Founders Chic: Live From Philadelphia

Good thing the founders didn't rely on pollsters. At the time of the Revolution, the American colonists, John Adams recalled, were "about one third Tories"--loyal to the British crown--"and [one] third timid, and one third true blue." Adams was true blue. "Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I am with my country from this day on," he told a friend in 1774. "You may depend on it."

By the summer of '76, as Adams cajoled his fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia to declare independence from Great Britain, perishing was a distinct possibility. On the night of July 2, as the delegates were casting their first votes, word reached Philadelphia that a hundred British warships and troop transports had been sighted off New York.

The empire was striking back. The colonists had driven British forces from Boston in March, but now a vast armada--some 400 ships, packed with regiments of crack British redcoats and highly trained Hessian mercenaries--was arriving from the motherland to crush the upstart rebellion. By August there were more British soldiers in New York (32,000) than there were people (30,000) in Philadelphia, the largest Colonial city, a couple of days' march away. Between them stood George Washington's Army of some 7,000 men, mostly untested, ill-equipped farmers.

By affixing their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the Founders were acutely aware that they were committing treason, the penalty for which was death. "We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will hang separately," darkly joked Benjamin Franklin. On July 4, as the Declaration was being sent to the printers, one signer, Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, said to another, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, "I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, 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." Gerry was reported to have smiled, briefly. No one doubted the gravity of their actions. As he signed the document, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who suffered from palsy, exclaimed, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."

Two and a quarter centuries later, we have a new appreciation for the courage and the vision of the Founders (no longer called the Founding Fathers, for reasons of political correctness). As soon as this week, Congress is expected to authorize a national memorial to John Adams. David McCullough's new biography of Adams, published last month, went straight to No. 1 on the best-seller list, and historian Joseph Ellis's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Founding Brothers" has been a top seller for more than half a year. Why? "Partly, it's a desire for authenticity," McCullough told NEWSWEEK. In an age of media-obsessed, poll-driven politicians who cannot, it sometimes seems, make a speech or cast a vote without hiring a consultant, many Americans are nostalgic for an earlier era of genuine statesmen. By humanizing the Founders, McCullough and others have rescued them from the sterility of schoolbooks and, vividly and often movingly, showed them overcoming their fears and flaws.

Adams, Jefferson, Washington and all the rest were the real thing, all right. They were an Even Greater Generation. While the World War II veterans deserve honor for preserving freedom in the world, in a real sense the Founders not only won freedom--they created it. The United States may seem inevitable today--a quasi-divine inspiration, schoolchildren were long told--but its genesis was painful and harrowing, and the nation was very nearly stillborn.

Washington's pickup Army could have been annihilated by the British in New York that summer of '76, had it not slipped away in the dead of night under the cover of some providential fog. The Continentals' victories over the course of the next few years were sporadic and small. General Washington was a genius at lifting morale and knowing when to retreat to fight again another day. But independence was not secured until France, Britain's global rival, intervened to bottle up the British Army at Yorktown, Va., in 1781. And America did not become a true nation until the Founders produced a constitution that was a blend of visionary foresight and careful compromise in 1787.

It is hard to think of the Founders as revolutionaries. They seem too stuffy, too much the proper gentlemen in breeches and powdered wigs. But Jefferson, Adams, Madison et al. were, in fact, extreme radicals. They were far from pure. For all their high-minded rhetoric, the Founders were not above deal-cutting and backstabbing. They would have been right at home on "Hardball," had such a thing existed. It is certainly also true that they ducked the question that later split apart the nation and haunts us still--the moral obligation to free the slaves who made up almost a fifth of the Colonies' population. Yet "to focus, as we are apt to, on what the Revolution did not accomplish--highlighting and lamenting its failure to abolish slavery and change fundamentally the lot of women--is to miss the great significance of what it did accomplish," wrote Brown University historian Gordon Wood, perhaps the leading scholar of the Revolutionary era, in his 1991 book, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution." "Indeed, the Revolution made possible the anti-slavery and women's movements of the 19th century, and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking."

Two men in particular stand out in the Revolutionary generation. Thomas Jefferson was lean, elegant, remote, spendthrift and a little devious. John Adams was stout, bristly, frugal and perhaps too honest about himself and everyone else. Jefferson had a great faith in improving mankind but "comparatively little interest in human nature," observes McCullough. "Adams," on the other hand, "was not inclined to believe mankind improvable, but believed an understanding of human nature was of utmost importance." Jefferson and Adams were in effect the perfect match for an undertaking that required equal parts dreaminess and hardheadedness, cunning and honor. Their rivalry, falling-out and later renewal of friendship offers a human template for understanding the depth and reach of the Founders' accomplishment, a creation so extraordinary that it surprised--and ultimately frightened--the Founders themselves.

In his draft of the declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote for all time, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Yet until that time equality had not been self-evident in the least. Since at least the days of ancient Rome, society had been divided into "the vulgar mob" and their "betters." In many places, an ordinary man had to take off his hat and step out of the street when a gentleman rode by, or risk being trampled with impunity. "Order is Heaven's first law; and this confest, / Some are, and must be, greater than the rest," wrote the 18th-century satirist Alexander Pope.

