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[Book Summary] Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Founding Brothers (2002) complicates and enriches our understanding of the American revolution. The men who founded America lived and worked in uncertain times. The future was far from certain, and even the truths they held to be self-evident often led to strikingly different conclusions. But they clung to one another – as friends, as rivals, and even as enemies. Together, they formed a fraternity of remarkable minds that could collectively solve the problems each of them on their own could not.

[Book Summary] Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Content Summary

Introduction: What’s in it for me? New insights into the men who made America.
1776: A utopian wager
Vigilance: A republican virtue
A little lion in the urban jungle
Hamilton encounters an immovable obstacle
A famous dinner leads to a famous compromise
The moral conscience of the revolution
The great silence
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


History, Politics, Biographies, Memoirs, Leaders, Notable People, American Revolution Biographies, U.S. Revolution and Founding History

Introduction: New insights into the men who made America.

Clichés get at truths, but they also simplify them. If a cliché captures something essential, it also obscures the larger picture. In short, while catchy, they can be pretty one-dimensional.

The term “Founding Fathers” is one of those clichés.

Remarkable statesmen like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – the founders we’ll be looking at here – can claim paternity of the United States. That much of the story is true. But to leave it at that doesn’t do the whole story justice.

Historian Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers gives us a fuller narrative of America’s founders. In his telling, men like Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton aren’t all-seeing patriarchs issuing wise guidance to an infant nation; they’re brothers-in-arms in a struggle whose outcome was never certain.

This isn’t a contrarian argument – Ellis doesn’t deny their genius. But the picture he paints is far from one-dimensional. These revolutionaries were far-sighted, but they were also human. They made mistakes. They gambled. They followed their instincts. They could compromise, but they could also be unrelenting. Most of all, though, they held each other to high standards.

And that’s the thread we’ll be following in this summary to Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis. The revolution had high stakes – the very future of humanity depended on it, these men thought. There was only one chance to get it right, which is why the clashes between them were so highly charged.

Along the way, you’ll learn

  • Why virtue was so important to America’s revolutionary generation;
  • How Washington was chosen as the nation’s new capitol; and
  • Why the country’s leading statement didn’t abolish slavery straight away.

1776: A utopian wager

History is much more than a collection of facts and a record of dates. It’s also our way of illuminating the present. Of finding out how we got here and how our world was made.

But the past doesn’t lead inevitably into the present. There are always forks in the road, and not every road leads to Rome. At each turn, our forebears made decisions. They had different paths to choose from, and different futures to discover.

So let’s turn back to one of those moments – the year 1775.

We’re in North America. Thirteen colonies belonging to the globe’s greatest military power – the British empire – decide to throw off the colonial yoke. They take up arms. A year later, in 1776, they explain their motives in what will become a world-famous document: the Declaration of Independence. Because we know what happened next, it’s hard to appreciate the stakes of this utopian wager.

Going up against the British army and navy was an act of almost suicidal defiance. Victory eventually came in 1783, but only after the American revolutionaries had come perilously close to defeat on several occasions. But those revolutionaries weren’t just taking on a superior military force; as they saw it, they were also challenging the very course of human history up to that point.

Let’s zoom in on the revolutionary generation – our founding brothers. Before we discuss any individuals, let’s look into something they all shared. It was a way of thinking about the world. A common ideal that illuminated their collective actions. It was called republicanism.

A republic is a state in which the people – the citizens – rule themselves by electing representatives. They are their own masters. They can replace their government, which is an expression of the collective will of all citizens and a servant of the people. Today, we’d call it a democracy.

The opposite of a republic is a monarchy – a catchall that describes absolutist states in which there are no citizens, only subjects. These governments cannot be replaced; they must simply be obeyed.

In 1776, the world was ruled by monarchies, as it had been for most of human history. There were exceptions to this rule, like the Roman Republic in ancient times, and American revolutionaries loved these exceptions. They were the bright spots of liberty in a sea of darkness and despotism.

But, the revolutionaries wondered, why exactly were free states so rare? And why did they inevitably collapse into absolutism? How was it that would-be dictators succeeded in overthrowing republics like Rome and turning them into unfree monarchies? The answer the American revolutionaries came up with hinged on virtue.

Vigilance: A republican virtue

A despot doesn’t need to be virtuous to win loyalty or obedience. He has absolute power. Rebellious subjects can be thrown in dungeons, or sent to the gallows, and there aren’t impartial juries to judge their fate. A dictator’s will is law; a monarch always has the last word.

Nor do the subjects of despots need to be virtuous – in fact, it helps if they’re selfish and corrupt. If a despot grants them tracts of profitable land, or a monopoly to sell luxury goods, they’re not going to insist on their neighbors having the same rights. People without strong moral values are easy to buy.

So what about republics? Well, that’s a completely different story. To win and keep the loyalty of citizens, republican governments must be virtuous. If they don’t treat all equally, follow their own laws, or act in the common interest, citizens have a right to replace them – either by election or revolution.

And a republic’s citizens must also be virtuous. If they are too selfish or corrupt, they’ll favor their own interests above those of their neighbors and break the bonds of trust that sustain power-sharing. The result: civil war and the death of the republic. That outcome can only be prevented if fellow citizens strike compromises and place the interests of the common good above their own interests. In short, good republican citizens must be deeply patriotic.

It’s easy to see, then, why despotic monarchies have been the norm for most of human history: republics have to clear very high bars to survive, let alone thrive. Republics are absolutely dependent on the people’s moral character. Any lapse in the judgment of statesmen, any slackening of virtue among citizens, can condemn a republic to an early death. For American revolutionaries, that was precisely what had happened to historic republics like Rome.

When Romans were virtuous, they were patriotic – they looked to the common good. They fought for Rome’s honor, not to advance their own rank or fortune. But when they became obsessed by personal status or money, they looked to their own good, not the republic’s. Corruption and selfishness led to internal division, which brought conflict and – eventually – the republic’s demise.

The lesson for America’s republicans was obvious. The nation they were creating – a free republic dedicated to the liberty and happiness of all – was a political oddity. It was a risky, crazy attempt to defy history. And it could only succeed if the revolutionary generation and its leaders remained vigilant against every dropping off of virtue.

As we’ll see, it was this determination to see their experiment succeed that drove American revolutionaries to hold each other to such high standards. It also explains why they clashed so often. For America’s founders, every misstep was potentially the first step on the road to ruin.

A little lion in the urban jungle

Against all odds, the revolutionary war was won. In 1783, the British conceded. King George III signed a peace treaty and recognized the new American republic.

The nation had been born in war. How would it fare in times of peace?

There wasn’t a blueprint. However much the revolutionary generation admired Rome, they couldn’t turn the clock back. Their republic belonged to the modern world. They had to find their own answers. And while the founders shared the same ideals, they often drew different conclusions from their common assumptions.

In the early days of the republic, for example, Thomas Jefferson, one of its leading statesmen, argued that each generation was sovereign. It was only fitting, he concluded, that laws should expire after 20 years. He eventually came to see this plan as a recipe for anarchy, but it’s revealing that he could entertain the idea: it showed that the future of the United States was anything but settled.

So let’s introduce one of the leading actors in this open-ended drama. Enter Alexander Hamilton, the champion of a cause known as federalism – the idea that the United States should have a strong central government that plays an active role in managing the economy.

Hamilton was known as the “little lion of federalism.” The word “little” referred to his stature – a diminutive five foot seven. The word “lion” referenced his combative nature.

As a general in the revolutionary army, Hamilton proved himself a brave and resourceful soldier. As a politician, he displayed the same qualities. He refused to yield. He threw everything he had at obstacles, taking on political opponents with the same zeal he’d once shown on the battlefield.

Hamilton’s nature earned him the lifelong admiration of his allies – and the hatred of his opponents. Founder and future president John Adams was one of the latter. For him, Hamilton was little more than the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.”

It was an insult, but it was also literally true. Hamilton was born on the West Indian island of Nevis, the illegitimate son of a hard-drinking Scottish merchant with a talent for bankrupting businesses. It was those undistinguished origins which explained Hamilton’s need to prove his superiority in everything he did. But it was his escape from the provincial world of Nevis that really shaped him.

Hamilton rose through society after being given a chance to prove himself in the New York offices of merchants, bankers, and industrialists – the urban business elite. These men lacked the aristocratic snobbery of the plantation-owning class from which many revolutionary leaders came. Unlike those gentlemen, they wanted to create rather than conserve. Hamilton didn’t just admire them – he believed they represented the future. This idea – that it was in the cities, the home of industry, that America’s fortune would be made – was at the heart of Hamilton’s federalism.

Hamilton encounters an immovable obstacle

There’s an old idea in politics which says that crises can be opportunities – if politicians seize the initiative. When a crisis hit the United States in the 1780s, Hamilton tried to do just that.

America was broke. The war had dragged on for eight long years and the republic had borrowed heavily to pay and arm its soldiers. By 1789, it owed its creditors $80 million. To put that in perspective, it raised less than $3 million in revenue. If the United States didn’t pay down its debts, its credit rating would suffer. That would make it much harder to borrow money in the future.

But debt repayments were devolved: each of the thirteen states was responsible for what it owed. Some states, like Virginia, could clear their debts; others, like Rhode Island, were close to bankruptcy.

Hamilton believed this state of affairs risked carving the United States up into separate economic zones. Investors might trust Virginia with their money, but states like Rhode Island would stagnate. That undermined national unity. How, though, could investors be convinced to invest their capital in the entire start-up nation that was the United States? Hamilton’s answer was called assumption.

The federal government would assume – that is, take on – all thirteen states’ debts. Instead of thirteen separate ledgers, there would be just one. Since the central government had more resources at its disposal than individual states, lenders would be more confident that debts would be repaid. Less risk meant lower interest rates, easier access to credit, and more investment. Win-win, right?

Hamilton, the friend of industry, thought so. But a Virginian gentleman, a representative of that state’s plantation-owning aristocracy, disagreed. His name was James Madison.

Madison was small and frail. He weighed just 140 pounds and was often ill. He spoke softly and plainly, rejecting the high-minded revolutionary rhetoric of his peers. In short, he was anything but charismatic. But his unassuming appearance and manner concealed a shrewd mind. He didn’t need rhetoric or the force of personality – his inoffensive arguments nearly always won the day anyway.

Madison, then, was a formidable opponent. And on the question of debt, he was resolutely opposed to Hamilton’s plans. Virginia had already paid off its debts, he pointed out, and it would be unfair if the state now also had to contribute to repaying the debts of other states. But that pragmatic economic argument concealed a deeper disagreement about the political future of the United States.

Hamilton’s plan gave the federal government ultimate authority over the economies of individual states. The British had ruled America as a tax colony, channeling American taxes into their treasury in distant London. So, he proposed to do the same to states like Virginia, whose taxes would now fund an unaccountable government in far-away New York. Wasn’t that also a form of tyranny? Madison, like many southerners, thought it was.

