As America celebrates its 235th birthday, it seems only natural for Nine Lives to look at the remarkable collection of men who made that new nation. As with the launch of any pivotal endeavor, those men fit into some very handy archetypes (or did they make them?):
Like most of these men, Jefferson has been the subject of unremitting attention from biographers for the entire span of that 235 years. In the 20th century, Fawn Brodie struck bestseller gold with her 1974 book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait, which lobbed all kinds of allegations against Jefferson concerning the sexual acts he performed upon his slaves. Despite such headline-grabbing tactics, however, Brodie’s book is deeply sympathetic toward Jefferson, usually finding wit and wisdom in all of his decisions as President, for instance – even the ones that reek of Machiavellian expedience:
Throughout his presidency, Jefferson pursued a policy of peaceful purchase and of negotiation to avoid war with the Indians. In 1791 he had written, “The most economical was well as the most humane conduct towards them is to bribe them into peace, and to retain them in peace by eternal bribes,” pointing out that military expeditions against them in that year alone would “have served for presents on the most liberal scale for one hundred years.”
The “dangerous” Adams (the way British agents differentiated him from his cousin John) did the vital spade-work for the Revolution, talking to the merchants of Boston, arguing at town meetings, and writing an endless stream of public letters, pamphlets, and town correspondence, all in the dogged pursuit of a complete political break with the British Empire. Samuel Adams has had his share of first-rate biographies, including the 1885 volume James Hosmer wrote for the great “American Statesmen” series, in which he genially relates the best anecdotes that had reached the 19th century from the 17th:
It is pleasant to record that in the storm of party fury, now hotter than ever, there were some Federalists broad-minded enough to do him honor. When, in 1800, Governor Caleb Strong was advancing through Winter Street, in a great procession, at the time of his inuaguration, Mr. Adams was observed in his house, looking out upon the pageant. The governor called a halt, and ordered the music to cease. Alighting from his carriage, he greeted the old man at the door, grasped the paralytic hands, and expressed, with head bared, his reverence for Samuel Adams. The soldiers presented arms, and the people stood uncovered and silent.
Morris wrote great swaths of the U.S. Constitution and fervently believed in the cause of American freedom, but his name has persistently remained unknown to the general American public, despite the efforts of a handful of biographers, including no less a personage than Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1898 wrote a study of Morris for the aforementioned “American Statesmen” series – a study in which Roosevelt (unconsciously?) finds much of himself reflected in his subject:
All the time he was working so hard at the finances, Morris nevertheless continued to enjoy himself to the full in the society of Philadelphia. Imperious, light-hearted, good-looking, well-dressed, he ranked as a wit among men, as a beau among women. He was equally sought for dances and dinners. He was a fine scholar and a polished gentleman; a capital story-teller; and had just a touch of erratic levity that served to render him still more charming.
Samuel Adams found his life’s purpose in the American Revolution, but his cousin John Adams answered a higher, broader calling – for the entire course of his life, he was passionately, tirelessly engaged in arguing an entire new nation into existence: arguing with friends, with family, with foes both personal and congressional (and international – he was no great admirer of the King), arguing in his innumerable pamphlets and letters, and arguing with us, down to the present day, through the typical characterization his biographers have given him as a small, petty, argument-loving would-be tyrant. He’s the most difficult of all the Founding Fathers to assess, mainly because he did so much of that assessing himself, long before anybody thought to write a biography of him. One of the best of those many biographies is Honest John Adams, the slim (by today’s standards!), worldly-wise account of Adams written in 1933 by Gilbert Chinard, who certainly is not blind to his subject’s shortcomings, no matter how affectionately he recounts them:
At all times he was himself and intensely honest. A son of New England, where reticence, reserve and self-control are held essential virtues, he was irrepressible and unguarded in his speech and writings. To the end of his days he remained as much of an enfant terrible as Clemenceau, and belongs to the same intellectual family as the old “Tiger.” Keeping his feet squarely on the ground, refusing to be carried away by theories, even by his own, this philosopher and moralist was the most realistic statesman of his generation in America.
He loved his country passionately and jealously, with the love of the farmer for the mother earth, for the soil tilled by his forbears in which he will be buried. In Paris, more concerned with the security than the growth of the United States, he fought for American rights against friend and foe.
