The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character

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The American Revolution swept away old certainties and forced revolutionaries to consider what it meant to be American. Andrew Trees examines four attempts to answer the question of national identity that Americans faced in the wake of the Revolution. Through the writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, Trees explores a complicated political world in which boundaries between the personal and the political were fluid and ill-defined. Melding history and literary study, he shows how this unsettled landscape challenged and sometimes confounded the founders' attempts to forge their own--and the nation's--identity.

Trees traces the intimately linked shaping of self and country by four men distrustful of politics and yet operating in an increasingly democratic world. Jefferson sought to recast the political along the lines of friendship, while Hamilton hoped that honor would provide a secure foundation for self and country. Adams struggled to create a nation virtuous enough to sustain a republican government, and Madison worked to establish a government based on justice.

Giving a new context to the founders' mission, Trees studies their contributions not simply as policy prescriptions but in terms of a more elusive and symbolic level of action. His work illuminates the tangled relationship among rhetoric, politics, self, and nation--as well as the larger question of national identity that remains with us today.

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What People Are Saying

Jan Ellen Lewis
A wonderful blend of history and literary studies, The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character is a polished and significant work. Trees focuses upon perhaps the most pressing problem of politics in the 1790s: How men steeped in eighteenth-century thought, which disparaged popular politics, could find a place for themselves in the increasingly democratic political world that they themselves had brought into being. It is impossible for me to describe adequately the elegance with which Trees has written this work. While its chief contribution is to enhance our understanding of the politics and political thought of the 1790s, the book is also an extended essay on the problem of character in American politics. This, of course, is a problem of continuing interest.
Jan Ellen Lewis, Rutgers University, Newark
Michael Zuckerman
This is an immensely impressive book of unusual range and balance. Trees is as much at home dealing with the private sphere and the public, the personal realm and the political. He displays a splendid facility with several genres, with biography, with ideas, and with variety of almost every kind. His judgments are sure and penetrating. Better, they are fresh, sophisticated, imaginative, and largely persuasive. Best of all, they are focused and, in the final analysis, simple and memorable. Trees has a touch that is rare among scholars: he can take material that seems essentially familiar and make it new.
Michael Zuckerman, University of Pennsylvania
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691122366
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 12/20/2004
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew S. Trees has taught at the University of Virginia, Rhodes College, and Rutgers University, Newark. He currently lives in New York City and teaches at the Horace Mann School.
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Read an Excerpt

The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character

By Andrew S. Trees

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12236-6


THOUGH POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE had been won by 1783, Americans, individually and collectively, still needed to establish their identity or, as they would have said in the eighteenth century, their "character." Indeed, neither an end to war nor the ratification of the Constitution represented a final revolutionary settlement. As Washington warned in 1783,

[T]his is the moment to establish or ruin ... national Character forever ... It is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.

The meaning of the Revolution, according to Washington, would only be established once the newly independent people agreed upon a character that would draw them together as a purposeful union. That would prove a most difficult task, as briefly discussed in the preface and more fully elaborated here.

Americans were far more prepared to say who they were not. They knew, for example, that they were not English. Winning the Revolution brought to an abrupt close the many years of striving to be British. They knew, too, that they did not want to be politicians. TheRevolution had been an effort, in many ways, to cleanse America from the taint of British corruption, but Americans saw the republican governments created to replace imperial rule as fragile creations, easily susceptible to corruption themselves. The politician, a man of self-interest rather than the common good, embodied the corruption that so many Americans feared. Alexander Hamilton could write sneeringly in Federalist #11 of "the little arts of little politicians," confident that such a feeling would meet widespread support. According to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, the very word meant something unsavory. The great lexicographer defined the politician as a "man of artifice, of deep contrivance." If politicians were dangerous individually, their combination in a party or a faction compounded the threat, creating a profound hostility in most Americans to political parties. Political circumstances reinforced these attitudes. In colonial and revolutionary times, legislative battles with royal governors and later military battles with Britain had demanded unity, not division.

The newly established national government provided no established institutions or rules to fill this void. The fluid postrevolutionary environment offered only broad and vague guidelines, and even the most mundane issues, such as the manner of dress or the president's title, were bitterly contested. The hostility to politicians and parties meant that politics in the early republic would have to be practiced in a somewhat oblique manner. Continuing to contest the meaning of the Revolution, American leaders struggled to impose their own different understandings of the Revolution and to use that to form political characters for themselves and the nation that would allow them to act politically, while not acting as politicians.