A famous dinner leads to a famous compromise

Hamilton and Madison had reached a deadlock, then. Each accused the other of betrayal. One risked the very survival of the revolutionary republic; the other was putting it on the path to tyranny.

Enter Thomas Jefferson – the third character in our drama.

Jefferson loomed over Hamilton and Madison, literally and figuratively. Measuring six foot two, he was the tallest of the three. He was also around a decade older than Hamilton and Madison, who treated him with the respect they believed they owed to an older brother.

Jefferson was a man of high standards and few words. During the war, when he was the governor of Virginia, British troops forced him to abandon the state capitol, which they promptly burned to the ground. Jefferson was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he withdrew from public life after that, taking up a diplomatic post in France. It was only in 1789, at the personal request of the president, George Washington, that he left his self-imposed exile and returned to the political frontlines.

In 1790, Jefferson repaid Washington’s faith in him by defusing the conflict between Hamilton and Madison – a conflict that threatened to derail America’s political experiment.

Jefferson invited both men to dinner that summer to see if they couldn’t reach an agreement. Having spent several years in France, Jefferson knew that the United States wouldn’t be taken seriously in Europe’s capitals until her foreign debts had been cleared. But he also knew that Madison wouldn’t be won over by purely economic arguments. There would have to be a political compromise.

What kind, though? The question Jefferson honed in on was a question that had provoked endless debate in the country – the site of the future capitol of the United States.

Each state and city found reasons why it deserved such an honor. Pennsylvanians said the capitol ought to be at the geographic center of the nation, which just so happened to be Pennsylvania. New Yorkers, Bostonians, and Philadelphians had other, equally ingenious and self-serving arguments.

Virginians like Madison, though, made a more high-minded case for their state. They believed that the river Potomac fed into the Mississippi, which made Virginia a gateway to the continent’s vast interior. The future of the United States, they said, lay in the west, and building the capitol on the banks of the Potomac was a fitting symbol of the nation’s divine mission to colonize that interior.

Geographically, this was nonsense – the Potomac doesn’t feed into the Mississippi – and many Americans mocked Virginians for their provincial romanticism. In the words of one northern senator, Madison had confused the Potomac with a “Euphrates flowing through paradise.” By 1790, he had all but admitted defeat. Only a stroke of fortune, he said, could save the plan. And that’s when a letter inviting him to dine with Alexander Hamilton at Thomas Jefferson’s residence arrived.

The rest is history. Madison agreed that the federal government would take on the states’ debts. In return, he got his capitol on the Potomac – today’s Washington. The federal government could levy its taxes, but it would remain close to Virginians. This was the Compromise of 1790. An existential crisis to the infant republic had been averted. The great experiment continued.

The moral conscience of the revolution

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those are the famous words of the Declaration of Independence – the document which announced the American revolution in 1776. All men, it continues, have certain unalienable rights – rights that cannot be denied or taken away. They include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Revolutions, though, rarely make a clean sweep of the past. Hated institutions and ideas live on, compromising revolutionary ideals. For the great American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, there was no more hateful compromise than the continued existence of slavery – the practice which cruelly denied the liberty and equality of all.

Like Hamilton, Franklin didn’t come from an illustrious family. But his genius more than made up for what he lacked in connections and wealth. Born in 1706, he excelled at everything he touched. By the 1780s, his fame was unrivaled. He was America’s greatest scientist; its leading diplomat; its greatest wit and prose stylist. His twinkling eyes and the shoulder-length gray hair which hung around his otherwise bald head like a halo were familiar to every American newspaper reader.

Franklin was the oldest of the revolutionaries; many said he was also the wisest. He was present at every pivotal moment in the country’s history. He coauthored the Declaration of Independence. He was in Paris to sign a wartime treaty with the republic’s first ally, France. He was there again five years later when Britain signed the peace treaty of 1783. And he was in Philadelphia in 1778 when the Constitution was drafted. Franklin didn’t just accompany the revolution, though – he was its moral conscience. Which brings us to the final act of his remarkable life.

It’s the spring of 1790. Franklin is 84 and close to his death. But he finds the energy to make one last contribution to the revolution: he signs a petition to Congress calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. The statement that all men are equal and equally free, he says, wasn’t mere rhetoric – it was a statement of fact. Slavery, he concludes, is incompatible with the ideals of the republic.

He wasn’t the first or only American to reach this conclusion – religious groups like the Quakers had been saying as much for decades. But Franklin’s voice couldn’t be ignored. As a contemporary put it, Franklin spoke the language of America and his words called the nation back to its first principles.

When Franklin died that spring, the abolition of slavery was still many decades away. But his last act forced the nation to openly confront an issue that had long been hidden away like a dirty secret.

The great silence

Franklin went to his death reminding Americans that slavery was a betrayal of the revolution. His last words echoed through the republic, shattering a conspiracy of silence.

That silence had several roots. There was self-interest – like other well-to-do Americans, many of the founders owned slaves themselves. Self-regard also played its part: no one, after all, likes to think of themself as a hypocrite. Then there was the political question of the United States’ future, which was more easily settled by not talking about slavery.

When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, a divide opened up between northern and southern states. The former were on the way to abolishing slavery. The latter, though, were expanding slavery, especially on their cotton plantations. If the Constitution had laid out a path to the abolition of slavery, the southern states would have refused to ratify it. And if it had enshrined the rights of slaveholders, the northern states would have walked away. The only way to break this deadlock was to ignore the issue, which is why the word “slavery” doesn’t appear in this historic document.

Put differently, the very survival of the republic at this critical moment hinged on a kind of gentleman’s agreement not to broach this divisive topic.

Franklin’s intervention blew that agreement out of the water. As Madison saw it, he had risked the survival of the United States – a fear that was confirmed when politicians from southern states began talking about declaring their independence.

Madison said there was no point in sowing division around slavery. The practice had been outlawed in the northern states and it was only a matter of time before the southern states joined them. Why? In a word, economics. Madison had convinced himself that slavery wasn’t efficient enough to remain profitable for long. Secure in this belief, he set about convincing northern abolitionists to drop the issue while reassuring southern politicians that their states’ interests would be guaranteed. When petitions like Franklin’s were finally debated, Congress agreed that the federal government would give up its right to intervene in the question of slavery until at least 1808.

Politically, this compromise served its purpose – the unity of the nation was preserved. But that unity came at a high price. The idea that slavery was destined to disappear was wrong. Slave plantations became more efficient and thus more profitable to their owners, who brought more slaves into the southern states. The larger the slave population grew, the harder it became to imagine how slavery could be abolished since everyone agreed that slave owners would be compensated. Where was the government supposed to get the money from? Few abolitionists had an answer to that question.

Madison had argued that the window of opportunity to destroy slavery was just opening and urged abolitionists to be patient. But Franklin’s view was the correct one: that window was closing in 1790.

Madison did get one thing right, though. As he had foreseen, abolishing slavery proved to be hugely divisive – as we know, the matter was only resolved at the end of a brutal and bloody civil war. Over half a million Americans perished in that conflict, but the United States endured. Would it have been able to survive a similar crisis in the 1790s? We can only speculate.

Final Summary

The most important thing to remember from all this is that:

History looks certain when we look back at it from the present. It’s as though there’s a straight path from the American revolution to the United States of today. For the founders of that nation, though, nothing was certain. As they saw it, the chances of failure were high – that was the nature of their audacious political experiment. They had to make it up as they went along, one bitter clash and painful compromise at a time. That they succeeded isn’t evidence of their superhuman genius, but their deeply human determination.

About the author

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of several books of American history, among them Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the 1997 National Book Award. He was educated at the College of William and Mary and Yale University and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and three sons.

Joseph J. Ellis

Table of Contents

About the Author
Other Books by This Author
Title Page
Preface: The Generation
Chapter One: The Duel
Chapter Two: The Dinner
Chapter Three: The Silence
Chapter Four: The Farewell
Chapter Five: The Collaborators
Chapter Six: The Friendship


In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award—winning author of American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.

The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers–re-examined here as Founding Brothers–combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes–Hamilton and Burr’s deadly duel, Washington’s precedent-setting Farewell Address, Adams’ administration and political partnership with his wife, the debate about where to place the capital, Franklin’s attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery and Madison’s attempts to block him, and Jefferson and Adams’ famous correspondence–Founding Brothers brings to life the vital issues and personalities from the most important decade in our nation’s history.

Video and Podcast


From the Back Cover

“A splendid book–humane, learned, written with flair and radiant with a calm intelligence and wit.” – The New York Times Book Review

“Lively and illuminating…leaves the reader with a visceral sense of a formative era in American life.” – The New York Times

“Masterful…. Fascinating…. Ellis is an elegant stylist…. [He] captures the passion the founders brought to the revolutionary project…. [A] very fine book.” – Chicago Tribune

“Learned, exceedingly well-written, and perceptive.” – The Oregonian

“Lucid…. Ellis has such command of the subject matter that it feels fresh, particularly as he segues from psychological to political, even to physical analysis…. Ellis’s storytelling helps us more fully hear the Brothers’ voices.” – Business Week

“Splendid…. Revealing…. An extraordinary book. Its insightful conclusions rest on extensive research, and its author’s writing is vigorous and lucid.” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Vivid and unforgettable . . . [an] enduring achievement.” – The Boston Globe

“Founding Brothers is a wonderful book, one of the best . . . on the Founders ever written. . . . Ellis has established himself as the Founders’ historian for our time.” – Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

The Generation

No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution. On the inevitability side, it is true there were voices back then urging prospective patriots to regard American independence as an early version of manifest destiny. Tom Paine, for example, claimed that it was simply a matter of common sense that an island could not rule a continent. And Thomas Jefferson’s lyrical rendering of the reasons for the entire revolutionary enterprise emphasized the self-evident character of the principles at stake.

Several other prominent American revolutionaries also talked as if they were actors in a historical drama whose script had already been written by the gods. In his old age, John Adams recalled his youthful intimations of the providential forces at work: “There is nothing . . . more ancient in my memory,” he wrote in 1807, “than the observation that arts, sciences, and empire had always travelled westward. And in conversation it was always added, since I was a child, that their next leap would be over the Atlantic into America.” Adams instructed his beloved Abigail to start saving all his letters even before the outbreak of the war for independence. Then in June of 1776, he purchased “a Folio Book” to preserve copies of his entire correspondence in order to record, as he put it, “the great Events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing.” Of course we tend to remember only the prophets who turn out to be right, but there does seem to have been a broadly shared sense within the revolutionary generation that they were “present at the creation.”

