Book of the Fortnight: Founding Brothers

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Well readers is time for another Of Buckley and Beatles book review.  Fortunately for you I spent the past few weeks reading Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis.  I am pleased to be able to tell you about it right now.

Countless books have been writtenabout the main players in the struggle for independence and of the trials and tribulations that came with the fledgling republic once that independence was achieved.  In an effort to hit every mark and tell every story those books tend to be, shall we say, a bit of a slog.  Founding Brothers succeeds because it allows the reader to get a sense of some of the most notable characters from the period 1789-1805 in the telling of seven stories.

I.  The Generation-  Setting the scene.  The chapter highlights the uncertainty that existed after 1776, after the War for Independence ended in 1783 and again both during and after the drafting of the Constitution of the United States.  The republic was created, but the states had very little shared history of working together in anything other than war.  Sides were already being drawn separating those that believed in the necessity of a strong central government and those that believed that the Revolution was based upon a rejection of that form of government.  And, perhaps most fatally, the republic only existed because compromises over slavery had to be made with southern states in order to secure their support for the Constitution.  All of these problems manifested themselves over these crucial first 15 years of America’s existence.

II.  The Duel-  Unquestionably the most famous duel in American history and one which is almostimpossible to contemplate in the 21st century.  In 1804 a former Senator and Vice President of the Unites States (Burr) taking on a former Secretary of the Treasury, Major General in the Continental Army and the architect of the newly formed United States government.  Both men were regarded as “Founding Fathers” (or the 1800’s equivalent thereof) and both men were considered leading figures in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist parties.  It is difficult to envision a modern day equivalent of this matchup, but it happened.

The story of what happened in Weehawken, New Jersey is shrouded in mystery and speculation.  Founding Brothers tells this story through the lens of the personalities of the two protagonists.  Hamilton, the cocky political machine operator who worked both behind the scenes and in the open to take down any figures that threatened the Federalist cause.  Burr, the overly ambitious, but down on his luck statesman whose questionable (but fairly well concealed) conduct made opprobrious assessments of his character (such as the one made by Hamilton that set in motion the sequence of events leading to the duel) possible.  Both men had been leading figures in their respective parties, but both men had been passed by.  The outcome of the duel contained cruel symbolism of the battle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists and Hamilton’s defeat prefigured the impending collapse of the Federalist cause.

III.  The Dinner-  This chapter is the story of one of the more important compromises in American history.  In 1790 Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed an ambitious financial plan of federal assumption of the Revolutionary War debt accumulated by the thirteen colonies.  I call this plan ambitious because it was.  Seven years after the end of the Revolutionary War we have the new government of the United States attempting to wrest control of state financial obligations (in return for what, people must have assumed) and become the strong central government that the colonists had shaken off.  In addition to Hamilton we had James Madison, leader of the southern contingent of Congressmen.  Without Madison’s support of the bill there was little hope of its passage.  Further complicating matters was the fact that some states (like Virginia) had all but paid off their debts.  Would they then be expected to be responsible for the debt of less responsible states?And in the final seat at the dinner table we have Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, whose own description of events are the only true record of what happened.

The story goes that Jefferson invited Hamilton and Madison to dinner at his residence in June of 1790 to try to overcome the prevailing obstacles.  What followed was a compromise that shaped the economy as well as the geography of this nation.  In return for tacit approval of the bill (well, not exactly, Madison voted against the act but promised that he wouldn’t actively oppose the act with colleagues or on the House floor) Hamilton agreed to use his influence in New York and the northeast to secure the approval of the Potomac River area as the location for the capital of the United States.  The decision of where to place the capital was as contentious as any financial matter as it underscored the north/south rivalry for prominence in the new republic.  Even though the decision led to massive amounts of confusion and consternation (the Potomac area was basically a swamp) the bill’s passage was an important first step in shaping the central government.  As a result (supposedly) of this one dinner the course of the future of the United States was forever altered.

IV.  The Silence-  Did you know that the first major challenge to the institution of slavery after the ratification of the Constitution was made in 1790 by two Quaker delegates to the House of Representatives (one from New York and the other from Pennsylvania)?  Before 1790 the north was already firmly in favor of abolition and the south firmly in favor of the retention of the institution.  But the subject was simply not discussed.  Why is that?  Well, one of the most important compromises in the drafting process of the Constitution was that Congress could not prohibit the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited…prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.”  (Article I, section 9).  This provision was crucial if southern support for the Constitution was desired.  What it did, though was to effectively shelve the discussion of slavery until 1808 at the earliest.  Even anti-slavery Congressmen (spurred on by a dying Benjamin Franklin) realized that discussion of the topic was a no-win situation because of that one provision.  Pro-slavery advocates could simply point to the Constitution and say “It’s in the Constitution.”  Even though everybody involved knew that the subject would come to a head at some point it was generally agreed that “now” was not the time to do anything about it.  The new republic was on shaky footing as it was and the issue was destined to tear the country apart.  They did not feel that they could risk the republic at that stage of its infancy.  So they ignored it.

V.  The Farewell-  Just as with the resignation of his commission in 1783, George Washington knew how to exit the stage with a bang.  On September 19, 1796 newspapers began printing a letter “To the People of the United States” by then president George Washington.  In it George Washington announced his intention to retire from public life and it further laid out his impression of the political landscape and the threats to the new republic.  With typical Washington humility he played down his political abilities and implies that he is no longer needed.  The impact of the address can not be understated.  Here was the most powerful man in the country, who could have remained in office until his death if he chose to do so (due to the esteem he had in the eyes of the people) voluntarily giving up that power.  Politically it was important as it contained Washington’s support for a more Federalist structure of government (it was almost certainly ghost written by Alexander Hamilton).  The truth is that Washington’s second term (1793-1797)was marred by bitter partisan attacks on Washington from the Anti-Federalist side of the aisle.  Washington was called a traitor by the likes of Thomas Paine and a “quasi king” by his opponents.  And to top it off, Washington’s health was beginning to fail.  While his departure from the political scene was not unexpected, the manner in which he managed to do so has remained relevant to this day.

