Tag Archives: American Revolution

A Great American

I just finished David McCullough’s terrific biography of John Adams.

John Adams was a simple man. He loved the same woman all his life. He never owned a slave. In his youth, even as an ardent revolutionary, he defended British soldiers in a trial because he believed everyone deserves a fair hearing in court.

He proposed complete religious freedom because he held firm to the Protestant view that every man is equal before God. He endured years-long separation from his family living in Europe doing the country’s difficult and crucial foreign business in England, France and the Netherlands. He despised the luxury he saw in Europe, and believed it would lead to corruption.01604dcdc6ee6e3ad097b31c66914b6e

He believed strongly in the balance of powers. He lived his last years as a farmer, still earning a living, living a simple life. He also read and wrote voluminously.

I have been developing a considerably dimmer view of Thomas Jefferson,  Adams’ vice president and successor to the White House, that this book did nothing to change.

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and promoted religious freedom, and established the University of Virginia. But he owned dozens of slaves, fathered children with one of them and freed only five of them upon his death – the mother of his children was not among them.

He lived the life not of a simple American farmer, as Adams did before and after his presidency, but of a European aristocrat – expanding then tearing down Monticello several times, all of which depended on revenue generated by the labor of his slaves. Adams died solvent; Jefferson, despite owning slaves, died $100,000 in debt.

Perhaps slave ownership allowed Jefferson the luxury of his utopian vision of a country of small farmers and an equally small government. He never apparently asked himself the hard questions of how those small farmers might get their goods to market without government taxation that allowed for the building of roads and bridges, and law enforcement to keep the goods safe. This vision sadly left him equally enamored of the French Revolution, even after that event descended into wanton murder. These victims he viewed as casualties of war, and, from this grew his famous statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Adams was the deeper thinker and had a more mature understanding of self-government. He understood that for a union to work, taxes had to be paid, and a national government thus allowed to function. Anarchy would result otherwise. It seems to me this is an idea one segment of our country doesn’t, or doesn’t want to, understand.

Adams began the U.S. Navy, and thus kept us from war with France when we were too small and weak. To do this he imposed taxes that earned him Jefferson’s ire, his own defeat, but the country’s lasting gratitude.

Adams also rightly feared the horrible cost slavery would exact on the country, and abhorred its expansion following the Louisiana Purchase.

Both men, however, embodied the key to the success of the American Revolution, for both were lawyers. Despite its numerous contradictions, slavery being the main one, the American Revolution was made by lawyers, and thus the rule of law not of men was its cornerstone. The tenets of self-government they had thought out and debated in some detail. This is why the Revolution did not collapse into slaughter.

Having lived in a country where the rule of law is weak, I can say that this is fundamental. There is no justice, no equity, no development, no innovation without the rule of law. To the fact that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, lawyers, and many of them thoughtful about the biggest questions, we can attribute the Revolution’s success.

Interestingly, it might easily not have been so had the wrong people gained power – Alexander Hamilton for one, I suspect. We’re enormously lucky that our first president was, though a general, so unwilling, and left power as quickly as he could.

At the end of their lives, Adams and Jefferson, friends, then adversaries, were friends again.

In one of the great details in U.S. history, the last two signers of the Declarations of Independence died within hours of each other on, amazingly, July 4.

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BOOKS: The American Revolution

I’m reading now Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which follows my finishing Founding Brothers (Joseph Ellis) a few weeks ago.

I’m woefully unread about the American Revolution, to my embarrassment.

Anyway, as I’ve read I’ve found myself being rather down on Thomas Jefferson. Not so much because he owned slaves, which is a startling thing for a guy so interested in individual liberty, but it was  part of life in Virginia and I’m loathe to blame people so far back in time for what was commonplace.

Rather, it was his utopian idea of small govt, and his idea of continual revolution.

He sounds like a Leon Trotsky, who I think was remarkably naive for an educated guy and never understood the full implications of his theories.

In reaction to the English monarch, Jefferson apparently developed this idea of a country with nothing but small businessmen and small farmers and all-but-nonexistent govt (though he later expanded the country enormously with the Louisiana Purchase).

He was quite at odds, in the end, with fellow Virginian, George Washington, over such things as federal taxes (sounds familiar). Yet Washington was living in the real world, seems to me, and faced the challenge of making a new govt work in a world of many threats, not the least of which was still England. So federal taxes, while unpopular, he saw as necessary to provide the services that held the country together.

The Jefferson ideal, while nifty parlor fodder, seems to me would have spelled the end of the new country very quickly, not to mention that it overlooked all the ways that small farmers and businessmen are enabled by the services a competent federal govt provides (roads, regulation of markets, post offices, etc).

He had that famous quote about the soil of a republic needing to be irrigated with the blood of tyrants every 20 years or so (a paraphrase) — similar to Trotsky and Lenin’s idea of perpetual revolution. I learned with dismay that TJ was a big fan of the French Revolution because of this, until well near the end of FR — by which time most folks had long seen it for the bloodthirsty disaster it was. Like the Soviet Revolution, the FR gave way to dictatorship, which I think is what Jefferson’s ideas would have led to as well in the US, finally.


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