6/16/09 - founding fathers

In today's excerpt - the success of the American Revolution generated much after-the-fact finger-pointing and criticism among its leaders as they vied for power in the new government and for their place in posterity:

"Even a casual reading of the reflections of those who occupy our national pantheon shows that these founders were far from reverent in their views of one another, and far from agreed on how to tell the story of the nation's birth. ...

" 'The history of our Revolution,' fretted John Adams, 'will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electric rod smote the earth and out sprang George Washington.' Adams complained endlessly about how Franklin was overrated and underhanded, and it pained him immensely to think that the story would go on 'that Franklin electrified [Washington] with his rod, and hence-forward these two conducted all the policy negotiations, legislatures, and war.' Adams couldn't decide who would be best remembered in history—Franklin or Washington—but he knew for a certainty that both deserved less credit than he. 'I never knew but one man who pretended to be wholly free from [vanity]' Adams wrote of Franklin, 'and him I know to be in his heart the vainest man and the falsest character I have ever met with in life.' Washington wasn't much better. Adams grumbled about 'the superstitious veneration that is sometimes paid to General Washington,' because 'I feel myself his superior.' ...

"The author of the Declaration of Independence also took his lumps, and administered a few, as he and his band of brothers tried to assess the American Revolution after the smoke had cleared and the ink on the peace treaty had dried. Jefferson found Adams impossible: 'He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English,' wrote the Monticello patriarch in 1783. Adams returned the favor. At one point he assured a friend in Philadelphia that Jefferson was not 'a true figure' of the Revolution and that drafting the Declaration of Independence was a 'theatrical show' in which the man from Monticello had 'run away with all the stage effect ... and all the glory of it.' After losing the presidency to Jefferson in 1800, Adams called his rival so 'warped by prejudice and so blinded by ignorance as to be unfit for the office he holds.' Many of Adams's Congregational minister friends agreed. One predicted that Americans would 'rue the day and detest the folly, delusion, and intrigue which raised him to the head of the United States.' Other clergymen bombarded their parishioners with descriptions of Jefferson as an adulterous atheist and a toadying lover of the hopelessly corrupt French, whose revolution was as attractive as a plague.

"Washington quickly became the avatar of revolutionary achievement because the nation could hardly do without a conquering hero. But privately—and sometimes very publicly—many of his closest associates thought differently. Charles Lee, who became Washington's third-ranking general and had a low opinion of his commander's generalship, sneered at what he called the 'infallible divinity' of the commander in chief and called him 'a bladder of emptiness and pride.' Tom Paine, even after Washington had virtually been sanctified, told the public that had honored him for the crucial essay Common Sense that Washington was 'treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life.' In an open letter to the retiring president he capped his denunciation: 'As to you, Sir ... the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.' "


Gary B. Nash


The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create america


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Gary B. Nash


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