FATHERS KNOWN BEST: The Founding Fathers

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams and histories of the revolutionary era have been bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners in the past several years. What explains this recent surge of interest in the founding fathers of the American nation? What does the fascination with the founding fathers tell us about our own time? What would the founders have to say about the state of the nation today?

Recorded on Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams duke it out.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson, our show today, The Founding Fathers. More than two centuries after they presided over the birth of the nation, the Founding Fathers are hot. Americans can't seem to get enough books about George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton. Just look at all these books, every one of them a best seller. Why this renewed interest in the founders and what do they have to tell us about America today? One further particular question, how is it that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, whose adherence fought with each other in the eighteenth century, still inspire adherence who fight over their reputations in the twenty-first.

Joining us, three historians. Alan Taylor is at the University of California at Davis. He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, William Cooper's Town. Jack Rakove is at Stanford University. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Original Meanings, Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. Joyce Appleby is at the University of California at Los Angeles. She's the author of the book, Inheriting the Revolution, The First Generation of Americans.

Title: Fathers Known Best

Peter Robinson: David McCullough, author of the best selling book entitled simply John Adams. McCullough has said that when he began the book, he intended to write a joint biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but that as he got into his research, he began to find Adams much more the compelling and admirable figure. And Joyce, you yourself have written--I'm quoting you now--"It's open season on Thomas Jefferson." Who played the more important role in the founding, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams? Alan?

Alan Taylor: I think almost everybody would say Thomas Jefferson has an important role.

Peter Robinson: Joyce?

Joyce Appleby: Certainly if you're going to consider the founding going through 1800 to 1801, definitely Jefferson.

Peter Robinson: Jack?

Jack Rakove: I think I'm inclined to side with Jefferson, but again it comes down to the question of what do we mean by the founding, when does it begin, when do we want to cut it off?

Peter Robinson: If Thomas Jefferson had evaporated or John Adams had evaporated, whose evaporation would have made it more difficult or more unlikely for the Declaration of Independence to by signed that July in 1776?

Jack Rakove: It wouldn't have made a difference to either one. The Declaration of Independence was signed for compelling, political reasons that had nothing to do with the authorship or the presence of either man, though Adams was certainly the much more ardent advocate for independence.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Joyce Appleby: I mean, Adams considered Jefferson his protégé and he did take him under his wing when he came to the Second Continental Congress.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you a second question, whom do you find the more admirable person, Alan?

Alan Taylor: I prefer Adams.

Peter Robinson: Joyce?

Joyce Appleby: I think it depends upon the source of your admiration. If you're talking about a certain set of character qualities, Adams, but if you're talking about the capacity to imagine a different world and to have the political imagination to lead the nation in a new direction, hands down, it's Jefferson.

Peter Robinson: Jack?

Jack Rakove: Well, I rather like them both in different ways. I'm actually more of a Madison guy myself to begin with. But I think--I think over the long run, I would lean towards Jefferson.

Peter Robinson: Would you really? Okay, we'll get back to Adams versus Jefferson. And once again, Joyce let me quote you, "The famous dead white patriots whose likenesses grace our stamps, dollar bills, and national monuments, have never enjoyed more attention from authors and publishers and presumably the public that reads their books, than during the last two years." Why are the founders hot? Joyce?

Joyce Appleby: Well I think we have to talk about the universe that's making them hot. In other words, it's a reading public that's probably composed of ten to fifteen thousand readers. I would bet that those readers are men in their forties, fifties, and sixties. So I think a fundamental reason for this is that there has--these people have had a surfeit of history written from a social perspective about class, about gender, about race, and they want to get back to the real story of the real founders. So I think it's a--there's been a deficit of attention about the dead white men and now there is a resurgence of interest in them.

Peter Robinson: You mean that there's a reaction among readers of history against this style of history that grew up from the 1960's?

Joyce Appleby: I think there's a yearning for that older history, not a reaction so much.

Peter Robinson: Jack?

