Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Book Review: Founding Brothers

The Founding Fathers of the United States have assumed truly mythic proportions: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Adams...the list of luminaries present at our nation's founding is truly impressive. Much has been made of the Revolutionary War, somewhat less about the Constitution; not much has been written, to my knowledge, about the history of the 1790s, that first decade of America's founding, when the experiment was still new, and these historical figures were trying to figure out how to govern this new nation.

Joseph Ellis, who also wrote the excellent His Excellency George Washington, has remedied this gap in our public education with Founding Brothers. The book covers the years 1790 to 1826 through a series of sketches of specific events within that period: the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, the first vote on slavery, George Washington's Farewell Address, the elections of 1796 and 1800, and the correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. What becomes clear is that American-style politics--with all of the overblown rhetoric, partisan press, and personal animus--began in this period. George Washington obviously hoped to overcome such factionalism, but aside from a universal respect for him personally, his fellow Americans had serious disagreements about nearly every other political question.

What Ellis makes clear throughout his several sketches is that Americans have always fought about the nature of government and what it should or should not do because the Founders themselves were not fully in agreement. One episode Ellis might have included to make this picture clearer was a story about the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the formation of the Constitution, which was, as he describes it, a political resolution of the faults of the Confederation. As Ellis puts it:

[T]he contested versions, if you will, of what the core legacy of the American Revolution truly meant, first became visible in the summer of 1790. The Constitution did not resolve these questions: it only provided an orderly framework within which the arguments could continue.

And the different arguments about government's role would become clear in the varying approaches to governing taken by the Federalists (Washington, Hamilton, and Adams) and the "Republicans" (in some books Democratic-Republicans, the source of the Democratic Party today), Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. The Federalists were aristocrats of sorts, believing for the most part that the nation should rise above factionalism and look to the national interest. The Republicans, led mostly by Virginians, still preferred the ultra-limited government of the Confederation. What a difference 200 years makes!

Jefferson and Madison also were the original pioneers--for good or ill--of American party politics, as Madison sought to thwart Federalist initiatives in Congress to centralize government functions, while Jefferson refused John Adams' request that he join his administration as a full partner and contributor. Instead of "bipartisanship," Jefferson revealed himself to be a member of his party first, thus starting off the first battle of political parties. However, he was not alone: Alexander Hamilton, the premier Federalist of his time, was doing everything in his power to establish a nation of moneylenders and merchants, even if those groups were not necessarily dependable in pursuing the common good. Hamilton also ended up clashing with Adams, leaving the second president nearly alone in his consultations except for his wife, Abigail.

Jefferson himself was a great admirer of the French Revolution, and used the French wars in Europe as a means of undermining Adams' presidency at home. Jefferson ignored the fact that the French Revolution sought to eliminate all forms of aristocracy, but eventually realized that the French were not reliving the American Revolution, as they sought to--and did--eliminate all signs of the previous regime, including the church and the laws. America actually had a less radical revolution than France, enabling it to avoid "devouring its own children," as Ellis puts it.

Founding Brothers is a worthwhile read, not just because of its brevity (248 pages), but as a fresh look at the Founders and as a reminder that American politics has always been fraught with peril and intensity because of the original perilousness of the experiment.

No comments: