25. Being an American: The Legacy of the Revolution
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25. Being an American: The Legacy of the Revolution

So this is my last true
confession to you, my class, and it’s a true — I
always give you true confessions.
I never lie to you,
my class, but this is a truly true confession because the fact
of the matter is, I actually really couldn’t
figure out how to end the course.
I couldn’t figure out what this last lecture was supposed to be,
and I really wondered about it, agonized over it.
It’s the last lecture.
There’s all this pressure.
Several of you have e-mailed me
and said, “Looking forward to the last lecture.”
How can I live up to the expectation?
So I decided that I would do
two things in the lecture, and the first thing that I’m
going to do is talk about the end of the American Revolution,
which is not an easy thing to do, and I’m not going to be so
good as to actually put my finger on the moment when the
Revolution ends, but I’m at least going to
suggest a couple things about that.
And then at the end you’ll see
I’m going to come back around and hopefully magically just tie
the whole course together by the end of the lecture.
You will for sure notice that
some of the things I’m talking about now have references to
things I talked about way at the beginning of the course.
So I’m trying for symmetry —
course symmetry. And if you think back in the
distant ages of time when this course started I talked on that
first — I think the very first lecture
— I did — I used a quote from John Adams
and I used a quote from Benjamin Rush.
Those are the quotes that are
on the top of the syllabus. And both of them talk about
when the Revolution supposedly began.
So Adams, writing in 1815,
said that he thought the Revolution began “in the
Minds of the People, and this was effected,
from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years
before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.”
So he says the war,
quote, “was no part of the Revolution.”
And then the other quote I read
was Rush, who in 1776 basically agreed
that the war and the Revolution were two different things but
then says, “The American War is over:
but this is far from being the case with the American
Revolution.” “We have changed our forms
of government, but it remains to effect a
revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners,
so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have
adopted.” Okay.
So when I quoted those at the
very beginning of the course, I basically was quoting them to
kind of shake up your assumptions about what the
American Revolution actually was.
If the Founders can’t even
agree, that kind of opens things broadly for us to really talk
about what the Revolution was. Today I’m mentioning them
because I actually do want us to think a little bit about,
if that — if there’s all that confusion about when it starts,
what can we say about when a Revolution ends?
And there’s definitely a hint
about how to discuss that question in both of those
quotes, even though they don’t
necessarily agree, because both men in one way or
another saw the revolution as being fundamentally about what
Rush called “principles, opinions and manners”
and Adams called a “change in the minds of the
people.” So in a way they’re both saying
that a real Revolution, a full revolution,
involves some kind of a fundamental change in
principles. And, as both men suggest,
obviously this isn’t something that happens instantly like a
declaration of war or a surrender on a battlefield,
that it’s a process and it takes place over years,
maybe even over decades. Now obviously if you think
about what a revolution is, formally speaking,
it’s a change of forms of government more than anything
else. So it involves some kind of a
large-scale transfer of power after some kind of a struggle
between competing groups. Right?
So it’s a major shift in
sovereignty of some kind. But for the struggle and the
instability of the Revolution to come to a close,
obviously there had to be some kind of a shared agreement about
the nature of whatever this new regime was going to be,
about what its ideals were, about what its shape was going
to be. And without that kind of shared
agreement on those kinds of things,
this new regime would really stay in a state of flux and
would be vulnerable to all kinds of continued dramatic and
potentially revolutionary change.
So in a sense,
what I’m saying here is that revolutions involve both
deconstruction and reconstruction,
and that basically it’s one thing to rebel against
something, and it’s quite another thing to
construct something in its place that manages to get some kind of
general acceptance. And a revolution can’t be said
to have ended until both parts of that equation have been met.
And I think if you think back
over the course of the semester, you can see that during the
semester we’ve looked at both parts of that equation,
in a sense. We’ve looked,
at the very beginning of the course when we were getting
toward the beginning of the war, we’ve seen how Americans
generally agreed about what they protesting against,
but the 1770s, 1780s, 1790s revealed they
weren’t necessarily in agreement about what they were fighting
for; they didn’t necessarily agree
about what the most desirable outcome would be.
And we’ve watched this over the
course of the semester. We’ve seen people basically
just figuring out what this new regime is going to be.
