Parsing Revolutionary Reality

“There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank.” -John Adams to a friend, 1776

“[Born] on a speck more obscure than Corsica, from an original not only contemptible but infamous, with infinitely less courage and capacity than Bonaparte…a Creole bastard…the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” -John Adams (plagiarizing Jonathan Swift) on Alexander Hamilton, America’s first secretary of the Treasury and the most pivotal force in establishing the government of the United States in independence from Great Britain

The contrast in these two statements, culled from the correspondence of John Adams as easily as they would have been plucked from that of his illustrious contemporaries, encapsulates a fundamental contradiction that has traditionally born intellectual fruit for biographers and professional historians: the contradiction between the Founders’ eloquent defense of liberty, self-government, and intellectual freedom during their opposition to Parliament and the vituperative and highly personal partisan squabbles in which they partook following adoption of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, whose ringing prose inspired Adams to nominate him as the principal author of the Declaration, descended into feverish Francophilia after his appointment as George Washington’s secretary of state, allowing his exuberant embrace of Parisian life during his service as America’s minister to the court of Louis XVI to cloud his assessment of events leading up to an following the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789, during which the monarch to whom he represented his nascent country was consigned to the guillotine. Even less palatably, he outsourced the task of criticizing Hamiltonian policy to Philip Freneau, a man whose passable French earned him a token appointment as a State Department translator, thus affording him the economic independence necessary to engage in incessant and highly personal volleys against the treasury secretary and, eventually, the president himself.

If Jefferson remained tethered to his irrational fears that Hamilton stood at the head of a British-sponsored plot to reimpose monarchy upon the United States, Hamilton’s suspicions that his colleague from Virginia posed an anarchical threat to good government became no less blinding. Just as Jefferson would become tacitly approving if not complicit in the exposure of Hamilton’s extortionate affair with one Maria Reynolds, Hamilton was one of the first to publicly cast moral aspersions on his rival by alluding slyly to the Sally Hemmings affair (his knowledge of which was most likely gleaned from Jefferson’s friendship with Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Church). The two remained riven by their mutual hatred, Jefferson suspecting Hamilton of speculative enterprises and commercial corruption and Hamilton approaching Jefferson as a dangerous and impractical libertine. This personal rivalry would spawn the first political parties in the new republic, institutions toward which the Framers professed outright hatred during their defense of the Constitution.

James Madison, on the heels of his magisterial collaboration with Hamilton in the Federalist, initially became one of Washington’s foremost advisors as a Representative from Virginia, second in influence to Hamilton alone. Madison’s scholarly bent and his political ingenuity, alongside his diligent attendance to the formation and promulgation of the country’s founding charter, rightfully earned him the title “Father of the Constitution.” It was he who argued in Federalist number 10 that, contrary to the views advanced by Montesquieu, a republic could sustain itself over a broad geographical area by encompassing a multitude of factions that would cancel out each others’ hegemonic influence. He would go on to become a canny operative for the Jeffersonian Republicans, glorying in the abuse unleashed by the publication of the Reynolds affair.

John Adams distinguished himself as the veritable engine of the Revolution at the Second Continental Congress, leading the charge toward an outright break with Great Britain in the face of moderates like Pennsylvania’s much venerated John Dickinson. His oratorical prowess brought fellow delegates around to the more militant views of the Bostonians, convincing them that armed resistance alone could recover tarnished English liberties. The bundle of insecurities which tempered his peerless gifts came to full froth following his election as Washington’s successor. Though his ceaseless commitment to obeying his conscience in spite of the public clamor (a trait which this writer has lauded previously), his sensitivity to criticism, a crippling vulnerability for any public figure, led him to support the 1797 Alien and Sedition Acts, which essentially outlawed Democratic-Republic criticism of Federalist officials in a patent violation of the First Amendment.

One suspects that Benjamin Franklin’s deep-seeded pragmatism might have exercised a reconciliatory influence over these disputes. His death in 1791 (at what he might have termed “a ripe old age”) was surely a grievous loss to the tone of political rhetoric. Washington, who at first tried to straddle the divide between his two prolific ministers, found himself drifting closer to the Federalist party in the face of Republican enthusiasm for the French Revolution and the seditious behavior of Citizen Genet, a French diplomat who unsuccessfully sought to outfit American privateers on behalf of his government in strict violation of Washington’s declared policy of neutrality between England and its continental rival. His disgust for the petty journalism that defined 1790s American politics alienated him from Madison.

What are we to make of these muddled character sketches? The disaffected teenager that I once was might have parroted the facile observation of the history teacher from Dazed and Confused (shot in our hometown of Austin, Texas), who encourages her class to celebrate the Fourth of July by remembering that they were setting the sky aglow in honor of rich white men who didn’t want to pay their taxes. My outlook on history has evolved.

Ron Chernow, from whose Alexander Hamilton the quotes appearing at the head of this piece were excerpted, suggests that we do nothing more than treat the Founders fairly. That is to say that we recognize them as a group of uniquely gifted and supremely driven individuals whose circumstances and historical context allowed them to showcase their virtues.  Unsurprisingly, the need to come down from the Olympian heights of tearing down an imperial regime to the thankless job of erecting a representative government corroded some of their gloss and revealed the human foibles underneath. We should strive for understanding of the ideological and biographical traits which led to these conflicts. We should not discard the lock, the stock, and the barrel in an attempt to show how clever we are.


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