Jack Rakove: I would agree but I think the--if I had to explain it in a media cultural terms, I think I would start by focusing attention on Jefferson and the way in which Jefferson has become a bellwether or a touch stone for so many aspects of how Americans think about our past and especially about our racial past. So I think--our preoccupation with Jefferson, which is certainly more than the last two years and I think perhaps even more than the last decade, because Jefferson books are coming off the presses in large numbers year after year…

Peter Robinson: And they keep selling.

Jack Rakove: …after year, and they keep selling.

Peter Robinson: By the way, is ten to fifteen thousand number is low at least in McCullough's book…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: …eight hundred thousand in print, that's a national phenomenon.

Joyce Appleby: That's a national phenomena. I was thinking of when I made that statement that I think I was reviewing a cluster of books at the time, and this was two years ago, and that's when it seemed to me, you know, who's reading it?

Peter Robinson: So why are the founders hot?

Alan Taylor: Well I think there's a conjunction between the two points that Jack and Joyce have made in that Jeff--one of the reasons Jefferson is hot is because of the new interest in race. It's moved Jefferson right to the front burner. And as a consequence, there's a greater interest I think now in who are the other Founding Fathers? The other thing I would through in is that we've recently had a presidential election and that highlights our institutions and where they come from. And when you have a switch in party and there's going to be a switch in emphasis in where power is going to be between the states and the federal government, then there's renewed interest in what did the founders intend.

Peter Robinson: Let's get back to Adams versus Jefferson.

Title: Doubting Thomas

Peter Robinson: Listen to what a reader of the McCullough book on John Adams brought away from it: Adams may have been vain and hot tempered, but he was straightforward, he was honest, he was loyal, he was consistent in his principles, a thoroughly admirable and appealing man. Jefferson, chameleon. He claimed to champion freedom, but he lived off the labor of his slaves. Unlike Washington, he didn't even free his slaves in his will. Indeed, he was unable to because he died a hundred thousand dollars in debt, not withstanding, but he constantly scolded his daughters on the need to live within their means. He claimed to a "shoe party" politics. He was a great conniver. He was one of those who used party politics and began using party politics first. He claimed to believe in a weak central government, indeed that was one of the tenants of the Democratic, Republican party, of which he helped effectively call into being. He became President and engaged in a huge aggrandizement of federal power by means of the Louisiana Purchase. So Adams--read the Adams, Jefferson letters and Adams is open, candid, willing to talk about anything, Jefferson cool, detached, dodging Adams difficult questions. You have the feeling that in Jefferson you've got a man who's quietly polishing his own bust all the time. Am I entirely incorrect?

Jack Rakove: No. In fact, in many ways you're substantially correct and there's--in personal terms, I think there is probably a great deal to admire in Adams and much to criticize in Jefferson. And I think many scholars--a lot of the scholars it seems to me who have worked more closely with Jefferson than I have, wind up having a kind of distaste for him.

Peter Robinson: Not Joyce who's getting ready for a counter-attack.

Jack Rakove: Not Joyce, but I think it's true of some of his biographers. I mean, I think it's true of--it's certainly true of Joe Ellis and it's certainly happened be the case with David McCullough, you know, I think for rather different reasons. There are two things I like about Jefferson. One is that I think he had a more powerful understanding of the centrality of freedom of conscience, which is an issue we take so much for granted. We don't understand its novelty in the eighteenth century or why it had…

Peter Robinson: Freedom of religious practice was much more important to Jefferson than to Adams.

Jack Rakove: I think Jefferson in that sense, is extremely modern and I think in some ways extremely admirable. I think the other thing that we don't--that we don't quite understand because it's so easy to criticize Jefferson for his hypocrisy, I think we underestimate the extent to which he really was grappling in a kind of authentic way, with the dilemmas of race. I don't think Jefferson was nearly as naïve or short sighted or self serving or myopic or even hypocritical as he's often made out. I think he understood the race question much more than we're inclined to give him credit for because we tend to think we're so much morally superior to those who have gone before us.