So, we looked at the 1770s,
we saw how people tried to create constitutions that would
reflect whatever this new regime was going to be,
and we saw how those constitutions pretty much
distrusted centralized power. Unfortunately,
the 1780s revealed that that first wave of reform wasn’t
quite right, that there were some pretty
important problems that weren’t solved,
that there were some new problems that seemed to be
erupting that maybe hadn’t been anticipated before,
and then we’ve seen the result. We’ve watched Continental Army
officers sort of vaguely threatening some kind of coup
and saw the mighty power of George Washington’s glasses.
We saw soldiers sticking their
bayonets through the windows of the Pennsylvania state house to
demand their pay from the Confederation Congress.
We saw indebted farmers in
Massachusetts joining in protest to close down the courts,
and then of course we saw the Independent Republic of Vermont
and my favorite, the State of Franklin.
So clearly there was some
pretty widespread discontent, and some of the elite also,
as we heard, were not particularly happy.
Many of them wanted some kind
of economic stability. Some of them were none too
pleased about what they saw as this sort of widespread social
instability. So in one way or another,
all of these groups felt that the promise of the Revolution
wasn’t really being fulfilled, and the political system that
had been put into place during the Revolution not only was
incapable of dealing with the problem,
but in many ways it was fueling the problem.
Now of course everything in one
way or another added up to lead to the Constitutional
Convention, which we discussed. And as we discussed in the
course, a new Constitution was by no means a done deal,
and in fact there was some pretty fervent debate over
whether or not some individual states even wanted to
participate in the whole Convention at all.
And we’ve seen some of what
people were scared of in those debates about whether or not to
go to the Convention. A stronger government or even
just a new government might open the door to things like an
established aristocracy, monarchy, tyrannical
centralized power, the rise of a privileged few
over an impoverished many. So in essence,
these people are seeing that there might be a big change
happening, they don’t know what the change
is going to be, and anything seems possible,
and all of those things obviously would represent going
back on what the Revolution had just gone forth for.
So in essence,
you see people who had absolutely no sense of political
stability or permanence, no sense of what was going to
come, no real consensus about the
best way to fix things. Now following the 1780s came a
period that obviously we don’t cover in this course.
My other lecture course covers
it, and that’s the 1790s, which saw yet another wave of
reform and this time it has to do with the rise of the
Federalist party. And the Federalists in one way
or another were largely about centralizing power even more,
and strengthening the national government even more,
and controlling and channeling the protests and politicking of
the populace; they’re not all that
comfortable with ongoing popular politicking.
And here again,
in the 1790s with this sort of counter-wave,
you also see more instability, more of a sense that there’s
some kind of potentially drastic change that might be happening
just around the corner. So throughout the 1790s,
people have things in their letters,
throwaway lines like: ‘If this government lasts
another five years, here’s what I think we should
do.’ You can almost feel in some of
these letters how frightened, in a sense, some of these
people were who were stepping onto the stage of a new
government in this sense of amazing instability.
I’m going to offer three quotes
because it’s amazing to me how similar they are.
They all use the same image.
It’s almost like they went into
a room and said, ‘How shall we describe being
scared in 1789? Oh, I know.’
So James Madison says in 1789,
” We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to
guide us.” George Washington in 1790:
“I walk on untrodden ground.”
And good old Pennsylvania
senator William Maclay, who offered us that quote way
at the beginning of the course, sitting next to Virginians at
dinner and saying that all they talked about was alcohol and
horses. Maclay says,
“The whole world is a shell, and we tread on hollow
ground every step.” Now that’s kind of interesting
to me, that all of those quotes are
all saying the same thing, which is basically all of these
guys literally are saying, ‘Wow.
I’m on this really unstable
ground and I have no idea where I’m supposed to be going or what
a safe path is going to be.’ So throughout the 1790s,
the Federalists countered their sense of social disorder by
trying to legislate and administrate their way into
order and control. And the Alien and Sedition Acts
of 1798, which I’m sure you probably studied in high school,
are two of the most extreme examples along those lines.
This brings us to Thomas
Jefferson and the presidential election of 1800.
Now significantly,
for the purposes of this class, Jefferson years later,
very modestly called his own election to the Presidency,
quote, “the Revolution of 1800.”
Right, not modest at all:
‘ah, yes, when I came to power it was the Revolution of 1800.’
And not only that — he said it
was “as real a revolution in the principles of our
government as that of 1776 was in its form.”
