Founding Brothers, Confounding Ways
I watched the History Channel's documentary Founding Brothers
in once long sweep last night, having recorded it on Monday so as not to miss the wrestling (one of my guilty pleasures about America). In some ways it was not so much the story of a group of men as "The Triumph of Thomas Jefferson," seeming to tell the stories of Washington, Adams, Hamilton and Madison (the last particularly so) only in so far as they intersected with Jefferson's career. Jefferson's character did not come out of the series well, although in the end its focus was the triumph of the Republicans and the defeat of Federalism, a triumph which seemed to meet with grudging approval as having made America what it is today.
Jefferson is a complex character, and the show concentrated on his dirty dealings, hypocrisies (they gave complete credence to the doubtful claims
about his involvement with Sally Hemings, saying he enslaved his own children) and other flaws as much as on his ideals. They made much of his falling out with Adams, but gave very little time to the equally significant quarrels between Adams and Hamilton. Hamilton's vast character flaws were given far less time than Jefferson's. Adams' own partisanship was glossed over; the appointment of the "midnight judges," including John Marshall, was not even mentioned, despite its significant impact on American history. Overall, I was not impressed by the balance of the series, although I enjoyed it immensely.
But it has made me think more about TJ, a personal hero of mine. I am more impressed than ever by the way he put his single-minded pursuit of principle above all other considerations. If friends posed a danger to the nation, he dropped them. If the political colossus that awed every other politician of the day opposed his views, he did not shirk from trying to undermine that colossus. That principle -- that the new nation was something different, and must not be allowed to be steered towards the old, failed, flawed model -- was more important than anything. From what I know of the Federalists, I think it quite possible that they could have trod the path so many Republicans (since ancient times) had trod before, putting personalities and effectiveness before constitutionality. It may not have been Washington or Adams (although it may well have been Hamilton), but their successors if the party had survived could have gone that way. Jefferson's opposition, helped by Madison, may well have thwarted this possibility. America should be grateful that he considered principle so important that he did what he did.
Further, it struck me how Roman Jefferson was. I must look into his writings to see whether he realized quite how much his political ways owed to the politics of the Roman Republic. The combination of high principle with political shenanigans such as even the British Liberal Democrats would never stoop to is very Roman. You see it in all the letters of Cicero (another hero of mine, with whom Jefferson shares the problem that we know more about him from his voluminous correspondence than we do any of his contemporaries, warts and all) and in all that we know about the Trimuvirate and their opponents. Jefferson must have seen from the example of the Roman Republic, as well as that of the English Commonwealth, how republics can be corrupted into the rule of one man -- monarchy -- and must have learnt that Roman-style ruthlessness was the only way to prevent that happening. If that meant some decent chaps got knifed, then so be it. Furthermore, if the historians had bothered to read some ancient history, they would know that the simple yet comfortable style Jefferson adopted was very Roman. Rough clothes and fine wine were not seen as incompatible by the ancients.
Jefferson got what he wanted, and America needed. Churchill acted similarly for Britain. I'm glad both of them acted the way they did, and they remain heroes of mine.
Finally, didn't serial liar Joseph Ellis look very uncomfortable in that tie?