These early premonitions of American destiny have been reinforced and locked into our collective memory by the subsequent triumph of the political ideals the American Revolution first announced, as Jefferson so nicely put it, “to a candid world.” Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, former colonies of European powers have won their independence with such predictable regularity that colonial status has become an exotic vestige of bygone days, a mere way station for emerging nations. The republican experiment launched so boldly by the revolutionary generation in America encountered entrenched opposition in the two centuries that followed, but it thoroughly vanquished the monarchical dynasties of the nineteenth century and then the totalitarian despotisms of the twentieth, just as Jefferson predicted it would. Though it seems somewhat extreme to declare, as one contemporary political philosopher has phrased it, that “the end of history” is now at hand, it is true that all alternative forms of political organization appear to be fighting a futile rear-guard action against the liberal institutions and ideas first established in the United States in the late eighteenth century. At least it seems safe to say that some form of representative government based on the principle of popular sovereignty and some form of market economy fueled by the energies of individual citizens have become the commonly accepted ingredients for national success throughout the world. These legacies are so familiar to us, we are so accustomed to taking their success for granted, that the era in which they were born cannot help but be remembered as a land of foregone conclusions.

Despite the confident and providential statements of leaders like Paine, Jefferson, and Adams, the conclusions that look so foregone to us had yet to congeal for them. The old adage applies: Men make history, and the leading members of the revolutionary generation realized they were doing so, but they can never know the history they are making. We can look back and make the era of the American Revolution a center point, then scan the terrain upstream and downstream, but they can only know what is downstream. An anecdote that Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, liked to tell in his old age makes the point memorably. On July 4, 1776, just after the Continental Congress had finished making its revisions of the Declaration and sent it off to the printer for publication, Rush overheard a conversation between Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry,” said Harrison, “when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” Rush recalled that the comment “procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”

Based on what we now know about the military history of the American Revolution, if the British commanders had prosecuted the war more vigorously in its earliest stages, the Continental Army might very well have been destroyed at the start and the movement for American independence nipped in the bud. The signers of the Declaration would then have been hunted down, tried, and executed for treason, and American history would have flowed forward in a wholly different direction.

In the long run, the evolution of an independent American nation, gradually developing its political and economic strength over the nineteenth century within the protective constraints of the British Empire, was virtually inevitable. This was Paine’s point. But that was not the way history happened. The creation of a separate American nation occurred suddenly rather than gradually, in revolutionary rather than evolutionary fashion, the decisive events that shaped the political ideas and institutions of the emerging state all taking place with dynamic intensity during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. No one present at the start knew how it would turn out in the end. What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God’s will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck–both good and bad–and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome. At the dawn of a new century, indeed a new millennium, the United States is now the oldest enduring republic in world history, with a set of political institutions and traditions that have stood the test of time. The basic framework for all these institutions and traditions was built in a sudden spasm of enforced inspiration and makeshift construction during the final decades of the eighteenth century.

If hindsight enhances our appreciation for the solidity and stability of the republican legacy, it also blinds us to the truly stunning improbability of the achievement itself. All the major accomplishments were unprecedented. Though there have been many successful colonial rebellions against imperial domination since the American Revolution, none had occurred before. Taken together, the British army and navy constituted the most powerful military force in the world, destined in the course of the succeeding century to defeat all national competitors for its claim as the first hegemonic power of the modern era. Though the republican paradigm–representative government bottomed on the principle of popular sovereignty–has become the political norm in the twentieth century, no republican government prior to the American Revolution, apart from a few Swiss cantons and Greek city-states, had ever survived for long, and none had ever been tried over a landmass as large as the thirteen colonies. (There was one exception, but it proved the rule: the short-lived Roman Republic of Cicero, which succumbed to the imperial command of Julius Caesar.) And finally the thirteen colonies, spread along the Eastern Seaboard and stretching inward to the Alleghenies and beyond into unexplored forests occupied by hostile Indian tribes, had no history of enduring cooperation. The very term American Revolution propagates a wholly fictional sense of national coherence not present at the moment and only discernible in latent form by historians engaged in after-the-fact appraisals of how it could possibly have turned out so well.

Hindsight, then, is a tricky tool. Too much of it and we obscure the all-pervasive sense of contingency as well as the problematic character of the choices facing the revolutionary generation. On the other hand, without some measure of hindsight, some panoramic perspective on the past from our perch in the present, we lose the chief advantage–perhaps the only advantage–that the discipline of history provides, and we are then thrown without resources into the patternless swirl of events with all the time-bound participants themselves. What we need is a form of hindsight that does not impose itself arbitrarily on the mentality of the revolutionary generation, does not presume that we are witnessing the birth of an inevitable American superpower. We need a historical perspective that frames the issues with one eye on the precarious contingencies felt at the time, while the other eye looks forward to the more expansive consequences perceived dimly, if at all, by those trapped in the moment. We need, in effect, to be nearsighted and farsighted at the same time.

On the farsighted side, the key insight, recognized by a few of the political leaders in the revolutionary generation, is that the geographic isolation of the North American continent and the bountiful natural resources contained within it provided the fledgling nation with massive advantages and almost limitless potential. In 1783, just after the military victory over Great Britain was confirmed in the Treaty of Paris, no less a figure than George Washington gave this continental vision its most eloquent formulation: “The Citizens of America,” Washington wrote, “placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independence; They are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” If the infant American republic could survive its infancy, if it could manage to endure as a coherent national entity long enough to consolidate its natural advantages, it possessed the potential to become a dominant force in the world.5

On the nearsighted side, the key insight, shared by most of the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation, is that the very arguments used to justify secession from the British Empire also undermined the legitimacy of any national government capable of overseeing such a far-flung population, or establishing uniform laws that knotted together the thirteen sovereign states and three or four distinct geographic and economic regions. For the core argument used to discredit the authority of Parliament and the British monarch, the primal source of what were called “Whig principles,” was an obsessive suspicion of any centralized political power that operated in faraway places beyond the immediate supervision or surveillance of the citizens it claimed to govern. The national government established during the war under the Articles of Confederation accurately embodied the cardinal conviction of revolutionary-era republicanism; namely, that no central authority empowered to coerce or discipline the citizenry was permissible, since it merely duplicated the monarchical and aristocratic principles that the American Revolution had been fought to escape.6

Combine the long-range and short-range perspectives and the result becomes the central paradox of the revolutionary era, which was also the apparently intractable dilemma facing the revolutionary generation. In sum, the long-term prospects for the newly independent American nation were extraordinarily hopeful, almost limitless. But the short-term prospects were bleak in the extreme, because the very size and scale of the national enterprise, what in fact made the future so promising, overwhelmed the governing capacities of the only republican institutions sanctioned by the Revolution. John Adams, who gave the problem more concentrated attention than anyone except James Madison, was periodically tempted to throw up his hands and declare the task impossible. “The lawgivers of antiquity … legislated for single cities,” Adams observed, but “who can legislate for 20 or 30 states, each of which is greater than Greece or Rome at those times?” And since the only way to reach the long-run glory was through the short-run gauntlet, the safest bet was that the early American republic would dissolve into a cluster of state or regional sovereignties, expiring, like all the republics before it, well short of the promised land.7

The chief reason this did not happen, at least from a purely legal and institutional point of view, is that in 1787 a tiny minority of prominent political leaders from several key states conspired to draft and then ratify a document designed to accommodate republican principles to a national scale. Over the subsequent two centuries critics of the Constitutional Convention have called attention to several of its more unseemly features: the convention was extralegal, since its explicit mandate was to revise the Articles of Confederation, not replace them; its sessions were conducted in utter secrecy; the fifty-five delegates were a propertied elite hardly representative of the population as a whole; southern delegates used the proceedings to obtain several assurances that slavery would not be extinguished south of the Potomac; the machinery for ratification did not require the unanimous consent dictated by the Articles themselves. There is truth in each of these accusations.

There is also truth in the opposite claim: that the Constitutional Convention should be called “the miracle at Philadelphia,” not in the customary, quasi-religious sense, whereby a gathering of demigods received divine inspiration, but in the more profane and prosaic sense that the Constitution professed to solve what was an apparently insoluble political problem. For it purported to create a consolidated federal government with powers sufficient to coerce obedience to national laws—in effect, to discipline a truly continental union—while remaining true to the republican principles of 1776. At least logically, this was an impossibility, since the core impulse of these republican principles, the original “spirit of ’76,” was an instinctive aversion to coercive political power of any sort and a thoroughgoing dread of the inevitable corruptions that result when unseen rulers congregate in distant places. The Antifederalist opponents of the Constitution made precisely these points, but they were outmaneuvered, outargued, and ultimately outvoted by a dedicated band of national advocates in nine of the state ratifying conventions.

The American Revolution thus entered a second phase and the constitutional settlement of 1787–1788 became a second “founding moment,” alongside the original occasion of 1776. The first founding declared American independence; the second, American nationhood. The incompatibility of these two foundings is reflected in the divisive character of the scholarship on the latter. Critics of the Constitution, then and now, have condemned it as a betrayal of the core principles of the American Revolution, an American version of France’s Thermidorian reaction. Strictly speaking, they were and are historically correct. Defenders of the Constitution, then and now, have saluted it as a sensible accommodation of liberty to power and a realistic compromise with the requirements of a national domain. That has turned out, over time, to be correct, though at the time even the advocates were not sure.

Uncertainty, in fact, was the dominant mood at that moment. Historians have emphasized the several compromises the delegates in Philadelphia brokered to produce the constitutional consensus: the interest of large versus small states; federal versus state jurisdiction; the sectional bargain over slavery. The most revealing feature in this compromise motif is that on each issue, both sides could plausibly believe they had gotten the best of the bargain. On the all-important question of sovereignty, the same artfully contrived ambiguity also obtained: Sovereignty did not reside with the federal government or the individual states; it resided with “the people.” What that meant was any one’s guess, since there was no such thing at this formative stage as an American “people”; indeed, the primary purpose of the Constitution was to provide the framework to gather together the scattered strands of the population into a more coherent collective worthy of that designation.

This latter point requires a reflective review of recent scholarship on the complicated origins of American nationhood. Based on what we now know about the Anglo-American connection in the pre-Revolution era—that is, before it was severed—the initial identification of the colonial population as “Americans” came from English writers who used the term negatively, as a way of referring to a marginal or peripheral population unworthy of equal status with full-blooded Englishmen back at the metropolitan center of the British Empire. The word was uttered and heard as an insult that designated an inferior or subordinate people. The entire thrust of the colonists’ justification for independence was to reject that designation on the grounds that they possessed all the rights of British citizens. And the ultimate source of these rights did not lie in any indigenously American origins, but rather in a transcendent realm of natural rights allegedly shared by all men everywhere. At least at the level of language, then, we need to recover the eighteenth-century context of things and not read back into those years the hallowed meanings they would acquire over the next century. The term American, like the term democrat, began as an epithet, the former referring to an inferior, provincial creature, the latter to one who panders to the crude and mindless whims of the masses. At both the social and verbal levels, in short, an American nation remained a precarious and highly problematic project—at best a work in progress.8

This was pretty much how matters stood in 1789, when the newly elected members of the federal government gathered in New York City and proceeded to test the proposition, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it at Gettysburg, “whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” We have already noted some of the assets and liabilities they brought along with them. On the assets side of the historical ledger, the full list would include the following: a bountiful continent an ocean away from European interference; a youthful population of nearly 4 million, about half of it sixteen years of age or younger and therefore certain to grow exponentially over subsequent decades; a broad dispersion of property ownership among the white populace, based on easy access to available land; a clear commitment to republican political institutions rooted in the prowess and practice of the colonial assemblies, then sanctified as the only paradigm during the successful war for independence and institutionalized in the state constitutions; and last, but far from least, a nearly unanimous consensus that the first chief executive would be George Washington, only one man, to be sure, but an incalculable asset.