He’s talking serious
revolution; ‘my rise to power was just as
significant as 1776.’ Thank you, Thomas Jefferson.
But you can kind of see that,
given what was happening in the 1790s —
in my amazingly quick and dirty, frighteningly condensed
version of the 1790s that I just gave you —
given what the Federalists seemed to represent,
you could see why Jefferson would have thought that his rise
to the Presidency was some kind of a return to core principles,
or Revolutionary principles. Now this change of principles
wasn’t easy, and actually I think it was the
whole intensity of the experience of that 1800 election
that led Jefferson to experience and describe his election as a
revolution that was fought and won.
His rise to the Presidency came
after a seemingly deadlocked tie vote in the Electoral College
that was thrown into the House of Representatives to decide.
So deadlocked was the election
and so extreme were the fears and expectations on all sides
that if the wrong person got the office,
the entire nation would come crashing to ruin,
that two states — in two different states —
and in one state I believe the governor was in on it —
people were stockpiling arms because they were going to march
on Washington and take the government for Jefferson.
That’s amazing.
That’s America,
in a sense, on the brink of some sort of civil war —
if the people are marching on the government to take it for
the person who they think should be President.
Massachusetts Federalist Fisher
Ames, at that time, thought about this and believed
that he understood why this was happening.
And I’ll mention here only
because it’s been a continuing theme in our course:
we’ve seen lots of crying guys over the semester.
Washington’s really good at
reducing people to tears apparently.
And I have to mention here —
partly because I just really like Fisher Ames,
because he’s sort of an intriguing character who always
says quotable things. But he also — he was in
Congress in the 1790s and the thing that he’s most known for
is he made a speech about the Jay Treaty and everybody started
to cry. So he reduced Congress to
tears, which to me is kind of a terrifying image,
Congress crying. So Fisher Ames,
mighty orator, reducer to tears.
Here’s what he says in 1800,
when he’s looking around and he’s trying to figure out what
this all means. “The fact really is,
that … there is a want of accordance
between our system of government and the state of our public
opinion. The government is republican;
opinion is essentially democratic….
Either, events will raise
public opinion high enough to support our government,
or public opinion will pull down the government to its own
level. They must equalize.”
That’s really interesting.
So here, watching what’s
happening in 1800, Ames is kind of confirming what
Adams and Rush were suggesting in the quotes that I started out
by discussing. For a revolution to end,
forms and public opinion have to equalize in some way,
and before they do, things remain unstable.
So in a way,
what all of these guys are saying,
is that revolutions end when public opinion conforms with new
post-revolutionary forms of governance,
and until that happens, revolutionary change is still
entirely possible. Once that happens,
once the sort of new car smell has dissipated from a new
government and the government can be taken for granted as kind
of the normal state of affairs and it’s endorsed by a majority,
then it becomes much harder to stage some kind of full-scale
revolution from outside of the government.
So in essence,
revolutions end when the public mind declares that they do;
it’s up to the public. Now that’s a nice,
big, broad general discussion about defining the bounds of the
American Revolution, but what does that really mean?
What are we really saying here
and how could we show it? How do you actually show public
opinion changing and eventually conforming with a new
government? Well, one way that you can
begin to do this is to find a wonderful primary source that
includes all kinds of eyewitness testimony about one person’s
ideas and how they changed over time.
So I bring to you today the
recorded recollections of George Robert Twelves Hughes,
a New England shoemaker. I know he’s popped up once or
twice in one or two of the books we’ve read.
And he’s popped up once or
twice for good reason, because it’s hard — it’s
harder to find comments from people who are not lofty
Founders. It’s hard to find recollections
and memories and thoughts about the Revolution in a broad sense
from average Americans because, number one, they don’t spend a
lot of time often sitting down and musing on paper,
and number two, their papers don’t get saved as
often as an elite politician’s papers get saved.
So people always quote George
Robert Twelves Hughes because he’s there and he’s thoughtful
and he actually went back and talked about his entire life,
and his life spans this entire period.
He was born in 1742.
He dies in 1840,
so he lives a really long time. And he ended up being one of
the last surviving veterans of the Revolution,
or at least that people knew about.
So because of that,
in the 1830s, he was interviewed so that he
could talk about his recollections,
things of his life that he saw as being significant.
