On October 12th, 1755, a melancholy John Adams sat down to write his childhood friend and fellow Harvard graduate Nathan Webb. At the time, Adams was begrudgingly keeping school in rural Worcester, Massachusetts, hoping to accumulate enough money to pay the apprenticeship fee of a local lawyer (proving that even in preRevolutionary times upwardly mobile Americans were willing to prolong their own misery to pay for law school). Foregoing small talk, as he was so wont to do, Adams delved right into a revery on the rise and fall of Rome, the expanding influence of Great Britain, and the likelihood that America would one day replace London as the seat of global hegemony.
As a concluding remark to his assessment of America’s prospects at the middle of the 18th century, Adams observed:
“The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us. Divide et impera. Keep us in distinct colonies, and then some great men in each colony, desiring the monarchy of the whole, will destroy each others’ influence and keep the country in equilibrio.”
His mindset at that point in time was by no means unique. Benjamin Franklin, whose stature within and without the colonies would overwhelm that of his colleague from Braintree until the latter’s election as president in 1796, had recently published a pamphlet analyzing the population growth of the American colonies and speculating that it would surpass that of the mother country by the turn of the century. Furthermore, General Edward Braddock’s ignominious failure to capture Fort Duquesne from the French and their Indian allies, a catastrophe witnessed firsthand by a young militia commander named George Washington, demonstrated to upstart colonials, many of whom had been met with condescension from the British officers sent to prosecute the French and Indian War (1756-1763) on American soil, that the Empire was not, in fact, invincible.
Nevertheless, Adams gives voice to one of the few political tenets held in common by most all luminaries of the Founding generation: the fear of faction. Any one who has taken an introductory Government course should be able to recall James Madison’s examination of political factions within the fledgling American republic in Federalist #10, in which he speculated that the geographic extent of the new nation would generate a multiplicity of vested interests which would neutralize one another and prevent any one from becoming too powerful. George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 (which historians believe to have been written by Madison in anticipation of Washington’s departure from the presidency in 1793) harped upon the pernicious effect that disunity and division was exerting upon the new nation.
Washington should have known. The greater part of his first term was spent mediating the differences between his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The ideological conflicts between the two cabinet members, manifest in Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian republic in which state governments held sway and Hamilton’s vision of a commercial behemoth in which merchants and manufacturers cooperated with an assertive federal government, would break out into the open during Washington’s second term in office. During that period (1793-1797), Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists duked it out in print and in public over their differing reactions to the French Revolution, with Jefferson’s faction arguing that it amounted to a natural extension of the Spirit of 1776 and Hamilton’s adherents emphasizing the chaos and disorder that accompanied the execution of King Louis XVI.
To a certain extent, then, the Founders must be judged by what they did rather than what they said whenever one comes to consider faction. Yet does their practice not vindicate their theory? Though the fortunes of both Republicans and Federalists would ebb and flow until the rise of Jacksonian Democracy and the Whig Party, no one side ever possessed a monopoly on elective office in Washington or in state legislatures.
Notwithstanding this unanimity of feeling on the inevitability of political Balkanization, it seems to have become fashionable for political partisans to quote selectively from Adams and his contemporaries, asserting that their vision for this country hues closest to our founding values. The separation of church and state seems to me to be a topic particularly prone to this form of historic abuse.
Both sides have their favorite excerpts which, somewhat amusedly from my perspective, often stem from the pen of the same individual. Militant atheists and restless teenagers (crede experto) exalt the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli and Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Toward the beginning of Adams’ tenure as chief executive, the United States Senate ratified unanimously a pact with the Barbary pirates, scourges of 18th century Mediterranean shipping, which declared that the United States government “was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” More famously, six years later President Jefferson would write to a small sect of persecuted Baptists in Connecticut, assuring them that he contemplated a “strict wall of separation between church and state” as a bedrock principle of American liberty. Bill Maher takes note of Jefferson’s excision of all the miracles which appear in the New Testament in his irreverent documentary “Religulous.”
By contrast, present day evangelicals praise Washington’s insistence in the aforementioned Farewell Address that religion and morality, essential components of good government and civil society, are inseparable from one another, alongside Adams’ professed Christianity and his conception, articulated in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (which he wrote), that the church had a fundamental role to play in moderating the behavior of the citizenry.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Founders were not an ideologically monolithic group. Indeed, as Shelby Foote makes plain through his sonorous Southern drawl in Ken Burns’ documentary of the Civil War, their true genius was for compromise. As is evidenced by the hostilities between Hamilton and Jefferson, two equally vital actors in the drama of 1776-1800, the framers of American government could differ drastically on subjects as consequential as slavery, the power of the central government, and even the location of the national capital (Hamilton, an adopted New Yorker, is said to have consented to placing it on the banks of the Potomac over a dinner conversation in which Jefferson and Madison, native Virginians, agreed to throw their support behind Hamilton’s financial plan of funding and assumption). Their ability to maintain a grudging respect for their capabilities of their rivals and to meet their opposition half-way at the negotiating table was largely responsible for the ratification of the Constitution.
Too often we heighten the violence of our rhetoric by taking a selective reading of the Framers as blanket authorization to rigidly proselytize our beliefs as if we were reclaiming the Holy Land under Richard the Lionheart. As Burke and Churchill have jointly noted, “History is rightfully cruel to those who break with the customs of the past.” We should approach men like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams with due deference to their intellect and their accomplishments, with a mature insight into their moral shortcomings, and a calculated reluctance to say authoritatively what they thought.
At the same time, let us cling vigorously to those beliefs which united American statesmen at Philadelphia in 1787: a temperamental desire to strive for unity and compromise.
I would be remiss if I did not conclude with an encomium to the institution of friendship which Adams inserted into the last paragraph of his letter to Webb. David McCullough has unfortunately elided this portion in the copy of the epistle which he reproduces in his biography of our second president. Writing years later in his diary, Adams’ son John Quincy would declare that “the annals of epistolary correspondence cannot furnish a Letter more replete at once with intellect and heart”:
“Friendship, I take it, is one if the distinguishing glories of man, and the creature insensible of its charms, though he may wear the shape of man, is unworthy of the character. From this I expect to receive the chief happiness of my future life, and am sorry that fortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my friends who have the highest place in my affections.”