Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders
By Michael Barone. 
Encounter Books, 2023. 
Hardcover, 228 pages, $29.99.

Reviewed by Christian Sellar.

This book is the fruit of the labor of a journalist and political analyst with a distinguished career reporting on American politics and demographics. As such, this work is part of Michael Barone’s broader intellectual effort to discuss the long-term, historical development of the institutional structures of American politics. It is one of two books he wrote to discuss the American Revolution and the founders. It takes a geographical point of view, by looking at the ‘mental maps and geographical orientation’ of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Albert Gallatin. Such focus is its strength and, to a lesser extent, weakness. Strength, because it provides a fresh perspective to understand how the founders made choices still relevant today. In so doing, it conveys pride in our revolutionary origins, while being informative and critical. Weakness, because it does not engage with human geography, the academic discipline dedicated to the study of places, spaces, and maps. In so doing, it loses opportunities for a deeper analysis. 

The key argument is that the founders each had a specific sense of place and mental map of the world, which came with an awareness of the connections between their environment, economy, and demography, which played an important role in shaping their policies. The book develops its argument in six biographical chapters, each showing how the specific places each Founder knew and traveled through and their broader understanding of the world’s geography shaped their political agendas.

Chapter 1 opens with Franklin’s decision to hang two maps on the door of the then Colony of Pennsylvania’s assembly to remind its delegates of the precarious position of their colony during the French-British war. Franklin’s keen understanding of the American colonies led him to publish a pamphlet arguing their population was growing due to birth rate, not immigration. At a time in which most scholars assumed that population was at best static, such a finding was revolutionary. While putting Franklin in dialogue with some of the best scholars of his age—Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus—his findings drove his political proposal to turn Britain into a transatlantic Anglo-American empire, with equal status between the colonies and the motherland, a position he only reluctantly abandoned at the dawn of the revolutionary war.

The second chapter starts with a discussion of the British management of colonial lands, especially the institution of land grants. The proprietor (aka owner) of one of these, the Fairfax Grant, employed his teenage neighbor, George Washington, as a surveyor. That experience gave Washington the skill to further map the poorly defined Western lands and, in so doing, engage with its people. Second, it gave him an appreciation of the importance of the conflict against France, the claimant to the thinly populated lands Washington hoped to open for settlement. His business ventures as a landowner gave him the management skills he would later use as a military leader. The chapter then detours to discuss the political use of maps by English supporters of the war against France, to then return to Washington’s travels in the Ohio River valley. These experiences shaped both his military leadership as well as his political agenda. He focused on linking the Middle States with the country immediately west of them—through the capture of New York to link the New England and middle colonies during the Revolutionary War and defending the North West after independence. In short, in an age in which most Americans were mostly affected by links with England and Europe, Washington’s geographic experiences and imagination led him to focus on the Western/North Western expansion.

Subsequent chapters continue linking the life experiences of each founder in specific places, their spatial understanding of the world, and their political agendas. Chapter 3 opens with a discussion of the map at the beginning of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, drawn using survey data collected by Jefferson’s father Peter. While not an explorer and surveyor like his father, Thomas “spent hours poring over maps in his study.” Written similarly to a modern atlas, with lists of maps accompanied by text, Notes encapsulates Jefferson’s future political agenda. The territory described in it—the areas north and west of modern Virginia—contains only a “passing glance to New England and little interest in the Atlantic Ocean,” but it anticipates Jefferson’s politics of Western and South Western expansion, culminating during his presidency in the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Its attention to demography and the resources of the soil also anticipates his vision of an agrarian country, built on independent yeomen farmers. 

Chapter 4 presents the opposing vision of Alexander Hamilton, of a commercial as well as financial power built on banking and maritime trade. Hamilton’s vision comes from his teenage years as a clerk for a commercial company in his native island of St. Croix in the Caribbean. Later in life, after serving as Washington’s chief aide and witnessing his political struggles in Congress to fund the revolutionary army, Hamilton built his political agenda on the intuition that the new country could generate continued commercial success and growth. At the time, it was a notion as new and revolutionary as Franklin’s take on demography. Against the opposition of other founders, his commercial experience led him to propose and build over time the economic system based on a national bank and continuous national debt in peacetime, a concept relatively new in his time.

The last two chapters are dedicated to James Madison and Albert Gallatin, whose personal geographies and mental maps shaped political agendas devoted to expanding the newly independent U.S. Southwest and West. From a geographical perspective, one of the elements of interest in both chapters is their detailing of the meeting between Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson with Alexander Von Humboldt, the German scientist and naturalist that many regard as one of the founders of the modern discipline of geography. This episode, repeated almost verbatim in two separate chapters, portrays vividly the nature of the geographical knowledge of the founders: Humboldt was permitted to travel in the Spanish lands—usually barred to other Europeans—and the data he collected was treated as strategic information by the three founders, especially concerning the future territory of Texas, which they already saw as a “land of interest.”

The repetition of these paragraphs across the book reveals its structure: it does not read so much as a book about mental maps, but as six disconnected biographies, interspersed with information about maps and the influence of birthplaces and travels over politics. An engagement with human and historical geography—a discipline for which ‘geographic imagination’ and the meaning associated with places are important foci of analysis—could have helped to bring the highly valuable information of this book to the fore. I would suggest the reader approach this book alongside works such as North America: The Historical Geography of a Changing Continent by Muller and McIlwraith to provide some more context. Second, the author does not explain the criteria for selecting these six among the key figures in revolutionary America. While most of them are obvious choices, clarifying why he omitted certain figures (for example, John Adams) and included others (Albert Gallatin) would have added rigor to the work.

Such a lack of context does not detract from the many merits of this book. First, it is apologetic without being uncritical. While progressive academia tends to be dismissive of traditions and established norms to a demoralizing extent, this book goes to great lengths to restore pride, by showing the sound decision-making at the origin of the U.S. It conveys strong reasons to admire the founders: they trained and emerged in a relatively meritocratic political system, and understood demography, economic policy, and strategy ahead of their time. At the same time, it does not shy away from the darker side of their story, especially the tension between slave ownership and the founders’ public positions on emancipation. Second, while not explicit, his contribution to historical geography has merits, especially his description of how the sense of place and mapping (mental and factual) contributed to political agendas. Finally, the style is precise, easy to understand, and visually rich, making it an appropriate read for the general public, and also undergraduate geography courses. Overall, these strengths outweigh the weaknesses by a good margin, making it a valuable interpretation of the founding of the U.S. from a geographical standpoint.

Christian Sellar is a Professor in the Department of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi. He has published extensively on the interactions between economic policies and geopolitics, government support to firms’ internationalization, post-socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, and Europeanization. He served in a variety of roles in the American Association of Geographers.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated