Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Founding Fathers

I am, quite simply, a person who loves reading about America’s Founding Fathers, and love thinking about government and all that stuff. A few years ago I read Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, and found Ellis’ writing and analysis to be excellent and thought-provoking. With that in mind, it was an easy choice about who to pick for my more recent re-discovery of two of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Ellis paints a clear picture of what these men where: talented men who were often in the right place at the right time, but deeply conflicted men torn by the struggles they encountered in their lives. Ellis does a greater service by stressing repeatedly the often unspoken truth, that these men were men and not gods as we like to think they are.

Let’s start off with the first book I read, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. As is the case in both books, American Sphinx isn’t a biography as much as an analysis of a few pivotal points in Jefferson’s life that changed or exposed his true beliefs on key subjects. It reveals a man fighting against government involvement in any part of people’s lives, and the tough position this put him in as the head of government in 1800. He comes off as a person who just believes that people should intrinsically do the right thing without being told, explicitly endorsing the Native American communal lifestyle as the ultimate ideal. While this sounds interesting to start off with, Jefferson tends to flip-flop around a bit, making him hard to pin down. He’s a bit of a drama queen, and historians debate whether he’s a hypocrite or self-deluded. This tends to happen when his ideals meet up with reality and he chooses reality but speaks for his ideals.

The example most people are familiar with is how Jefferson could have talked big about freedom for all but own lots of slaves, and on this point (and I believe all points) Ellis asserts that Jefferson was self-deluded. He saw himself as a father figure to his slaves and honestly thought he provided them with good lives so in his mind there was no contradiction. Of course this doesn’t make it ok or acceptable, but it does explain how Jefferson was able to reconcile the issue with himself. In the younger stages of his life, he tries to get anti-slavery legislation passed, hoping that he can phase it out of the whole country by the year 1800, but as it fails, he loses hope in the process and defers it to the next generation.

This attitude follows Jefferson around in a few different areas of his life. He starts off as being fundamentally opposed to political parties, but finds himself at the head of the Anti-Federalist party despite his desires to simply stay home and work on his fields. His fundamental belief that the American Revolution was about freeing the people from government domination drives him to lead a party opposed to his (this being a stronger force than his dislike for political parties). Becoming President, however, turns the tables on his opinions of the media, originally seen as the voice of the people but now in his mind degraded to sensationalist garbage (especially since all the garbage they were raking up was directed at him). Jefferson becomes hurt and depressed by the continuous disrespect the media throws his way, and becomes increasingly despondent about the future of the nation that has so quickly lost all decency in his eyes.

Of course, there’s a lot more going on (especially Jefferson’s black and white, right and wrong mentality), but that’s a chunk of what stuck for me. With the first book out of the way, let’s move on to the second book,His Excellency: George Washington.

This book is a very interesting follow-up to the Jefferson book, as it starts slightly before the Jefferson book and finishes up slightly beforehand. Despite having lots of time overlap, it takes Washington’s point of view and is largely distinct from Jefferson’s. While Jefferson was all for keeping government out of the lives of the people, Washington is of a different approach: the British way of governing the colonies was fine, but the problem was that it was the British governing Americans instead of Americans governing Americans. As such, Washington is for a strong federal government that can collect taxes and all that stuff (making his party the Federalists, for a strong federal government).

The book follows Washington’s exploits serving in the British colonial force and losing a number of battles in service there and during the American Revolution, but winning all of the critical battles. Ellis makes it clear here that this part of his life was extremely influential on his time in politics, and seeing how his troops needed a strong leader and how the lack of taxes left his army constantly starving and barefoot makes it eminently clear why he’s a Federalist. It’s also interesting to see how Ellis compares Washington to Fabius Maximus and Cincinnatus, two Roman dictators who were given supreme power to fix specific problems (e.g., to lead the American Revolution and later to be President), and it’s quite an apt comparison.

But while Jefferson is a drama queen, Washington has some pride and loyalty problems going on (also argued to be his great strengths). Washington tolerates dissent within closed quarters and meetings, but if those people then speak out against him publicly, he takes it pretty personally and tends to sever all connections with them. An interesting case of this is Jefferson himself, who often disagreed with Washington (expected since they were polar opposites politically) but got himself into quite a bit of trouble by speaking out to Madison about it and secretly strengthening the Anti-Federalists against Washington. From Jefferson’s point of view, this wasn’t a contradiction, because Jefferson thought he was doing what was best for the country: speaking his mind and thus doing his job, and helping the cause that he thought really represented the Revoluton, the Anti-Federalists. But from Washington’s point of view, he saw it as Jefferson breaching the understood rules of conduct to make a political power play. This particular scene is played out very nicely in the book, and it’s clear that Washington saw Jefferson as a real friend until this happens, at which point Washington realizes that Jefferson will do whatever it takes to try to save the country in his way (of course it’s more complicated than this).

Washington also has an interesting excuse for the slave dilemma he’s in: he’s also for freedom for all but owns hundreds of slaves. But his problems with freeing them are numerous, and deeply grounded more in realism than idealism. Washington has spent his entire life moving from economic mediocrity to actually being quite wealthy (in comparison, Jefferson lived and died in constant debt) and wanted to avoid freeing his slaves and then going poor as a result or placing the same conditions on his heirs. Furthermore, he didn’t technically own his wife’s slaves, so he couldn’t free those, and finally, he didn’t want to break up slave families, and since a good chunk of his slaves married his wife’s slaves, this presented a bit of a problem. Realizing that he needed to do something for the sake of posterity, he undertakes a long scheme to gain financial independence with the stipulation that if he dies before he can achieve it, his slaves are to be freed upon his death (more or less), which is what happens. It’s pretty interesting to see how the debate for Washington really isn’t about ideals: like Jefferson, he considers himself to be a benevolent master, and in his case, most of his slaves are too old or simply not able to work, so he considers the life he’s given them to be better than what they’d have to deal with on their own (again, not saying it’s ok, just describing what’s going on in his head).

Fairly early on both Jefferson and Washington realize that they’re doing something pretty important and need to put on a good face about it for the sake of posterity, so it’s often fairly hard to find out what they’re really thinking. Both books, however, do a superb job at breaking through this and shows the critical events that shaped both men’s lives. Ellis also masterfully shows that both men were just that, men. They’re definitely fairly complex characters and hard to pin down, but these books do a great job of bringing the reader into Jefferson’s and Washington’s minds to see their point of view. Both books are highly recommended, so go check them out!