The Ground We Stand On, 1941

This non-fiction effort is the first of several inquiries into American colonial and early national thought—with a focus on Jeffersonian democracy. Disillusioned by European political authoritarianism—under the guises of socialism, communism, and fascism—Dos Passos finds comfort and wisdom in the American democratic tradition in its earliest iterations. The Ground We Stand On profiles several influential early Americans: Thomas Jefferson, Joel Barlow, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge.

The New York Times Book Review calls the biographies in The Ground We Stand On “truly brilliant.” Stephen Vincent Benét recommends the book, praising its “sense that the past is alive and the men of the past are alive.”

Many critics, however, are baffled by what they perceive as his seismic shift in political philosophy in this and other histories. “His [Dos Passos’s] point,” explains biographer Townsend Ludington in John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey, “was that he adhered to the political point of view which seemed to him most promising of personal freedom at a given moment in history. He was consistent about that.”

“In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning,” Dos Passos says in the prologue to The Ground We Stand On, “a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”

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