For whatever reason, I was the kind of kid who read lots of books about American heroes. It began with a book about Davy Crockett, which used black silhouettes of people as illustrations rather than line drawings. For a 6-year-old boy those silhouettes had an intriguing effect. But I read lots of books: about Daniel Boone, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Andrew Jackson.
And I’m still reading those books. And people are still writing them. There has been a spate of them in recent years about the Founding Fathers, and I think I’ve noticed a trend.
The books I read as a kid had a certain pattern. They began by showing the hero as a child, facing harrowing challenges. That way the child reader would understand the hero was great from the beginning and that it was possible for a child actually to have great qualities. His accomplishments as a grown-up then seemed to follow from his greatness as a child. Inspiring stuff for a kid.
These days there have been a number of books exploring the Revolutionary War era by looking at the lives, among others, of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The popular histories on the shelves now have turned against Thomas Jefferson. The seesaw battle between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists, between Adams and Jefferson, has swung in favor of Adams. I began to wonder why that was. Jefferson is the one on Mount Rushmore. He has always been revered as the great intellectual of the Revolution, the champion of the people, the one who secured our freedoms with the brilliance of his ideas.
But the friends of Adams and Hamilton have been chipping away at Jefferson. There is the obvious hypocrisy in the fact that the great champion of freedom was also the owner of slaves and that one of his slaves was his mistress. There is also the fact that he was an early theoretician for state’s rights. He was so wary of federal power that the secessionists who brought on the Civil War could trace their thinking back to Jefferson.
One of the big issues in the early years was the French Revolution. Looking back, it’s easy to see Jefferson as a naive ideologue, justifying the butchery and chaos of the revolution out of a deluded belief that the guillotine could somehow secure the rights of man. It’s possible to see in Jefferson the precursor of those Americans who thought of Stalin or Mao as people’s champions, instead of their murderers.
Meanwhile, Adams and Hamilton were going about the business of actually setting up a government that could function in the real world, that could allow for expanded commerce and secure America’s independence. Today’s historians, looking at America’s role as a strong global power, can look back at Adams and Hamilton and see that, in the end, they won the argument.
Not that the argument is ever settled. A lot of Americans are as wary of federal power as Jefferson was. The Jeffersonians will have their day again. And we readers will continue to consider those mysterious silhouettes, the heroic figures who populate our imaginations and shape our ideas.
This is David Moats from Middlebury.
–David Moats is the Editorial Page Editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.