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The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

51ZjDS1hAUL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_ The United States has just fought a long and grueling war for independence. Or had it? What was the goal of that war? Joseph Ellis, noted historian, argues that a collective nationhood, a nation of United States, was not a goal of the war and rather had to be constructed by a group of visionaries, particularly the four men highlighted in his book The Quartet.

Ellis argues that the idea and implementation of a nation of the 13 colonies, more than a loose confederation of sovereign states, constituted a second American Revolution, one that embodied the promise of the actual war itself but one that was, in many senses, at odds with the spirit of the war. The war had the stated goal of throwing off a centralized government that did not represent the people at the local level. The establishment of a federal US government was at odds with this view. Further, the very idea of an American nation was something that the vast majority of Americans had never even considered. They were Virginians, New Yorkers, or Georgians, but never Americans.

However, the loose confederation of states embodied by the Articles of Confederation was simply powerless to do anything that required representing the states in any collective way, including collecting funds to pay down the war debt, put forth a consistent foreign policy, or settle disputes between the states. Four men, in particular, saw this problem and led an effort to empower a federal government that could realize the promise of the American Revolution: George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

The whole process of the calling of the convention that would lead to the US Constitution was, in some sense, anti-democratic. These were the political leaders of the time, but they operated in secrecy. Further, the ratification of the Constitution was done by state conventions, which were attended by select representatives. If a modern referendum had been called, the Constitution and the very idea of an American nation would have been rejected by the people. However, the representatives at these conventions were not so beholden to popular opinion.

This whole idea is a central and very intriguing aspect of the process. Madison, in particular, was not a fan of direct democracy. He felt that the will of the masses could be easily manipulated by demagogues and were a central threat to the rights of the minority. He preferred what a republic, in which the foundations of power resided with the people, but in which that power was filtered through layers of representatives that, ultimately, did not have to directly respond to the whims of the people. The US was never established to be a direct democracy, but very consciously avoided such a model. Essentially, he “endorsed political structures that filtered popular opinion through several layers of institutionalized deliberation before it became the law of the land.” “He harbored an eighteenth-century sense that unbridled democracy was incompatible with the political health of a republic.” “There was in Madison’s critical assessment of the state governments a discernible antidemocratic ethos rooted in the conviction that political popularity generated a toxic chemistry of appeasement and demagoguery that privileged popular whim and short-term interests at the expense of the long-term public interest.” Ellis examines this view in great depth. It is an interesting and, to our modern sensibilities, jarring perspective. He summarizes this juxtaposition thusly: the Constitution “manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

There were of course many contradictions in the establishment of the United States, as a nation, and the ideals of the American Revolution. One of the central tenets of the war was that “all men are created equal.” However, the US certainly didn’t view the Native Americans or slaves as equals. The domestic policy of the US was that civilization would naturally and simply march westward, displacing the Native Americans, without any direct claim of imperialism. Further, the slave issue could not be resolved in the convention, as to directly address the issue would lead to a still-birth of the nation.  “…slavery was, on the one hand, a cancerous tumor in the American body politic and, on the other, a malignancy so deeply embedded that it could not be removed without killing the patient.” “Moral purity on this score would come at the cost of American nationhood.” This is how the men at the Constitutional Convention justified simply skirting the issue. However, one does wonder how history might have developed if they had taken the moral high road and pushed to abolish slavery at that time.

Once the Constitution was written, it had to be ratified, and that entailed a whole new battle in the hearts and minds of the citizens of the future United States. Ellis describes the efforts of primarily Hamilton and Madison, along with Jay, to convince the various state delegations to ratify the Constitution. They played a very political game, trying to get enough states to ratify before the heavy hitters — Virginia and New York — held their conventions to ensure enough political pressure on them to ratify. In the end, ratification was not as certain as one would expect from our historical perspective. Ratification did not represent the will of the people, but rather “superior organization, more talented leadership, and a political process that had been designed from the start to define the options narrowly.” The Bill of Rights, first drafted solely by Madison, had a similar political goal of ensuring that the Constitution would not be challenged by any of the states in the newly formed United States.

One key ingredient of this new Constitution was its vagueness. Issues such as sovereignity between the federal and state levels and slavery led to what Madison called a “living” document, one that “was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution.”

