Builder of America

John Adams gets little credit among the Founding Fathers. He was faulted then and now for his harsh criticism of others, and for his one-term presidency sorely marred by his use of the Sedition Act (he signed but neither liked nor used the Alien Act).

Remorselessly self-critical, he was acutely aware of his volatile temper. He fought hard to bring it under control, fearing that it otherwise rendered him, in his own words, “unsuitable to manly pursuits.” But he was also highly disciplined, probably the most thoroughly educated, and surely the intellectual equal, of any of the Founding Fathers. He combined an uncompromising patriotism with a stupendous work ethic, with the result that few could measure up to his standards, nor could he long contain his disapproval of those who fell short in the face of the momentous stakes at risk in the revolutionary effort.

It was his exceptional work in the Continental Congress, though, that laid the very foundation of the entire undertaking of the separation from Great Britain. A brilliant extemporaneous debater, as well as a far-sighted planner and legislative tactician, he brought his countrymen around to supporting everything from appointment of George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army to the very decision for independence – followed by the historic adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the principal author, but he said not a word in its defense during the difficult debate over its adoption – we have John Adams to thank for that, and for the profound legacy it gifted our nation and the world.

The story of John Adams is of a surpassing intellect, an engaging personality, and a dedicated patriot who worked tirelessly and relentlessly to create this new nation. It is a story superbly told in David McCullough’s “John Adams,” and one that touches meaningfully on the characters and insightfully on the contributions of all the other Founding Fathers. This is a must read for anyone drawn to the story not only of John Adams, but to that of the dawn of our political history as well.

Author of America

In my youth, Thomas Jefferson was depicted as the elevated philosopher-statesman who crafted the truly magnificent Declaration of Independence, clearly placing him high in the pantheon of our Founding Fathers as the great visionary of the people’s republic. This role was often attributed to him in specific and pointed contrast to the putatively less lofty instincts of Hamilton – and even Washington – who supported what was described as undemocratically centralized power.

But that legacy has been the subject of rather heated – and healthy – criticism in more recent decades.

Jefferson’s greatness, though, is surely monumental, and deservedly recognized as such, for at least two accomplishments: of course, the Declaration of Independence takes pride of place here, but close behind, and of equally enduring and profound importance, comes the Louisiana Purchase.

The writing of the Declaration of Independence was not assigned to him because he was universally deferred to as a great political genius, but for two more prosaic reasons. First, he was a Virginian. Virginia was the most populous and important colony, and having a Virginian so prominently involved in this document was seen as important to its acceptance. Second, he quite simply had a reputation as an artful wordsmith. It was these two factors that served to outweigh his relative youth and inexperience, and land him the role of principal author.

Still, what he accomplished revealed at least an innate Socratic genius in him – the Declaration lit the way for Americans across the generations, binding them together in a shared nation as well as inspiring and proffering hope to peoples around the world. It shaped then, and has since, our understanding and our debate about that – of what our country means. Lincoln himself once famously noted that he never had a political instinct that didn’t derive from the principles of the Declaration. From the Civil War of his time to the social uncertainties of our own, the meaning of the Declaration drives our debate, works to inspire us to continue striving to practically achieve in our society the ideals there outlined that we all acknowledge as ours.

The Louisiana Purchase was the consequence of a wide range of wonderfully converging coincidences that culminated in a final, stunning bit of good luck. Jefferson was initially (and properly) only concerned to secure the port of New Orleans for American commerce, but wound up essentially being handed the entire Louisiana territory, more than doubling U.S land area, as well as obtaining dominating control of the Mississippi River – a geopolitical masterstroke. Yet none of this could have happened without Jefferson’s prescient impulse to look to westward expansion as key to the country’s future, and to his being alert for opportunities to facilitate that. He further cemented the grandeur of this accomplishment – and of this abiding drive westward of the American nation – with the commissioning of the spectacular Lewis and Clark expedition.

On the other hand, unlike the mythical Jefferson I learned about in school, the real Jefferson had some genuine shortcomings, many of which speak decidedly ill both of him and of the young nation, as well as some grievous failures, many of which cast long, dangerous shadows over that nation’s very prospects.

