cover image TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

Bernard Bailyn, . . Knopf, $26 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41377-3

While the five essays in this slim volume neither pack the stylistic wallop nor make the powerful contributions to knowledge of so many of the author's previous works, they are vintage Bailyn. The two-time Pulitzer-winning historian's focus is the creative imagination applied to statecraft. His subjects are the nation's founders, whom he believes to be idealists as much as realists. As usual, Bailyn's ebullient if nuanced admiration for the Framers carries the reader along. Characteristically, he emphasizes how the Framers' provincialism allowed them to spring free of European modes of thought to create something genuinely new. Bailyn (Voyagers to the West, etc.) brilliantly uses pictures to reveal the different aspirations and bearing of the British and founding gentry. A superb chapter also uses iconography to demonstrate how Benjamin Franklin took an active hand in fashioning and altering his own likeness in paintings and medals and then used them to create crucial sympathy in France for the American cause. Of all the "tempered idealists" he deals with, none tangles Bailyn up, as he does just about everyone else, like Thomas Jefferson. But essays on the Federalist Papers and the complex, paradoxical, ever-changing reception of American constitutionalism abroad rescue the work from momentary confusion. One comes away with a rounded appreciation of the founders' limitations, failures and moral failings as well as their extraordinary achievements. 65 b&w, 4 pages color illus. (Jan. 15)

Forecast:Can Bailyn sell as well as Joseph Ellis on the founders? Perhaps two Pulitzers, a colorful, inviting cover and a text filled with visuals will help him break out saleswise.