In the lead-up to this spring’s release of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s book “The Courage to Be Free,” a funny thing happened on the internet: His first book, published in 2011 before his political career began, disappeared.
Fortunately, The Washington Post purchased a digital copy last summer, in anticipation that it may someday become more relevant. Now, with DeSantis (R) expected to officially declare his bid for the presidency this week, that time has come.
“Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” in title, cover and content, is essentially a troll of former president Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” which recounted Obama’s upbringing and young adulthood before he entered Harvard Law School.
In his book, DeSantis, who has moved to stop history lessons in Florida that might make students uncomfortable and who attacked an AP African American Studies course he said “lacks educational value,” dismisses slavery as a “personal flaw” of the Founding Fathers, irrelevant to the really important stuff: context-free, cherry-picked quotes from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
His writing is coherent, pretty lively and includes — angels and harps! — footnotes to his sourcing. This alone makes it better than the vast majority of politicians’ attempts at writing history. And though DeSantis aligned himself with the tea party movement when he wrote the book, he does not subscribe to its conspiracy theories claiming Obama was a secret Muslim or born in Kenya. He also does not think “death panels” are real — though “concerns about them are not foolhardy,” he writes.
But DeSantis’s thesis is twofold: that Obama was conducting a dangerous power grab, and that the Founding Fathers would have been appalled if they were still alive to see it.
According to DeSantis, evidence of Obama’s power grab includes the auto industry bailout, the 2009 stimulus package and Obamacare. The president’s anti-American principles, DeSantis alleges, come from the usual boogeymen — activist-writer Saul Alinsky, formerly incarcerated professor Bill Ayers, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — plus poet Frank Marshall Davis and the father who abandoned Obama when he was 2. DeSantis then writes a laundry list of bad things these men once said and pins them onto Obama.
If that seems like a bit of a stretch, the balance of the book is devoted to performing a similar maneuver on the Founding Fathers, glomming DeSantis’s loathing for the 44th president onto quotes from Madison and Hamilton. Other Founders are mentioned only in passing and only so far as they can be made to support DeSantis’s argument, with one exception: a late chapter about George Washington.
Slavery ‘a fact of life’
Any history book about the Founders must acknowledge that many of them were enslavers, and DeSantis gets to it in the introduction with a whiff.
“Slavery,” he writes, “had been a fact of life throughout human history.” It’s a variation on the false argument that “people didn’t know it was wrong back then.” In any case, the form of slavery practiced in the early republic — lifelong, inherited, race-based, chattel slavery — was particularly severe and relatively new, as far as human history goes.
Some of the Founding Fathers, such as Gouverneur Morris and Benjamin Franklin, opposed slavery anyway, DeSantis writes. True enough, though he hardly mentions either man again until the conclusion of the book, when he repeats that some of the Founding Fathers opposed slavery. It’s as if Morris and Franklin have nothing to offer DeSantis by way of writing, philosophy or the “First Principles” of his book’s title (read: limited government) and are simply useful as permission slips to skip the yucky parts.
DeSantis concludes his brief discussion of slavery with: “Though it was not immediately abolished, slavery was doomed to fail in a nation whose Constitution embodied such philosophical truths” as liberty. Many of the Founders believed in the inevitability of slavery’s gradual end, but anyone today capable of typing “cotton gin” should know that isn’t what happened. By the time of the Civil War, fully eight decades after the revolution, American slavery was bigger, crueller, more entrenched and more profitable than ever.
Cherry-picking to bash Obama
It would be impossible (or at least brain-meltingly boring) to run down every single quote in DeSantis’s book and see whether he gave it proper context. But, for those The Post reviewed, it can safely be said that he did not.
One example: DeSantis seethes in Chapter 9 about Obama urging young people to aim for a life of public service instead of pursuing “big money” and a “fancy enough car.” “This negative view of financial success is yet another instance of Obama not being in tune with the Framers,” he concludes, splicing in bits of Hamilton quotes, not even full sentences, about Americans’ “industrious habits” and “pursuits of gain.”
The phrases come from Federalist No. 8, which is about preventing conflicts between states. In its full context, Hamilton is exploring the pitfalls of keeping a standing army: “The industrious habits of the people of the present day, absorbed in the pursuits of gain, and devoted to the improvements of agriculture and commerce, are incompatible with the condition of a nation of soldiers, which was the true condition of the people of those [previous] republics.”