We often view the founding of the United States in almost semi-mystical terms, almost deifying the founders themselves as super-human agents of change. However, the truth is far from this picture and the very founding of the United States was never a forgone conclusion. Ellis’ analysis of this uncertain time provides new insight into the birth of our nation. His use of Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Jay as the vehicles of this change provide a human perspective, shedding light into the doubts these men had in their endeavor and the possibility of success.

I highly recommend this book for the historical perspective it gives into the development of the United States as a nation.

Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser

fe06a2d4dca55648482cbdfdb0ecf9ed-w204@1xWith the current election season in full swing, there is a lot of talk about the Founders and the Constitution. I’ve had my own fascination with this period. When I was a kid, Thomas Jefferson was my boyhood hero. I thought he was the epitome of what people could strive for, an excellent scientist who made profound contributions to the founding of our nation and to the ideals of human liberties more generally. Because of my boyhood fascination with Jefferson, I’ve made it a point to read as much as I can about that period in our history.

Richard Brookhiser’s Alexander Hamilton, American, focuses on one of the lesser-known figures in our founding. Of course Hamilton features on the $10 bill, but he was one of the few people adorning our money that wasn’t a president (Benjamin Franklin being the other). Hamilton owes his prominence on our money to his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury, in George Washington’s administration. Before that, however, he was a commander in Washington’s army and an ardent defender of the Constitution as it was being ratified by the various states — he was the most prolific of the three authors of The Federalist Papers.

Brookhiser’s account of the life and contributions of Hamilton to our nation is both concise and well-delivered. He provides a good sense of the man, both in his personal and public lives. Hamilton was an accomplished lawyer, and this colored how he presented himself and how he argued, for example, for the Constitution. These days, we hold the Constitution almost in reverence, but back then, it was a document that was not necessarily going to be approved by the majority of the states. Hamilton did a lot in making sure it was.

As Secretary of the Treasury, he was instrumental in providing the new nation a secure financial foothold. While his proposals were controversial at the time, especially opposed by the so-called Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Essentially, the debate was the same as it is today: what is the role of the federal versus state governments in the governing of the nation.

Of the Founders, Hamilton had perhaps the most unique perspective. Rather than being the son of landed gentry in Virginia or other established families in the Americas, he was born in the West Indies and his parents died early in his life. He eventually made his way to what would become the United States to attend school. He was very much a self-made man, but at the same time, he recognized that his rise was often the consequence of luck, of being noticed by the right person to facilitate, for example, his move to the colonies. He believed in his skills and the need for hard work, but he also realized that he could easily have stayed as a poor man in the West Indies if not for some fortunate circumstances.

Just as with the Constitution itself, we have a tendency to romanticize the Founders. We almost think of them as infallible. However, one thing that becomes immanently clear upon reading about the lives of figures such as Hamilton and Jefferson is just how human they were. We often complain about the sad state of affairs of politics in our own times, but it isn’t so obvious that they were much better back then. The leaders of the newly-minted political parties — the Federalists and the Republicans — were constantly attacking one another, revealing dirty laundry, and insulting one another in the press. They wrote letters to other important people disparaging one another. Jefferson, in some sense, was one of the worst. It seems that Hamilton never got overly personal in his attacks, attacking ideas more than specific people, but he ultimately lost his life in a duel due to, in part, his machinations behind the scenes to ensure that Aaron Burr did not win the presidency. They were very political beasts back then, as they still are today.

Hamilton’s contributions to the formation of our nation cannot be understated. He established institutions that provided for the stability and ultimately prosperity of our nation. He also defended the basic ideals upon which our nation was founded with a vigor and depth that continue to inspire. Brookhiser’s biography is certainly worth a read both for the perspective on Hamilton but also the time of the Revolution and the Founding more generally.

American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis

The founding of the United States of America is of near mythic proportions in our history, and rightly so. The men that revolted against Great Britain, developed the Constitution, and guided our country through the rocky first steps have become men of legend. Because of this, it is often hard for us to remember that these men, as great as they were, were also just human, like the rest of us, with their virtues and vices, passions and foibles.

In American Creation, Joseph J. Ellis puts the founding of America in the context of the people who were responsible. Ellis is a master story teller, a first class historian with an ear for telling history. Rather than a chronology of the founding, he gives us a series of episodes that highlight not only the grand achievements of the era, but also the failures, often the result of the very failings of these men that do, in the end, make them human.

