Tag Archives: thomas jefferson

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.

Reflections on a boyhood idol

Jefferson_Memorial_with_Declaration_preambleGrowing up, my idol was Thomas Jefferson.  As one of the founding fathers, he was a giant in US history.  History books aimed at children described all of his great achievements, including authoring the Declaration of Independence; founding the University of Virginia; as President, sponsoring the Lewis and Clark expedition and purchasing Louisiana territory; and his role in the Revolution.  He was one of the pillars upon which this country was founded.  Further, he was an amateur scientist and inventor, a man who was always investigating the natural world around him and who probed the secrets of that world.  He was a renaissance man, a man who could achieve anything he set his mind to, a true American genius.

That was in the children’s books, and, of course, it is all true.  However, there are many aspects of Jefferson’s life that didn’t make it into those books, actions and words that reveal that Jefferson was all too human.  Even setting aside his relations with Sally Hemming, there were such flaws in his character that demonstrate he could be the pettiest of men.  He was a man nearly defined by contradiction.  Writing that “all men are created equal,” he nevertheless never freed the vast majority of his slaves, some 130 being sold upon his death to help settle his debts.  And, speaking of those debts, while he railed against the Federal government’s spending, he himself never took account of his own, racking up mountains of personal debt that he could only sustain by taking out loans. He advocated small government and attacked his rival — and friend — John Adams for excessive use of executive power, but then, in an even bigger expansion of that power, purchased the Louisiana territory.

However, the most disappointing thing that I’ve learned, for one who so idolized him as a boy, is his shear pettiness and vindictiveness.  Jefferson, while never publicly attacking any rival, supported many newspaper men in their slanderous attacks of enemies, even those who had been dear friends at one time, such as Adams.  The words he had these newspapers print on his behalf were vicious and vile, at a level that almost makes our current politics seem cordial.  But, when confronted, Jefferson always deflecting the blame onto others, never taking any responsibility for his own actions.  Jefferson even directly undermined the administration of Adams while serving as his Vice President.

While there is still so much to admire about Jefferson, especially the mind behind all of the powerful words that form the foundation of our country, the man’s actions certainly do not live up to those words.  As I read more and more about Jefferson and the Revolutionary era, the more I am dismayed by the man my idol really was.

I don’t know if there is any real lesson to take from this, except that there are no perfect people out there; even the best of us are flawed.  In an era where idols are now athletes and actors, who continuously show us that they are no more deserving of that respect than anyone else, it is both unsettling and liberating at the same time to realize that even those who we’ve put on the highest possible of pedestals were human, just like us.  Maybe it is even more amazing what men like Jefferson accomplished, in spite of their imperfections.

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.