The Founders were creatures of a new "Enlightenment." They refused to accept that birth dictated place. "Virtue is not hereditary," wrote Thomas Paine, whose "Common Sense" aroused egalitarian sensibilities in the 13 Colonies. The common man, the Founders believed, was not a beast to be kept tightly leashed; he was a blank slate upon which virtue and goodness could be written. "The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark," wrote Paine.

Jefferson was especially optimistic, even utopian. Heavily influenced by the French philosophes, who found benevolence to be man's natural state, Jefferson believed that the "will of the people" was inherently benign. Men (though, not yet, blacks or women) were fully capable of self-governance. Indeed, men behaved best, Jefferson argued, when governed least. From the luxury of his mountaintop farm in Virginia, filled with French furniture and worked by 200 slaves, the Sage of Monticello imagined a nation of honest and free farmers, laboring and living in harmony, lightly led by a natural aristocracy of virtue and talent.

Adams knew better. The Massachusetts lawyer had always been a self-declared student of the "labyrinth of human nature." Happily married, he listened closely to his wise wife, Abigail, who in 1775 wrote him, "I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in the many or few is ever grasping... The great fish swallow up the small fish." Adams replied: "I think you shine as a stateswoman." Adams used self-awareness as a tool of political science. He had only to look at his own vanity, his yearning for praise and distinction, to know that power needed to be checked. Forcefully, and as it turned out wisely, he insisted that the popular will of the legislature be balanced by a strong executive and an independent judiciary.

An irascible contrarian, Adams argued too hotly for his own good. Following George Washington as the nation's second president, he believed the chief executive should be called "His Majesty." His more democratically inclined colleagues in the fledgling republic accused Adams of wishing to restore the monarchy and mocked him as "Your Rotundity." Feeling surrounded and betrayed, Adams foolishly enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts so he could jail his critics, a terrible moment for free expression. Adams was not paranoid in suspecting that even his friends were conspiring against him. Stirring up trouble (though always from behind a veil) was Adams's own vice president, Thomas Jefferson. Using scandal-mongering journalists to spread vicious rumors about his revolutionary comrade, Jefferson helped ensure that Adams served only one term (1797-1801) as president--and was succeeded by Jefferson.

In his magisterial and readable biography of Adams, McCullough clearly takes the side of his protagonist. In "John Adams," the hero is honest, if to a fault, and perceptive, while Jefferson is deceitful and naive. McCullough is perhaps too harsh on Jefferson. Great political leaders often need to be a little slippery and even self-delusional to survive factional struggles and balance irreconcilable interests. (In the 20th century Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan come to mind.) Unlike Adams, Jefferson was elected to a second term and accomplished much as president, most notably the Louisiana Purchase.

Adams sulked over Jefferson's perfidy for more than a decade, but he finally swallowed his pride and reached out to his fellow Founder. From their retirements--Jefferson's at Monticello, Adams's at his more modest farm in Quincy, Mass., which he self-mockingly dubbed "Montezito"--the two old statesmen repaired their friendship through 128 letters between 1812 and 1826. Writing with their eyes firmly fixed on posterity, Adams and Jefferson relived--and on occasion rewrote--the past. "I look back with rapture to those golden days," penned Adams to Jefferson in 1825, "when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers." In pungent, incisive prose (Adams) or with elegant, sometimes lyrical fluidity (Jefferson), the two men reflected, with growing apprehension, on the present and future of the republic they had helped create.

They bemoaned the rise of faction and interest in the political system, and crime and licentiousness in society. Freedom had brought their countrymen a measure of happiness, perhaps, but not, it seemed, greater virtue. America's capacity for alcohol consumption was staggering: by the 1820s Americans were downing spirits at the rate of five gallons per person per year, nearly triple today's levels and higher than Europe's.

Jefferson was bewildered and disillusioned. He had lived too long, longer than most of the Founders. "All, all dead," he wrote to a friend in 1825, "and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation we know not, and who knows us not." He was sick and, attached to French wines and furnishings as well as French philosophers, too indebted to free his 200 slaves.

Adams, too, was discouraged. He was bothered by the rise of evangelical societies and mob rule, which he linked to a streak of unreason unanticipated by even the most prescient Founders. "Where is now, the progress of the human mind?" he railed. "When? Where? and How? is the present Chaos to be arranged to Order?" he demanded as early as 1813. Yet Adams was also able to see beyond the tumult of the moment to appreciate that the new republic would stand for--he predicted--two centuries.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, both Adams and Jefferson lay dying. Told that it was the Fourth, Adams stirred and said, "It is a great day. It is a good day." At Monticello, as bells celebrating Independence Day could be heard faintly ringing in the valley below, Thomas Jefferson died at around 1 p.m. At his home in Quincy, Adams could hear cannons, then natural thunder. Before he, too, died, he whispered, "Jefferson survives." Both Adams and Jefferson live on, newly remembered and praised. And so, 175 years later, does their legacy, the longest-lasting republic in the history of mankind.

The Even Greater Generation