Ellis chooses 6 episodes that not only illustrate the role the founders had in the formation of the US, but also the role that happenstance played. He describes the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge as a decisive turning point in how Washington fought the Revolutionary War, the arguments by Madison for a strong federal government in the Constitution, the efforts by Washington and his cabinet to find a solution to the country’s relationship with the Native Americans, the formation of the Democratic party by Madison and Jefferson, and Jefferson’s exercise of the same near-monarchial power he so vehemently despised when he executed the Louisiana Purchase.

These stories describe how the passions of these men often led them to live political lives full of hypocrisy, arguing on one side of an issue that they had been the most vocal opponents of. However, these men knew their place in history and worked to massage how future generations might judge their place in history.

The story of Washington trying to reach peace with the Indians was particularly interesting as I had not been aware of this history. In the end, Washington did make a treaty with the Creek Nation of the south, but simple demographics rendered it meaningless as white settlers kept pushing west. For the same reason the British could never win the Revolutionary War (once Washington stopped directly engaging them), so the US government could never stop the displacement of the Native Americans from the American frontier.

However, probably the most fascinating part, to me, was about the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution. Madison was the most vocal and ardent advocate of a strong central government, a government he proposed should have veto power over the states. He lost that battle. Because of the inability of the different sides to come to agreement on the questions of executive authority and the relationship between federal and state power, these were left rather vague. Ellis argues that what the founders thus created was not a document that had the answers to all of their, and subsequent Americans’, questions, but a framework for arguing and deciding these questions. The vagueness let the government expand and contract as needed, as history dictated. They created a living document — a living government — that could adapt with time. To me, incidentally, this is the exact opposite that those that read the Constitution literally and try to understand the intentions of the founders, try to do. There was no single intention of the founders; rather, they created a system that was inherently unclear on many important and central questions precisely because they didn’t have a clear answer.

In addition to the early country’s relationship with the Native Americans, Ellis describes the complex relationship the founders, and the country as a whole, had with slavery. These two issues he points out as the two biggest failings of the founders — their inability to address them. Ellis argues that maybe there was no solution, that the two problems were inherently insoluble. In any case, both are two stains that the founders knew posterity would judge them for, and rightly so.

In the end, this was one of the most interesting books I’ve read on the founding of the US. Ellis provides insight into what these men really achieved, what was remarkable about those achievements, even the creation of political parties that we so often, today, rail against. I learned a great deal about how our country was founded, who the men involved were, and how different our country might have been if a few winds had blown in just slightly different directions. This is a book I highly recommend to all who care about the foundations of our republic.

John Adams by David McCullough

7190999Of the founding fathers, the three that probably stand out are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  Of these, however, John Adams is probably the one we learn the least about, this in spite of the fact that, of all of the founding fathers, “we” probably know the most about him, a result of his prodigious letter writing and the diaries he kept.

It’s a shame, really, as Adams is both a very important and very interesting character.  While Washington certainly merits his place as the father of our country, he is also rather dull, comparatively, having not written his private thoughts.  Jefferson is a very interesting character in his own right, a man full of contradictions, embodying both the highs and lows of the human essence.

In contrast, it can be said that Adams is the picture of integrity, the one word that maybe defines his career over all others.  He was also loyal to an extreme.  Compare his behavior as Vice President to Washington with that of Jefferson’s as Vice President to Adams.  Even when Adams disagreed with Washington, his loyalty to the administration meant he wouldn’t undermine Washington’s efforts.  Jefferson so disagreed with what Adams tried to do, on the other hand, that he actively tried to derail Adams’ administration.