Peter Robinson: Joyce, let me follow up with that. You have George Washington who leaves behind a very scanty written record, certainly by comparison with Jefferson. And there's no evidence really that Washington struggled with the question of race the way Jefferson struggles with it and never stops struggling with it. And yet, George Washington freed his slaves in his will. He actually acted on the notion of freedom.

Joyce Appleby: Well I think that the reason why Jefferson struggled with it is because Jefferson is a social reformer. He imagines a different kind of world. He thinks equality is an enormously important principle and Democratic participation. Washington after all, is conservative in the end. He fits in with the federalist program with Hamilton. Washington did express a dislike of slavery several times. I mean, he was very much a part of the revolutionary revulsion at slavery. And--but also, you know, freeing these slaves when you die is that really such a--I mean, it would seem to me that if you…

Peter Robinson: It's better than not doing so.

Joyce Appleby: It's definitely better. Absolutely, definitely and symbolically it's tremendously important. But he didn't in any way affect his standard of living. Madison doesn't free his slaves, Marshall doesn't free his slaves. I don't think there's any major southern figure…

Peter Robinson: Aside from Washington.

Joyce Appleby: …aside from Washington who frees his slaves. So I don't know why Jefferson has to take the burden of this. And I agree with Jack….

Peter Robinson: Well, I'll tell you why, it's because he's the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

[Talking at the same time]

Joyce Appleby: I know. And I think this is where the idea…

Peter Robinson: He established the standard by which we measure him.

Joyce Appleby: Right, but this is where the ambivalence and the charge of evasion and hypocrisy comes in. Would he have been a finer person if he had backed away from this issue and not championed the freedom of ordinary white men? That was his crusade, to get rid of the invidious distinctions of an aristocratic society, to ennoble ordinary white men, but he did it in the name of all men because this is the way he saw it.

[Talking at the same time]

Alan Taylor: I would like to say something on this issue. I mean, it's interesting how we focused in on Jefferson again, we can't get away from him, he's now the center of gravity. But on the issue of Washington, Washington did make considerable financial sacrifices during the 1780's and early 1790's in order to keep slave families together because in fact, he had too many slaves on his plantations and he was losing money on them. And the rational thing, from a purely economic perspective, would have been to break up families and sell off most of those slaves. What he instead did was sell off his frontier land speculation holdings in order to subsidize his slave holdings to keep families together so that when he did free them, they would all be together. And he also provided some funds to support them and train them as apprentices.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Joyce Appleby: Washington was against slavery in his lifetime. But wait, you've left a question on here, which is the idea--this, screed against Jefferson…

Peter Robinson: This is marvelous--she will not stop fighting for this man who's been dead as long as two hundred years.

Joyce Appleby: It is--it is absurd to say that he didn't introduce a limited government. He cut the civil service in half, he got rid of the taxes, he--he left--the idea that the purchase of Louisiana…

Peter Robinson: He cut back on the Navy, which left us in serious straits in the War of 1812.

Joyce Appleby: Wait a minute, you can't have it both ways, a limited government is limited government and he believed in it.

Peter Robinson: Oh, but he had it both ways, that's the story of Jefferson's life.

Joyce Appleby: He didn't have it both ways because…

Peter Robinson: He said one thing and did another all his life.

Joyce Appleby: No, that isn't true. I don't think you say when someone offers you the Louisiana Purchase, there isn't a single President that wouldn't have accepted that. And Jefferson was the one person who had scruples about it. He was the one person who said we should have a constitutional amendment. And his good friend Madison said that he didn't think that was necessary because everyone wanted that. So, that is the one act--that and the embargo, and neither one of them had to do with intrinsic Jeffersonian policy. He limited government, he left government in the hands, sole restricted by his successors and their unwillingness…

Peter Robinson: He's in heaven now writing you a note of thanks.

Joyce Appleby: No, I'm just saying one of the reasons Lincoln had such a terrible time in the Civil War is because government was so limited all through the first half of the nineteenth century.

Peter Robinson: Let's get to something the founders didn't anticipate, the rise of political parties.