VI. The Collaboration- This chapter describes the circumstances that led to Thomas Jefferson serving as John Adams’ Vice President from 1797-1801. At that time the Vice President was selected by the House of Representatives (and was usually given to the runner-up in the Presidential vote).  Jefferson and Adams could not have had more divergent political viewpoints, Adams the leader of the Federalist party and Jefferson (along with James Madison) the leader of the Anti-Federalist party. But the two had been close friends since the days of Independence (Jefferson was given the task of writing the Declaration of Independence with the blessing of John Adams). The two had remained close in succeeding years, but they had grown apart politically. Jefferson had, in opposition to Adams’ calls for a more monarchial view of the Presidency called Adams ideas “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I have ever heard of.”  And Jefferson had called Adams’ writings Discourses on Davila “political heresies” and may or may not have been the driving force behind subtle slanders on John Adams’ patriotism.  When Adams protested to his friend about these characterizations Jefferson, as he was often inclined to do, pleaded either ignorance or tried to assert that he was misunderstood (the book does a great job of pointing out that Jefferson was not averse to complaining about political infighting despite being a leading contributor to it behind the scenes).  But as usual on the advice of his wife and closest advisor Abigail, Adams made the decision to embrace this unlikely pairing, albeit with a dose of skepticism.

At the time the office of the Vice Presidency was little more than a ceremonial position (Adams called it “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived” and “not worth a bucketful of spit.”).  Jefferson went along with the pairing, but events would soon drive the former friends even farther apart.

The first of these events was the question of what to do about France.  There was a state of undeclared war between the U.S. and France over privateers that France had seized in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic as a result of the Jay Treaty, which was seen by France as a U.S.-British alliance. Support for the French Revolution became a major dividing line between the two parties; Jefferson’s side was smitten with the romantic idea of France following in the footsteps of the American revolution, and Adams’ side wanted to take a more practical approach towards France  (later events would prove him right re: Bonaparte, Napoleon). But the popular opinion of the day was that Adams was spoiling for a fight with France (he wasn’t).  The second was the Alien and Sedition acts which were passed by the Federalists.  the administration (and Abigail Adams) championed these acts as necessary to protect the nation against seditious forces.  But mainly the acts were usedas an excuse to silence critics of the administration (mostly Republicans and republican-leaning newspaper editors).  Jefferson denounced these acts publicly and the friendship with Adams was severely damaged.  The acts were so unpopular that it led to a wave election in 1800 which drove Federalists (Adams included) out of office and helped to put Thomas Jefferson into the office of the President.

VII.  The Friendship- The final chapter of this book describes how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams reestablished their friendship. In 1804 it had seemed that the friendship was permanently severed (John Adams and his former friend had not spoken since 1801) after a letter exchange between Abigail Adams and Jefferson in which Jefferson made reference to having things done to him (by Adams) which he had ultimately forgiven him.  Abigail defended John and questioned how Jefferson could think that he was the one that had been done an injustice, and basically let him have it. As usual Jefferson pleaded his innocence (which was generally untrue).

After leaving office John Adams was obsessed with his place in history. At that time Thomas Jefferson was seen as more of a leading figure in the Revolution, when it was John Adams that probably played a more crucial role in it. Jefferson spent a lot of energy slinging mud at his opponents (Adams included) but always seemed to remain clean himself. Adams desperately wanted to right these wrongs. At the same time he was corresponding with a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. Rush tried, over the next 7 years to subtly bring the two back into correspondence. In 1812 he got his wish.  Adams wrote Jefferson a short, friendly letter.  The two would remain in contact until July 4, 1826 when both men died within hours of each other, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration Of Independence.

What this book did for me was to put the personalities of these men (and women) into a better context. John Adams came out of it looking the best.  He was a master politician and deserves to be thought of as one of the most important figures in American history. He was almost denied that by his fiery temperament, his unfair characterization as someone who would have rather had the President be a monarch, and the simple fact that he had to follow the beloved George Washington in a time of incredible turmoil.

Thomas Jefferson comes across as slightly more complex a figure. Basically he comes across as a politician, when the popular image of him as the philosopher/scientist/man who wrote the Declaration of Independence seems to have put him above all that.  But when he was in the role of a politician, he was a politician and did politician things. That is not a slight on Jefferson, but it is a reality. I have nothing but the highest regard for Thomas Jefferson both politically and for everything else he accomplished. It is through this book that I learned that Jefferson was beholden to the same human foibles as anyone else (and by that I refer to his tendency to participate in political mudslinging but deny or mischaracterize his involvement).

George Washington came across as, George Washington. Still critical to the success of this country. Still relevant today.

So if you are interested in reading about the political climate of 1789-1805 without having to read through the entire backstory of the events that got the nation to that point, readFounding Brothers. What you will find is an honest account of the critical events of the day. But you will also see that these events were shaped by the personalities of the men and women involved and that these figures were not and are not just faces on a coin or a mountain, but people with friendships and, yes, flaws. But far from being a book that intends to deconstruct history, this book celebrates the humanity of these great and notable Americans.

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