On the liability side of the ledger, four items topped the list: First, no one had ever established a republican government on the scale of the United States, and the overwhelming judgment of the most respected authorities was that it could not be done; second, the dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, stigmatized all concentrated political power and even, its most virulent forms, depicted any energetic expression of governmental authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens ought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow; third, apart from the support for the Continental Army during the war, which was itself sporadic, uneven, and barely adequate to assure victory, the states and regions comprising the new nation had no common history as a nation and no common experience behaving as a coherent collective (for example, while drafting the Declaration in Philadelphia in June of 1776, Jefferson had written back to friends in Virginia that it was truly disconcerting to find himself deployed at that propitious moment nearly three hundred miles from “my country”); fourth, and finally, according to the first census, commissioned by the Congress in 1790, nearly 700,000 inhabitants of the fledgling American republic were black slaves, the vast majority, over 90 percent, concentrated in the Chesapeake region and points south, their numbers also growing exponentially in a kind of demographic defiance of all the republican rhetoric uttered since the heady days of 1776.9

If permitted to define a decade somewhat loosely, then the next decade was the most crucial and consequential in American history. Other leading contestants for that title—the years 1855–1865 and the 1940s come to mind—can make powerful claims, to be sure, but the first decade of our history as a sovereign nation will always have primacy because it was first. It set the precedents, established in palpable fact what the Constitution had only outlined in purposely ambiguous theory, thereby opening up and closing off options for all the history that followed. The Civil War, for example, was a direct consequence of the decision to evade and delay the slavery question during the most vulnerable early years of the republic. Similarly, America’s emergence as the dominant world power in the 1940s could never have occurred if the United States had not established stable national institutions at the start that permitted the consolidation of the continent. (From the Native American perspective, of course, this consolidation was a conquest.) The apparently irresistible urge to capitalize and mythologize as “Founding Fathers” the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase has some historical as well as psychological foundation, for in a very real sense we are, politically, if not genetically, still living their legacy. And the same principle also explains the parallel urge to demonize them, since any discussion of their achievement is also an implicit conversation about the distinctive character of American imperialism, both foreign and domestic.

A kind of electromagnetic field, therefore, surrounds this entire subject, manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans, or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a smaller but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten here. Within the scholarly community in recent years, the main tendency has been to take the latter side, or to sidestep the controversy by ignoring mainstream politics altogether. Much of the best work has taken the form of a concerted effort to recover the lost voices from the revolutionary generation—the daily life of Martha Ballard as she raised a family and practiced midwifery on the Maine frontier; the experience of Venture Smith, a former slave who sustained his memories of Africa and published a memoir based on them in 1798. This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.10

Though no longer a budding historian, my own efforts in recent years, including the pages that follow, constitute what I hope is a polite argument against the scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current climate. In my opinion, the central events and achievements of the revolutionary era and the early republic were political. These events and achievements are historically significant because they shaped the subsequent history of the United States, including our own time. The central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power. What’s more, the shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders who knew each other, who collaborated and collided with one another in patterns that replicated at the level of personality and ideology the principle of checks and balances imbedded structurally in the Constitution.

Mostly male, all white, this collection of public figures was hardly typical of the population as a whole; nor was it, on the other hand, a political elite like anything that existed in England or Europe. All of its members, not just those like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton with famously impoverished origins, would have languished in obscurity in England or France. The pressures and exigencies generated by the American Revolution called out and gathered together their talents; no titled and hereditary aristocracy was in place to block their ascent; and no full-blown democratic culture had yet emerged to dull their elitist edge. They were America’s first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy. Despite recent efforts to locate the title in the twentieth century, they comprised, by any informed and fair-minded standard, the greatest generation of political talent in American history. They created the American republic, then held it together throughout the volatile and vulnerable early years by sustaining their presence until national habits and customs took root. In terms of our earlier distinction, they got us from the short run to the long run.

There are two long-established ways to tell the story, both expressions of the political factions and ideological camps of the revolutionary era itself, and each first articulated in the earliest histories of the period, written while several members of the revolutionary generation were still alive. Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the American Revolution (1805) defined the “pure republicanism” interpretation, which was also the version embraced by the Republican party and therefore later called “the Jeffersonian interpretation.” It depicts the American Revolution as a liberation movement, a clean break not just from English domination but also from the historic corruptions of European monarchy and aristocracy. The ascendance of the Federalists to power in the 1790s thus becomes a hostile takeover of the Revolution by corrupt courtiers and moneymen (Hamilton is the chief culprit), which is eventually defeated and the true spirit of the Revolution recovered by the triumph of the Republicans in the elections of 1800. The core revolutionary principle according to this interpretive tradition is individual liberty. It has radical and, in modern terms, libertarian implications, because it regards any accommodation of personal freedom to governmental discipline as dangerous. In its more extreme forms it is a recipe for anarchy, and its attitude toward any energetic expression of centralized political power can assume paranoid proportions.

The alternative interpretation was first given its fullest articulation by John Marshall in his massive five-volume The Life of George Washington (1804–1807). It sees the American Revolution as an incipient national movement with deep, if latent, origins in the colonial era. The constitutional settlement of 1787–1788 thus becomes the natural fulfillment of the Revolution and the leaders of the Federalist party in the 1790s—Adams, Hamilton, and, most significantly, Washington—as the true heirs of the revolutionary legacy. (Jefferson is the chief culprit.) The core revolutionary principle in this view is collectivistic rather than individualistic, for it sees the true spirit of ’76 as the virtuous surrender of personal, state, and sectional interests to the larger purposes of American nationhood, first embodied in the Continental Army and later in the newly established federal government. It has conservative but also protosocialistic implications, because it does not regard the individual as the sovereign unit in the political equation and is more comfortable with governmental discipline as a focusing and channeling device for national development. In its more extreme forms it relegates personal rights and liberties to the higher authority of the state, which is “us” and not “them,” and it therefore has both communal and despotic implications.11

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves. Though many historians have taken a compromise or split-the-difference position over the ensuing years, the basic choice has remained constant, as historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other, or that stigmatize one side by viewing it through the eyes of the other, much as the contestants did back then. While we might be able to forestall intellectual embarrassment by claiming that the underlying values at stake are timeless, and the salient questions classical in character, the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading. Perhaps because we are still living their legacy, we have yet to reach a genuinely historical perspective on the revolutionary generation.12

But, again, in a way that Paine could tell us was commonsensical and Jefferson could tell us was self-evident, both sides in the debate have legitimate claims on historical truth and both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American Revolution. With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended. In the dizzying sequence of events that comprises the political history of the 1790s, the full range of their disagreement was exposed and their different agenda for the United States collided head-on. Taking sides in this debate is like choosing between the words and the music of the American Revolution.

What distinguishes the American Revolution from most, if not all, subsequent revolutions worthy of the name is that in the battle for supremacy, for the “true meaning” of the Revolution, neither side completely triumphed. Here I do not just mean that the American Revolution did not “devour its own children” and lead to blood-soaked scenes at the guillotine or the firing-squad wall, though that is true enough. Instead, I mean that the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties. And the subsequent political history of the United States then became an oscillation between new versions of the old tension, which broke out in violence only on the occasion of the Civil War. In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty. The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality.

But the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity. If that means the United States is founded on a contradiction, then so be it. With that one bloody exception, we have been living with it successfully for over two hundred years. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition that was written by Jefferson in 1776. We are really founded on an argument about what that proposition means.

This does not mean that the political history of the early republic can be understood as a polite forensic exercise conducted by a marvelously well-behaved collection of demigods. Nor is the proper image a symphony orchestra; or, given the limited numbers involved at the highest level of national politics, perhaps a chamber music ensemble, each Founding Father playing a particular instrument that blends itself harmoniously into the common score. The whole point is that there was no common score, no assigned instruments, no blended harmonies. The politics of the 1790s was a truly cacophonous affair. Previous historians have labeled it “the Age of Passion” for good reason, for in terms of shrill accusatory rhetoric, flamboyant displays of ideological intransigence, intense personal rivalries, and hyperbolic claims of imminent catastrophe, it has no equal in American history. The political dialogue within the highest echelon of the revolutionary generation was a decade-long shouting match.13

How, then, did they do it? Why is it that Alfred North Whitehead was probably right to observe that there were only two instances in Western history when the leadership of an emerging imperial power performed as well, in retrospect, as anyone could reasonably expect? (The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus and the second was the United States in the late eighteenth century.) Why is it that there is a core of truth to the distinctive iconography of the American Revolution, which does not depict dramatic scenes of mass slaughter, but, instead, a gallery of well-dressed personalities in classical poses?14

My own answers to these questions are contained in the stories that follow, which attempt to recover the sense of urgency and improvisation, what it looked and felt like, for the eight most prominent political leaders in the early republic. They are, in alphabetical order, Abigail and John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. While each episode is a self-contained narrative designed to illuminate one propitious moment with as much storytelling skill as I can muster, taken together they feature several common themes.

First, the achievement of the revolutionary generation was a collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies present in the mix. Their interactions and juxtapositions generated a dynamic form of balance and equilibrium, not because any of them was perfect or infallible, but because their mutual imperfections and fallibilities, as well as their eccentricities and excesses, checked each other in much the way that Madison in Federalist 10 claimed that multiple factions would do in a large republic.

Second, they all knew one another personally, meaning that they broke bread together, sat together at countless meetings, corresponded with one another about private as well as public matters. Politics, even at the highest level in the early republic, remained a face-to-face affair in which the contestants, even those who were locked in political battles to the death, were forced to negotiate the emotional affinities and shared intimacies produced by frequent personal interaction. The Adams-Jefferson rivalry and friendship is the outstanding example here, though there are several crucial moments when critical compromises were brokered because personal trust made it possible. Though the American republic became a nation of laws, during the initial phase it also had to be a nation of men.

Third, they managed to take the most threatening and divisive issue off the political agenda. That issue, of course, was slavery, which was clearly incompatible with the principles of the American Revolution, no matter what version one championed. But it was also the political problem with the deepest social and economic roots in the new nation, so that removing it threatened to disrupt the fragile union just as it was congealing. Whether or not it would have been possible to put slavery on the road to extinction without also extinguishing the nation itself remains an open question; it is the main subject of one of the following stories. Whatever conclusion one reaches concerning that hypothetical question, with all the advantage of hindsight and modern racial attitudes as a moral guide, the revolutionary generation decided that the risks outweighed the prospects for success; they quite self-consciously chose to defer the slavery question by placing any discussion of it out-of-bounds at both the national and federal levels.