So let’s look for a minute at
what Hughes can show us. For one thing,
you can see in some of the stories that he told and the way
that he tells them some kind of subtle but actually pretty
significant changes in the public mind that were unleashed
by the Revolution. So for example,
one of Hughes’s earliest memories was of having to bring
a pair of shoes to John Hancock. And as he recalled the occasion
all these years later, he was terrified,
and he says he’s first ushered into the kitchen where his type
of person belongs — and then Hancock says, ‘No, no.
Actually, I’d like to thank
this guy personally,’ so then he’s ushered into the sitting
room, and he mumbles a little speech.
He didn’t quite know what he
was supposed to say or how to say it,
and he’s really embarrassed, and then Hancock actually asked
him to sit down, which terrifies him even more.
And then worst of all,
Hancock says, ‘Let me drink to your health’
— and wants to do the whole glass-clinking thing,
and Hughes said, ‘I’ve never done the
glass-clinking thing. [laughs]
I didn’t know what I was doing. We did the glass-clinking
thing.’ And then he basically ran away
as soon as he could without being rude.
Now, Hughes’s memory of this
whole episode, even all of these years later,
shows really sort of colonial era deference at work.
This is not someone who’s just
respectful of John Hancock. This is someone who’s scared of
interacting with someone who’s that above him in society.
Now Hughes lived in Boston in
the 1760s and 1770s. This is very handy for us
obviously, because then he offers us
eyewitness testimony about other kinds of sort of
floating-in-the-air opinions that were developing at the
time. So he — certainly,
you can see when he’s talking about his experiences — shared
the feelings of many of his neighbors in Boston in the
1770s. In his later years,
he remembered how much he really hated the British
soldiers that were occupying Boston.
He actually remembered that one
of them had a pair of shoes made and then never paid for them,
so it’s a really specific I-hate-the-British memory.
He also remembers watching an
eighteenth-century mugging in which a soldier knocked a lady
down and stole her bonnet and stole her muff.
So he remembers
ugly-British-soldier moments from Boston.
And then on March 5,
he says that when he heard noise in the street he ran to
see what was happening, and he saw British soldiers
firing on American civilians, and his response really says
something, because he immediately ran home
to arm himself. He grabbed a cane and he ran
back to the uproar, and when a soldier tried to
grab the cane out of his hands, Hughes insisted that he had a
right to carry whatever he pleased.
Now that’s really interesting,
because here you see Hughes — He’s defending his fellow
Bostonians literally and physically,
and he’s clearly — I suppose in insisting that he has a right
to hold on to that cane — defending his rights too.
But what you see is that he’s
taken action almost instinctively.
It’s not like he saw what was
happening and said, ‘This is a Revolutionary
moment. I must go home and grab my club
so that I can say I was there at the beginning phases of the
American Revolution.’ He just sees what’s happening
in the street, he’s upset, it’s his neighbors,
it’s people from Boston who are getting shot at,
and he instinctively is just drawn in to what’s happening.
So clearly, his sense of
involvement in unfolding events is growing, particularly given
that he next took part in the Boston Tea Party.
Obviously, that’s a very
deliberate choice to take part in a protest.
And then he fights as a soldier
during the Revolution, which I guess is the ultimate
way in which you show that you’re part of a cause.
And then he went back to being
a shoemaker, and then he became an aged veteran of the
Revolution. Oh — and one thing I can’t
help mentioning, only because whenever I talk
about George Robert Twelves Hughes I always mention this,
because I just love the fact that it exists:
He had, I think — Well,
actually I know, he had fifteen children.
But what’s wonderful about that
fact is that his eleventh son was named Eleven [laughter]
and his fifteenth son was named Fifteen [laughs]
and I just love the guy. George Robert Twelves Hughes
has the humor. I don’t know if his sons were
really thrilled about being named Eleven and Fifteen,
[laughter] but I just love the fact that
he did that and that we know that.
That makes me even happier.
So what does Hughes show us
besides very bizarre naming habits?
For one thing,
his recollections offer a great example of the ways in which the
Revolution inspired average Americans to become politically
active. He was literally drawn into the
action, first defending his neighbors
and his town, but over time obviously feeling
like he was taking part in some kind of a larger cause.
So in essence,
he helps us see how the Revolution could politicize
someone. And you kind of see this in
action. Obviously, with the Hancock
story, you can see what a real sense of pre-revolutionary
deference felt like. Now of course,
the Revolution didn’t just stamp out deference,
but a politicized public was a public that understood that it
had rights and that it could demand them.
