Every month, it seems, we have a new book on one or another of the founders who more than two hundred years ago created the United States. This is something peculiarly American. No other major nation celebrates its past historical characters in quite the way we Americans do, especially characters who existed two centuries ago. We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action or what George Washington would think of the invasion of Iraq. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington. Americans seem to have a special need for these historical figures in the here and now. Although Americans understandably have had a continual interest in the Revolutionary period, the recent flood of popular histories and biographies of the founders seems unusual. What’s going on?
To get some answers to this question The American Scholar in its spring 2005 issue polled eight scholars. Some of them thought quite sensibly that the interest in the Revolutionary generation has to do with national identity. The identities of other nations, say France or Germany, originated so long ago they are usually taken for granted (which is one reason why such nations are having greater problems with immigrants than we’re having). But Americans became a nation in 1776, and thus in order to know who we are we need to know who our founders were. That’s true enough, but since we’ve had problems of identity for two centuries, why this recent special interest in the founders? Is there something different about the past two decades that accounts for the founders’ popularity?
Other scholars have suggested that the recent interest in famous figures of the eighteenth century might have something to do with cycles of history writing. The generation of historians dating from the 1960s wrote social and cultural histories that concentrated on people in the past who had often been forgotten—women, slaves, and the poor who were at the bottom of society. Now, it is suggested, historians have swung away from that kind of history and are writing more traditional narrative histories about leaders and elites. But this explanation doesn’t seem quite right. Most academic historians haven’t yet changed their approach to the past; they continue to write social and cultural histories concerned with questions of race, class, and gender.
In fact, most if not all of the recent histories and biographies of the founding era have been written not by specialists in the eighteenth century but by biographers and historians who more or less ignore the esoteric debates the academics have among themselves. That is one reason at least for their wide readership. No doubt most academic monographs by their very nature have limited numbers of readers, but their being poorly written makes it all the more difficult for them to find readers. Whatever the limitations of the recent popular studies of the founders by historians such as David McCullough and Joseph Ellis may be, no one can doubt the quality of their prose.
Some of the polled scholars suggested that the recent interest in the founding corresponds to an upsurge in conservative thinking over the past several decades, leading to a new interest in recovering what was wise and valuable in America’s past. Others proposed that the heightened concern with constitutional jurisprudence and “original intent” may account for some of the fascination with the founding and the making of the Constitution. Several claimed that the founders of two hundred years ago have come to be seen as setting the standards against which we should measure our current political leaders. Why don’t we have such leaders today? seems to be an implicit question many ask.
This is a question that historians should be able to answer quite easily. The fact that people ask it at all suggests an ignorant historical perspective. Would we today actually be satisfied with leaders that resembled the founders? Not only did they live in a very different age from our own—an undemocratic age in which women could not vote or engage in most male activities and in which large numbers of people were still held in slavery. But also many of them, as events described in the three recent biographies under review suggest, were even more fractious and partisan than our leaders today, hard as that may be to believe. Indeed, if we look at the way the squabbling founders handled the United States’ relationship with France during the Revolution, we can only shake our heads in wonder at how the dis-United States of the 1770s and 1780s ever won the war and survived.
Three recent biographies deal with three major participants in the diplomacy of the Revolution—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. The authors are either professional biographers or amateur historians; in other words, none is an academic, which may help to account for the lucid and engaging prose of all three.
The most engaging by far is Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation, an account of Franklin in Paris. As a biographer, Schiff has previously written about two very different twentieth-century characters. She is the author of Saint-Exupéry, a life of the French aviator and writer, and of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. The book on Franklin involved the challenge of writing about a new century. In doing so, she has written a stunning book.
It is not that Schiff has anything startlingly new to say about Franklin that makes her book remarkable. It’s the way she says it. Her book is filled with telling anecdotes and is lively, witty, and extremely readable. Take, for example, her opening description of Franklin’s suitability for the formidable task he faced in his diplomatic mission of 1776, appealing to the French monarchy for assistance in establishing the new republic. Franklin may have been an American, she writes, but
he happened to do a fine imitation of a French courtier. He knew better than to confuse straightforwardness with candor; he was honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination. He left at home certain qualities on which America prides herself: piety, earnestness, efficiency. He was every bit as much the innocent abroad as Mark Twain, who covered his eyes at the Folies Bergère but who peeked. A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray, Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless.