Fourth, the faces that look down upon us with such classical dignity in those portraits by John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart, and Charles Willson Peale, the voices that speak to us across the ages in such lyrical cadences, seem so mythically heroic, at least in part, because they knew we would be looking and listening. All the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation developed a keen sense of their historical significance even while they were still making the history on which their reputations would rest. They began posing for posterity, writing letters to us as much as to one another, especially toward the end of their respective careers. If they sometimes look like marble statues, that is how they wanted to look. (John Adams is one of my favorite characters, as you will see, because he was congenitally incapable of holding the pose. His refreshing and often irreverent candor provides the clearest window into the deeper ambitions and clashing vanities that propelled them all.) If they sometimes behave like actors in a historical drama, that is often how they regarded themselves. In a very real sense, we are complicitous in their achievement, since we are the audience for which they were performing; knowing we would be watching helped to keep them on their best behavior.15

Chronology, so the saying goes, is the last refuge of the feebleminded and only resort for historians. My narrative, while willfully episodic in character—no comprehensive coverage of all events is claimed—follows a chronological line, with one significant exception. The first story, about the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, is out of sequence. In addition to being a fascinating tale designed to catch your attention, it introduces themes that reverberate throughout all the stories that follow by serving as the exception that proves the rule. Here is the only occasion within the revolutionary generation when political differences ended in violence and death rather than in ongoing argument. And Burr, if I have him right, is the odd man out within the elite of the early republic, a colorful and intriguing character, to be sure, but a man whose definition of character does not measure up to the standard.

Enough justifying and generalizing. If the following stories converge to make some larger point, the surest way to reach it is through the stories themselves. It is a hot summer morning in 1804. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are being rowed in separate boats across the Hudson River for an appointment on the plains of Weehawken. The water is eerily calm and the air thick with a heavy mist …

CHAPTER FOUR: The Farewell

THROUGHOUT THE first half of the 1790s, the closest approximation to a self-evident truth in American politics was George Washington. A legend in his own time, Americans had been describing Washington as “the Father of the Country” since 1776—which is to say, before there was even a country. By the time he assumed the presidency in 1789—no other candidate was even thinkable—the mythology surrounding Washington’s reputation had grown like ivy over a statue, effectively covering the man with an aura of omnipotence, rendering the distinction between his human qualities and his heroic achievements impossible to delineate.1

Some of the most incredible stories also happened to be true. During Gen. Edward Braddock’s ill-fated expedition against the French outside Pittsburgh in 1755, a young Washington had joined with Daniel Boone to rally the survivors, despite having two horses shot out from under him and multiple bullet holes piercing his coat and creasing his pants. At Yorktown in 1781, he had insisted on standing atop a parapet for a full fifteen minutes during an artillery attack, bullets and shrapnel flying all about him, defying aides who tried to pull him down before he had properly surveyed the field of action. When Washington spoke of destiny, people listened.2

If there was a Mount Olympus in the new American republic, all the lesser gods were gathered farther down the slope. The only serious contender for primacy was Benjamin Franklin, but just before his death in 1790, Franklin himself acknowledged Washington’s supremacy. In a characteristically Franklinesque gesture, he bequeathed to Washington his crab-tree walking stick, presumably to assist the general in his stroll toward immortality. “If it were a sceptre,” Franklin remarked, “he has merited it and would become it.”3

In the America of the 1790s, Washington’s image was everywhere, in paintings, prints, lockets; on coins, silverware, plates, and household bric-a-brac. And his familiarity seemed forever. His commanding presence had been the central feature in every major event of the revolutionary era: the linchpin of the Continental Army throughout eight long years of desperate fighting from 1775 to 1783; the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention in 1787; the first and only chief executive of the fledgling federal government since 1789. He was the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsodies in flesh and blood, America’s one and only indispensable character. Washington was the core of gravity that prevented the American Revolution from flying off into random orbits, the stable center around which the revolutionary energies formed. As one popular toast of the day put it, he was “the man who unites all hearts.” He was the American Zeus, Moses, and Cincinnatus all rolled into one.4

Then, all of a sudden, on September 19, 1796, an article addressed to “the PEOPLE of the United States” appeared on the inside pages of the American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia’s major newspaper. The conspicuous austerity of the announcement was matched by its calculated simplicity. It began: “Friends, and Fellow Citizens: The period for a new election of a Citizen, to Administer the Executive government of the United States, being not far distant … it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolutions I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those, out of whom a choice is to be made.” It ended, again in a gesture of ostentatious moderation, with the unadorned signature: “G. Washington, United States.”5

Every major newspaper in the country reprinted the article over the ensuing weeks, though only one, the Courier of New Hampshire, gave it the title that would echo through the ages—“Washington’s Farewell Address.” Contemporaries began to debate its contents almost immediately, and a lively (and ultimately silly) argument soon ensued about whether Washington or Hamilton actually wrote it. Over a longer stretch of time, the Farewell Address achieved transcendental status, ranking alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address as a seminal statement of America’s abiding principles. Its Olympian tone made it a perennial touchstone at those political occasions requiring platitudinous wisdom. And in the late nineteenth century the Congress made its reading a mandatory ritual on Washington’s birthday. Meanwhile, several generations of historians, led by students of American diplomacy, have made the interpretation of the Farewell Address into a cottage industry of its own, building up a veritable mountain of commentary around its implications for an isolationist foreign policy and a bipartisan brand of American statecraft.6

But in the crucible of the moment, none of these subsequent affectations or interpretations mattered much, if at all. What did matter, indeed struck most readers as the only thing that truly mattered, was that George Washington was retiring. The constitutional significance of the decision, of course, struck home immediately, signaling as it did Washington’s voluntary surrender of the presidency after two terms, thereby setting the precedent that held firm until 1940, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke it. (It was reaffirmed in 1951 with passage of the Twenty-second Amendment.) But even that landmark precedent, so crucial in establishing the republican principle of rotation in office, paled in comparison to an even more elemental political and psychological realization.

For twenty years, over the entire life span of the revolutionary war and the experiment with republican government, Washington had stood at the helm of the ship of state. Now he was sailing off into the sunset. The precedent he was setting may have seemed uplifting in retrospect, but at the time the glaring and painful reality was that the United States without Washington was itself unprecedented. The Farewell Address, as several commentators have noted, was an oddity in that it was not really an address; it was never delivered as a speech. It should, by all rights, be called the Farewell Letter, for it was in form and tone an open letter to the American people, telling them they were now on their own.7

• • •

INSIDERS HAD suspected that this was coming for about six months. In February of 1796, Washington had first approached Alexander Hamilton about drafting some kind of valedictory statement. Shortly thereafter, the gossip network inside the government had picked up the scent. By the end of the month, James Madison was writing James Monroe in Paris: “It is pretty certain that the President will not serve beyond his present term.” On the eve of the Farewell Address, the Federalist leader from Massachusetts, Fisher Ames, predicted that Washington’s looming announcement would constitute “a signal, like dropping a hat, for the party races to start,” but in fact they had been going on unofficially throughout the preceding spring and summer. In May, for example, Madison had speculated—correctly, it turned out—that in the first contested election for president in American history, “Jefferson would probably be the object on one side [and] Adams apparently on the other.” By midsummer, Washington himself was apprising friends of his earnest desire to leave the government when his term was up, “after which no consideration under heaven that I can foresee shall again with draw me from the walks of private life.” He had been dropping hints, in truth, throughout his second term, describing himself as “on the advanced side of the grand climacteric” and too old for the rigors of the job, repeating his familiar refrain about the welcome solace of splendid isolation beneath his “vine and fig tree” at Mount Vernon.8

But did he mean it? Lamentations about the tribulations of public life, followed by celebrations of the bucolic splendor of retirement to rural solitude, had become a familiar, even formulaic, posture within the leadership class of the revolutionary generation, especially within the Virginia dynasty. Everyone knew the classical models of latter-day seclusion represented by Cincinnatus and described by Cicero and Virgil. Declarations of principled withdrawal from the hurly-burly of politics to the natural rhythms of one’s fields or farms had become rhetorical rituals. If Washington’s retirement hymn featured the “vine and fig tree,” Jefferson’s idolized “my family, my farm, and my books.” The motif had become so commonplace that John Adams, an aspiring Cicero himself, claimed that the Virginians had worn out the entire Ciceronian syndrome: “It seems the Mode of becoming great is to retire,” he wrote Abigail in 1796. “It is marvellous how political Plants grow in the shade.” Washington had been threatening to retire even before he was inaugurated as president in 1789, and he had repeated the threat in 1792 prior to his reelection. While utterly sincere on all occasions, his preference for a virtuous retirement had always been trumped by a more public version of virtue, itself reinforced by the unanimous judgment of his political advisers that he and he alone was indispensable. Why expect a different conclusion in 1796?9

The short answer: age. Throughout most of his life, Washington’s physical vigor had been one of his most priceless assets. A notch below six feet four and slightly above two hundred pounds, he was a full head taller than his male contemporaries. (John Adams claimed that the reason Washington was invariably selected to lead every national effort was that he was always the tallest man in the room.) A detached description of his physical features would have made him sound like an ugly, misshapen oaf: pockmarked face, decayed teeth, oversized eye sockets, massive nose, heavy in the hips, gargantuan hands and feet. But somehow, when put together and set in motion, the full package conveyed sheer majesty. As one of his biographers put it, his body did not just occupy space; it seemed to organize the space around it. He dominated a room not just with his size, but with an almost electric presence. “He has so much martial dignity in his deportment,” observed Benjamin Rush, “that there is not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side.”10

Not only did bullets and shrapnel seem to veer away from his body in battle, not only did he once throw a stone over the Natural Bridge in the Shenandoah Valley, which was 215 feet high, not only was he generally regarded as the finest horseman in Virginia, the rider who led the pack in most fox hunts, he also possessed for most of his life a physical constitution that seemed immune to disease or injury. Other soldiers came down with frostbite after swimming ice-choked rivers. Other statesmen fell by the wayside, lacking the stamina to handle the relentless political pressure. Washington suffered none of these ailments. Adams said that Washington had “the gift of taciturnity,” meaning he had an instinct for the eloquent silence. This same principle held true on the physical front. His medical record was eloquently empty.11

The inevitable chinks in his cast-iron constitution began to appear with age. He fell ill just before the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and almost missed that major moment. Then in 1790, soon after assuming the presidency, he came down with influenza, then raging in New York, and nearly died from pulmonary complications. Jefferson’s statements about Washington were notoriously contradictory and unreliable, as we shall see, but he dated Washington’s physical decline from this moment: “The firm tone of his mind, for which he had been remarkable, was beginning to relax; a listlessness of labor, a desire for tranquillity had crept on him, and a willingness to let others act, or even think, for him.” In 1794, while touring the terrain around the new national capital that would bear his name, he badly wrenched his back while riding. After a career of galloping to hounds, and a historic reputation as America’s premier man on horseback, he was never able to hold his seat in the saddle with the same confidence. As he moved into his mid-sixties, the muscular padding around his torso softened and sagged, his erect bearing started to tilt forward, as if he were always leaning into the wind, and his energy flagged by the end of each long day. Hostile newspaper editorials spoke elliptically of encroaching senility. Even his own vice president, John Adams, conceded that Washington seemed dazed and wholly scripted at certain public ceremonies, like an actor reading his lines or an aging athlete going through the motions.12

Perhaps age alone would have been sufficient to propel Washington down the road from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon one last time. Surely if anyone deserved to spend his remaining years relaxing under his “vine and fig tree,” it was Washington. Perhaps, in that eerily instinctive way in which he always grasped the difference between the essential and the peripheral, he literally felt in his bones that another term as president meant that he would die in office. By retiring when he did, he avoided that fate, which would have established a precedent that smacked of monarchical longevity by permitting biology to set the terminus of his tenure. Our obsession with the two-term precedent obscures the more elemental principle established by Washington’s voluntary retirement—namely, that the office would routinely outlive the occupant, that the American presidency was fundamentally different from a European monarchy, that presidents, no matter how indispensable, were inherently disposable.

