Mind the Map

REVIEW: ‘Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders’ by Michael Barone

Map of Virginia drawn by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson in 1753 (Wikimedia Commons)
January 7, 2024

When John Locke wrote that "in the beginning, all the world was America," he did not mean that Pangea was besotted with Bass Pro Shops and McDonald’s—although that would have been pretty cool.

Throughout the latter, and more famous, of the Two Treatises on Government, Locke points to the "vacant places" and "uncultivated waste" of America to help his 17th-century British readers envision the state of nature into which he imagines men were originally born. And while a 21st-century Englishman may use such language to smear the United States as a backwards backwoods, Locke meant it in a positive way. To him, America was a land of limitless potential where men could attain the kind of freedom not found in Europe.

It should come as no surprise that America’s Founders, influenced as they were by Locke’s philosophy, shared his geographical sense as well. In Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders, Michael Barone shows how six Founders in particular thought about the land on which they worked to build a nation.

Barone, a senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner and resident fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, approaches these "mental maps" as he would any other subject, detailing the history and politics of the era in a series of readable essays. At times this leaves the reader wanting more, as the "geographic imagination" of the American Founders is precisely the kind of expansive, theoretical subject that calls for an intellectual deep dive. But, on the whole, Mental Maps of the Founders offers valuable insight into the practical wisdom of the men who made America.

Barone defines the Founders’ "mental maps" as "their geographical orientation, the maps in their minds." It’s a subtle distinction, and one that Barone does not seem to make intentionally, but one that nevertheless extends throughout the book. The former category includes, for instance, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s prescient understanding that the political character of the new republic would be defined by the manner in which the American West was populated and governed.

The latter includes more general notions, like the fact that Alexander Hamilton’s "mental map was a globe crisscrossed by the invisible lines of trade routes." This is undoubtedly true, but breaks no new ground in our understanding of America’s first trade hawk. Barone makes similar points throughout the book, shoehorning well-trod stories about the Founding Era—the debate over the national bank, the rise of political parties—into his cartographic schema.

It is, if nothing else, an interesting way to consider one of the most-written-about periods in American history. But Barone’s decision to divide the book into essays on individual Founders—the three aforementioned, as well as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Albert Gallatin—leaves the history of the era muddled and repetitive. Readers coming to Mental Maps with little to no knowledge of the Founding may leave feeling like they’ve read about the Louisiana Purchase four separate times, but don’t really understand what happened at all.

Barone is at his best when actually discussing the Founders’ fascination with geography as both an intellectual pursuit and political quantity. The book’s strongest chapters are those dedicated to the three Virginians, who, more than Barone’s other subjects, actually gave a lot of thought to maps, land, and geography.

Washington began his career as a surveyor and understood that "East-West political divisions" were as much of a threat as the split between the North and the South. Jefferson, whose father drew the 18th-century’s standard map of the American colonies, found both scientific and philosophical inspiration in geography, as evidenced by his Notes on the State of Virginia. Madison was the most well-traveled of the Founders, and Barone shows how he drew on his knowledge of the country at the Constitutional Convention and while writing the Federalist Papers.

If anything, Barone could afford to spend more time exploring the fascinating and sometimes strange role that geography played in the American Founding. Mental Maps glosses over American attempts to confederate with, and later annex, parts of Canada, as well as the controversy surrounding Texas and Florida, which joined the union later than surrounding states.

And while Barone repeatedly alludes to his subjects’ ability to envision a country beyond the borders of the original Thirteen Colonies, he fails to fully explain just how radical "manifest destiny" would have seemed at the time. Thomas Jefferson imagining America expanding to include Louisiana may seem logical in retrospect, but likely seemed as outlandish to 18th-century Americans as a plan to colonize the moon would seem to contemporary audiences.

Overall, Barone does a fine job showing how territorial concerns—and territorial ambitions—shaped our country. Readers will no doubt be shocked to learn that securing fishing rights along the Canadian border was a major concern in the early republic, or that Madison was so worried about threats posed by the expanse of New York’s coast that he wrote about it in Federalist 41, a full 10 papers before his famous discussion of checks and balances.

Taken together, these anecdotes are an important reminder of the oft-neglected practical dimension of America’s creation. Since the 1913 publication of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which argued that the framers of the Constitution built the country to benefit wealthy landowners like themselves, those seeking to defend the Founders have largely limited themselves to discussions of first principles, lest they give fodder to materialist critics like Beard.

But of course, the American Founding was as much about things like land and taxes as it was about self-evident truths. It is precisely our forgetting of that reality that has allowed critics like Compact columnist Michael Lind to dismiss the "cult of the American founding," and claim that our national progenitors have no wisdom left to offer us.

By showing that the Founders were worried about porous borders and scheming foreign powers—and indeed, that they shaped not just our national identity but our physical nation in response to these concerns—Michael Barone highlights the enduring relevance of the American Founding, and reminds us that it is impossible for us to understand our country as it is without considering the men who first mapped it out in their minds.

Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders
by Michael Barone
Encounter Books, 234 pp., $29.99