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Three vibrant histories of America's founders

WASHINGTON: A Life, by Ron Chernow. The Penguin Press, 903 pp., $40.

MADISON AND JEFFERSON, by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg. Random House, 809 pp., $35.

FIRST FAMILY: Abigail and John Adams, by Joseph J. Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 299 pp., $27.95.

Divided country. Angry voters. Blood-sport politics. Rabid commentators. And a tea party, too.

Yes, the 18th century was hard and nasty.

Three new books underscore it, reviving the past and retrieving the founders from myth and statuary. Along the way, they detail the rancorous reality of nation building.

Libraries overflow with dated and dull writing devoted to George Washington, chronicling the fake and the true, from cherry tree to obelisk. You're brought as close to Washington as a tourist to Mount Rushmore.

That's why Ron Chernow's "Washington: A Life" is so compelling. He unveils "the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved." And he does it in one volume, too.

Chernow's refreshing biography brings you the Washington known to his peers, not one cut in stone by scholars. Chernow has benefited significantly from the publication of Washington's diaries and other papers at the University of Virginia. The result: not simply "a life." For today's reader, it's the life.

Chernow describes "a man of granite self-control" who sought "to make himself unknowable." Chernow's magisterial work moves at a novel's pace, displaying the skills demonstrated in "Alexander Hamilton," a powerful biography of the brilliant, stormy Treasury secretary and unfortunate duelist.

Here Chernow examines, as painter Gilbert Stuart did, the "tension that defined the man" and provides insight into Washington's public and private lives. The man on the dollar bill sought money and status. He was a driven businessman, but one in lifelong financial peril. He wasn't an academic intellectual, but he absorbed ideas and put them to practical use.

He drank Madeira and had bad false teeth, loved fox hunting and riding horses, prized discipline but was volatile, too. He enjoyed London fashion and luxury; daily routine even more. He had a troubled relationship with a "hypercritical" mother and uneasy ones with adopted children.

And Chernow cogently traces the growth of a Virginia planter, a slaveholder whose moral conflicts and confusion over slavery culminated in his will, in which Washington directed that his own slaves be freed after Martha Washington's death.

Washington comes to life as a complex, contradictory, tough-minded, resilient figure, a leader steeled in the French and Indian War who'd become the "indispensable man of the American Revolution."

Washington's complicated, carefully choreographed relationships with founders from Hamilton and Adams to Jefferson and Madison could be testy and combative. It's evidenced in Chernow's work and two other new histories, "Madison and Jefferson" and "First Family."

"Madison and Jefferson," by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, history professors at Louisiana State University, focuses on the realpolitik and rivalries in the embryonic republic, and the unwieldy alliance of these "politicians to the core," a rebellious tag team in a "cutthroat business."

Burstein and Isenberg lobby effectively on Madison's behalf and improve his image in a leisurely dual biography, which demythologizes Jefferson, examines colliding views of government and describes the era's "panicky political culture."

Amply footnoted but accessible, the account is full of argument and drama. Add the sharp Hamilton to the mix of tacticians, and you have enough colorful characters for a miniseries, loaded with backstabbing (and frontstabbing, too).

Burstein and Isenberg note, Madison and Jefferson "do not know us, and we know them only slightly . . . they remained oblivious to the shape of the world to come."

So, the authors argue provocatively against the idea of a static Constitution and the concept of "original intent" from the founders. They conclude, "The whole concept . . . makes no sense," and oversimplifies Madison. "Politics always trumped abstract ideas for Madison," they write. "He was a problem solver."

You'll say that about John Adams, too, even battling Jefferson and Madison.

Joseph J. Ellis's fine "First Family" mines John and Abigail's lengthy correspondence to tell both a backstage and front-and-center love story of "the premier husband-and-wife team in all American history." The engaging book covers more than 50 years of all-encompassing partnership.

Ellis wrote a remarkable biography of Jefferson, "American Sphinx," chronicled braided lives in "Founding Brothers" and made reasonable John Adams the subject of "Passionate Sage." "First Family" invites you into a sustaining marriage that survives revolution, personal tragedies and the vicious politics of the moment.

In this election year, it's valuable reading.

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