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The Greatest Generation

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Joseph J. Ellis

The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire

Francis Jennings
Cambridge University Press, 340 pp., $54.95; $19.95 (paper)


Not so long ago the generation that fought the Revolution and created the Constitution was thought to be the greatest generation in American history. The Founding Fathers, or the “Founders,” as our antipatriarchal climate now prefers, were generally considered to be without parallel in American history. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, wrote Henry Steele Commager in 1961, America “boasted a galaxy of leaders who were quite literally incomparable.” Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and the other revolutionaries, said the historian Adrienne Koch in 1965, “were a cluster of extraordinary men such as is rarely encountered in modern history.” Until recently few Americans could look back at these revolutionaries and constitution-makers without being overawed by the brilliance of their thought, the creativity of their politics, the sheer magnitude of their achievement. They used to seem larger than life, giants in the earth, possessing intellectual and political capacities well beyond our own.

But not anymore, at least not in the eyes of some professional historians. The American revolutionaries and the framers of the Constitution are no longer being celebrated in the way they used to be. Even our recent electoral mess, according to the former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, can be attributed to the mistakes of “the boys in the powdered wigs” who “didn’t get this one right.” In the eyes of some recent historians there doesn’t seem to be very much that the Founders did get right; in fact, they are being held responsible for nearly everything that is now deemed wrong with American culture and society.

Of course, traditional appreciation for the great men of the Revolution has not ceased, nor will it. Every year we will continue to get books that honor one or another of the Founders or, as in Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers, analyze their relationships with one another and their extraordinary contributions to the new nation.

Probably no historian has done more to concentrate attention on the Founders during the past few years than Ellis. With two very sensitive earlier studies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and now with this new collection of essays on a half-dozen of the leading Founders (George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, in addition to Adams and Jefferson), Ellis has established himself as the Founders’ historian for our time.

Instead of writing a long, detailed narrative of the period, Ellis has tried to select and highlight certain episodes or relationships involving the leading Founders during the first decade or so following the creation of the new national government. He has used these episodes or relationships to reveal both the characters of the major figures and the contingencies that surrounded their nation-building efforts. The result is a remarkable set of very engaging stories that can be read independently of one another. The first, though the last in time, describes the duel between Burr and Hamilton. The second deals with the Jefferson dinner in 1790 at which Madison and Hamilton worked out the compromise that allowed for Virginia’s support for the federal assumption of state debts in return for locating the national capital on the Potomac. The third and by far the most original story is entitled “The Silence.” It relates the way in which the Founders took the controversial issue of slavery off the national agenda in order to preserve the union. The fourth chapter, concentrating on Washington’s Farewell Address, is one of the best brief essays ever written on the sources of Washington’s greatness as president.

In a fifth chapter, entitled “The Collaborators,” Ellis describes several personal alliances during the 1790s—that between Jefferson and Madison in organizing the Republican Party and that between John Adams and his wife, Abigail; but he concentrates on the relationship between Jefferson and Adams. Despite all the remarkable partnerships of the revolutionary era—not only the ones he mentions in this chapter but the others between Madison and Hamilton writing The Federalist and Madison and Washington launching the new government—Ellis labels the Jefferson–Adams relationship “the greatest collaboration of them all.”

This is one example of Ellis’s occasional tendency to fall into what Madison called the habit of men like Jefferson and “others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.” Since Adams and Jefferson were bitter political enemies during the 1790s, the decade at the center of Ellis’s book, it is curious that he makes their partnership the greatest of them all. But, of course, they had been allies during the events leading up the Declaration of Independence and in their ministries abroad in the 1780s, and they never entirely lost an underlying affection for one another. This affection becomes the source of Ellis’s sixth and final chapter, which describes the renewal of their friendship in retirement as the two aging statesmen, this “odd couple,” as Ellis calls them, sought to explain themselves to one another. About their famous correspondence Ellis writes,

Beyond sheer verbal volume, the punch so evident in the Adams prose reflected his more aggressive and confrontational temperament. The Jefferson style was fluid, lyrical, cadenced, and melodious. Words for him were like calming breezes that floated across the pages. The Adams style was excited, jumpy, exclamatory, naughty. Words for him were like weapons designed to pierce the pages or explode above them in illuminating airbursts. While the Adams style generated a host of memorable epigrammatic flashes, it was the worst-possible vehicle for sustaining diplomatic niceties. Jefferson was perfectly capable of remaining on script and in role as philosopher-king to the end. If it had been up to him, the demigod version of the Adams-Jefferson dialogue would have captured its essence and ultimate meaning as a staged performance for posterity. Adams, however, despite all his vows of Ciceronian serenity, was congenitally incapable of staying in character. For him, the only meaningful kind of conversation was an argument. And that, in the end, is what the dialogue with Jefferson became, and the best way to understand its historical significance.

