I finished reading a book. “Founding Brothers” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Joseph Ellis. It is a collection of six stories that, together, explore the complicated interactions among six men whose thoughts and actions were essential to the founding and early years of the Great American Experiment: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. It’s a comprehensive view—warts and all. And definitely there are warts, big warts, warts that would be career-ending today. I think the author does a good job pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of his subjects and how they affected their relationships and, therefore, the early history of the United States. But, if our founders were not the flawless paragons of sagacity some have imagined, it’s inspiring to me that those flawed individuals accomplished great things nevertheless.
This is not a book to read if loving one’s country depends on seeing it through rose-colored glasses or doing backflips of reason to justify every aspect of its history or its every action. It is documentation of something well known to true lovers of history—that the founding of the United States was a lot messier than most people who like to spout off about “intent of the founders” or a “return” to any kind of political virtue care to admit.
The reading left me with several thoughts:
The tension between centralized and distributed power has existed from the beginning. Washington and Adams, the pragmatists, wanted a central government powerful enough to act to preserve the integrity and independence of the United States when its main political ally and its biggest trading partner were at war. For Washington, keeping the country together was imperative, as keeping his army together during the war had been. Jefferson, the idealist, steadfastly opposed placing much power at the center, seeing it as simply substituting one foreign power for another, and sought a much looser union.
Hamilton, an advocate for commercial interests, wanted a central bank and for the federal government to build credit by assuming the debts of the states. Jefferson, Madison, and the other southerners saw this as a rip off of the southern states to benefit the northern ones and another movement of power to the center. The bank was created (for a while) and debt assumption happened (and we have benefited ever since) but deals were made. Cable news would have been ecstatic at the opportunities for coverage.
The issue of states’ rights, like Jefferson’s life, was linked from the very beginning with slavery, that great flaw in the American diamond. There is just no getting around it however much apologists raise points about differing views on tariffs. The southern states would not give up that much economic power whatever political principles they had signed onto and were adamant that the issue was Not Open for Discussion.
It’s obvious that the founders understood well the horrible contradiction of slavery with the ideals they were espousing, and knew that the country could not endure as “half slave and half free” forever. But they needed for the union to hold if it were to survive in a world full of powerful and ambitious European powers, so they entered into a grand bargain to bring the South along by removing slavery from consideration at the federal level until several decades had passed. They kicked the can down the road. The northern states either forbade slavery outright or gradually freed their slaves but the “peculiar institution” persisted as an integral part of the economy and society of the South and, when the issue resurfaced again, as it must, it did tear the country part, as the founders knew it would. It fell to a later president to make the Big Call that would start the country on the path of settling the issue.
The more I read, the more I see John Adams as the central figure in America’s struggle for independence. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Monroe, Madison, etc. all played essential roles but Adams was the one who knew and worked with all of them. His thoughts influenced everything. If the man had only had a more agreeable personality, he might not have seen fit to sign those Alien and Sedition Acts (the greatest blunder of his presidency) and history might have been kinder to him! But then there are other calls he might not have had the “intestinal fortitude” to make had he not been so darn stubborn.
The sequel is “The Quartet” in which a cadre of eastern, intellectual elites conspire to manipulate political and social institutions to save the Republic from itself and engineer the creation of a More Perfect Union. I can’t wait to get to that one!