The Founders’ Virtues

The Character of John Adams

by Peter Shaw
University of North Carolina Press, 324 pp., $12.95

The Life of George Washington

by Washington Irving, edited by Jess Stein
Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 800 pp., $19.95

Jefferson: A Revealing Biography

by Page Smith
McGraw-Hill, 320 pp., $12.50

Well, honour is the subject of my story….

Julius Caesar, I ii 92

Some scholars put impenetrable stuff in the journals, and polish it toward intelligibility for their books. But Edmund Morgan’s articles are even better written than his books. This may be because they were first delivered as papers, where attention must be won, paragraph by paragraph. Certainly the Williamsburg audience that heard Morgan, in 1971, answer those who lump him with “consensus historians” found it worth their while to stay awake for a conclusion that wittily recast William Wirt’s recasting of the speech of Patrick Henry:

[The outlook produced by the Revolution] was not a static consensus but one with the genius to serve changing times and needs. It was a consensus that invited conflicts and still invites them. A consensus peculiarly adapted to a growing people, a people on the move both geographically and socially. It could not have contained, but it did not produce, the kind of conflict that gave Charles I his Cromwell. It made instead for a society where a Hamilton had his Jefferson, a Hoover his Roosevelt, and a Nixon—might profit by their example. If this be conservatism, it is radicals who have made the most of it.

The papers collected in The Challenge of the American Revolution reveal how often Morgan anticipated developments in the history of our Revolution—when he did not get full credit for his new insights, this was because he so modestly stated the case. The “ideological” interpretation of the Revolution, often dated from the Sixties, was anticipated in the first and most important of these reprinted essays (from 1947), which showed that the common theory of a developing justification for the Revolution, responsive to changing social and economic pressures, is derived from debates in England between America’s friends (who made the most limited claims at the outset) and America’s enemies (who accused the colonies of an inconsistent and opportunistic “escalation” of demands). In America itself, Morgan shows, the claim to legislative independence of Parliament (supposed to be the “final” position arrived at by 1776) was already the most prevalent claim put forward in the Stamp Act controversy of 1765.

The fourth paper included here, from 1967, takes up another aspect of the ideological interpretation—the charge that corruption had, in effect, suspended the British constitution, releasing Americans from their allegiance. Morgan balances this claim by discovering its literary roots in the Puritan jeremiad, in exaggerated self-accusation meant to bring about reform. Some Americans directed the same charges of corruption against their provincial governments, both before and after the Revolution. This kind of literary insight is needed to correct the legalism of much ideological analysis.

But Morgan knows how to use social data, too. He is not a consensus historian if that means ignoring the conflicts that arise from economic circumstance. His fifth paper, from 1966, states a little more sharply the thesis of his recent book, American Slavery, American Freedom, that the very same conditions making for white freedom made for black slavery. He argues that black slavery had to grow in parts of America because only black slaves could be denied guns, and the presence of armed white field hands was a specter the plantation owners knew they had reason to fear. This and the following paper suggest Morgan’s interest in the way guns have shaped our history—not only frontier history expanding west, but the inner frontier of changing conditions in the East, where the gun freed some while enslaving others.

Morgan’s second paper, “Revisions in Need of Revising,” written in 1956, is still the best introduction I know to the issues of Revolutionary history. In fact, the only weak paper in the book is, unfortunately, the last one, a set of “Reflections on the Bicentennial.” Delivered to a young audience, it departs from the allusive and aphoristic tone of the earlier essays.

Morgan’s achievement is stunning. He prints essays from a period spanning over a quarter of a century, all of them still fresh and strong. Often it is pioneering work that gets soonest dated. Morgan’s papers seem not to have dated at all—except that he tells us, in an introduction to each of them, just how it has dated, where it fits into his own growing (and therefore incomplete) understanding of the Revolutionary period. This makes the book even more stimulating than other collections of brilliant essays on the subject (e.g., Richard B. Morris’s The American Revolution Reconsidered of 1967, or Douglass Adair’s Fame and the Founding Fathers of 1974). Here we get, bound in with the essays, a kind of brief intellectual biography, the Education of a Historian. And Morgan has an earned knowledge of limit that makes it no scholarly blasphemy to think of Henry Adams.

Morgan transcends the simple categories (e.g., of consensus vs. conflict) when he writes that revisionism should not be the particular claim of one school among historians but the law of all history (indeed, of all life): “Since the time needed to produce a historian is a good deal less than a life span, a lively dialogue has been possible among generations of scholars.” Properly mediated on, that sentence alone is worth the price of the book. It is a profoundly conservative argument for change—and therefore worthy of Adams.