Title: Party Like It's 1799

Peter Robinson: In the Constitution, they make absolutely no provision for political parties yet before George Washington leaves office, the very founders, who in the Constitution made no provision for political parties, Madison in fact denounces them, Washington, it's clear, feels very uncomfortable with seeing people line up. These very founders, by the time Washington leaves office, have gone right ahead and lined themselves up into two parties; the Federalists on the one side, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the Democratic Republicans on the other side. What's going on there? Did they simply fail to foresee the need for parties? Why did they invent them so quickly after denouncing them? Jack?

Jack Rakove: I think the shortest answer is, I think what they failed to foresee was the French Revolution and the impact it would have on American politics. If American politics had just been about the kinds of prosaic, domestic issues of expansion that actually are of so much interest to Alan in particular, and kind of domestic policy and tariff policy and stuff like that, there would not have been a great imperative to organize national political parties of the kind that takes place in the quarter century after the Constitution was adopted. But, the French Revolution and the issues it poses for American foreign policy and the way in which those reverberate in terms of domestic politics, provides a remarkable and very powerful set of symbols about which people felt quite passionately and quite deeply because it made the control of the Presidency the one institution for which it would really be possible to both demand and promote interstate cooperation to try to capture this one office. Because it--because it really places the presidency, as opposed to Congress, at the heart of national politics. It gives a real incentive, it gives a real stimulus to the--and very rapid stimulus to the organization of interstate coalitions.

Peter Robinson: So the French Revolution imposes on American life a question that's binary. You're either in favor of it, or against it, and the President, at the time, will either swing into alliance with the New France, or he'll be opposed to it. Is that roughly--and in fact, the French--the New French government began engaging in acts of--hostile acts against American ships…

[Talking at same time]

Jack Rakove: First the British, then the French. The British are hostile first and then the French become more hostile later, and then we vacillate and oscillate between the two of them until the War of 1812.

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: So it imposes a huge binary question, you're with them or against them. Sorry, go ahead.

Alan Taylor: There are also domestic implications. If you see politics through a French perspective, then you are much more likely in domestic politics to favor a more expansive democratic vision of the Republic than if you are more inclined to favor Britain in this imperial struggle, you're much more inclined to take a more conservative and elitist reading of what the Republic should be.

Joyce Appleby: The other critical thing is that Adams and Jefferson were both in Europe when the French Revolution broke out and they took very different lessons from that. Jefferson was in Paris and he was thrilled with this idea of democracy and equality and…

Peter Robinson: Another little shortcoming there; Adams knew it would lead to blood in the streets and Jefferson didn't.

Joyce Appleby: That's true, but Adams also thought it would lead to blood in the streets in the United States and that we had to institutionalize an aristocracy so we could have a balanced government.

Peter Robinson: What would the founders have made of our recent Presidential election and the role of the Electoral College today?

Title: Adams and Jefferson, Meet Bush and Gore

Peter Robinson: If you could bring back--Joyce, I know you'd love to bring back Jefferson--if you could bring them all back, sit them down at this table, and explain the election embroil we just lived through in Florida, would they regret the electoral college? Alan?

Alan Taylor: I don't think they would regret it, I think they would regret how it had changed, that it did not act sufficiently as a filter.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you Joyce, would they have regretted the Electoral College?

Joyce Appleby: I think they might have rethought it, but after all, they had the election of 1800 that made them regret part of it because Jefferson had to go through thirty five ballots against his Vice-Presidential candidate Burr with whom the vote was tied with the federalists, you know, over all sorts of mischievous schemes running through these ballots because it was an old federalist legislature.

Peter Robinson: Do we have anything in the record, did Madison--did any of them regret the Electoral College at that time? Did they think about amending the constitution?

Joyce Appleby: Well they do amend it with the Twelve Amendment that divides the President and the Vice President (?) the election.

