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:

This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.

When the Founders are not ignored but confronted directly, present-day criticism of them is much more devastating than past criticism. After all, despite his exposing of what he took to be the Founders’ underlying economic motives, Beard always respected the men who framed the Constitution. “Never in the history of assemblies,” he wrote in 1912,

has there been a convention of men richer in political experience and in practical knowledge, or endowed with a profounder insight into the springs of human action and the intimate essence of government.

Such an appraisal would seem absurd to most of the recent historians critical of the Founders. They are not interested, as earlier critics were, in simply stripping away myths and legends to get at the human beings hidden from view. If anything, some of these critical historians, “unhappy,” as Ellis says, “with what America has become or how we have gotten here,” want to dehumanize, not humanize, the Founders.

Because our present-day culture has lost a great deal of its former respect for absolute values and timeless truths, we have a harder time believing that the eighteenth-century Founders have anything important to say to us in the twenty-first century. It appears more evident than ever before that the revolutionary leaders do not share our modern views about important matters—whether race, the role of women, or equality. Hence it is easier now to dismiss them as racists, sexists, and elitists. Some historians have even concluded that the Revolution they brought about was pretty much a failure. As one historian put it, the Revolution “failed to free the slaves, failed to offer full political equality to women,…failed to offer citizenship to Indians, [and] failed to create an economic world in which all could compete on equal terms.”2

Yet most such histories pale in venom beside the acerbic work by Francis Jennings, The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire. Jennings, who is a retired scholar, doesn’t even grant that the revolutionaries had any good intentions whatever. He believes that all their ideals were just so much propaganda, all their writings about liberty and rights so many rationalizations, cover-ups that expressed “‘good’ reasons for motives other than good.” Unfortunately, he says, most historians have accepted this propaganda at face value, “which is why so many fat volumes recite the Revolution as an unacknowledged fairy tale.” The revolutionaries may have talked about liberty, but they “permitted less dissent than the British government allowed its critics and opponents in England.” When it comes to the Americans’ claim of being more virtuous than Europeans, Jennings can scarcely restrain his indignation:

The sanctimonious prating by the Revolutionaries that they were virtuous—coming from such political bosses, bootleggers, financial tricksters, and slavers—is too disgusting for detailed discussion here.

What especially angers Jennings about the elite white revolutionaries is the brutal way they seized power at the expense of the native Indians and African-American slaves. The revolutionaries may have talked about the sovereignty of the people, but, says Jennings, they never meant all the people. In their eyes, “Indians and slaves were not people.” They “wanted to reduce Indians and slaves permanently below human status.” Instead of being liberators, the Founders were oppressors, and imperial oppressors at that.

Jennings thus joins the ranks of the recent present-minded historians who blame the Founders for failing to transcend the assumptions of their own time and for setting up a system that fails to solve our own current problems. Sometimes these historians seem to relish describing how brutal and exploitative the revolutionaries were in their treatment of both slaves and Indians. Many of them, as one scholar of the Indians put it, see their role as being “a critic of culture” whose principal task is “to illuminate conditions of the present by casting a harsh light on previous experience.”3 That this approach intentionally distorts the past for the sake of the present and violates the mission of the historian to recover that past as accurately as possible does not seem to bother these scholars.

Despite all this criticism of the Founders, however, they seem to remain for most Americans, if not for most historians, a remarkable elite, their achievements scarcely matched by any other generation in American history. If so, how do we explain their character and their accomplishments?

The revolutionary leaders were very much the product of peculiar circumstances and a peculiar moment. Certainly they were not immune to the temptations of self-interest that attracted most ordinary human beings. They wanted wealth and position and often speculated heavily in order to realize their aims. Indeed, several of the most prominent Founders, such as the financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, James Wilson, ended up in debtors’ prison.

