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The Founders’ Virtues

It is customary to say, as Peterson does, that Jefferson was the broader man, with that range of tastes and skills the seventeenth century admired and suspected in its “virtuosi.” But Jefferson was bounded by the rational prejudices of the Age of Reason in ways that did not bind Adams. Adams read theology with the sharp eye of a philosophe, and books of the Encyclopedists with a crusty Puritan’s doubt about the reach of the mind. Adams read books he disagreed with—a habit Jefferson gave up very early. (Jefferson wanted books he disagreed with forbidden at the University of Virginia.) Above all, Adams had a sense of humor, of which Jefferson gave only intermittent evidence. Adams was self-dramatizing: his comic lists were a device he shared with Aristophanes. Jefferson would never moan that his administration, “like Pope’s Woman, will have no character at all.” Nor would Jefferson say that Congress stank of French politics “rank as the ripeness of a rabbit’s tail.”

If Adams is accepted as comic, it is because he portrayed himself as such. The wish to take his self-portraits at face value leads Peterson, Morgan, and Peter Shaw, each with slight misgivings, to repeat the Adams claim that he showed independence and defiance of risk in defending the soldiers on trial for Boston’s “massacre”—though Hiller Zobel has proved that Adams, no less than Josiah Quincy, was a cat’s-paw of Samuel Adams in that affair. In fact, the way Adams worked to overthrow the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1776 shows that he could go much further in practical revolutionizing than Jefferson ever did. (There is a strangely idyllic note to most of Jefferson’s descriptions of the rivers of blood that must manure freedom’s tree.)

Adams lived into his nineties, bright and curious, though he seemed on the point of terminal apoplexy in much of his earlier life. He was a master of tonic rages, who rather enjoyed his perpetual seizures of indignation. It was one source of his prodigious energy. His self-reproach verges on Pickwickian self-celebration when he explodes to a British gentleman in Boston: “I found the old warmth, heat, violence, acrimony, bitterness, sharpness of my temper and expression, was not departed. I said there was no more justice left in Britain than there was in hell.” Indeed, Chesterton’s comments on Mr. Pickwick, as the ideal man for adventures, apply very well to the rueful aspirations, real eloquence, and self-mocking heroism of Adams:

His soul will never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a fool of…. The whole is unerringly expressed in one fortunate phrase—he will be always “taken in.” To be taken in everywhere is to see the inside of everything. It is the hospitality of circumstance. With torches and trumpets, like a guest, the green-horn is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out by it.

Peter Shaw’s beautifully written book, The Character of John Adams, accepts what might be called the current dogma on Adams, enunciated by Adair—that he was a vain little fellow who gradually transcended his provinciality. The book also pushes the evidence for “psychobiographical” readings of various illnesses. (We have to remember the eighteenth century did have germs as well as melancholy.) But the argument is, in general, so well-informed, graceful, and full of good quotes from its subject, that this becomes our best life of Adams by far. The sensuous immediacy and sheer energy of Adams’s prose is given the respect it deserves, and Shaw has learned—the first task for anyone approaching Adams—to laugh more with his subject than at him. Though it is usually said that Adams was not an artist, as Jefferson was, he excelled at one form of recognized artistry that was then at its peak in the English-speaking world. His seasoned celloings with Jefferson, the hurt-Coriolanus railings at his country in the Rush correspondence, and the stilted warmth of his great love letters to Abigail, show he was the American master of epistolary style in that age of great letter-writers.

There are signs that Morgan thinks he is describing his subjects in an ascending order of greatness when he begins with Adams, moves on to Washington, and ends with Jefferson. That reflects the general estimate of our time. But we have to remind ourselves that the eighteenth century itself took a very different view of things. A galaxy of brilliant statesmen clustered about the birth of our republic; but there was never any question, in that dazzling company, who was foremost. When Jefferson tried to convince French thinkers that America could produce genius, he relied on three names, and Washington’s came first. (The other two were Franklin and Rittenhouse.) Washington embodied, for that age, not only Richard Steele’s conception of the Christian hero (Cromwell without the fanaticism) but the classical ideal from Plutarch (a Napoleon who did not overreach himself). We tend to compare Washington with the other “founding fathers”—with Adams or Franklin or Jefferson. But his contemporaries quickly put him on another level altogether—up with the great charismatic nation builders, with Julius Caesar or Oliver Cromwell.

That was the way Washington Irving still saw his namesake in the five-volume biography he wrote at the end of his life. He had to wait a half-century for Washington to enter that hazy distance which stirred his fancy. Not that most of the book is “romantic” in any nineteenth-century way. Its real achievement is the sorting out of military records as he patiently outlines the campaigns of the war over three whole volumes. But even the comparatively restrained battle scenes reflect an outmoded aesthetic. I recently argued in these pages 1 that John Trumbull tried to extend the eighteenth-century concept of heroic death into the 1820s and failed. Washington Irving, always something of a revenant and Rip Van Winkle himself, tried to extend it into the 1850s. Scene after scene is presented as it would have been painted by West or Copley or Trumbull in the 1780s—the deathbed pride in country, the composed sense of duty, the joy of secular sacrifice.