DeSantis also seems here to diminish his own life of public service. The U.S. Navy has been his employer; since he published the book, he’s been employed by Congress and the state of Florida.
DeSantis devotes a chunk of his book to the sacredness of property rights and Obama’s alleged disrespect for them (regulations on credit card companies, the individual mandate), but in doing so, he commits a much bigger cherry-picking blunder on slavery. He describes an elderly James Madison heroically lifting his creaky bones from retirement to speak at Virginia’s 1829 Constitutional Convention. There, DeSantis recounts, Madison “advised the delegates that ‘these natural rights cannot be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property, when acquired, a right to protection, a social right.’”
Madison, though, was not talking about the deed to your house or an unfair tax. The 1829 convention was called because, in Virginia, only White men who owned property were allowed to vote, and a bunch of White men who didn’t own property wanted to vote, too. Madison didn’t want such men to have the right to take away his slaves or make slavery less profitable.
See for yourself. Here is Madison, two paragraphs after the quote DeSantis cites:
“To come more nearly to the subject before the Committee, viz. that peculiar feature in our Community which calls for a peculiar provision, in the basis of our Government, I mean the colored part of our population; It is apprehended, if the power of the Commonwealth shall be in the hands of a Majority who have no interest in this species of property, that, from the facility with which it may be oppressed by excessive taxation, injustice may be done to its owners.”
Only people who own people, Madison is arguing, should be allowed to vote on matters concerning the owned people. It is a very specific kind of property.
Either DeSantis was unaware of that context of the quote, or he intentionally left it out. The former suggests sloppy research; the latter suggests the kind of “distort[ed] history” he has claimed “woke” educators in his state are trying to impose.
A warning for democracy
The ending chapters focus on Washington’s miraculous humility, how he voluntarily gave up his commander in chief status after the end of the Revolutionary War, and how he limited himself to two terms as president, setting a standard that only one president (a Democrat!) ignored. DeSantis describes this well and accurately and, if anything, understates Washington’s reticence to take power; historians such as Alexis Coe have shown that Washington wanted to step down after one term, had to be persuaded to serve another and regretted it when he did.
DeSantis brings up Washington’s humility to warn against Obama’s “self-reverence,” “cockiness” and “inflated sense of himself,” which, he claims, could threaten the republic if Obama were reelected in 2012. (It did not.) Twelve years have passed since DeSantis gave this warning, and in those 12 years, DeSantis’s record of taking principled stands against ego-driven presidents has not held up.
DeSantis sought and relished an endorsement from former president Donald Trump, who claimed in his nomination acceptance speech, “I alone can fix it.” DeSantis ran fawning ads in which he read to his children not from the Federalist Papers but from Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” Even now, as he is expected to mount a primary campaign against his former ally, DeSantis has not condemned the former president’s false claims about the 2020 election or his unprecedented efforts to stay in the White House.
MLK and an avoidance of race
The premise of “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers” devolves as it goes on. A later chapter claims the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville would also have hated Obamacare. It’s an odd inclusion in a book purportedly about the Founding Fathers, considering Tocqueville was not one of them.
There are long asides about Supreme Court cases, and even a nod to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — the sanitized version trotted out in annual tweets, anyway. DeSantis quotes King as complimenting the Constitution’s “magnificent words.” According to DeSantis’s footnotes, he grabbed it not from its context — pushing for civil rights legislation in the “I Have a Dream” speech — but from the Yale Book of Quotations.
DeSantis’s book depicts history as Useful Quotes from Great Men, not a rigorous study of the past in all its complexities, contexts, perspectives and, yes, hypocrisies. His attacks on history education should come as no surprise; given the chance to literally write history here, he took great pains to ignore African American history up until it could produce King’s quote.
Madison largely wrote the “magnificent words” under which the United States has governed for 234 years. When Madison relaxed at home, most of the people around him were enslaved Black people, whose labor — and the profits their labor produced — allowed him the time to develop, as DeSantis put it, “a deep knowledge of the full spectrum of philosophical, political, economic and religious thought running through the [Constitutional] Convention.”
These realities coexisted uncomfortably long before our current history wars. Perhaps in a society — or in a state, or with a candidate — at peace with its past, there would be nothing controversial in saying so.