Washington towered physically over all the other Founding Fathers except Jefferson, but he was the only one of their number who didn’t tower mentally – his writings reveal a plodding, sententious, category-bound brain of decidedly mortal dimensions. And yet kept the fledgling Continental Army from destruction for the lean, precarious years of its initial existence, and there are those who argue he did the same for the fledgling nation. Biographers have flocked to his larger-than-life story, and several of the resulting books are so uniformly excellent that picking a ‘best’ is self-defeating. But one of the most nimbly written and interesting of the recent crop of such works is Richard Norton Smith’s 1993 Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation, in which Smith offers some great insights into the question of what the infant nation got from Washington – and he offers some wonderful stories along the way as well:
George Washington has become so shrouded in legend that it is difficult to retrieve the man behind the marble exterior. Yet it would be a mistake to reject every sugary anecdote as hagiography of the cherry tree school. For example, there is solid evidence to support the tale of a violent encounter between Washington and a diminutive fellow named Payne, whom the much larger soldier-politician apparently insulted during a campaign for the Virginia Assembly. Not without resources of his own, the offended Payne grabbed a hickory branch and knocked Washington to the ground. The next day Washington demanded an interview at a tavern. Expecting to be challenged to a duel, Payne received instead a handsome apology and retraction of the original comment, along with Washington’s hand in friendship.
Esther Forbes, the best-selling author of Johnny Tremain, wrote in 1942 a splendid biography of the famous Boston silversmith Paul Revere with the ungraceful title Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, and the book is pure narrative magic from the very first page to the very last, on which our author, relating Revere’s sudden death, ends her book on a soaring, almost poetic note:
Those who had so recently seen the stocky, benevolent old gentleman, walking the streets of Boston, could hardly have guessed that he was destined forever to ride a foaming charger, his face enveloped in the blackness of a famous night of almost half a century before, to become in time hardly a man at all – only a hurry of hooves in a village street, a voice in the dark, a knock on a door, a disembodied spirit crying the alarm.
The only one of the Founding Fathers who was famous in his own right long before the Revolution, Dr. Franklin leant the whole endeavor a twinkling gravitas and international heft it would otherwise have lacked, and the glow of his friendly, happy wisdom reaches into almost every moment of the heady philosophical debates out of which grew the nation’s concept of itself. Franklin – diplomat, Founding Father, inventor, best-selling author – has been the focal point of a great mountain of biographies, but one of the most satisfying books I’ve ever read about him is an anthology: Meet Dr. Franklin, edited by Roy Lokken 1981. In its pages, a great bunch of Franklin scholars tackle the legend, few more entertainingly than Robert Spiller, whose contribution to this volume is a speech he gave in 1940:
I once asked a loyal scholar of Franklin why he was so much interested in him, why he was willing to devote so much time to a study of him and his ideas. The answer was immediate and spoken with firm conviction, “Because he knew how to deal with women.” If I repeated my question here, I should probably receive variations on the theme, “Because he knew how to deal with life.” We are attracted to many great figures of the past because of their ideas or their works; Franklin, I think, draws us because he so obviously worked out a rule of life which brought an unusual degree of satisfaction to him and to most people with whom he came into contact.
Tiny, wraith-like Madison, whose exhaustive deep contemplations on the nature of government and statehood helped to bring the new country into being, had to wait two centuries for his first truly great biography, Ralph Ketcham’s 1990 James Madison, in which all of Madison’s many contradictions are honestly confronted – including the one more central than all the rest:
Of all evils, however, none was for Madison more pregnant with danger, and more intractable, than that of Negro slavery. His conviction of is immorality, and its incongruity in a nation resting on the Declaration of Independence, had been formed early, and never slackened. His failure in the seventeen-eighties to free himself from dependence on slave labor, and to secure a law for gradual abolition in Virginia, doomed him, it seemed, to live within a system he abhorred.
Most of the Founding Fathers fall neatly into one of two categories: those who fought physical battles in the cause of independence, and those who fought diplomatic battles in the cause of freedom. Hamilton did both, but he did one thing more than either: he tried with all the strength of his mega-watt brain to look into the future, determine what the young country would need to be in order to survive and thrive in that future, and then take pragmatic steps in the present to make the country ready for that future. This was a rare ability even among the superbly gifted Founding Fathers, and Hamilton’s relentless exercise of it made him an easy figure to vilify. Most of his biographers have taken a rather easy ‘infant tyro becomes prickly adult’ road to tell their stories, but Ron Chernow’s justly-celebrated massive 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, never flinches from complexity. It’s also eminently fair in its summings-up, which must, in all honesty, credit Hamilton with more than any other Founder:
Whatever his disappointments, Hamilton, forty, must have left Philadelphia with an immense feeling of accomplishment. The Whiskey Rebellion had been suppressed, the country’s finances flourished, and the investigation into his affairs had ended with a ringing exoneration. He had prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored – whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard – despite years of complaints and bitter smears. Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation. He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power.
Today we celebrate the incredible longevity of the thing these men (and others, who we’ll get to in due course here at Stevereads) came together to create, which means – and should mean – that we’re also celebrating the men themselves, in all their complicated glory. And that, in turn, means celebrating the work of all the great biographers over the years, the books that have brought these titans of an earlier time to life. We’ll do a different batch next 4th!