We’ll address some of these more broadly in coming weeks. Here, I just want to identify one that always struck me as odd about some of the Jeffersonian quotes selected, in my school days, to represent his greatness. There always seemed to be an astonishing conflict between his characterization as a steadfast, uncompromising advocate and defender of individual liberty and democracy expressed by the people, and his hazily idealistic images of a happy, peaceful country of contented, virtuous farmers blissfully tending their fields under the benignly watchful eyes of elite philosopher-statesman specially trained for their roles at institutions like the university he founded to that specific purpose. Such Jeffersonian fantasies about what he felt to be the true nature of the fundamentally agrarian United States he envisioned, unavoidably call to mind impossibly bucolic and jarringly undemocratic images of a lord in his manor, snugly surrounded with verdant fields worked by happy, care-free peasants. A striking thing about the notion is that this self-deceiving, self-serving instinct to both seduce and subordinate the benighted people is, surely, with us still.

The story of Jefferson gives us much to ponder about who we are, as both a nation and a polity. It’s a dialogue we’ve been having in our politics and culture since, and one we’ll touch on further here, presently.

Who’s to talk?

In the June 4 edition of the Economist, the Lexington columnist indulges in a peculiarly clueless – not to mention pointless – chastisement of Republican voters for selecting Trump as their candidate for the Presidency. Lexington offers a startling argument that the party consists of two broad elements as follows: One is a system of thought about governance that ranges from principled to protectionist, and the other is a collection of nasty propensities ranging from jingoism to racism, the latter typically contained, if uneasily, by the mainstream ascendancy of the former.

Lexington’s contention is that American Republicans, in opting for Trump, have rejected the formal party principles in all their forms – since all elements of them were on offer in the various platforms advanced by other candidates – and have thus unveiled their true affinity for the childish and dangerously irresponsible divisiveness and incivility that only Trump represents. In other words, Lexington suggests with uncharacteristic asperity, the Republican Party’s base is revealing its true colors, and has no one to blame but itself if it gets what’s coming to it.

Peggy Noonan came closer (and with more characteristic thoughtfulness) to the truth in a recent WSJ column about the “unprotected.” In attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon, her insight was that there is a conceptual, sympathetic, and empathetic gulf between the professional party politicos and the populace – the former blithely promoting and enacting policies the effects of which they will never feel; they are protected – the Republican voters are not, and this year their support of Trump is the only means of rebellion available to them against their out-of-touch party hierarchy.

Lexington might rejoin that whatever the specific reasons for the voters’ rejection of the established political professionals, the fact remains that these voters have determined to go with the ignorant boorishness that only Trump promotes.

It may well be, though, that there is a broader rebellion going on here, and not just among Republicans. Democrats in incredible numbers are plumping – with great enthusiasm and no small measure of violent intolerance – for a man whose social, economic, and political ideas would be as laughable as Trump’s were they not – at this very moment – the underlying cause of the stunning penury and repression of millions of people from Venezuela to China.

Clearly there is both nastiness and ignorance in the ranks of each party, and widespread rejection of establishment processes and individuals in both of them as well.

The parties abuse the system by using their bases’ fear of the other party to push platforms that don’t actually address their own base’s concerns. Rather, these “policies” are too often the product of cynical insider deal-making that perpetuates the power and control of the insiders, arrogantly spun to the voters as what is best for them, on the assumption that they have no practical alternative choices.

But this year shows us that both parties are in deep trouble. They have failed to represent their voters’ concerns. They have failed to inform their voters’ choices. They have spent their careers talking past their voters. And now they risk ending their careers as their voters talk, in turn, past them.

Decoration Day

When we honor the memory of those who have fallen in armed service to our country, we tend to picture majestically uniform ranks of dedicated patriots stretching into the mists of space and time.

And dedicated patriots, to the final measure, they surely were.

But they also expressed an amazing personal diversity. Color, creed, political and other ideology, local (and sometimes broader) culture, accent – even language. The stories of their individual lives surely varied greatly, as, indeed, did the sagas of their individual sacrifices. They were in so many ways so different from each other, as well as from what we hazily, humbly imagine about those who gave their stories for our own.

Of course, the country they served itself expresses this and greater diversity, sometimes to a nearly stupefying degree; certainly so to foreign observers.