But advancing age and sheer physical fatigue were only part of the answer. Perhaps the most succinct way to put it is that Washington was leaving office not just because he was hearing whispers of mortality, but also because he was wounded. What no British bullet could do in the revolutionary war, the opposition press had managed to do in the political battles during his second term. In the wake of his Farewell Address, for example, an open letter appeared in Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Aurora, in which the old firebrand Tom Paine celebrated Washington’s departure, actually prayed for his imminent death, then predicted that “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”13

Some of the articles were utterly preposterous, like the charge, also made in the Aurora, that recently obtained British documents from the wartime years revealed that Washington was secretly a traitor who had fully intended to sell out the American cause until Benedict Arnold beat him to the punch. His critics, it should also be noted, were a decided minority, vastly outnumbered by his countless legions of supporters. The rebuttals to Paine’s open letter, for example, appeared immediately, describing Paine as “that noted sot and infidel,” whose efforts to despoil Washington’s reputation “resembled the futile efforts of a reptile infusing its venom into the Atlantic or ejecting its filthy saliva towards the Sun.” Paine’s already-questionable reputation, in fact, never recovered from this episode. Taking on Washington was the fastest way to commit political suicide in the revolutionary era.14

Nevertheless, the attacks had been a persistent feature of his second term, and despite his customarily impenetrable front, Washington was deeply hurt by them: “But these attacks, unjust and unpleasant as they are, will occasion no change in my conduct; nor will they work any other effect in my mind,” he postured. Although Washington was not, like Adams or Jefferson, a prodigious reader of books, he was an obsessive reader of newspapers. (He subscribed to ten papers at Mount Vernon.) His pose of utter disregard was just that, a pose: “Malignity therefore may dart her shafts,” he explained, “but no earthly power can deprive me of the consolation of knowing that I have not … been guilty of willful error, however numerous they may have been from other causes.” This outwardly aloof but blatantly defensive tone seemed to acknowledge, in its backhanded way, that his critics had struck a nerve.15

The main charge levied against Washington was that he had made himself into a quasi king: “We have given him the powers and prerogatives of a King,” claimed one New York editorial. “He holds levees like a King, receives congratulations on his birthday like a King, employs his old enemies like a King, shuts himself up like a King, shuts up other people like a King, takes advice of his counsellors or follows his own opinions like a King.” Several of these charges were patently false. The grain of truth in them, on the other hand, involved Washington’s quite conspicuous embodiment of authority. He had no compunction about driving around Philadelphia in an ornate carriage drawn by six cream-colored horses; or, when on horseback, riding a white stallion with a leopard cloth and gold-trimmed saddle; or accepting laurel crowns at public celebrations that resembled coronations. It also did not help that when searching for a substitute for the toppled statue of George III in New York City, citizens chose a wooden replica of Washington, encouraging some critics to refer to him as George IV.16

In a sense, it was a problem of language. Since there had never been a republican chief executive, there was no readily available vocabulary to characterize such a creature, except the verbal traditions that had built up around European courts and kings. In another sense, it was a problem of personality. Washington was an inherently stiff and formal man who cultivated aloofness and possessed distancing mechanisms second to none. This contributed to his sense of majesty, true enough, but pushed an increment further, the majestic man became His Majesty.

Beyond questions of appearance or language or personal style, the larger problem was imbedded within the political culture of postrevolutionary America itself. The requirements of the American Revolution, in effect, cut both ways at once. To secure the Revolution and stabilize its legacy on a national level required a dominant leader who focused the energies of the national government in one “singular character.” Washington had committed himself to that cause, and in so doing, he had become the beneficiary of its political imperatives, effectively being cast in the role of a “republican king” who embodied national authority more potently and more visibly than any collective body like Congress could possibly convey.17

At the very core of the revolutionary legacy, however, was a virulent hatred of monarchy and an inveterate suspicion of any consolidated version of political authority. A major tenet of the American Revolution—Jefferson had given it lyrical expression in the Declaration of Independence—was that all kings, and not just George III, were inherently evil. The very notion of a republican king was a repudiation of the spirit of ’76 and a contradiction in terms. Washington’s presidency had become trapped within that contradiction. He was living the great paradox of the early American republic: What was politically essential for the survival of the infant nation was ideologically at odds with what it claimed to stand for. He fulfilled his obligations as a “singular character” so capably that he seemed to defy the republican tradition itself. He had come to embody national authority so successfully that every attack on the government’s policies seemed to be an attack on him.

This is the essential context for grasping Washington’s motives for leaving public office in 1796. By resigning voluntarily, he was declaring that his deepest allegiances, like those of his critics, were thoroughly republican. He was answering them, not with words, but with one decisive, unanswerable action. And this is also the proper starting point for understanding the words he left as his final valedictory, the Farewell Address. Washington was making his ultimate statement as America’s first and last benevolent monarch. Whatever the Farewell Address has come to mean over the subsequent two centuries of its interpretive history, Washington intended it as advice to his countrymen about how to sustain national unity and purpose, not just without him, but without a king.

THE MAIN themes of the Farewell Address are just as easy to state succinctly as they are difficult to appreciate fully. After declaring his irreversible intention to retire, Washington devoted several paragraphs to the need for national unity. He denounced excessive partisanship, most especially when it took the form of political parties pursuing a vested ideological agenda or sectional interest groups oblivious to the advantages of cooperation. The rest of the Farewell Address was then devoted to foreign policy, calling for strict American neutrality and diplomatic independence from the tangled affairs of Europe. He did not use the phrase “entangling alliances” so often attributed to him—Jefferson actually coined it in his First Inaugural Address (1801)—but Washington’s message of diplomatic independence from Europe preceded Jefferson’s words to the same effect. Taken together, his overlapping themes lend themselves to easy summary: unity at home and independence abroad. It was that simple.

The disarming simplicity of the statement, combined with its quasi-Delphic character, has made the Farewell Address a perennial candidate for historical commentary. Throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, the bulk of attention focused on the foreign policy section, advocates of American isolationism citing it as the classic statement of their cause, others arguing that strict isolation was never Washington’s intention, or that America’s emergence as a world power has rendered Washington’s wisdom irrelevant. More recently, the early section of the Farewell Address has been rediscovered, its plea for a politics of consensus serving as a warning against single-issue political movements, or against the separation of America into racial, ethnic, or gender-based constituencies. Like the classic it has become, the Farewell Address has demonstrated the capacity to assume different shapes in different eras, to change color, if you will, in varying shades of light.18

Although Washington’s own eyes never changed color and were set very much on the future, he had no way of knowing (much less influencing) the multiple meanings that future generations would discover in his words. The beginning of all true wisdom concerning the Farewell Address is that Washington’s core insights were firmly grounded in the lessons he had learned as America’s premier military and civilian leader during the revolutionary era. Unless one believes that ideas are like migratory birds that can fly unchanged from one century to the next, the only way to grasp the authentic meaning of his message is to recover the context out of which it emerged. Washington was not claiming to offer novel prescriptions based on his original reading of philosophical treatises or books; quite the opposite, he was reminding his countrymen of the venerable principles he had acquired from personal experience, principles so obvious and elemental that they were at risk of being overlooked by his contemporaries; and so thoroughly grounded in the American Revolution that they are virtually invisible to a more distant posterity.

First, it is crucial to recognize that Washington’s extraordinary reputation rested less on his prudent exercise of power than on his dramatic flair at surrendering it. He was, in fact, a veritable virtuoso of exits. Almost everyone regarded his retirement of 1796 as a repeat performance of his resignation as commander of the Continental Army in 1783. Back then, faced with a restive and unpaid remnant of the victorious army quartered in Newburgh, New York, he had suddenly appeared at a meeting of officers who were contemplating insurrection; the murky plot involved marching on the Congress and then seizing a tract of land for themselves in the West, all presumably with Washington as their leader.19

He summarily rejected their offer to become the American Caesar and denounced the entire scheme as treason to the cause for which they had fought. Then, in a melodramatic gesture that immediately became famous, he pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles,” he declared rhetorically, “for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.” Upon learning that Washington intended to reject the mantle of emperor, no less an authority than George III allegedly observed, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” True to his word, on December 22, 1783, Washington surrendered his commission to the Congress, then meeting in Annapolis: “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he announced, “I now retire from the great theater of action.” In so doing, he became the supreme example of the leader who could be trusted with power because he was so ready to give it up.20

Second, when Washington spoke about the need for national unity in 1796, his message resonated with all the still-fresh memories of his conduct during the revolutionary war. Although he actually lost more battles than he won, and although he spent the first two years of the war making costly tactical mistakes that nearly lost the American Revolution at its very start, by 1778 he had reached an elemental understanding of his military strategy; namely, that captured ground—what he termed “a war of posts”—was virtually meaningless. The strategic key was the Continental Army. If it remained intact as an effective fighting force, the American Revolution remained alive. The British army could occupy Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and it did. The British navy could blockade and bombard American seaports with impunity, and it did. The Continental Congress could be driven from one location to another like a covey of pigeons, and it was. But as long as Washington held the Continental Army together, the British could not win the war, which in turn meant that they would eventually lose it.21

Like all of Washington’s elemental insights, this one seems patently obvious only in retrospect. A score of genuinely brilliant military leaders who also confronted a superior enemy force—Hannibal, Robert E. Lee, and Napoléon come to mind—were eventually defeated because they presumed that victory meant winning battles. Washington realized it meant sustaining the national purpose as embodied in the Continental Army. Space and time were on his side if he could keep the army united until the British will collapsed. And that is precisely what happened.

