant who helped fund the revolution. Again and again, the author emphasizes the moderation of his subjects (“The only time Dickinson seemed to lack moderation was when he was extolling its virtues”) as opposed to the “radicals” agitating for grander changes. Lefer does a great service by shedding new light on these “other” revolutionaries. But even though he acknowledges the dissimilarities between these men, as well as the fact that they did not form a political party, his modern labeling of them as “conservatives” feels forced, and it oversimplifies the complexities of the political discourse that was raging in the colonies. Agent: Meg Thompson, Einstein Thompson Agency. (June)
From the Publisher
“David Lefer’s narrative is readable, engrossing, and fair-minded, and it presents an aspect of America’s origins that enriches our understanding of the nation’s past and of its present.”
“David Lefer has done a wonderful service by focusing attention on the conservatives among our founders, such as John Dickinson. In doing so, he shows that American conservatism has deep historical roots and that some of today’s ideological disputes were being waged in the early days of our republic. The lessons he draws are relevant not just to conservatives but to all Americans.”
—WALTER ISAACSON, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin
“David Lefer’s The Founding Conservatives is a tirelessly researched and superbly writ­ten account of how America’s first conservatives endowed our revolution with ballast and vision, often in surprising ways that resonate to this day. A timely reminder that extremism in the defense of liberty is no virtue, moderation in the pursuit of justice no vice.”
—KEVIN BAKER, author of America: The Story of Us
“David Lefer has done a civic service in unearthing a largely forgotten group of revolutionary patriots who not only played key roles in achieving American inde­pendence but, in advance of Burke and the French Revolution, laid the groundwork for a distinctively New World version of conservatism.”
—FRED SIEGEL, author of The Prince of the City; senior fellow, Manhattan Institute
“This lively, erudite book frees the founders from currently popular anachronistic categorizations and in the process provides a fresh new perspective on American conservatism. That there is something in this book to annoy just about everyone is its great and inestimable virtue.”
—SUSAN JACOBY, author of Freethinkers
“As a historian, David Lefer is a terrific storyteller. The Founding Conservatives takes us on a fun and unique ride through the birth of the United States while building a case for the real DNA of American conservatism.”
—KEVIN MANEY, author of The Maverick and His Machine

“A compelling argument for a new appreciation of America’s founding conservatives. Lefer shows how these men, far from obstructing change or opposing the Revolution, sought to channel and direct our nation’s develop­ment so it could succeed for centuries to come. This book reminds us that conservatives have never been the ‘party of no’ but rather the voice of reason and an idealism tempered by the practical.”
—LARRY SCHWEIKART, coauthor of A Patriot’s History of the Modern World, vols. 1 and 2

Kirkus Reviews
Offering a corrective to traditional accounts depicting united American revolutionaries, this valuable revisionist assessment profiles the men who struggled against the nascent nation's more radical elements. Lefer (Innovation and Technology/New York University Polytechnic Institute; co-author, They Made America, 2004) does not claim to be writing an all-encompassing history. He focuses on such early conservatives as Robert Morris, who almost single-handedly bankrolled the revolutionary army, and Silas Deane, who, with help from playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, secretly secured lifesaving aid from the French government. Among the others given credit for saving the American Revolution from its excesses are John Dickinson, a voice of calm in the rush to independence and an author of the Articles of Confederation, and John and Edward Rutledge, leading advocates for the South's particular concerns. The conservatives did their best to delay armed conflict with Great Britain, knowing it was premature; the colonies were not united and had no foreign allies. In this book, the glorious war for independence of elementary school textbooks is more disastrous than glorious. In Lefer's retelling, no one was in charge, there was no money, price regulation was destroying the social fabric, and American cities were essentially ruled by mobs. Moving through the desperate days of war to peace and the writing of the Constitution, Lefer reminds us that, while James Madison authored the initial draft, conservatives Dickinson, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris finished the document. The author acknowledges that many of the remarkable men who gave their energy, intelligence and wealth to the young nation did not retain power; clinging to their elitist ways, they ignored the key lesson of the Revolution: adapt to change or risk irrelevance. Also, somewhat ironically, several of these staunch supporters of market capitalism suffered severe financial losses. Groundbreaking history not to be missed--a book to quote and to keep, as the material is rich enough to merit rereading.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595231093
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/27/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 512,084
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David Lefer is a professor at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, where he directs the Innovation and Technology Forum. Previously a journalist, he worked for the New York Daily News, for the China News in Taiwan, and as a coproducer of the PBS talk show The Digital Age. He collabo­rated with Sir Harold Evans in the research and writing of They Made America, a bestselling history of American innovation.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2013

    This is history at its best. With great insight, David Lefer bri

    This is history at its best. With great insight, David Lefer brings to life what he calls the "unsung heroes" of the American Revolution, their political philosophy and personalities. These are the men who are almost footnotes in other histories -- John Dickinson, Silas Deane, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, Philip Schuyler, John and Edward Rutledge, James Wilson and others -- names from American History classes but about whom we never knew much. There is so much in this book -- uniquely American development of conservatism and capitalism, the disagreements, the uncertainty, and sometimes the violence, etc. The combination of Lefer's thorough research, deep insights and lively writing (some have called it elegant) makes this an informative and fun book to read.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2014

    This is an aspect of the American revolution that I didn't know

    This is an aspect of the American revolution that I didn't know about, and wasn't even aware of in the slightest. However, I now feel like a gap in my knowledge has been filled. Lefer's prose is precise, provocative and pointed, and humorous at the right times. A must read for anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of the roots of the USA.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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