Founding Brothers is a wonderful book, one of the best collections of essays on the Founders ever written. In his preface Ellis tells us that he “hoped to render human and accessible that generation of political leaders cus-tomarily deified and capitalized as Founding Fathers”; he has succeeded admirably in making clear and intelligible many of the confusing contradictions of the time, and turned the Founders into palpable human beings, each with his distinctive achievements and flaws.

Washington emerges from Ellis’s collection pretty much unscathed, as the wisest and most realistic of the Founders, the one indispensable man. Adams comes in second, as the most human, most honest, and most lovable of the Founders, who understood better than anyone else the ways in which the future histories of the Revolution would be constructed and deconstructed. Ellis obviously has real affection for the man and describes with great sensitivity Adams’s relationships with his wife, Abigail, and with Jefferson. Of all the Founders Ellis is most critical of Jefferson, more critical, it seems, than he was in his earlier book on Jefferson, American Sphinx. Jefferson is the dreamer, the visionary, whose analysis of society (that it was always the few against the many) and whose predictions of the future (that Britain would sink into the sea and revolutionary France would triumph) were invariably wrong. But Ellis also writes that Jefferson was deceitful and duplicitous:

Jefferson’s position on political parties, like his stance on slavery, seemed to straddle a rather massive contradiction. In both instances his posture of public probity—slavery should be ended and political parties were evil agents that corrupted republican values—was at odds with his personal behavior and political interest. And in both instances, Jefferson managed to convince himself that these apparent contradictions were, well, merely apparent. In the case of his active role behind the scenes during the presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson sincerely believed that a Federalist victory meant the demise of the spirit of ‘76. Anything that avoided that horrible outcome ought to be justifiable. He then issued so many denials of his direct involvement in the campaign that he probably came to believe his own lies.

Ellis’s criticism of Jefferson is too well documented to be dismissed as just another example of the often crude Jefferson-bashing carried on by some historians over the past several decades. For that reason it is all the more devastating. Still, Ellis never loses sight of the ways that the circumstances of founding a nation limited and overwhelmed all these men, and thus the tone of his account is more tragic than condemnatory.

Despite all his revealing of the Founders’ foibles, Ellis has no doubt that these revolutionary leaders made up “the greatest generation of political talent in American history.” Yet he also realizes that precisely because they and their achievement were so great, there is an inevitable urge “to demonize them, since any discussion of their achievement is also an implicit conversation about the distinctive character of American imperialism, both foreign and domestic.”


This urge to demonize the Founders has actually been around for over a hundred years. In the late nineteenth century historians began puncturing the aura of divinity that almost at once had come to surround the founding generation and the Constitution they had created. When Progressive reformers became increasingly frustrated with the undemocratic character of many of the institutions of the national government, professional scholars, such as J. Allen Smith,1 responded by showing that the Constitution was a reactionary, aristocratic document designed by its checks and balances, difficulty of amendment, and judicial review to thwart the popular will.

These efforts prepared the way for the historiographical explosion that Charles Beard made in 1913 with An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard’s book, which was part of the “revolt against formalism” occurring everywhere in the Western world in these years, became the most influential history book ever written in America. By suggesting that the framers of the Constitution were motivated by their underlying economic interests, Beard removed the mantle of disinterested virtue that they had traditionally been wrapped in. However crude and mistaken Beard’s particular findings later turned out to be, his underlying assumption that people’s consciousness and ultimately their behavior were the products of their social and economic circumstances had a lasting effect on American historical scholarship.

Yet there does seem to be something new and different about the present-day vilification of the founding generation. Historians’ defaming of these elite white men is much more widespread than it used to be. As Ellis points out, sometimes this criticism has taken the form of historians’ purposefully ignoring the politics and the achievements of the Founders altogether—as if what they did was not all that important. Instead, he writes, much of the best work on the history of the early Republic during the past several decades has concentrated on recovering the lost voices of ordinary people—a midwife in Maine or a former slave in Connecticut:

  1. 1

    See his Spirit of American Government, published in 1907.

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