Third, when Washington talked about independence from foreign nations, his understanding of what American independence entailed cut much deeper than the patriotic veneer customarily suggested by the term. Once again, the war years shaped and hardened his convictions on this score, though the basic attitudes on which they rested were in place long before he assumed command of the Continental Army. Simply put, Washington had developed a view of both personal and national independence that was completely immune to sentimental attachments or fleeting ideological enthusiasms. He was a rock-ribbed realist, who instinctively mistrusted all visionary schemes dependent on seductive ideals that floated dreamily in men’s minds, unmoored to the more prosaic but palpable realities that invariably spelled the difference between victory and defeat. At its psychological nub, Washington’s inveterate realism was rooted in his commitment to control, over himself and over any and all events with the power to determine his fate. At its intellectual core, it meant he was the mirror image of Jefferson, for whom ideals were the supreme reality and whose inspirational prowess derived from his confidence that the world would eventually come around to fit the pictures he had in his head. Washington, however, regarded all such pictures as dangerous dreams.

In 1778, for example, at a time when patriotic propagandists were churning out tributes to the superior virtue of the American cause, Washington confided to a friend that, though virtue was both a wonderful and necessary item, it was hardly sufficient to win the war: “Men may speculate as they will,” he wrote, “they may draw examples from ancient story, of great achievements performed by its influence; but whoever builds upon it, as a sufficient basis for conducting a long and bloody War, will find themselves deceived in the end.… For a time it may, of itself, be enough to push Men to Action; to bear much, to encounter difficulties; but it will not endure unassisted by Interest.”22

Another example: In 1780 Maj. John André was captured while attempting to serve as a British spy in league with Benedict Arnold to produce a major strategic debacle on the Hudson River at West Point. By all accounts, André was a model British officer with impeccable manners, who had the misfortune to be caught doing his duty. Several members of Washington’s staff, including Hamilton, pleaded that André’s life be spared because of his exceptional character. Washington dismissed the requests as sentimental, pointing out that if André had succeeded in his mission, it might very well have turned the tide of the war. The staff then supported Andre’s gallant request that he be shot like an officer rather than hanged as a spy. Washington also rejected this request, explaining that André, regardless of his personal attractiveness, was no more and no less than a spy. He was hanged the next day.23

A final example: Shortly after the French entry into the war in 1778, several members of the Continental Congress began to lobby for a French invasion of Canada, arguing that the likelihood of French military success was greater because Canada was populated mainly by Frenchmen. Washington opposed the scheme on several grounds, but confided his deepest reasons to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress. He feared “the introduction of a large body of French troops into Canada, and putting them in possession of the capital of that Province, attached to them by all the ties of blood, habits, manners, religion and former connexions of government.” The French were America’s providential allies, to be sure, but once they were ensconced in Canada, it would be foolish to expect them to withdraw: “I fear this would be too great a temptation to be resisted by any power actuated by the common maxims of national policy.” He went on to offer his advice to the Congress in one of his clearest statements about the motives governing nations: “Men are very apt to run into extremes,” he explained, “hatred to England may carry some into an excess of Confidence in France.… I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favourable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree; but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.” There was no such thing as a permanent international alliance, only permanent national interests.24

The clearest statement Washington ever made on America’s national interest came in his Circular Letter of 1783, the last of his annual letters to the state governments as commander in chief. He projected a panoramic and fully continental vision of an American empire and he expressed his vision in language that, at least for one moment, soared beyond the usually prosaic boundaries of his subdued style: “The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are, from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”25

The breathtaking sweep of this vision is remarkable. Washington had spent his young manhood fighting with the British to expel the French from North America. With the victory in the American Revolution, the English had then been expelled. The entire continent was now a vast American manor, within which the people could expand unrestricted by foreign opposition. (Presumably the Native Americans would be assimilated or conquered; and the Spanish west of the Mississippi, Spain being Spain, would serve as a mere holding company until the American population swept over them.) Within the leadership of the revolutionary generation, Washington was, if not unique, at least unusual, for never having traveled or lived in Europe. (His only foreign excursion was to Barbados as a young man.) His angle of vision for the new American nation was decidedly western. The chief task facing the next several generations was to consolidate control of the North American continent. Anything that impaired or deflected that central mission was to be avoided at all costs.

In the same Circular Letter, he laid down the obligations and opportunities implicit in his national vision, again in some of the most poetic language he ever wrote: “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Suspicion, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.” He then went on to specify the treasure trove of human knowledge that had accumulated over the past two centuries—it was about to be called the Enlightenment—and which constituted a kind of intellectual or philosophical equivalent of the nearly boundless natural resources waiting to be developed in the West. It was the fortuitous conjunction of these two vast reservoirs of philosophical and physical wealth that defined America’s national interest and made it so special. “At this auspicious period,” he wrote, “the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.”26

The modern British philosopher Isaiah Berlin once described the different perspectives that political leaders bring to the management of world affairs as the difference between the hedgehog and the fox: The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many little things. Washington was an archetypal hedgehog. And the one big thing he knew was that America’s future as a nation lay to the West, in its development over the next century of a continental empire. One of the reasons he devoted so much time and energy to planning the construction of canals, and shared in the misguided belief of his fellow Virginians that the Potomac constituted a direct link to the river system of the interior, was that he knew in his bones that the energy of the American people must flow in that direction. Europe might contain all the cultural capitals and current world powers, but in terms of America’s national interest, it was a mere sideshow and distraction. The future lay in those forests he had explored as a young man. All this he understood intuitively by the time of his first retirement in 1783.27

GRAND VISIONS, even ones that prove as prescient as Washington’s, must nevertheless negotiate the damnable particularities that history in the short run tosses up before history in the long run arrives to validate the vision. In Washington’s case, the most obvious corollary to his view of American national interest was the avoidance of a major war during the gestative phase of national development. It so happened, however, that England and France were engaged in a century-old struggle for dominance of Europe and international supremacy, a struggle in which both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution were merely peripheral sideshows, and which would only end with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Washington’s understanding of the proper American response to this global conflict was crystal clear: “I trust that we shall have too just a sense of our own interest to originate any cause that may involve us in it,” he wrote in 1794, “and I ardently wish we may not be forced into it by the conduct of other nations. If we are permitted to improve without interruption, the great advantages which nature and circumstances have placed within our reach, many years will not revolve before we may be ranked not only among the most respectable, but among the happiest people on earth.”28

The linchpin of his foreign policy as president, it followed naturally, was the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793), which declared America an impartial witness to the ongoing European conflict. His constant refrain throughout his presidency emphasized the same point, even offering an estimate of the likely duration of America’s self-imposed alienation from global politics: “Every true friend to this Country must see and feel that the policy of it is not to embroil ourselves with any nation whatsoever; but to avoid their disputes and politics; and if they will harass one another, to avail ourselves of the neutral conduct we have adopted. Twenty years peace with such an increase of population and resources as we have a right to expect; added to our remote situation from the jarring powers, will in all probability enable us in a just cause to bid defiance to any power on earth.” In a sense, it was a fresh application of the same strategic lesson he had learned as head of the Continental Army—namely, to avoid engagement with a superior force until the passage of time made victory possible, what we might call “the strategy of enlightened procrastination.” In retrospect, and with all the advantages of hindsight, Washington’s strategic insights as president were every bit as foresighted as his strategic insights as commander in chief during the American Revolution, right down to his timing estimate of “twenty years,” which pretty much predicted the outbreak of the War of 1812.29

Since Washington’s seminal insight was also the core piece of foreign policy wisdom offered in the Farewell Address, and since every major American statesman of the era also embraced the principle of neutrality as an obvious maxim, the meaning of the Farewell Address would seem to be incontrovertible, its message beyond controversy. But that was not at all how the message was heard at the time; in part because there was a deep division within the revolutionary generation that Washington was trying to straddle over just what a policy of American neutrality should look like; and in part because there was an alternative vision of the national interest circulating in the higher reaches of the political leadership, another opinion about where history was headed that could also make potent claims on the legacy of the American Revolution. All this had come to a head in Washington’s second term in the debate over Jay’s Treaty, creating the greatest crisis of Washington’s presidency, the most virulent criticism of his monarchical tendencies, and the immediate context for every word he wrote in the Farewell Address.30

Jay’s Treaty was a landmark in the shaping of American foreign policy. In 1794, Washington had sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a realistic bargain that avoided a war with England at a time when the United States was ill prepared to fight one. Jay returned in 1795 with a treaty that accepted the fact of English naval and commercial supremacy and implicitly endorsed a pro-English version of American neutrality. It recognized England’s right to retain tariffs on American exports while granting English imports most-favored status in the United States; it implicitly accepted English impressment of American sailors. It also committed the United States to compensate English creditors for outstanding pre-revolutionary debts, most of which were owed by Virginia’s planters. In return for these concessions, the English agreed to submit claims by American merchants for confiscated cargoes to arbitration and to abide by the promise made in the Treaty of Paris (1783) to evacuate its troops from their posts on the western frontiers. In effect, Jay’s Treaty was a repudiation of the Franco-American alliance of 1778, which had been so instrumental in gaining French military assistance for the winning of the American Revolution.31

While the specific terms of the treaty were decidedly one-sided in England’s favor, the consensus reached by most historians who have studied the subject is that Jay’s Treaty was a shrewd bargain for the United States. It bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic. It recognized the massive dependence of the American economy on trade with England. In a sense, it was a precocious preview of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), for it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century. Mostly, it postponed war with England until America was economically and politically more capable of fighting one.

The long-term advantages of Jay’s Treaty, however, were wholly invisible to most Americans in the crucible of the moment. Sensing the unpopularity of the pact, Washington attempted to keep its terms secret until the Senate had voted. But word leaked out in the summer of 1795 and then spread, as Madison put it, “like an electric velocity to every part of the Union.” Jay later claimed that the entire eastern seaboard was illuminated each evening by protesters burning him in effigy. In New York Hamilton was struck in the head by a rock while attempting to defend the treaty to a crowd. John Adams recalled that Washington’s house in Philadelphia was “surrounded by an innumerable multitude, from day to day buzzing, demanding war against England, cursing Washington, and crying success to the French patriots and virtuous Republicans.” Any concession to British economic and military power, no matter how strategically astute, seemed a betrayal of the very independence won in the Revolution. Washington predicted that after a few months of contemplation, “when passion shall have yielded to sober reason, the current may possibly turn,” but in the meantime “this government, in relation to France and England, may be compared to a ship between the rocks of Sylla and Charybdis.”32

To make matters worse, the debate over the treaty prompted a constitutional crisis. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of the singular status that Washington enjoyed was the decision of the Constitutional Convention to deposit the minutes of its secret deliberations with him for safekeeping. He therefore had exclusive access to the official record of the convention and used it to argue that the clear intent of the framers was to vest the treaty-making power with the executive branch, subject to the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. Madison, however, had kept his own extensive “Notes on the Debates at the Constitutional Convention” and carried them down to share with Jefferson, who was in retirement at Monticello.

