Academic fashion determines the way whole generations are educated, and since the ’60s, as historian Joseph Ellis slyly remarks, a “hegemonic narrative” has prevailed within the academy, in which race, class, and gender are the privileged categories and the Founding Fathers of the American Republic have all too often been dismissed as the deadest of dead white males — “racists, classists, and sexists, a kind of rogues’ gallery rather than a gallery of greats.” Historians have focused their attention, instead, on America’s dispossessed: slaves, women, and Native Americans.
But in the last few years, the cultural focus has returned to the Founding Fathers with the appearance of a number of hugely popular new books, including bestselling biographies of Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, and Washington. The Founders are back: back with a vengeance, thanks to writers like Ellis himself, whose elegant, balanced books on the Founding era and biographies of Jefferson, Adams, and Washington have done much to return the public’s attention to this remarkable group of men and their accomplishments.
Part of the urgent new interest in the founders might be attributable to the attacks currently being made on their greatest achievements, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The significance of habeas corpus, for instance, such a tortured issue today, can best be understood by going back to James Madison and the context within which he pressed for its enshrinement in the new nation’s law. Another attraction is the way the Founders, brilliant men by any standards, shine by contrast with our present-day political leaders. As Henry Adams remarked way back in the 19th century, if you looked at all the American presidents panoramically, you would have to conclude that Darwin got it exactly backward.
The question that has always fascinated Ellis — and so many other historians of the Founding era — is, “How did they do it?” In his newest book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Ellis states the case.
During the last quarter of the eighteenth century a former colony of Great Britain, generally regarded as a provincial and wholly peripheral outpost of Western Civilization, somehow managed to establish a set of ideas and institutions that, over the stretch of time, became the blueprint for political and economic success for the nation-state in the modern world?. representative government bottomed on the principle of popular sovereignty, a market economy fueled by the energies of unfettered citizens, a secular state unaffiliated with any official religion, and the rule of law that presumed the equality of all citizens.
Posterity has generally deemed these achievements triumphs. But there were blunders at the Founding, too, disasters that might have been averted but were not, causing tragedy and all but tearing the Union to pieces. Most notable among these was the failure to end slavery, or at least to come up with a gradual scheme for emancipation, and the failure to create and enforce a fair settlement with the Native Americans. Ellis takes a close look at both the triumphs and the tragedies, showing us new facets of the familiar stories.
What makes Ellis’s work so persuasive is his unwillingness to see the Founders in a simplistic light, either as ideal heroes or as racist villains. They were great men but undoubtedly flawed ones, and none of them has escaped with his reputation unstained. As Ellis remarks, “It is uncommon for the same men who make a revolution also to secure it,” and the process of securing it involved compromises that some of the protagonists found nearly unbearable.
In a fascinating chapter on the creation and ratification of the Constitution, Ellis argues that the climax of that particular drama was not the Constitutional Convention of 1787 but the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788, which pitted a cast of titans against each other in a bitter fight over federal versus state authority. James Madison and George Washington, backed by Alexander Hamilton, argued in favor of a model in which federal authority would supersede that of the individual states, while George Mason and the great orator Patrick Henry fought for the principal of state sovereignty and a minimum of centralized power. The Henry-Madison debate in June 1788 was, Ellis claims, possibly “the most consequential debate in American history” — even more so than the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery or the Darrow-Bryan one on evolution.
Eventually, the two sides were obliged to come to a compromise that pleased hardly anyone; in fact, Madison, at that time, felt that he had lost all the major battles and that “the principal of state sovereignty had been qualified but not killed, as he believed it should be.” Ellis points out that the solution was a fruitful one in spite of itself, “making argument itself the answer by creating a framework in which federal and state authority engaged in an ongoing negotiation for supremacy, thereby making the Constitution, like history itself, an argument without end.” Not quite entirely without end, perhaps; an end of sorts to aspects of the argument would certainly come on the battlefields of the Civil War.
