Grouchy, for Sure

I listened to an audio version of Ed Asner and Ed. Weinberger’s 2017 book, The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs. The audio version was read by Mr. Asner himself.

It is related to multiple books written to clarify that the Framers of the Constitution were elite, self-serving rich hypocrites, such as Michael J. Klarman’s The Framer’s Coup. Asner cites Charles A. Beard’s 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States quite often. I haven’t seen Beard’s book, but it seems about as even-handed as Birth of a Nation movie of the same general time.

Asner makes no attempt to be even-handed, but wants to show that pundits on the conservative right are misinterpreting the Constitution and the intentions of its framers. I found his discussion of particular Supreme Court cases interesting, but I don’t know enough about the Supreme Court to discern what is historically accurate and what is made up to to sound interesting.

There are occasional endnotes, but Asner strikes his tone in the introduction: “If you don’t believe my quotes, look the damn things up yourself.” [Page 5n]. That may sound grouchy, or even funny, but he is in the posture of someone who knows what he’s talking about. Tracing a few quotes about Franklin, I find I am mostly unimpressed.

He warned us with the title: it’s not “the fair and balanced historian,” but the grouchy one. Even so, in his introduction of Franklin, Asner volunteers “Of his many illegitimate children, Franklin took credit for only one — a son named William…” [Page 15]. There’s no source cited for many illegitimate children, so I can snip back that of his many fabricated facts, Asner’s quite creative with Franklin’s private life.

Asner includes a fictional diary of James Madison’s slave Billy. Of course, like all comic-book-level time travelers, he meets Franklin on his first night in Philadelphia and tells us about it. Oh dear, here it comes: “Many of Dr. Franklin’s tales involved detailed escapades with sundry French women (many at the same time) — the images of which I feared would haunt my dreams for years. ” [Page 57].

Too bad – this stupid fabrication follows a nice observation that Franklin’s “body may have grown old and heavy , but [his] mind remained alert and lively” and precedes Franklin recounting his suggestion that the Royal Academy of Brussels “take up a serious inquiry as to the causes and cures of farting,” complete with a little footnote to his May 19, 1780 spoof. Franklin actually did write that, and I’m glad Asner enjoyed it.

Billy’s diary later expounds that “While as a rule Mr. Madison enjoys the company of Dr. Franklin, he is also made somewhat uncomfortable by the ribald stories Dr. Franklin tells of his conquests of various women the globe over, often in details better left to the imagination.” [Page 57]. Ouch. Did Asner think the misinterpretations of the Constitution needed this kind of help?

James Madison’s actual notes on Franklin read differently:

During the session of the Grand Convention of which he was a member and as long after as he lived, I had opportunity of enjoying much of his conversation which was always a feast to me. I never passed half an hour in his company without hearing some observation or anecdote worth remembering

James Madison on Benjamin Franklin, from the Library of Congress exhibit, In His Own Words, 2006. Online image of Madison’s handwriting.

The bibliography references for Franklin reference a run-of-the-mill publication of the Autobiography and The Life and Miscellaneous Writings of Benjamin Franklin by W. & R. Chambers, 1839 (online full text here). This is an obscure and rare edition: any used book store in America would have something better. Even so, Asner overlooked this quote (from Chambers):

Of Franklin’s intercourse with his family little has been made known, though it is ascertained, by a few scattered hints in his writings, that he was an affectionate husband and father, and placed much of his happiness in home.

William and Robert Chambers, 1839 Life and Miscellaneous Writings, page 24.

Asner’s grouchiness has a certain appeal to spice up his points, which he seems to have formed through an admirable range of reading.

He even has one good controversial Franklin idea, describing Franklin’s idea that “all property superfluous to [support one’s self and family] is the property of the public” (page 139, footnote, no source). The idea is sound, the quote not so much. Perhaps this is a residue left by the letter BF to Benjamin Vaughan, March 14, 1785 , “Superfluous Property is the Creature of Society”, but the only place I find this full wording is in an online excerpt from Asner’s book. The best Franklin source is “private Property therefore is a Creature of Society and is subject to the Calls of that Society whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing” from Franklin’s ” Queries and Remarks on a Paper entitled “Hints for the Members of Convention No II” in the Federal Gazette of Tuesday Nov 3d 1789.”

This exercise leaves me exhausted, and I’m happy to return the print and audio versions to the public library. Asner presents his own fabrications as historical facts with quotes and dates and assurances that he speaks the truth. His reference to quotations as “damn things” is the tip-off, and given right up front: he makes things up when it suits him. I’ve looked up enough of his quotes to distrust all of them.