I think that I am like most American men in, every five or ten years, directing my reading deep into the Revolution and the Founding generation. It is impossible to resist the magnetic attraction of this period. It is not that the Founding Fathers were geniuses (though some were) or gods (though one was close). Instead there seems to be something about the vacuum of the founding moment and the men who filled it that gave rise to a decades-long period of writing, speechmaking, and statecraft that was benevolent, intelligent, honest, and crafted to secure a true durability. Therefore these men, whose brains weren’t of course any better than the brains today, were so much less molested by self-deceptions, pieties, lore, and loyalties that they produced world-changing thought transcending everything else then existing.
It is a worthy subject for a later time why the American founding moment was so exceptional in human history. To be sure there have been many founding moments since, from Africa to Italy and many places otherwise. Mostly their results have been very sad. I wonder if it had something to do with the generalist liberal arts education received by most of the participants at the Continental Congresses, the Constitutional Convention, and the later House of Burgesses. There were lawyers, of course, and at least a few doctors (Benjamin Rush and Josiah Bartlett. Anyone else?). But by and large they were well-read non-experts and family men. I imagine that, today, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School would be happy to supply your fledgling country with all manner Experts bearing Ph. D.s., each without the annoying encumbrance of a traditional family life or the cruft of knowing, say, Plato.
Anyway, here is something that John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on September 4, 1785. Adams was in London and Jefferson was in Paris. It comes from American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis, who prefaces the lines I wanted to share.
In addition to their mutual animosities toward England and their common sense of indignation at the insufferable arrogance of the king, the friendship worked because Jefferson deferred to Adams. After all, Adams was his senior and had been negotiating with the French and English for five years. Jefferson’s deferential pattern began as soon as he arrived in France: “What would you think of the enclosed Draught to be proposed to the courts of London and Versailles?” Jefferson inquired. “I know it goes beyond our powers; and beyond the powers of Congress too. But it is so evidently for the good of the states that I should not be afraid to risk myself on it if you are of the same opinion.” The proposal envisioned reciprocal rights for citizens of all nations, complete freedom of trade and a reformed system of international law.
Yes, Adams replied, it was a “beau ideal” proposal, but unfortunately it was also completely irrelevant to the current, and cutthroat, European context: “We must not, my Friend, be the Bubbles of our own Liberal Sentiments. If we cannot obtain reciprocal Liberality, We must adopt reciprocal Prohibitions, Exclusions, Monopolies, and Imposts. Our offers have been fair, more than fair. If they are rejected, we must not be Dupes.”
I read that highlighted quotation from Adams and thought: only one modern politician would say something like that, and he is Donald Trump.
By the way, I returned to my books on the Founding this time because of the Broadway show Hamilton, which we have had the good fortune to see twice. It’s truly a wonderful work. (For a glimpse of why, here are five random American teenagers reenacting the Act I song “Non-Stop.”)