Although a careful reading of Madison’s “Notes on the Debates” revealed that Washington was correct, and indeed that Madison himself had been one of the staunchest opponents of infringements on executive power over foreign policy at the Convention, Jefferson managed to conclude that the House was intended to be an equal partner in approving all treaties, going so far as to claim that that body was the sovereign branch of the government empowered to veto any treaty it wished, thereby “annihilating the whole treaty making power” of the executive branch. “I trust the popular branch of our legislature will disapprove of it,” Jefferson wrote from Monticello, “and thus rid us of this infamous act, which is really nothing more than a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislatures and people of the United States.”33

The actual debate in the House in the fall and winter of 1795 proceeded under Madison’s more cautious leadership and narrower interpretation of the Constitution. (Jefferson’s position would have re-created the hapless and hamstrung conditions that he himself had decried while serving as minister to France under the Articles of Confederation, essentially holding American foreign policy hostage to congressional gridlock and the divisive forces of domestic politics.) Madison instead argued that the implementation of Jay’s Treaty required the approval of the House for all provisions dependent on funding. This achieved the desired result, blocking the treaty, while avoiding a frontal assault on executive power.34

Madison served as the floor leader of the opposition in the House during the debate that raged throughout the winter and spring of 1796. At the start, he enjoyed an overwhelming majority and regarded his position as impregnable. But as the weeks rolled on, he experienced firsthand the cardinal principle of American politics in the 1790s: whoever went face-to-face against Washington was destined to lose. The majority started to melt away in March. John Adams observed bemusedly that “Mr. Madison looks worried to death. Pale, withered, haggard.” When the decisive vote came in April, Madison attributed his defeat to “the exertions and influence of Aristocracy, Anglicism, and mercantilism” led by “the Banks, the British Merchts., the insurance Comps.” Jefferson was more candid. Jay’s Treaty had passed, he concluded, because of the gigantic prestige of Washington, “the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people.” Jefferson’s sense of frustration had reached its breaking point a few weeks earlier when, writing to Madison, he quoted a famous line from Washington’s favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato, and applied it to Washington himself: “a curse on his virtues, they’ve undone his country.”35

WHAT COULD Jefferson’s extreme reaction possibly mean? After all, from our modern perspective Washington’s executive leadership throughout the debate over Jay’s Treaty was nothing less than we would expect from a strong president, whose authority to shape foreign policy is taken for granted. We also know the course he was attempting to steer, a middle passage between England and France that required tacking back and forth to preserve American neutrality and avoid war, turned out to be the correct policy. But in this instance, hindsight does not make us clairvoyant so much as blind to the ghosts and goblins that floated above the political landscape in the 1790s. What we might describe as admirably strong executive leadership struck Jefferson and his Republican followers as the arbitrary maneuverings of a monarch. And what appears in retrospect like a prudent and farsighted vision of the national interest looked to Jefferson like a betrayal of the American Revolution.

For Jefferson also had a national vision and a firm conviction about where American history was headed, or at least where it ought to be headed. The future he felt in his bones told him that the true spirit of ’76, most eloquently expressed in the language he had drafted for the Declaration of Independence, was a radical break with the past and with all previous versions of political authority. Like Voltaire, Jefferson longed for the day when the last king would be strangled with the entrails of the last priest. The political landscape he saw in his mind’s eye was littered with the dead bodies of despots and corrupt courtiers, a horizon swept clean of all institutions capable of coercing American citizens from pursuing their happiness as they saw fit. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791) captured the essence of his vision more fully than any other book of the age, depicting as it did a radical transformation of society once the last vestiges of feudalism were destroyed, and the emergence of a utopian world in which the essential discipline of government was internalized within the citizenry. The only legitimate form of government, in the end, was self-government.36

Shortly after his return to the United States in 1790, Jefferson began to harbor the foreboding sense that the American Revolution, as he understood it, had been captured by alien forces. As we have seen, the chief villain and core counterrevolutionary character in the Jeffersonian drama was Alexander Hamilton, and the most worrisome feature on the political landscape was Hamilton’s financial scheme, with its presumption of a consolidated federal government possessing many of the powers over the states that Parliament had exercised over the colonies. Under Hamilton’s diabolical leadership, the United States seemed to be re-creating the very political and economic institutions—the national bank became the most visible symbol of the accumulating corruption—that the Revolution had been designed to destroy. Jefferson developed a full-blooded conspiracy theory in which bankers, speculators, federal officeholders, and a small but powerful congregation of closet Tories permanently alienated from the agrarian majority (“They all live in cities,” he wrote) had captured the meaning of the Revolution and were now proceeding to strangle it to death behind the closed doors of investment houses and within the faraway corridors of the Federalist government in New York and Philadelphia.37

Exactly where Washington fit in this horrific picture is difficult to determine. After all, he presumably knew something about the meaning and purpose of the Revolution, having done more than any man to assure its success. (As Jefferson’s critics were quick to observe, the man ensconced at Monticello had never fired a shot in anger throughout the war.) Initially, Jefferson simply refused to assign Washington any culpability for the Federalist conspiracy, somehow suggesting that the person at the very center of the government was wholly oblivious to the schemes swirling around him. At some unspoken level of understanding Jefferson recognized that Washington was the American untouchable, and that any effort to include him in the indictment immediately placed his entire case against the Federalists on the permanent defensive.

Jefferson’s posture toward Washington shifted perceptibly in 1794. The catalyst for the change was the Whiskey Rebellion, a popular insurgency in four counties of western Pennsylvania protesting an excise tax on whiskey. Washington viewed the uprising as a direct threat to the authority of the federal government and called out the militia, a massive thirteen-thousand-man army, to squelch the uprising. Jefferson regarded the entire affair as a shameful repetition of the Shays’s Rebellion fiasco nearly a decade earlier, in which a healthy and essentially harmless expression of popular discontent by American farmers, so he thought, had prompted an excessive and unnecessary military response. While his first instinct was to blame Hamilton for the whole sorry mess, Washington’s speech justifying the action could not be so easily dismissed.38

Jefferson denounced Washington’s speech as “shreds of stuff from Aesop’s fables and Tom Thumb.” In Jefferson’s new version of the Federalist conspiracy, Washington was an unknowing and somewhat pathetic accomplice, like an overaged “captain in his cabin” who was sound asleep while “a rogue of a pilot [presumably Hamilton] has run them into an enemy’s port.” Washington was certainly the grand old man of the American Revolution, but his grandeur had now been eclipsed by his age, providing the Hamiltonians with “the sanction of a name which has done too much good not to be sufficient to cover harm also.” Washington simply did not have control of the government and was inadvertently lending credibility to the treacheries being hatched all around him. Washington, in effect, was senile.39

While hardly true, this explanation had the demonstrable advantage of permitting Jefferson’s vision of a Federalist conspiracy to congeal in a plausible pattern that formed around Washington without touching him directly. Jefferson was also careful never to utter any of his criticisms of Washington in public. But in his private correspondence with trusted Republicans, he developed the image of an old soldier past his prime, reading speeches he did not write and could not comprehend, lingering precariously in the misty edges of incompetence, a hollow hulk of his former greatness. The most famous letter in this mode—famous because it eventually found its way into the newspapers against Jefferson’s will—was prompted by the passage of Jay’s Treaty. “It would give you a fever,” Jefferson wrote to his Italian friend Phillip Mazzei, “were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot of England.” Since there was only one person who could possibly merit the mantle of America’s Samson and Solomon, Jefferson’s customary sense of discretion allowed him to make his point without mentioning the name. But everybody knew.40

One final and all-important piece of the Jeffersonian vision transcended the troubling particularities of domestic politics altogether. As Jefferson saw it, the American Revolution had been merely the opening shot in a global struggle against tyranny that was destined to sweep over the world. “This ball of liberty, I believe most piously,” he predicted, “is now so well in motion that it will roll around the globe.” Whereas Washington regarded the national interest as a discrete product of political and economic circumstances shaping the policies of each nation-state at a specific moment in history, Jefferson envisioned a much larger global pattern of ideological conflict in which all nations were aligned for or against the principles that America had announced to the world in 1776. The same moralistic dichotomy that Jefferson saw inside the United States between discernible heroes and villains, he also projected into the international arena. For Jefferson, all specific decisions about American foreign policy occurred within the context of this overarching, indeed almost cosmic, pattern.41

Therefore, while Jefferson could talk with genuine conviction about American neutrality and the need to remain free of European entanglements, thereby sounding much like Washington, his version of American neutrality was decidedly different. He did not view the clash between England and France for supremacy in Europe as a distant struggle far removed from America’s long-term national interest. Instead, he saw the French Revolution as the European continuation of the spirit of ’76. He acknowledged that the random violence and careening course of the French Revolution were lamentable developments, but he insisted they were merely a passing chapter in the larger story of triumphant global revolution. “I am convinced they [the French] will triumph completely,” he wrote in 1794, “& the consequent disgrace of the invading tyrants is destined, in the order of events, to kindle the wrath of the people of Europe against those who have dared to embroil them in such wickedness, and to bring at length, kings, nobles & priests to the scaffolds which they have been so long deluging with blood.” In one moment of revolutionary euphoria, he dismissed all critics of mass executions in France as blind to the historic issues at stake: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of that contest,” he observed in 1793, “and was ever such a prize won with so little blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed I would rather have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it is now.”42

If France was the revolutionary hero in this international drama, England was the counterrevolutionary villain. Jefferson’s highly moralistic language castigating George III and the English government in the Declaration of Independence was not just propaganda, at least for Jefferson. It reflected his genuine conviction that England was an inherently corrupt society, the bastion of monarchical power, aristocratic privilege, and courtly intrigue. Since Washington had spent eight years sending American soldiers to their death in battle against Great Britain, one might expect that he harbored even more hostile opinions toward his former adversary. But he did not. Jefferson’s Anglophobia was more virulent in part because it was more theoretical, a moral conclusion that followed naturally from the moralistic categories he carried around in his head. (If he wanted to stigmatize a political opponent, the worst name he could call him was “Angloman.”) For Jefferson, France represented the brightest future prospects; England represented “the dead hand of the past.” At the nub of his opposition to Jay’s Treaty, then, was his utter certainty that it threw the weight of the United States onto the wrong side of history. “The Anglomen have in the end got their treaty through,” he observed from his mountaintop in 1796, “and so far have triumphed over the cause of republicanism.” But their victory, painful as it was to witness, had also exposed their vulnerability. For it was now quite obvious “that nothing can support them but the Colossus of the President’s merits with the people, and the moment he retires, that his successor, if a Monocrat, will be overborne by the republican sense.… In the m</pre></div> </div>