These things are even harder to take seriously today; so the abridgers of Irving, in both one-volume editions of the Life, leave them out or cut them down. So Jess Stein, in the more inclusive volume, omits the deaths of Frazer (3.241)2 and Donop (3.273)—and even the famous death of Nathan Hale, so much an epitome of this aesthetic (4.132). And he cuts down all the affecting details around the death of Knowlton (2.341). He also excludes classical references like that to “the American Fabius” (2.486). These omissions show what is wrong with the kind of abridgment undertaken here, no matter how intelligently done. The assumption is that Irving must be made acceptable to the modern reader, when he was barely acceptable to the last generation of readers before the Civil War.

If one wants a one-volume biography of Washington, there are better and more accurate ones now available (beginning with Flexner’s). If one wants to sample Irving’s style (not at its best here anyway), it is better to dip into the original than to read sentences tampered with and transitions imposed. These abridgments give us a little less than half of the original, and each has a good introduction—Stein’s an essay by Richard Morris on the historical short-comings of Irving, Neider’s a description of Irving’s tortured last years of insomnia and heroic writing while he finished the biography. But anyone with a serious interest in the problems of Washington’s fame must use the original text—and I cannot imagine anyone else (except an Irving pedant) wanting to read the book in any form.

Irving’s volumes continued the famous imbalance of Marshall’s monumental Life—three volumes devoted to the war’s eight years, with only two volumes left over for the other sixty years of Washington’s life. It is true that Irving slips the Constitutional Convention, and election of the first president, into the last forty pages of Volume 4. But his book is even less adequately proportioned than Marshall’s, since his last volume is much shorter than the others, even when padded out with appendices and an index. This is partly the result of Irving’s failing health. But he makes clear in what he writes that he could not understand a political heroism of the sort Washington’s presidency exemplified. Irving even denies himself the pleasure of dishing the Democrats as Marshall had—though we know from his satirical treatment of Jefferson as “Wilhelmus Kieft” in the Knickerbocker history that he could score effectively on such questions. The most he will allow himself in the Washington is watery comment like: “Jefferson’s political fervor occasionally tended to exaltation, but it was genuine.” Hamilton is admired in these volumes more for his war service under Washington than as the secretary of the treasury.

The fault is partly Washington’s own. He destroyed the kind of heroism Irving could admire. He is not often thought of, now, as a man to rank with Caesar or Napoleon, because he refused to fail. No doomed romantic legend clings to his name. He accomplished everything he wanted to, and went home to die peaceably in bed. He made heroism look like careful investment; though he undertook larger tasks with fewer resources than most of the statesmen or warrior heroes of history. He made the impossible look, in retrospect, like the inevitable. He was as notable for the surrendering of power as for his ability to wield it. Congress had given him dictatorial powers by the end of the war, yet he surrendered them the minute hostilities ceased—and the “Cincinnatus” sensation spread through Europe. His surrender of the presidency was a symbol fully as potent, showing he could not be tempted to Napoleonic excess. Morgan rightly notes that there was a theatrical element even to his self-denial—he enacted nobility even as he earned it.

But this is where the Morgan-Adair paradox misleads instead of illuminating. We are told that Washington turned self-regard and hauteur into useful public channels. But there is no reason to think Washington began with aloofness as a personal trait. He was rather ardent and puppyish in his first enthusiasm for the navy, hero-worship of his brother, and eagerness to serve on the frontier. He forced himself to be grave, restraining ardor, taming impulse. In doing this he took the approved models, and struck the approved poses. A lover of the theater, he early made Addison’s Cato a special favorite.

Theatricality in the age of Garrick did not imply falsehood. When Garrick himself first saw West’s Death of Wolfe, he said the face was wrong, assumed the pose of Wolfe in the picture, and showed how a man should look when dying in transports of nobility. Reality was measured, tested, validated by the theater. Diderot systematically studied actors’ expressions to measure the human psyche. There was a duty, for the philosophers of sensibility, not only to be but to appear benevolent—since the incitation to virtue had to come, like all other sensations in the aftermath to Locke, from an outer impulse and example. Voltaire attacked the gospel injunction not to show one’s good deeds before others as an assault on the very possibility of improving society. Private virtue was considered an Enlightenment vice. So when Washington moved among men with a statuesque grandeur, this was not a failing to be traded off against some public benefit. It was the symbol of his achievement, and part of his achievement, that he played the role of inspiring general and virtuous Roman citizen better even than Garrick could. Garrick could only indicate the reality that Washington had become.

All of Morgan’s joined three paradoxes are askew, because they are anachronistic about the system of assumptions behind our view of personal failings and the eighteenth century’s system. Adams was touchy of his honor to the point of pomposity. But that very touchiness was a guard of virtue, and a virtue in itself, for the men of the Enlightenment—who had labored to replace an aristocratic concept of honor with one closer to duty, private worth, and public performance. That is why the Declaration submitted its signers’ “sacred honor” to the world’s test.

When Adams reproached himself for a vanity unconnected with true honor, he was falling off from an ideal he had always striven for—not noticing that a private quirk had not yet been put very efficiently to work. Jefferson’s emphasis on the preservation of his own equanimity is part of the same complex of ideals. Washington went back to his farm as Cincinnatus. Jefferson went back as Horace, more a friend to greatness than aspiring to that kind of greatness himself. All three men failed perfectly to embody their cognate ideals of public virtue. But it makes no sense to call the ideal itself a private failing only accidentally redeemed by public dividends. Honor was, for all three, “the subject of my story,” and the real meaning of independence.

  1. 1

    NYR, October 14, 1976.

  2. 2

    I cite Irving’s Life from the 1860 Putnam edition, by volume and page.

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