And eventually,
the American people would not show that kind of fear and
trembling before a member of the supposed elite,
so basically, eventually the American public
would find their voice. And this idea that the public
had a voice and had a right to express it is the sort of
general changing of public opinion that would ultimately
connect to the nation’s new form of government.
So basically,
you see the sort of beginning of a chain reaction that might
actually lead to the end of the Revolution.
You can see patterns unfolding
that represent pretty major changes over a long stretch of
time. Now obviously,
it’s not just average American citizens who are being shaped by
the Revolution. The elite were profoundly
affected by it as well. And for one obvious thing —
suddenly, they were presented with this
opportunity to create and shape a new government for a new
nation, and they knew that this was a
pretty rare opportunity. So even as they’re doing it,
they know that this is not something that happens very
often. Just listen to how John Adams
discussed what he felt like was the change that he experienced
over the course of his life. And this is in one of the
letters — I mentioned this at the
beginning of the course — these great letters they write
to each other in their old age. So here, writing to Jefferson,
Adams says, “When I was young,
the Summum Bonum– or the sort of ultimate
height–in Massachusetts, was to be worth ten thousand
pounds Sterling, ride in a Chariot–a carriage,
be Colonel of a Regiment of Militia and hold a seat in His
Majesty’s Council. No Mans Imagination aspired to
any thing higher beneath the Skies.”
So Adams is thinking back,
and he’s here basically suggesting that the Revolution
and its aftermath expanded the horizons of an entire
generation. Now, he’s talking about the
elite, but you could expand this to include the American
citizenry as well, because in a variety of ways
the Revolution shook things up, and in doing so it expanded
people’s horizons. Now I use the word
“citizenry” —
and I did that really deliberately,
because all Americans did not have their horizons expanded
during the Revolutionary war, and this is something clearly
we talked about in class and we’ve talked about in sections
that’s linked to some of the discussions that we’ve been
having about how radical the Revolution was or wasn’t.
So the elite,
like everyone else, were profoundly affected by the
Revolution, but of course they’re not the
people who get to decide the fate of the Revolution.
It’s the American public who
gets to make that decision. It’s their opinions of the new
government that are going to either make or break the
government and the Revolution. And during the period covered
by this course we’ve seen the beginnings of a long period
during which public opinion would continue to change,
sometimes really dramatically, concerning just what this new
government and this new nation was supposed to be.
Now, I’m not going to end by
continuing here to talk about the end of the Revolution,
because it isn’t just the events of the Revolution that
mattered, even when they’re ending.
It’s actually how we remember
them that matters, because the way that we
remember history obviously really determines its meaning
and its impact. So basically,
history — and how we understand our history — can
have a profound effect on the here and now.
In a way, this is what
Jefferson referred to — I think a couple lectures back — I’ve
talked about the dead hand of the past;
Jefferson wanting to — every nineteen years,
‘let’s make a new constitution.’
That’s kind of linked to that
Jeffersonian idea of the dead hand of the past —
and since history could have that impact on the present,
depending on how you understand it.
And that dead hand of the past
can be a pretty heavy hand. At this point,
basically I need — I need to tell you an anecdote.
I actually do need to tell you
an anecdote. As I was writing the lecture
this morning, I was writing about the dead
hand of the past, and I guess whenever I use that
phrase, I think of this one particular
letter I found — which actually is relevant,
so I’m not being completely random.
It does have something to do
with the dead hand of the past and history.
It actually also has nothing to
do with the American Revolution, but it really shows you how the
past can have an enormous weight on the present.
And it’s also just an amazing
little piece of paper that I found.
And it has to do with this
letter that I found when I was rummaging through the Adams
family correspondence, which is indeed what it’s
called: the Adams family. So the John Adams family
correspondence — and I found this letter from John Quincy
Adams. I wasn’t looking for it,
but I found this letter. And he was overseas when his
father was running for President and he — clearly he really
wants to know if his father won. And it takes a long time for
news to make it across the ocean,
so what I found was first one letter in which he’s writing,
‘Do you know what happened in the election?’
And then I found a lot of them.
He’s writing to people and
writing to people saying, ‘Do you know?
Do you know?
Has my father won the election?
Who’s won the election?
What’s happened in the
election?’ So, I can’t help it.
Now I’m following the trail,
because I have to find the letter where he finds out.
