I learned to read by devouring biographies. The first dog-earing sessions I remember included Meet George Washington by Joan Heilbroner and Meet Thomas Jefferson by Marvin Barrett. The founding period seemed larger than life to me, and I was fascinated by the leaders who acted in a moment of change and gave substance to the hopes of a nation. As I grew, The Federalist Papers replaced Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s novels of the First Ladies, but my fascination with the era never waned.
The calm and idyllic young nation of children’s stories, however, does not reflect the true complexity of the early national era. The Virginia Dynasty presidents enjoyed a consensus about a number of subjects, but they also disagreed about key issues and made difficult decisions with important repercussions for the nation. These early debates illustrate fundamental tensions in U.S. political thought. This book investigates the issues of the time and the positions each president took regarding them. The introduction at the beginning of the book offers an overview of the men, their era, and the questions they faced. The timeline helps to anchor the topics in a concrete chronology. Each chapter, which includes its own introduction, further explores the vital, contested issues of a president’s administration. These discussions, organized chronologically, provide context for the debates and opposing primary sources that allow the historical actors to speak for themselves. I hope my introductions and analyses make the original documents interesting and accessible to students and other readers. May the questions raised, along with the primary sources and suggestions for further reading offered here, guide interested individuals to new and fruitful avenues of research.
My thanks go to Mark Byrnes for inviting me to participate in this