One of these, James Bryce, in his “The American Commonwealth,” noted that the practice of holding elections for the president every four years – possibly especially in the midst of such apparent discordance – was seen as potentially dangerous by many such commentators. Bryce, though, felt that it nevertheless provided a healthy opportunity to take stock nationally on a regular basis, to self-examine and to re-assess who we are and how we do things.

This election year would seem to offer evidence that we are engaged in something very much like that.

But as we contemplate what that may or may not mean for us over the next several months, perhaps this evening, as the Memorial Day weekend winds to a close, we could take a moment to recall the central unifying themes from which derive this mystifying cacophony. Like the remarkably American music of Charles Ives (whose piece, “Decoration Day” is embedded below), it exhibits sudden eruptions of apparent dissonance, which can be alarming and disorienting. But we find in the end that they are – have always been – great chords rising with, in fact, a robust harmony from deep foundations in national themes.

So too are all those whose incredibly rich, diverse stories concluded in sacrifice that this uniquely American symphony might continue.

Today it is for this that we honor them all. But once we give some time to humbly reflecting on their sacrifice, once we rise from gently placing a flower by their final resting place, perhaps we might best continue to pay homage to their sacrifice by working to ensure that it was not in vain, by living energetically, vigorously on in the wondrous, mystifying, unifying diversity that is us.

Decoration Day is an early name for Memorial Day, when citizens placed flowers on the graves of our fallen. This is how Charles Ives remembers it as celebrated in his childhood in the late 19th century – from New England Holidays – A Symphony: II. Decoration Day


“The most brilliant American statesman”

It is difficult to determine who might be, after Washington, the most indispensable Founding Father. Thomas Jefferson’s single outstanding contribution during the revolutionary period, the Declaration of Independence, was of such supreme influence both in the colonies and in Europe (not to mention across time), that it alone can put him in the race. More obviously, we can consider John Adams, whose uncompromising dedication and self-sacrifice, his daunting work ethic, and his deep learning and intellect – arguably second to none but perhaps Hamilton’s – combined with his major contributions as a member of the Continental Congress and as a negotiator in France and The Netherlands, make him a real contender as well.

But after reading Ron Chernow’s superb “Alexander Hamilton” the issue is firmly settled for me. In his own way a uniquely American story – an immigrant from a desperately poor and essentially hopeless background, Hamilton burned to prove his worth and to make his way in the world.

And that he did. He found his way to New York, where he quickly established himself, and soon became among the most ardent patriots in Revolutionary America. With great courage, astounding daring, and an ability that was both natural and meticulously self-taught, he served masterfully in the Revolutionary War, ultimately attracting Washington’s attention and becoming a highly active and effective member of his staff, thus beginning his rise to the national standing that allowed him to generate his subsequent monumental contributions.

When I leaned about the Founding Fathers in my youth. Hamilton’s amazing service in the war and in the nation-building that followed, through his vital essays in the Federalist Papers and thus to the very adoption of the U.S. Constitution and formation of the new government, was given surprisingly short shrift. The distinct impression this “education” cultivated was that he was the sinister centralizer of government power and supporter of pernicious moneyed interests against the people, in opposition to the supposed true democrat Thomas Jefferson. He was a straw man, a caricature of illiberalism, where Jefferson was the majestic Sage of Monticello, nobly bearing aloft the torch of American freedoms; reflecting (obviously, a partisan depiction of) a fundamental theme of debate in American political discourse that persists to this day.

But, aside from the really incredible story of the person who rose from penury in a foreign backwater to become so fundamental to the birth as well as to the firm establishment of our country, Chernow shows us also why if it is true that

Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft.

Moreover, Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian society wisely and fortuitously supervised by a benign elite was not only practically unrealistic, but was inescapably grounded in a hazily Utopian stagnancy. Hamilton, in striking and vital contrast,

was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit. We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned.

It you read no other biography of a Founding Father (aside, that is, from “Washington: A Life” – also by Chernow), read this. You will find your knowledge of the desperately precarious state of America, both as it struggled to gain independence and then to find its footing, greatly enriched – and your insights about current American politics, as well.

  • To Theodore Roosevelt Hamilton was “. . . the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.”