And you would assume — I
assumed — that when I found that letter,
he would say something like, ‘Oh, this is a great day for
America’ or — I don’t know — something,
something lofty and visionesque,
sort of looking out — ahh — sort of John Quincy Adamsesque.
So finally I find the letter,
and I’m going to paraphrase it with my own bad paraphrasing
here, but the point will be true.
He basically says, ‘Oh, God.
I’ll never live up to this.’
It is like — the first thing he thinks is:
now I’m going to have to be President too.
That was amazing to me. I really felt for John Quincy
Adams. You suddenly got a quick flash
of what it felt like to be an Adams,
[laughs] or particularly — the Adams
family had a habit of picking one Adams per generation and
then dumping all of their expectations on that one Adams.
Clearly, John Quincy Adams is
this generation’s guy, so it certainly gives you a
sense of — I want to say dead hand of the past;
I guess it’s the live hand of the past, because it’s his
father, this poor guy. Anything his father does he’s
clearly like: ‘oh,
damn, [laughs] now I have to be President to’
[laughs] —
which is amazing, but concrete — a concrete
example of what I’m talking about here.
And it certainly shows how the
next generation beyond the Founding generation really felt
like they had to live up to the achievements of what had gone
before them. Now, as far as the people who
had gone before them, as far as the Fathers are
concerned, they knew that they were
becoming history, and so they thought about the
making of history and the writing of history a lot.
To me, the most concrete
example of people becoming history is something that
happened to poor Thomas Jefferson in his old age.
I wonder if any of you have
ever seen a life mask. You know there’s death masks
and life masks. Death masks are obvious,
but there do exist life masks as well.
So again, in Jefferson’s old
age, someone went to Monticello and they wanted to make a life
mask of him. I don’t know who this guy was,
but he wasn’t good at his job, so whatever he did he did it
wrong. And his daughter later said she
came into the room to see the guy with a hammer and chisel
trying to chip the plaster like: ‘oh,
my God, I killed him.’ [laughs]
The plaster hardened and they couldn’t get it off [laughter]
so Jefferson’s basically thinking, this is so bad;
[laughs] this is really bad. He really was terrified that
that was the end for him. He literally almost became
history. He was history.
He was gone.
Luckily, they got the plaster off and he survived.
But aside from the fact that he
almost melted into plaster, obviously that whole cohort of
people had really strong feelings about the story of the
Revolution, about how that story should be
told, and they were not in love with
the whole idea that the Founding period is some kind of golden
age of patriotic perfection. They did not see the Revolution
as some kind of divine strike of providence;
they did not see themselves as demigods.
And here I’m going to turn to
John Adams, which always makes me happy —
who did a really good job in his old age of answering letters
from strangers who wanted to know: ‘Tell us about the
Revolution. What really happened?’
And in answering,
he did a great job of basically popping bubbles of myths.
He basically said over and over
again in one way or another, ‘You know, the Revolution
wasn’t some kind of golden, wonderful moment.’
Now, like the other Founders —
He actually lived to be ninety, so unfortunately he had a lot
of these letters. I think Jefferson — I think —
I was about to say Jefferson, I think got more,
which obviously would make Adams really mad.
Like: ‘even now
[laughter/laughs] they’re thinking about him more
than me’ — but I think all of these guys
were getting these letters from people,
basically in one way or another saying,
‘Tell us. What was it really like?
What was it like?
What happened you signed the
Declaration? What happened?
What was it really like?’
Jefferson in particular was
driven crazy. Jefferson doesn’t normally
emote on paper in a deep kind of sincere, he’s-not-thinking-hard
way. You always get a sense he’s
thinking really carefully about how he expresses himself,
but when he’s writing to Adams in their old age,
he really sort of vents about this whole strangers-writin
g-letters-and-as king-about-history thing.
So he says — he complains:
“From sunrise to one or two o’clock, and often from
dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing
table. And all this to answer letters
into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters;
and often from persons whose names I have never before
heard.” And in this letter,
Jefferson estimates that in 1822 he got 1,267 of these
letters from people — just strangers: ‘tell us about the
Declaration.’ He called it “the
burthen” of his life.
And then at one point in this
letter — and this is where I felt like
he really hit Jeffersonian bottom —
he’s whining and whining and he’s going on,
‘I hate this. I hate this.
Will they stop?’
