be true that the United States has behaved stupidly over and
over again, or that everything we’ve done in the past few
years has turned out badly. It can’t be that our friends have
distanced themselves and that our enemies are everywhere.
But sometimes it looks that way. Sometimes our leaders look
terribly diminished and, like the longtime sick, they appear
lost in their own clothing.
that’s why so many readers have tossed aside the newspaper
and picked up a good book about happier events in our history.
There’s been a flood of works about the founders, some of
them quite long and all of them serious, but they’ve found
an avid readership. Frankly, it’s refreshing to read about
a group of brave, intelligent and passionate people who made
the United States.
are so many of these books that choosing among them gets difficult.
My recent preferences are for Ron Chernow’s superb Alexander
Hamilton, David McCullough’s wonderful biography of John
(and, of course, Abigail) Adams in John Adams, Walter
Isaacson’s engaging Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
(and let me also squeeze in Edmund Morgan’s deep Benjamin
Franklin), Joseph Ellis’s insightful His Excellency:
George Washington, and his portrait of Thomas Jefferson,
American Sphinx. I confess that my interest in worthy,
sharp-minded, hardworking but colorless James Madison is limited,
and I’m not partial to any particular study of him.
the attractive features of these biographies is that they
show us a world wide open to men of talent and energy, no
matter your age or place in society. In 1776, the famous Benjamin
Franklin is 70 years old; Alexander Hamilton is 21, broke
and obscure; James Madison, a very well-to-do slave owner,
is 25; and John Adams, New England farmer and lawyer, is 41.
careers of these men are amazing. Franklin began as a printer’s
apprentice, corraled lightning, and became the essential diplomat
who brought French money and eventually the entire nation
to the aid of the struggling colonies. Hamilton, an incandescent
intelligence, was born a bastard on the slave-ridden island
of Nevis. He began as a shipping clerk in the Caribbean, but
five years later he was Washington’s aide-de-camp and went
on to invent the U.S. Treasury. Or Washington himself, whose
experience as an officer in the French and Indian War taught
him chiefly his own limitations; that knowledge, plus the
books he purchased on his way to his command in Massachusetts,
was his preparation for holding the continental army together
until it defeated one of the greatest fighting machines in
these astonishing careers were happening at the same time
and criss-crossing each other. These people knew each other,
helped and hated each other by turns, sometimes praised and
more often viciously slandered each other. Finally, of course,
all were engaged in a shared life-or-death struggle that transcended
personal gain or glory.
improvised their way through a long war, and in a long, hot
summer, composed a constitution that stands today. Is there
a reader who can resist the fantastic loops of a story that
has cranky John Adams and silken Thomas Jefferson as close
friends, then bitter enemies, then in old, old age reconciled
letter-writers who die on the same Fourth of July? It was
morning in America, and these people were there to make the
Ellis has said that readers’ appetite for these books—which
he notes began about 10 years ago—is more than “founders chic,”
more than a momentary fad. It’s natural to wonder what stimulated
the hunger for these histories and why it persists. Ellis
doesn’t answer those questions. But if we look back over our
recent history, we can make a good guess as to why these books
are so sought-after now.
long ago our future was far more hopeful. The Soviet Union
had collapsed, its vassal states had broken free, and the
United States had become the undisputed leader in global affairs.
In the words of George Bush the elder, we were at the start
of a “new world order.” With that Bush, the United
States led a broad coalition that destroyed Iraq’s military
forces, but—prudently acceding to the wishes of its Arab partners—the
United States stopped short of occupying Iraq’s capital and
overthrowing its government.
Clinton era that followed, Iraq remained a powerless country
hemmed in by economic sanctions and no-fly zones, with U.S.
and British aircraft patrolling the skies overhead. Despite
what appeared to be isolated terrorist attacks on the United
States, Americans prospered and saw their country extending
a benign hegemony over the globe. This would be the American
century, and America would do for the world what it had done
things got strange. After a bizarre moralistic campaign to
impeach President Bill Clinton for sexual shenanigans, Republicans
lost the popular vote yet seized the presidency. George Bush
the younger became commander-in-chief, convinced that international
ties were designed to entangle and hinder American might.
He turned his back on the Kyoto accords, pushed aside the
World Court and tore up our anti-ballistic missile treaty
with Russia. He asserted absolute unconstrained power: the
ability to do what he wanted, wherever he wanted, with no
namby-pamby “decent respect to the opinions of mankind”—that
good old phrase from the Declaration of Independence.
the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the American military retaliated
with a brilliant rout of the Taliban, in the midst of which
the president surprised the world by proclaiming the existence
of an “axis of evil” composed of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Forgetting the Taliban, Bush and his neoconservative confederates
dusted off their adolescent plan to launch a preemptive war
against an enfeebled Iraq. Thus began one of the most inept,
dangerous and self-defiling periods in American history.
people, we are sustained by the stories of our beginning,
by our Paul Revere calling the “country folk to be up and
to arm,” by our threadbare soldiers at Valley Forge leaving
their bloody footprints in the snow, by our Jefferson writing
what we know is self-evident and true, “that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness.”
the here and now, Americans see their republic spilling blood
and billions in a foreign country it doesn’t understand, but
which it chose to demolish for no good reason. They’ve looked
at the photos from Abu Gharib. They see that the United States
built the prison in Guantanamo purposely to be outside the
protection of the Constitution, so it can hold “enemy combatants”
in legal limbo. Americans hear a president who says the United
States doesn’t torture, but they know he smuggles prisoners
to foreign countries to be tortured out of sight, out of hearing.
And Americans know their country spies on them without cause
and without oversight. No wonder we turn to the glorious past.
the founders were saints or demigods. On the contrary, nowadays
their private behavior would thrill an impeachment committee.
Old Ben Franklin never got too old to intrigue with a pretty
woman, no matter if she was married. Hothead Hamilton cheated
on his wife, then published a defensive pamphlet to show he
didn’t cheat the treasury. Jefferson, they say, liked to bed
his slave girl, when he wasn’t secretly paying journalists
to spread slanders.
men weren’t so pious as our leaders are today. True, Adams
had a rock-hard belief in God and the soul, but in his public
life he was a secular rationalist. Washington was not
a churchgoer; no, he didn’t kneel down in the snow at Valley
Forge, despite the paintings and legends. Franklin, a lifelong
deist, doubted the divinity of Christ and, as he quipped shortly
before he died, “It is a question I do not dogmatize upon,
having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself
with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing
the Truth with less Trouble.” Jefferson believed in a hands-off
creator, not in the divinity of Christ, and, using scissors
and paste, cut out all references to the supernatural in Mathew,
Mark, Luke and John, producing a Gospel according to Jefferson
wherein Jesus is a secular humanist. This year’s campaigning
politicians are far chummier with God and Jesus than the founders
in the darkling twilight of this administration, we turn to
the founders for hope. Because despite their flaws, despite
their compromised Constitution, they did so well. Those passionate
pragmatists believed in civic virtue—when was the last time
you heard anyone speak of that? They believed that guided
by reason they could improve life for everyone, not through
divine inspiration, but by erecting a structure of humane
laws for all society. For the past seven years our leaders
have promoted ideology, not intelligence; near-term aggrandizement
instead of farsighted benefit. In 1799, John Adams refused
to fight a popular war with France, knowing his refusal would
cost him the presidency the next year. He helped his country,
not himself, and for the rest of his long life, rightly regarded
it as his finest moment.