Admiring as I do his articles prepared for oral delivery, I expected a great deal—perhaps too much—from Morgan’s Richard Lectures, now published as The Meaning of Independence. Here we should have had the best of two worlds: lectures, yet lectures delivered on one theme, with a book in mind. Furthermore, Morgan takes a position that seems to promise the kind of “revising” he has praised. He wants to supplement the ideological and economic interpretations of the Revolution with a psychological one. The aim is to avoid the treatment of historical “forces” apart from the peculiarities of the real men reacting to them. Yet Morgan steers wide of the solipsistic tendency of “psychobiographers” to ignore the social setting within which each human being must act.

Morgan argues that the Revolution succeeded, in part, because it was able to put even private faults to benign public use. John Adams was testy and vain; but that made him contentious for his country’s honor. George Washington was haughty and aloof; but that gave steadiness to the new Republic. Jefferson was withdrawn and secretive; but that made him a champion of the individual’s rights and privacy.

Actually, these three lectures just expand the theme of Douglass Adair’s title essay in Fame and the Founding Fathers. (Morgan received the first Douglass Adair Award in 1973.) Adair tried to build a bridge between the burgeoning ideological and the traditional economic interpretations of the Revolution by pointing out that one form of “self-interest”—the desire for fame—meshed with the eighteenth century’s “ideological” conviction that posterity’s regard was the real test of a man’s worth. In his subsequent edition of the Adams-Rush correspondence (The Spur of Fame, 1996), Adair applied his thesis to the vanity of John Adams in exactly the way Morgan does. In fact, the transformation of the private flaws of Adams, Washington, and Jefferson—taken in that order—is surveyed on pages six and seven of Fame and the Founding Fathers. Apparently this argument entered so deeply into Morgan’s thinking that he forgot to acknowledge its source.

It has long been the custom to treat Adams and Jefferson in tandem, playing off one’s strengths and weaknesses against the other’s. This tendency has distant roots—but it took on special urgency after 1959, when Lester J. Cappon published the complete correspondence of the two men with each other. So Henry May devoted the climactic chapter of his recent The Enlightenment in America to a contrast between the pious skepticism of Adams and the theistic materialism of Jefferson. Merrill Peterson’s Lamar Memorial Lectures supplement his big biography of Jefferson with a brief “joint biography,” an improvement over John Murray Allison’s 1966 Adams and Jefferson, the Story of a Friendship. Page Smith, on the other hand, who wrote a long biography of Adams, has now supplemented it with a brief book on Jefferson, stressing the things that Adams lacked (e.g., a love for the visual arts).

Like Morgan and May, Smith emphasizes Jefferson’s retiring nature. May even calls this a trait “that lies somewhere between secretiveness and duplicity.” In spinning his own fancies about this trait, Smith certainly escapes the reproach he levels at his colleagues: “Historians are so addicted to what is written down that their imaginations falter in the face of the blank record.” Smith has about as unfaltering an imagination as one could ask for. He belongs to those psychobiographers who feel they compliment their subject by giving it all their own favorite traits. Did Jefferson engage in politics at a dilettante’s distance? This was because his “pathological” artistic sensitivity made him too delicate for the rough and tumble of life. He had to retreat to Monticello to preserve his sanity, while his daughter cared for “the precariousness of his psychic health.” Smith describes, with admiring hysteria, an eighteenth-century Heathcliff, darkening Monticello from Georgian to neo-Gothic colors. He manages to sound even sillier than Fawn Brodie—but I suppose it is a public service further to discredit her method simply by pushing it further.

Peterson’s book is more serious in every way; but it, too, disappoints. Peterson accepts, and just elaborates on, the conventional distinctions between Jefferson and Adams. Adams has earned a rather condescending affection from modern historians. His comic indignation, expressed in spluttery lists of words, was perfectly “put down” by Jefferson, when he heard Adams was to be a peace commissioner: “He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English. To whom will he adhere?” Yet Adams was as good a lover as a hater, and he actually read more than Jefferson did. Peterson lumps the “Novanglus” papers of Adams with Jefferson’s Summary View, as similar in tendency. But they were not; and the Adams arguments show a far greater respect for complexity of facts, and for the case that can be made on the other side. Peterson, too, tends to go along with those who find the excesses of Adams’s presidency an expression of his political theory, and those of Jefferson an exception to his. Yet Adams himself claimed he was misinterpreted, and he had far less to do with the Alien and Sedition Acts than Jefferson did with the embargo or the trial of Burr. Adams always exaggerated his personal feelings—yet those who laugh off his other hyperboles take his “monarchic” statements seriously.

The autumnal correspondence of Adams and Jefferson moves in the large shared areas of their thought, beyond the magnified bickerings of a nascent party politics. That correspondence is rich and appealing, yet restrained—an eighteenth-century chamber music of the mind, in which the two men trade off themes, challenge and echo each other, swell and fade in the give and take of ideas and memories. If Jefferson prefers trim little violin tunes, while Adams more often chuckles or grumbles along on the bass, the marvel is their final mutual deference.

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.