Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a good read. The book is primarily about Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

Ellis does a good job of reporting a balanced view of these men. While clearly representing their giant status in the history of the formation of the United States of America, he also portrays them as men and not gods. They were men caught in plots and intrigues that are similar to the same sorts of intrigues we experience in our highly politicized environment today.

Washington seemed to be above much of this. Of the three, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, his was the most exalted presidency and fame. Adams' administration was rife with discord, much of it arising from the presence of his own Vice-President, Jefferson, himself. Jefferson, with Madison, were intent upon undermining the authority and long-term success of Adams.

Jefferson smells the worst in these intrigues. The political 'machine' really got rolling under his and Madison's careful development. They did seem to do this with the real good of America in mind. They sacrificed some of their gentlemanly principles for the 'greater good.' I think they also entrenched a mindset that personal behavior and political behavior operated in two distinct spheres. Bill Clinton did not make this up.

The end of the book is the best part. In it, Ellis recounts the reconciliation of Adams and Jefferson after many years of bitter enmity. In the last 14 years of their lives, they wrote 158 letters to one another. Adams wrote twice as many as Jefferson. This letter writing, in the words of Adams, was so that 'we might explain ourselves to one another." It left Adams a prime opportunity to give his side of the story. By far, Jefferson made the greater concessions of error in these letters but was also able to clearly express his own views and defend them.

Ellis points out that this correspondence had some impact on the views of the country and the great war between the states. Jeffersonian views became the centerpiece of the South. Adams' views of a strong central government became the centerpiece of the North. No surprise.

Jefferson and Adams had been friends, enemies and friends once again. They lived together through glorious days, climaxing on July 4, 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. It is Jefferson's greatest fame. Adams was jealous of this knowing that Jefferson would come out as the shining star of the moment, even though he was mostly merely the penman of the document. Adams went so far as to argue that the most important day had not been July 4, 1776 but May 15, 1776. Alas, for Adams, Jefferson was right.

Both men died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration. Jefferson died about five hours before Adams. Adams, not knowing that Jefferson had already given up the ghost, uttered his famous last words, "Thomas Jefferson still lives."