Engaging in a highly personalized form of politics that could aptly be termed the politics of character, they wrestled with this problem on two levels: their own individual political characters and the nation's character. They considered the two projects as interrelated and viewed their own characters as templates that could shape that of the country. To understand their struggles, we must first begin to understand what character meant to them. In the eighteenth century, the word meant something far different than it does today. It possessed a largely public meaning that was virtually synonymous with reputation, rather than an intrinsic quality. It was almost a tangible possession, something one fashioned, held, and protected, so that one would speak of "acquiring" a character. By the end of the century, though, the meaning of character was undergoing a process of redefinition. The larger trajectory of its meaning is readily apparent. Publicly weighted conceptions in the early part of the eighteenth century would give way to nineteenth-century notions of character that relied predominantly on private life. But that shift was not preordained or readily apparent to the founders. The relative importance of the public and private sides of one's character during this period was a subject of constant debate.

The distinction between public and private life has received considerable scholarly attention, particularly from those studying gender, who have persuasively argued for the interdependence of the two terms. Political historians have generally paid less attention to the issue. But in the political world of the early republic, the ambiguity between public and private life was both pronounced and central to defining the nature of the emerging polity. Authority and legitimacy were under negotiation not only with one's peers but with the nation's citizens, and choices about how to distinguish public from private life had direct implications not just for the elite political world but for the nation as a whole.

Embroiled in this redefinition by the personalized nature of political life, the founders articulated a broad spectrum of possibilities in their struggles to give shape to this undefined world. In a famous example of one of the narrowest constructions of public life, Thomas Paine in "Common Sense" called government "the badge of lost innocence." He noted that "even in its best state [it] is but a necessary evil." In Paine's rendering, government was an affliction, and public life needed to be circumscribed as narrowly as possible. A few years later, Benjamin Rush claimed that a citizen was "public property. His time and talents-his youth-his manhood-his old age-nay more, life, all belong to his country." In this view, citizens did not have private lives, only public ones to be devoted to the nation. One of the most vexing problems facing the revolutionaries was how to navigate the territory staked out between these two extremes. Focusing on four of the most significant efforts, this study explores the attempts of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and James Madison to shape the new republic according to their conceptions of character.

All four, not surprisingly, undertook this task largely through writing, a choice dictated simply by the size of the new nation. Indeed, writing became one of the crucial arenas for the politics of character in revolutionary America. In his contemporary history of the American Revolution, David Ramsay made his own claim for the centrality of writing. "In establishing American independence," he wrote, "the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword." Although the war was the means for gaining independence, the meaning of that independence was largely determined through writing, first with the Declaration of Independence and later with the multitude of efforts at constitution writing throughout this period. Washington Irving fittingly called the new nation a "LOGOCRACY," a "government of words." The founders recognized the power of the written word, crafting thousands of letters, pamphlets, and essays in an attempt to shape the new nation. The centrality of writing to them remains largely underappreciated during our own day-literary critics usually focus on the few poems and novels from this period, and historians often overlook issues of rhetoric and style.

The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character explores the founders' attempts to construct character through particular forms of writing, the rhetorical "how" of the creation of identity. More specifically, it considers each founder in tandem with a genre that was particularly well suited to represent his "character." These pairings are not programmatic; letter writing, for instance, was central to all of the founders. But they do provide a useful tool for better understanding the founders' attempts to construct character. The documents used are not always the typical ones for studying the politics of the early republic. Instead of exploring the usual sources-constitutions, official correspondence, legislative debates-this book focuses on more personal texts that reveal both individual and national dimensions of character building. Although employing an historical framework, this work is shaped by that most fundamental of literary questions: how does a text accomplish its purposes? Crossing some of the usual boundaries between history and literary studies, it sees literary and rhetorical choices as profoundly intertwined with politics.

Each chapter is structured around one particularly revealing textual performance. Episodic in structure, the chapters first consider the generic resources available to that founder. Then, they examine the character that each of the founders attempted to create, concentrating in turn on its personal, political, and national implications. Finally, each chapter explores the problems that the founder encountered as a result of his character. Throughout, this study focuses on the rhetorical attempts to navigate and shape the complicated terrain of character in the early republic and on the centrality of that terrain to the emerging national political realm.