Jack Rakove: Peter, it's one of the great misconceptions we have about the Constitution that the framers ever had a coherent idea of how the President was going to be elected, they didn't. The Electoral College was a default option. The only thing going for it was that it was--it had fewer objections against it than either popular election or election by Congress. The framers never had a good idea of how the thing was going to work and as soon as--as soon as elections start to become contested as they do in 1796, very quickly both political parties start manipulating the Electoral College as adroitly and as assiduously as they can. They start changing the rules on a state-by-state basis for the appointment of the electors. The whole thing becomes completely politicized from the beginning.

Peter Robinson: So if we could bring them back and sit them at this table, they'd look at each other and say--and say, you know, I'm not surprised, we never really did nail that down.

Jack Rakove: Peter look, the whole basis for the Electoral College was the idea that you could--that if you had a national popular election, you could not have a coherent, effective, decisive choice if the people at large were voting. As soon as you get to 1796 and Jefferson is running against Adams, it becomes immediately evident that that presupposition was wrong. That in fact, you could have an effective cohesive campaign between two well defined articulate candidates and the people could make an effective, decisive choice. I mean, the whole assumpt…

Peter Robinson: Dating back at least as far back as Lincoln, Americans have thought of this country as exceptional. Did the founders share that view?

Title: We the (Special) People

Peter Robinson: Lincoln calls America the last best hope of earth. We have President Bush talking about America leading the fight for civilization, is that true to the founders' notion of the country they were founding? That it was separate from, and in some way, above all other nations that had ever to that point existed? Did they believe in American exceptionalism as we call it now? Alan?

Alan Taylor: Well I'm not sure American exceptionalism is the way to put it. They thought that America was the vanguard country in a republican movement that they hoped would sweep the whole world, but they thought it was very much up for grabs and whether their republic survived would largely determine the fate of the experiment around the world.

Joyce Appleby: That phrase by the way is from the French Minister Turgot, the last best hope on earth.

Peter Robinson: Oh, is it?

Joyce Appleby: Yes, I think the French were the ones who saw…

Peter Robinson: Lincoln grabbed it from him?

Joyce Appleby: Well Lincoln read well, he grabbed things from the Bible, he grabbed things from Shakespeare. I mean there was--not to his discredit, he was a well-read man. But I think that the French, above all, saw America as exceptional and wrote about it in that way. Many of the letters back and forth from Adams and Jefferson, and so I think that was it, and then Americans took on that role because it did look--I mean, look at this, America has this funny little independence movement against Great Britain, then the French have a revolution. Well now theirs is the first revolution in a revolutionary age. It elevated the American independence movement.

Peter Robinson: Oh, so this notion of American exceptionalism really starts with the French Revolution. At that point, they began saying to themselves, look what we've started.

Jack Rakove: I think I would qualify that in one way though, I think Americans are very self-conscience from 1776 on, that they have an opportunity, which is--which in the annals of history is unique. I mean Adams says this at the end of thoughts on government, as a famous pamphlet of his in 1776 when he says, "you and I my friend have been called into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of Antiquity would have wished to have lived." And I think that sense of a unique opportunity that Americans are enjoying unlike any other people known to history, that is a common sentiment. It's really a commonplace I think almost for the whole generation.

Peter Robinson: Okay, here's another regard; size and scope of the Federal Government. Joyce has just been eloquent on how limited the Federal Government was right through the nineteenth century. So you come back today and you have a Federal Government that absorbs a little over a fifth of the gross domestic product year-in and year out, that regulates every aspect of our economic lives and quite a lot of other aspects of our lives. Would they have been not at all surprised at this--appalled? What would they have said about the scope of the Federal Government?

Alan Taylor: Well there's an implication in your question that the Founding Fathers were of one opinion about this, and certainly Thomas Jefferson favored a very limited powers for the Federal Government, but Alexander Hamilton had a completely different notion. He'd be quite comfortable I think with the expansion of federal powers that have existed in the twentieth century.

Peter Robinson: To this extent, you think so?

Joyce Appleby: And the Constitution did not block this at all. Hamilton--if Hamilton the federalist had been elected for another sixteen years, we would have had a much larger Federal role in controlling the monetary system and in building the infrastructure--the national infrastructure, on the succession of Democratic Presidents veto legislation that's come to them from Congress about building roads or canals.

