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Post #500- Two books about the founding fathers

A while back I was watching a biography of George Washington on TV with my dad. It showed him to be a man of great character and accomplishment and after it was over I asked Pop "When he had a life like that, why did anyone feel a need to make up a story about a cherry tree?". He saw my point and agreed with it. It was a rare moment of political harmony between us.

It illustrated the problem with histories of the founding fathers. They are either presented as mythic flawless gods or evil white male slaveowners.

I recently read a couple of books that attempt, with different degrees of success, to deal with this problem. They were Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin, and American Creation by Joseph Ellis.


Isaacson does an excellent job of separating myth from history in writing about Franklin, and in the end decides that Franklin is indeed worthy of admiration, even if you add back in all the faults that have been omitted by the hagiographies. It's particularly amusing to see the accounts of Franklin struggling to achieve the virtue of humility. One of the funniest parts of Franklin's autobiography is when he makes a list of all the virtues he plans to have, and someone points out that he left out humility. (I'm still not sure if that is intentionally funny or not.)

There's a related anecdote Franklin leaves out of his memoirs but is included in Isaacson's book. Franklin had been at Cotton Mather's home and on the way out bumped his head on a high beam when he failed to heed Mather's exhortation to stoop. Afterwards Mather told him "Let this be a caution to you not to go through life with your head held so high."

Isaacson's account of Franklin's life shows he had enough achievements to make humility difficult. He was an accomplished amateur scientist. His experiments with electricity are of course part of the American mythos, but he was also early to discover that burning calories helped lead to weight loss and that colds were more likely to be caused by contagion than cold air. Isaacson includes a funny story about Franklin and John Adams squabbling over the latter point.

He also makes an excellent case that Franklin was instrumental in helping to found this country. This is important, because many casual students of history often wonder what Franklin did besides flying a kite in a thunderstorm and getting his face on the $100 bill. Isaacson's accounting of Franklin's diplomatic work in France shows how essential the treaty with France was in helping America acheive victory in the Revolutionary War. Also, as Isaacson points out Franklin was "the only one to sign all four of [America's] founding papers:the Declaration Of Independence, the treaty with France, the peace accord with Britain, and the Constitution".

As I've intimated, Isaacson does not attempt to hide Franklin's faults. He was not the best family man. He spent much of his marriage traveling without his wife, and was in France when she died. He also became estranged from his illegitimate son William when the latter, as governor of New Jersey, sided with Britain during the revolution. It could be held against him that he had an illegitimate son at all, but that doesn't make him much different from men today. And since he took complete responsibility for him (in other words, not just financial responsibility...Franklin took him in and raised him), he is arguably better than lots of men today.

Like the other founding fathers, his record on slavery is spotty. He did own slaves. However, near the end of his life he became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and petitioned for abolition, at some political cost to himself.

Ellis's book American Creation attempts to achieve the kind of balance I wrote of at the beginning of this post. In the first chapter he complains that "we have been asked to choose between two simplistic narratives...one featuring the founders as demigods...the other crowded with a cast of villains who collectively comprise the deadest, whitest males in American history". He states early on that his goal is to navigate between the two extremes.

In some ways he does a good job. He gives the early leaders of the Revolution credit for "a creative act of statesmanship that allowed the United States to avoid the bloody and chaotic fate of subsequent revolutionary movements in France, Russia, and China." He says the founding was a "stunning acheivement " and that America in it's early days provided "the blueprint for political and economic success for the nation-state in the modern world."

On the other hand, Ellis is not shy about the stain of slavery and our treatment of the Indians. He gives George Washington and Secretary Of War Henry Knox credit for attempting to create a lasting peace with Indian tribes, specifically the Creek Indians. Ellis (as did Washington) blames the ultimate failure of the treaty on white settlers who breeched the boundaries defined by the treaties. Washington described them as "a lawless set of unprincipled wretches". He attempted to use the military to stop them, but these attempts failed.

In a chapter called "The Purchase" , about the Louisiana Purchase, Ellis brands Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite for taking on the imperial powers he railed against in his revolutionary days. Ellis also points out that the purchase opened up the possibility of slavery spreading west, which as we all know had disasterous consequences.

Unfortunately, Ellis is not as unbiased and balanced as he pretends to be. In a chapter called "The Conspiracy", he details the founding of the Democratic-Republican party by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The title of the chapter alone reveals Ellis's bias. Founding a political party is hardly a sinister plot. The purpose of this party was to provide a force against the strong central government advocated by federalist such as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Ellis takes the unfortunate fact that many advocates of state's rights were also from slave states and exaggerates it to suggest that perpetuation of slavery is the only reason for believing in state sovereignty. For instance, the Democrat-Republicans were largely opposed to Alexander Hamilton's plans for a central bank. Ellis blames Madison's opposition on "the sudden realization that , once the federal government assumed control over domestic policy, slavery was doomed."

This is completely unfair and competely speculative. Ellis admits that neither Madison nor Jefferson mentioned slavery in their correspondence on the issue of state's rights. I'm sure this was part of their motive, but Ellis's remark makes it seem as if it were the entire motive. And Ellis should know that it wasn't. Democratic-Republicans attacked John Adam's pernitious Alien & Sedition Acts on 10th amendment (or states rights) grounds, and Ellis makes no mention of it. To refresh my memory I just thumbed through the index and I could find no mention of A&SA at all!

Ellis is guilty of whitewashing John Adams the way he accuses early historians of whitewashing all the founding fathers. He simplistically smears Jefferson and Madison in a similar manner on the other side. He acheives the balance he claims to desire all right, but only by herding all the Federalist into the "good founding fathers" camp and all the Democratic Republicans into the bad camp. This is a little better, but not much better, than the shallow treatment he complains of in other historians. It's true all historians are biased, but if Ellis wanted to make a case for the Federalists I wish he'd been more honest about it.

American Creation is not fatally flawed, but Ellis's unacknowledged centralist bias left a bad taste in my mouth. (Granted, I have my own bias for states rights.) Isaacson's book was ,for me at least , much more enjoyable and useful.
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Comments

That is fascinating. I didn't know much about American history (and not even that much about Chinese or NZ history either). Yeah. :D

What Ellis said: "we have been asked to choose between two simplistic narratives...one featuring the founders as demigods...the other crowded with a cast of villains who collectively comprise the deadest, whitest males in American history", I think it also applies to Western civilization in general and how people can view it. And, heck, Ayn Rand. Or anybody who's a bit larger than life.


Edited at 2009-05-01 10:05 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure you know more about American history than I do about the history of China or New Zealand. :)