The chapters also outline a larger trajectory in the politics of character. Instead of following a chronological order, they trace the differing distinctions that the founders made between the public and private sides of character. Moving from Jefferson's convoluted intermingling of public and private life to increasingly well articulated ideas about how to distinguish between the two, the clearer distinctions correspond to a decreasing reliance on personal character by the founders. To make use of the metaphor suggested by one meaning of character, Jefferson remained backstage because of fears about the believability of his character. Hamilton confidently walked the stage only to find that the audience judged him harshly. Convinced of his own character, Adams placed himself in the audience, judged the performances of others, and proposed new roles for them to play. Seeing character itself as the problem, Madison attempted to leave behind the stage altogether. The conclusion explores the tentative and incomplete resolution of these issues through the character of George Washington as it was fashioned by Mason Locke Weems in his famous biography. Weems recast Washington's distinctly eighteenth-century concerns about character into a form more in tune with nineteenth-century conceptions, as character came to be associated with private life, rather than public, a shift that also marked the end of the sharply personalized politics of character at the heart of this study.

Four Revolutions

While serving as the model for the characters of the founders, the American Revolution revealed different lessons to each one-four contrasting understandings of what the Revolution meant that led to four contrasting visions of how to secure the Revolution not just on the battlefield but, as John Adams once phrased it, in the hearts and minds of American citizens. For Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and James Madison, the urgency of the Revolution crystallized various inchoate beliefs based on an array of biographical, psychological, social, economic, political, and cultural considerations into distinct ideas about character.

For Thomas Jefferson, those lessons were learned largely from the land that he called his country, Virginia. Jefferson spent most of the war years in the Virginia government, rather than in the Continental Congress, and he attributed the success of the war effort to what he viewed as the spontaneous outpouring of the voluntary efforts of citizens and states on behalf of the nation, direct proof that a strong national government was not only unnecessary but counterproductive. Near the end of his 1786 letter to Maria Cosway, Thomas Jefferson's thoughts turned to his great touchstone, the Revolution:

If our country when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by it's heads instead of it's hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman's. You began to calculate & to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood; we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers; we put our existence to the hazard when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country.

For Jefferson, the Revolution and even politics were matters of the heart, of pulsations of warm blood rather than rational calculation. The same understanding of the Revolution can be found in the Declaration of Independence, in which Jefferson claimed that the British were deaf to the voice of "consanguinity," which should have united the British with the Americans in affective bonds. In language cut from his draft by the Continental Congress, he denounced England's lack of feeling in even stronger terms, writing, "These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren." The heart alone spoke for some larger sense of public good, of a sentimental journey in which no man's misfortune would go unnoticed and in which the people, bound together by affection, would triumph.

Affective bonds, the pulsations of warmest blood, would always be what Jefferson sought in his own relationships, in his politics, and in his imaginative vision for the country. He cast these relationships as friendships, uncoerced ties of mutual affection among equals. This conception provided the means for Jefferson to act in the political sphere without running afoul of his cherished beliefs about the natural unanimity of the country and the illegitimacy of political disagreement.

To explore this Jeffersonian vision of character, the first chapter focuses on a 26 January 1799 letter from Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, a vexatious and unpredictable Massachusetts leader who became Jefferson's only significant non-Republican, New England correspondent during the late 1790s. The genre of the familiar letter cast Jefferson in his most comfortable persona, a friend renewing ties with another friend, even as he attempted to use the letter for more instrumental, political purposes. His reliance on the letter illustrated his problematic combination of public and private life in his attempt to refashion the political world in the image of his domestic society, and his "character" only exacerbated the ambiguity between public and private in the early republic. On the personal level, his attempt to use bonds of emotion to cement political alliances undermined his sincerity. On the national level, his solution allowed no legitimacy for political differences and threatened to create not union but disunion.

Unlike Jefferson, who was born into the Virginia gentry, Alexander Hamilton struggled to overcome his humble origins, an experience that prepared him to see the Revolution in a different light. In his earliest surviving letter, written at the age of twelve when he was stranded on the periphery of the British empire, Alexander Hamilton complained of "the groveling and condition of a clerk." Wanting to "exalt my station," Hamilton hoped for the chance to prove himself, writing simply, "I wish there was a war." He would get his wish only a few years later, serving in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Like many other committed nationalists of the early republic, Alexander Hamilton formed his understanding of the Revolution from the frustrations and humiliations of serving in a national army that was hampered by fears of centralized power. He turned to honor as a code of behavior that would assure not just his own glory but the glory of the nation.


Excerpted from The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character by Andrew S. Trees Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1

Chapter One: Friendship 13

Chapter Two: Honor 45

Chapter Three: Virtue 75

Chapter Four: Justice 107

Conclusion: Veneration 135

Notes 147

Index 205

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