They were not democrats, certainly not democrats in any modern manner. They were never embarrassed by talk of their being an elite, and they never hid their sense of superiority to ordinary folk. But neither were they contemptuous of common people; in fact, they always believed that the people in general were the source of their authority. As the historian Charles S. Sydnor pointed out long ago, they were the beneficiaries of a semi-aristocratic political system, and their extraordinary leadership was owing in large measure to processes that we today would consider undemocratic and detestable.4

But even in their own undemocratic time and circumstances they were unusual. As Ellis points out, as political leaders they made up a political elite unlike any that existed in England or Europe. Here Ellis gets carried away and, in another of his strong impressions, contends that “all of its members, not just those like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton with famously impoverished origins, would have languished in obscurity in England or France.” This goes much too far, for in Britain, at least, many bright young men of obscure origins did make it. One thinks of Franklin’s friend William Strahan who, like Franklin, began life as a printer and ended up a member of Parliament. Edmund Burke, an Irishman of undistinguished origins, rose to become one of the great writers and orators of his age. But we know what Ellis means. Clever Britons of obscure origins could have spectacular careers, but they needed patrons and sponsors. Burke would never have acquired the eminence he did without the patronage of William Hamilton and the Marquess of Rockingham. Members of the American revolutionary elite seem much more self-made; no doubt they had the help of patrons but they nonetheless came to dominate their society in a way that men like Strahan or Burke never dominated English society.

Eighteenth-century Britain remained under the control of about four hundred families whose fabulous scale of landed wealth, political influence, and aristocratic grandeur was unmatched by anyone in North America. While Charles Carroll of Maryland, one of the richest planters in the American South, was earning what Americans regarded as the huge sum of £1,800 a year, the Earl of Derby’s vast estates were bringing in an annual income of over £40,000. By English standards American aristocrats like Washington and Jefferson, even with hundreds of slaves, remained minor gentry at best. And by the English measure of status, lawyers like Adams and Hamilton were even less distinguished, gentlemen no doubt but nothing like the English nobility. The American revolutionary elite was thus unusual, but it did resemble another eighteenth-century British elite—that of Scotland, another outlying province in the greater British world. This resemblance helps us understand the American Founders’ peculiar social status and their remarkable intellectual creativity.

Scottish and American societies shared some common characteristics that enabled both of them to produce celebrated members of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Scots like David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar matched the American Founders in brilliance and creativity. Both societies lacked the presence of the great hereditary noble families that were at the ruling center of English political life. And, as Ellis suggests, this was important in permitting the American Founders to lead their society. Thus both Scotland and America, unlike metropolitan England, tended to be dominated by minor gentry—professional men and relatively small landowners—who were anxious to have their status determined less by their ancestry or the size of their estates and more by their character or their learning.

As the historians Bernard Bailyn and John Clive suggested nearly a half-century ago,5 both the North American and the Scottish leaders of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment were eager to create a new kind of aristocracy—one based on principles that could be acquired and were superior to those of birth and family, or even great wealth. Because of the nearby presence of barbaric Highland clans and Indian tribes, leaders in both Scotland and North America shared a keen sense of the spectrum of civilization ranging from rudeness to refinement. Yet at the same time they also knew only too well what the metropolitan center of London had to offer in the way of politeness and sophistication as well as luxury and corruption. Living as they did at a distance from the metropolitan center of civilization but proud of their native provinces, they had the unsettling experience of living in two cultures simultaneously.

Although this experience may have made them uneasy, it was at the same time stimulating. Both the Scottish and North American leaders felt compelled to think freshly about the meaning of being civilized, and in the process they put a heightened emphasis on learned and acquired values at the expense of the traditional inherited values of blood and kinship. Wanting to become the kind of gentlemen that their contemporaries Jane Austen and Edmund Burke idealized, they enthusiastically adopted the new enlightened eighteenth-century ideals of gentility—grace without foppishness, refinement without ostentation, virtue without affectation, independence without arrogance. They struggled to internalize the new liberal man-made standards that had come to define what it meant to be truly civilized—politeness, taste, sociability, learning, compassion, and benevolence—and what it meant to be good political leaders—virtue, disinterestedness, and an aversion to corruption and courtierlike behavior.

Of course they often did not live up to such standards; but once internalized, these enlightened and classically republican ideals and values to some degree circumscribed and controlled their behavior. The intense self-conscious seriousness with which the American revolutionary generation of leaders committed themselves to behaving in a certain moral, virtuous, and civilized manner was in fact what ultimately separates them from later generations of American leaders.

Members of this revolutionary generation saw themselves sharply set apart from the older world of their fathers and grandfathers. They sought, often unsuccessfully, to be what Jefferson called “natural aristocrats”—aristocrats who measured their status not by birth or family but by enlightened values and benevolent behavior. To be a natural aristocrat meant being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous, and candid. It implied as well being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, and being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric. It meant, in short, having all the characteristics that we today sum up in the idea of a liberal arts education. In fact, as the historian Sheldon Rothblatt has showed us,6 the eighteenth century created the modern idea of a liberal arts education in the English-speaking world.

The Founders had good reason to emphasize these cultural values and ideals at the expense of the traditional standards of blood and family that hereditary aristocrats from time immemorial had valued. They were men of high ambitions yet of relatively modest origins, and this combination made achieved rather than ascribed values naturally appealing to them. Almost all the revolutionary leaders—even including the second and third ranks of leadership—were first-generation gentlemen. That is to say, almost all were the first in their families to attend college, to acquire a liberal arts education, and to display the new eighteenth-century marks of an enlightened gentleman. Of the ninety-nine men who signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution only eight are known to have had fathers who attended college. (Those revolutionary leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Nathanael Greene, who did not attend college usually made up for this lack by intensive self-cultivation.) Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, was a well-off Virginia planter and surveyor who married successfully into the prestigious Randolph family. But he was not a refined and liberally educated gentleman: he did not read Latin, he did not know French, he did not play the violin, and, as far as we know, he never once questioned the idea of a religious establishment or the owning of slaves.

His son Thomas Jefferson was very different. Indeed, all the revolutionaries knew things that their fathers had not known, and they were eager to prove themselves by what they believed and valued and by their virtue and disinterestedness. Of all the Founders, Aaron Burr is the great exception, as Ellis says, “the odd man out within the elite of the early republic.” Burr’s father and grandfather were presidents of Princeton, and he had, in the opinion of John Adams, the most conspicuous “prejudice in favor of birth, parentage, and descent” of any person in the country.

Unlike the other Founders, Burr was born fully and unquestionably into whatever nobility and gentility eighteenth-century America had. Burr never felt he had to earn his aristocratic status in the way the other revolutionary leaders did. Aristocracy was in his veins and he never forgot it. Thus he never had the same emotional need the other revolutionary statesmen had to justify his gentlemanly status by continually expressing an abhorrence of corruption and a love of virtue. Because of that lack, he behaved differently from the other revolutionary Founders—especially in promoting his own selfish interests at the expense of the public good—and in the end that difference provoked his fellow statesmen into bringing him down. If Burr was a traitor, it was not to his country but to his class.

But if it was the intensity of its commitment to new enlightened values that separates the generation of the Founders from other generations, why, it might be asked, and has been asked in recent critical histories, did these so-called enlightened and liberally educated gentlemen not do more to reform their society? Why did they fail to enhance the status of women? To eliminate slavery entirely? To treat the Indians in a more humane manner?

It is true that the Founders did not accomplish all that many of them wanted. It turned out that they did not control their society and culture as much as they thought they did. And they were no more able accurately to predict their future than we can ours. In the end many of their enlightened hopes, and their kind of elitist leadership, were done in by the very democratic and egalitarian forces they had unleashed with their Revolution.

No doubt all of the Founders assumed instinctively that the western territories would eventually belong to American settlers. But many of them were at the same time scrupulously concerned for the fate of the Indians who occupied those territories; indeed, a modern anthropologist might even applaud the statements of Washington’s secretary of war Henry Knox in the 1790s about the need for just treatment of the Native Americans. But purchasing the Indians’ rights to the land and assimilating or protecting them in a civilized manner, as Knox recommended, depended on an orderly and steady pace of settlement. The ordinary white settlers who moved west, flush with confidence that they were indeed the chosen people of God that their leaders told them they were, paid no attention to the plans and policies concocted in eastern capitals. They went ahead and rapidly and chaotically moved westward, and thus stirred up warfare with the Indians into which the federal government was inevitably drawn.

