'The Founders at Home'

THE FOUNDERS AT HOME: The Building of America, 1735-1817. By Myron Magnet. Norton. 402 pages. $35.

There is something thematically off about this otherwise fine book describing the process by which several major figures of early American history arrived at the political thought upon which our country was founded.

The primary problem is the book's title: "Founders at Home" conjures up pleasant pictures of these individuals meandering around their estates in casual clothing, puttering through their gardens and lingering at table with adoring wives and children.

Not a bit of it. Myron Magnet captures his subjects at some of the most active portions of their careers: George Washington in the saddle through eight arduous years of war; John Jay racing back and forth between Britain and France to produce the diplomatic miracle that satisfactorily severed us from one without making us too dependent on the other; Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton madly scribbling down the economic theories that would place the U.S. on a solid financial footing for much of its future.

Only James Madison comes off as a homebody, spending months - literally - holed up at Montpelier studying the histories of confederacies from ancient Greece to modern Switzerland as preparation for his role as Father of the Constitution.

Magnet also attempts to portray each person's house as a kind of metaphor for its occupant's life, philosophy or conflicts therein. This feels like a stretch a good bit of the time, though it probably works best when he uses Jefferson's light-filled Monticello as a symbol of its master's brilliant mind, and the covered passages at the rear where slaves moved in and out as a symbol of the "confused, darker reality" of his relationship with Sally Hemings.

In general, though, the sections of the book dealing with the homes of the founders, interesting though they can be at times, might have been eliminated entirely, making what remains more powerful.

And powerful it is. Magnet has included William Livingston, editor-in-chief of the "The Independent Reflector" (which disseminated throughout the Colonies the "world-shaking Lockean ideas of government") the Lee family (who provide "a luminous vantage point onto the workings of the British empire in the New World, how it rose and why it exploded"), Washington, Jay, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison, in a series of biographies that, together, explain why the American Revolution succeeded when others failed.

(Which leads to another niggling question. If Magnet is designating Livingstons and Lees as "founders," where is John Adams? Was he left out because his home, reflective as it was of its owner's famously no-nonsense, straight-talking manner, was little more than a simple saltbox?)

His exceedingly well-written and richly documented narrative builds excitement like the best of tales told around a campfire. In order to tell his story, Magnet takes on the rather hefty task of following the long, sometimes tortuous development of nation-building concepts that made our country unique.

War often was the best teacher. For example, after his experiences in the French and Indian War, Washington came away with the notion that the Colonies could most effectively defend themselves from further threats by forming a union. He also evolved into a believer in executive branch "energy" and the need men have for praise and respect from superiors, something he gradually realized he would never get from the British, no matter how stellar his service to the crown.

Madison, who had been a defender of states' rights, learned from the War of 1812 the importance of maintaining a well-trained standing army, a permanent navy and the establishment of taxes and tariffs to pay for them.

Hamilton championed commercial enterprise as a key component of American power in the world, an idea whose seed lay in his days as a teenage clerk in the West Indies outpost of a New York trading firm.

Magnet masterfully conveys the often halting steps the founders took as they moved toward the creation of our democracy by tapping lavishly into their own recorded words, a reminder both of what very good writers some of them were, and how lucky we were as a nation to have been born in the high noon of the Enlightenment.

Magnet is editor at large of the City Journal and author of "The Dream and the Nightmare" and "Dickens and the Social Order." With "The Founders at Home," he has deepened our understanding of the worldview of our most esteemed political ancestors. A discussion of how and why their homes were constructed may have been more appropriately handled in another volume.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.