Jack Rakove: Look, I think the right way to put this question is to say that we have a spectrum of opinion and we could put Jefferson at one end in one poll, Hamilton at the other, and in between there are people--I think Madison is one and perhaps best of all James Wilson, you know, the somewhat less well known framer, founder, from Pennsylvania, Scottish immigrant. I think Wilson is the one who understands best that the future or size of the--the different--the different elements that are public, the states versus the national government is not going to be a matter of initial design. It's going to be a matter of political preference; you're going to put states in the national government, in effect in competition with one another, for the affections, the loyalties, the--and the mobilized interest of the American people. And the real outcome of this story is going to--is going to be a problem not of constitutional design but of politics.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, what would the Founding Fathers have made of America's position as a global superpower?

Title: Local Heros

Peter Robinson: The time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, you've got a string of settlements on the eastern seaboard population of about three million and Washington tells us to avoid foreign entanglements. Adams throughout his presidency fights to remain at peace with France precisely because he doesn't want to be drawn into European power politics. Jefferson comes along and adds to the country with the Louisiana Purchase. He's in a certain sense, playing off European power politics, but he seizes the opportunity in a certain sense to give us the chance to expand westward, to remain out of the European game. And now here we stand with bases around the world finding ourselves almost with no choice but to act as policemen to the world, what would they have made of this? Jack?

Jack Rakove: They weren't big fans of an empire, but Peter, I think this is the one question where it makes least sense to ask what would the framers have thought

Peter Robinson: They would just have had no frame of reference?

Jack Rakove: Right, there's no frame of reference to conceptualize thermal nuclear weapons. There's no frame of reference that's available to them to--to ask how do you project from their world in the eighteenth century to the globalized, very dangerous, highly integrated world that we live in.

Peter Robinson: Alan, what do you make of that?

Alan Taylor: Well, I ninety five percent agree with Jack. The one exception I think again would be Hamilton. Hamilton did admire the British Empire, which was the most powerful empire and the most global of the empires of the time. So I think Hamilton would have an easier time of imagining a United States of the future that would have the kind of global reach that the British Empire of that time had.

Joyce Appleby: I think it's very important for us to realize that they were much more involved in an international world than we were. They expected international competition on the North American continent. They were worried about France and Spain, what they were going to do. So it's the long nineteenth century that created the continental destiny for America and a kind of an isolation from the world. I agree with Jack, they couldn't have anticipated these developments, but they were much more comfortable in an international arena than their successors because they lived in it. The America immediately expanded its international trade, going to China, going to India, going to the Mediterranean. So they were very much aware of an international world, more comfortable with it than the people of the nineteenth century.

Peter Robinson: Last question; you're going to speak for Adams, you'll speak for Jefferson, and Jack will speak for Madison. Give us one sentence--each man in re-materialized and gives us one sentence to Americans today. What would Adams say?

Alan Taylor: I think Adams would be very troubled by the influence of money on American electoral practice.

Peter Robinson: Joyce, what would Jefferson have to say?

Joyce Appleby: I think he would have said, hang on to your civil liberties, fight off any force that would try to oppress you, that would try to silence you, that would consider dissent disloyalty. I think he would be very aware of the need that we have to have to continue to support people's rights to be different and to express and hold different convictions.

Jack Rakove: I think the one issue that fascinated Madison the most was the whole puzzle of federalism and how do you make sense of the very complicated system of government that we've set up which divides power between different levels, different jurisdictions. I think Madison would say, the truth of federalism lies in its details and the only way we make this system work is to avoid over-simplistic statements like, you know, the national government should do this or the state government should do that, and try to puzzle things out on a case by case pragmatic basis.

Peter Robinson: Jack, Joyce, and Alan, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: If the benefits and pleasures of studying the Founding Fathers can be reduced to a single sentence, it might be something like this; doing so enables us to see America the way they saw it, as a work in progress. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.