The Antifederalist fear — some have called it paranoia — is worth considering. Its spokesmen, from Patrick Henry to its modern proponents, have argued that once in place, the federal government’s “relentless expansion of arbitrary power was unstoppable, its tendency toward corruption was inevitable, and its appetite for despotism was unquenchable” — an anti?Big Government position, in other words. For much of our country’s history, this complaint came from the political right; now, though, it is gaining new adherents from the center and left, due to the current administration’s unprecedented usurpation of power. The argument lives on, it seems.
In two subsequent chapters, Ellis shows how both Madison and Jefferson changed their positions due to the exigencies of political life after 1788. The beginning of the two-party system in 1791 defied everyone’s conceptions of what the Constitutional government was supposed to be about, and it was psychologically impossible for Washington and Adams, “the last of a classical breed” and instinctively nonpartisan, to conceive of themselves as party men. But Alexander Hamilton’s new fiscal programs led Madison and Jefferson, the southern agrarians, to fear that the Republic was being taken over by a sinister conspiracy of northern bankers and money men: the federal government, they believed, was running amok. Thus was born the Republican Party, with Jefferson at its head and Madison as his right hand.
“Given role as the most prominent Federalist of all in 1787-88, for him to recognize the Antifederalists as the heroic predecessors of the Republicans was akin to having Martin Luther declare his ultimate allegiance to the Vatican,” Ellis comments dryly. Jefferson, too, was now displaying protean qualities that would ultimately lead him to defy any sort of political classification. When it became evident, during his presidency, that Napoleon Bonaparte was considering offering the Louisiana Territory for sale, Jefferson displayed his willingness to act unconstitutionally if the occasion demanded. “Throughout the 1790s he had labeled the Federalists ‘monarchists’ and insisted that any energetic projection of executive power violated republican principles. Now, he had just performed the most aggressive executive action ever by an American president, a projection of executive authority that would stand the test of time as perhaps the boldest in American history. If one wished to acquire an empire, it turned out, one had to become an imperial president.”
It is hard to see how the two principal tragedies of the Founding era could have been evaded. Ellis shows us how during his first presidential term Washington, encouraged by Secretary of War Henry Knox, tried hard to create and implement a fair deal for the Native Americans in accordance with the republican principles for which the revolution had been fought. “It would reflect honor on the new government,” Knox wrote, “were a declarative Law to be passed that the Indian tribes possess the right of the soil of all lands?and that they are not to be divested thereof but in consequence of fair and bona fide purchases, made under the authority, or with the express approbation of the United States.” Knox and Washington envisioned a series of Indian homelands east of the Mississippi, protected by the federal government, that would eventually become states, but for many reasons — especially the unstoppable streams of white settlers pouring into the Indian territories — their efforts ended in debacle. It was a debacle Washington took personally, Ellis tells us, “believing that his signature on the Treaty of New York was his pledge of honor, as well as the solemn word of the United States government. Both were now being exposed as worthless.”
The issue of slavery was, of course, the single most divisive question that faced the Founders. It was almost foreordained that the Constitution would fail to settle it, since there was no possible settlement that the 13 states could have agreed on: the Union would have dissolved before it even existed. But the Founders’ failure on this subject went beyond a mere politic silence. As a group they were simply unable to imagine a functional biracial society. The resultant fissures in the newborn Republic were more than evident to the founding generation, but these men chose to push the inevitable earthquake into the future. It is a difficult choice to approve — but a different course of action would probably have doomed the nascent Republic.
The most interesting aspect of Ellis’s take on the Founders and their work is his vision — a correct one, I think — of the Union and the Constitution they created as ever-evolving, non-monolithic entities. Ellis’s characterization of the Constitution as “an argument without end” has proved to be a just one, as anyone can see by tuning in to the Senate proceedings on C-SPAN today. Showing us the founding era as a series of philosophical conflicts and painful compromises rather than the triumphal progress celebrated in school textbooks makes American history — and the embattled American present — more comprehensible, and infinitely more accessible.