'A Republic of Scoundrels' Shows Readers Not All Founding Fathers Were Worthy of Praise

Founding Father William Blount's impeachment hearings turned into a wicked good brawl.

George Washington once wrote that fellow Founding Father William Blount should be "held in detestation by all good men." Abigail Adams hoped Blount would find himself on the wrong end of a guillotine. The only reason Blount ever joined the patriot cause at all was so he could deal in land speculation. He would end up being the first American official to face impeachment after conspiring to cede Spanish lands to the British.

When we think of America's Founding Fathers, we usually think of the men who worked diligently, without hesitation or mental reservation, not only to secure America's independence, but also create this new experimentally democratic form of government. It was imperfect, but they acknowledged its imperfections in its central document, the Constitution.

Most of the Founding Fathers risked their lives fighting the British, worked tirelessly to unite the colonies or made surprising sacrifices for their beliefs. Those like Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are saints of America's genesis, but if there are to be saints, there must be sinners.

A new book, "A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation," investigates the more unscrupulous Founding Fathers, those who wound up trying to serve themselves more than a new nation.

William Blount was a scoundrel long before conspiring with Great Britain. During the Revolutionary War, he "lost" the $300,000 in pay intended for North Carolina's troops. He used his later appointment as governor of the Southwest Territory to become one of the largest landowners in the new country. He was hardly alone in his treachery.

James Wilkinson, who twice served in the Army, was also an agent of the Spanish government for years. He even tried to convince Kentucky to join Spain instead of the nascent United States. Aaron Burr, one-time vice president, not only shot Hamilton in their famous duel, he allegedly conspired with Spain, Britain and Mexico to seize a large swathe of territory and create a new country for himself; Burr was arrested for treason.

James Wilkinson, a double-agent across four presidencies.

Each chapter of "A Republic of Scoundrels" is about a different schemer, written by an expert historian and accomplished authors, often professors of American history at prestigious universities like the University of Texas and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. They are compiled and edited by David Head, author of "A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newbury Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution," and Timothy Hemmis, professor of history at Texas A&M University and editor at Presidential Studies Quarterly.

Tales of historical wrongdoing don't stop at conspiracies with foreign powers, land grabs or self-enrichment schemes. It also includes a meticulously researched version of the murder of Elizabeth Fales in 1801. Her supposed lover, Jason Fairbanks, claimed it was a botched suicide pact, but he fled Massachusetts and was captured trying to escape to Canada.

Fairbanks' case was so sensational that the story has been retold for centuries. At the time, it gained him a level of fame so great that statues of Fairbanks were put up next to George Washington's at traveling exhibitions. It was one of young America's first sensational murder cases.

"The hanging of Jason Fairbanks." In the days before Netflix murder mysteries, this was all the rage. (New England Historical Society)

Readers have likely seen most of the names in "A Republic of Scoundrels" in high school-level American history books. American history buffs might know a few more of the stories included, but there are names most have never read about before.

No matter the reader's background or familiarity, the authors and editors offer new perspectives from their expertise and new scholarship, meaning there's something in this new book for everyone to enjoy.

"A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation" will be released Dec. 5, 2023, but is available for preorder now at bookstores and online retailers.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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