Schiff’s description of Paris in the 1770s is equally telling. The city, only a third of its present size, was “a dim, bustling, steaming, fetid, brimming, deafening madness.” It assaulted the senses:
Entire terraces of the Tuileries, lengths of the quais, public stairways repelled visitors with their odor. From the tangle of dark, congested streets rose a stench that crawled up the visitor’s nostrils and took noxious hold. Rain produced only a sulfurous steam.
Paris was a dangerous place, even for a simple stroll through the streets:
Every day brought accounts of children crushed by coaches; so common were the collisions that the fines for legs, thighs, and arms had been codified.
Paris endangered the health in other ways too. It “was after all a city with over fourteen thousand prostitutes, an army larger than was, at times, General Washington’s.”
Schiff takes a special pleasure in contrasting the two cultures, American and French:
The women of America labored under the illusion that they were to be flirtatious until they landed a husband and paragons of vir-tue thereafter, when every self-respecting Frenchwoman subscribed to the opposite approach; what passed for gallantry in one country was commonly known as adultery in the other.
Schiff tells the story of Lafayette’s friend the duc de Lauzun trying to explain to one American beauty “that he was indeed married, but only a little bit so, hardly enough to bear mention.”
French criticism of America was familiar: “The American coffee was undrinkable, the food inedible, the people overly familiar and bizarrely peripatetic.” But the people of Boston did try to be sociable to the officers of the French fleet that arrived in America to help them. What better to serve them at dinner than “brimming tureens of their national dish.” The officers were surprised to find in each of their bowls “a full-grown brilliantly green Massachusetts frog.” “Why don’t they eat them?” wondered their hosts.
Americans, of course, had deep suspicions of the French from the outset. They had recently fought them in the Seven Years’ War and were not all that happy dealing with a Catholic monarchy. They didn’t even like the language. When Silas Deane in 1778 proposed that his alma mater Yale establish a professorship in French, the college authorities were opposed; Yale did not begin officially teaching the language until 1825. Men might learn it, but women never, for, as Schiff puts it, “where the French language went, depravity, frivolity, and indolence were sure to follow.”
With this combination of cultural insight and enjoyable prose, even if at times it begins to cloy, it is hard to put the book down. One keeps looking for new bons mots (“Dubourg was that rare thing, an entirely affable zealot”) and new aphorisms (“The French tended to treat their affairs of state like bagatelles, their bagatelles like affairs of state”).
But it is Schiff’s descriptions of her immensely talented cast of characters that make her story of Franklin’s French mission so fascinating. There was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais,
the flamboyant, scene-stealing playwright… [who] combined in one fair and lanky body the cunning of a Scarlet Pimpernel, the zeal of d’Artagnan, and the rectitude of the great gentleman burglar Arsène Lupin, the sprightly master of disguise.
There was Silas Deane, the Connecticut lawyer and two-time congressional delegate, sent to France early to acquire arms, who was “a contentious man, with a proclivity toward the shade in his business dealings”—traits that “recommended him for a mission for which he was not otherwise remotely qualified.” There was Arthur Lee of the famous Virginia family, the second of the original three commissioners sent to France, “ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid”; he “never married, as no woman could be found who met his standards.”
Schiff also introduces us to Paul Wentworth, the head of the British Secret Service in Paris, a master spy in a world full of spies, who, “with twenty aliases, assorted disguises, and a host of invisible inks, eluded even the peerless Paris police.” She has much to say about Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, the indefatigable and long-suffering French foreign minister with whom Franklin carried on his most important negotiations. He was “known at Versailles,” Schiff writes, “for qualities that did not endear him there: thrift, industry, prudence, gravity.” And then there was John Adams, Deane’s replacement, who found France too luxury-loving and licentious for his Yankee soul, and whose bullish manners and clumsy honesty drove both Vergennes and Franklin to distraction. There were many other colorful characters besides, too many to describe here, all pungently brought alive by Schiff.