Adams’ long and distinguished service to his country — beginning as a delegate to the Continental Congress, through years as a diplomat in Paris and London trying to secure first the finances to support the Revolutionary War and then to secure the peace, and finally as first Vice President and then President — are admirably covered by David McCullough in his excellent biography of John Adams.  McCullough quotes extensively from letters to and from Adams, as well as letters written by his wife Abigail, Adams’ diaries, and newspapers of the time to really bring both the era and Adams to life.  In fact, there were times where he spent relatively lengthy sections on, for instance, Abigail’s opinions of French or London society, which felt at times tedious.  However, by the end of the book, when Adams’ family members start to pass away, these moments actually hit the reader as, by that time, you are so emotionally invested in these people.  The tediousness of those sections is more than made up for by the impact on the reader near the end.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, which has been of much discussion.  Here it comes alive, from the respect they shared at the Continental Congress to their blossoming friendship in Europe to the disintegration of that friendship during their years in the Federal government, only to finally be renewed in their later years.  That such a strong bond of friendship could be nearly destroyed by politics is dismaying to watch, especially considering the role that Jefferson — a boyhood idol of mine — played.  That these two men could at least partially reconcile their differences should speak volumes to us today.

Another very interesting aspect of the era, related to the relationship between Adams and Jefferson and the politics of the time, is how nasty those politics were.  We are often dismayed at how politics is practiced in our day and age.  In terms of pure nastiness, however, it does not compare to the politics of the founding of our country.  That a great man like Jefferson could attack his one-time friend Adams so strongly and do so hiding behind others is borderline shocking.  And Jefferson’s behavior pales in comparison to men like Alexander Hamilton who actively subverted Adams’ own cabinet.  Maybe there is a lesson here, that, in spite of how bad things seem to be now, our country has survived worse times and will do so again.

Adams’ life is a fascinating subject and McCullough does a wonderful job of bringing it, well, to life.  After reading McCullough’s account of Adams’ life and career, I have a new-found and deep respect for Adams, both as a man and a politician.  I highly recommend this book.

1776 by David McCullough

War ends up being so pivotal in so many developments in history and, yet, the more I read about the most crucial wars in our country’s history, the more I am amazed by how much of the outcome was due to incompetence, bad decisions, or just plain luck.

David McCullough’s 1776 describes the events of that decisive year in the outcome of the Revolutionary War.  Starting with the Siege of Boston, which began in 1775, McCullough takes us through the events that lead to the British abandoning Boston and eventually taking New York.  The year ends with two stunning American victories at Trenton and Princeton, victories that occurred at such a low point in morale in the army that, had they not happened, the war may have gone a completely different way.

McCullough is a master at describing the events on the ground.  Drawing from a huge number of primary sources, especially letters and diaries, he shows us the conditions the average soldier dealt with, including marching in freezing weather with rags covering their feet and hauling cannon through mud and across rivers.  You get a sense for how difficult it was, especially considering that moving the army occurred entirely by foot — there were no transports of course.

In particular, we get great insight into the thinking of the important players, such as Washington, Greene, and Knox, as well as some of the British commanders.  It is amazing that Washington, leading the entire army to determine the future independence of the United States, was only 43 years old in 1775.  I myself, as I write this, am 38.  Jefferson was only 32 and John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, was 38 himself.  Amazing to think how young these leaders were!  Washington is the particular focus, as McCullough tries to uncover the thinking of this most central man.  As the Americans lost battle after battle in New York, due in no small part to the indecisiveness of Washington, and as soldiers left the army as their enlistments ended, Washington begins to fret for the outcome of the war and his reputation as a general.  Even so, he perseveres, keeping up appearances for his soldiers and pushing them to perform.  While Washington may not have been the most brilliant tactical mind of his day, his determination to succeed definitely was the key reason the Revolution itself eventually succeeded.

It is even more astonishing, though, to consider how the weather, how decisions by the British to not pursue the fleeing American army, made such huge outcomes.  More than once, storms masked the movement of the Americans, in a way that had the weather been good, the Americans may not have been able to execute their plans.  The British, on more than one occasion, also stopped in what could have been a complete rout of the Americans, a defeat that would almost assuredly have ended the war with a British victory.  I find it truly astonishing how the outcome of such important events depends on these little details.

I’ve read one other history of the Revolutionary War, The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff.  Middlekauff covers the entire war, including the build up to the war and the aftermath, ending with the writing of the Constitution.  While I remember the book being very good, it’s been a while since I read it, and with my memory like a sieve, I remember very few details, unfortunately.

1776 is a nice, high level overview of the events on the ground.  It is written in a very casual style, with copious footnotes, but those are all relegated to the back (even the numbers are omitted in the text, something which I actually regret).  The reading is fast and easy, but also very vibrant, giving a great sense of the spirit of the times.  I greatly enjoyed this book.