Democracy and demography did the same for the other hopes and plans of the Founders. All of the prominent early leaders thought that the liberal principles of the Revolution would eventually destroy the institution of slavery. When even Southerners like Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Henry Laurens publicly deplored the injustice of slavery, from “that moment,” declared the New York physician and abolitionist E.H. Smith in 1798, “the slow, but certain, death-wound was inflicted upon it.” Of course, such predictions could not have been more wrong. Far from being doomed, slavery in the United States in the 1790s was on the verge of its greatest expansion. Indeed, at the end of the revolutionary era there were more slaves in the nation than had existed in 1760.

But such self-deception, such mistaken optimism, by the revolutionary leaders was understandable, for they wanted to believe the best, and initially there was evidence that slavery was dying out. The Northern states, where slavery was not inconsequential, were trying to eliminate the institution, and by 1804 all had done so. The Founders thought the same thing might happen in the Southern states. Not only were there more antislave societies created in the South than in the North, but manumissions in the upper South grew rapidly in the years immediately following the end of the War for Independence. Many thought that ending the international slave trade in 1808 would eventually kill off the institution of slavery. The Founders so readily took the issue to slavery off the table in the 1790s because of this mistaken faith in the future. They simply did not count on the remarkable demographic capacity of the slave states themselves, especially Virginia, to produce slaves for the expanding areas of the Deep South and the Southwest. Whatever wishes the revolutionary leaders might have had for ending slavery were nullified by the demands of ordinary white planters for more slaves.


Startling as it may seem, the revolutionaries may have been most successful in raising the status of women, as Linda Kerber, Rosemarie Zagarri, Susan Branson, David Shields, Fredrika Teute, and other historians have recently begun to demonstrate. Certainly the Revolution for the first time in American history brought the traditional patriarchal inferiority of women into serious question and made Americans conscious of the claim for the equal rights of women as never before. More important, some elite women began to have a significant public presence, particularly in creating the so-cial networks on which politicians depended for information and contacts. Revolutionary women, it turns out, became not just “republican mothers” training their sons for virtuous leadership but political agents in their own right as well, even though they were almost everywhere denied the right to vote.

Precisely because many of the new enlightened values that the revolutionaries sought to adopt, especially politeness, sociability, compassion, and benevolence, were thought to be better promoted by women than men, the Revolution was bound to enhance the status of women, or at least upper- strata white women. But the Founders could scarcely have foreseen just how essential women would become to the workings of their new national government. In her important and delightfully written book Parlor Politics, Catherine Allgor describes the various ways genteel elite women during the first decades of the nineteenth century used “social events and the ‘private sphere’ to establish the national capital and to build the extraofficial structures so sorely needed in the infant federal government.”

Women were everywhere in Washington in these years, and they had a crucial part in cloaking “power and politics in a context of social consensus.” In their new republic men necessarily had to take a public stand against the corrupt courtlike wheeling and dealing of a monarchical world. Yet in reality their republican political world needed old-fashioned connections, personal relations, and calculations of self-interest as much as any monarchy. Women, according to Allgor, stepped in to narrow this discrepancy between republican pretensions and political necessities. They used their social skills and a variety of unofficial social institutions—social calls, salons, balls, and soirées—to perform “the dirty work of politics to ensure their husbands’ political purity.” They disguised the political in the personal, hid the many cabals and compromises of politics in their private world of social events. In the process women like Margaret Bayard Smith and Dolley Madison helped to create a ruling class in America.

Like so many other aspects of the founding era, this reign of parlor politics was eventually done in by the rise of democracy, expressed most graphically in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Ordinary men and women increasingly found the capital’s intermingling of society and politics too aristocratic, too European, for democratic America. Women’s proper sphere was thought more and more to be a private one: women belonged in the family at home, not in the public salons and soirées of power. The new popular middle-class genteel culture, Allgor writes, “focused on family and valued propriety over public dignity, respectability over eminence, and private standards over political expediency.” With a new Jacksonian generation of male politicians now able to wheel and deal directly in the dirty business of popular politics, the “petticoat politics” in the nation’s capital at last came to an end.

If we want to know why we can never again reproduce the extraordinary generation of the Founders, there is a simple answer—the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being. The Founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people. They themselves created the sources of their own demise.

This Issue

March 29, 2001