Probably Adams was thinking,
‘send some to me; [laughter]
I have something to say.’ But finally at this point in
the letter, Jefferson just writes: “Is this
life?” [laughter]
I just thought — that’s so weirdly modern.
That’s like something we have
probably all said at one point: Is this life?
Please stop writing me the
letters. His life actually got worse on
this front. You got to — You’re feeling
bad for the Founders here. People didn’t just deluge him
with random letters. Strangers made pilgrimages to
Monticello. It became like a tourist
attraction and he was still living in it.
And so strangers would come and
just swarm around Monticello, peering in the windows
[laughter], like: ‘oops,
I broke the glass’ — [laughter]
like trampling the garden. [laughter]
He got so overwhelmed by this that he basically after a while
left Monticello and lived in one of his other homes for a while,
like: ‘I just can’t take it. [laughs]
I’m abandoning my house to the strangers;
I’m going to go live in my other house for a little while.’
And that’s why,
actually those of you who have been to Monticello and you’ve
seen his little sanctuary — There’s a little area that’s
really his and he has sort of all his books and his bed and it
— really there are doors that can
lock it off to everything, which is really there for a
real reason, because that was — that
literally was his sanctuary. That was like:
the swarms are outside, lock, lock, lock,
lock, like, you’re not coming in.
So, I think it wasn’t fun being
a Founder basically. I think that’s what Jefferson
is showing us here. But whether or not they were
happy old Founders, the Founding types who were
answering these letters were really trying to shape the
telling of the history of the Revolution.
And different Founders I’m sure
had different messages, and some were probably happier
than others or more optimistic than others.
I think James Madison was
optimistic to the end. Adams, as I said before,
spent a lot of time sort of punching holes in myths about
the Revolution, that already were circulating
in the 18-teens and the 1820s. So over and over and over
again, he told people that there had not been some kind of
unanimous patriotic, glorious moment,
as it seemed to have been, looking from the distance of
time. So in response to one letter,
he insisted that the Revolution was not a big wave of unanimous
patriotism. As he put it,
“Every measure of Congress from 1774 to 1787 inclusively,
was disputed with acrimony, and decided by as small
majorities as any question is decided these days”
— actually saying,
‘It’s not we were like, yes, independence!’
He’s saying,
‘Sometimes it’s one or two votes that we decided this,
and it goes out into history and all that people know is we
voted yes and it seems unanimous,
and it really wasn’t.’ Even iconic revolutionary
moments, he thought, should not be viewed as the
sort of glorious moments of triumph.
He — In one letter,
he recalled what he was thinking as he watched people,
his fellow congressmen, sign the Declaration of
Independence. And he said,
“I could not see their hearts, …
but, as far as I could
penetrate the intricate foldings of their Souls,
I then believed, and have not since altered my
Opinion, that there were several who
signed with regret, and several others,
with many doubts and much lukewarmness.”
So he’s saying, ‘Okay.
Even while they’re signing the
Declaration, I don’t think some of these people actually really
wanted to be signing it at all. And some of them,
I think, kind of wished they were somewhere else not signing
it’ — which is not the image that’s
floating around at this point about what the Revolution was.
So people were disagreeing,
he’s saying, back in the Revolutionary era.
They caved to the majority.
They weren’t sure about what
they were doing. They didn’t even like what they
were doing sometimes, and their decisions weren’t
always good. He of course had something to
say about that as well, so he said in a different
letter, “I say we do not make more mistakes now than we
did in 1774, 5,6, 7,8, 9.”
He’s clearly making a point
here. When I was copying this I was
like: how many more years? “80,81, 82,83.”
I get your point.
We made a lot of mistakes through the whole Revolution,
he’s saying. “It was patched and
piebald … then, as it is now, …
and ever will be,
world without end.” Nor were battlefields any more
sacrosanct. As Adams put it,
“We blundered at Lexington, at Bunker’s Hill….
Where, indeed,
did we not blunder except Saratoga and Yorktown,
where our Tryumphs redeemed all former disgraces?”
So Adams is insisting,
much of the time: we weren’t all that great.
We made mistakes back then.
We didn’t always entirely
believe what we were doing. It wasn’t that different from
how it is now. The Revolution was not some
golden age of perfection. And Adams summed all of this up
in a letter that I like, because in some way — I don’t
know — it seems a little more direct
than some of these other letters,
and I suppose — well, you’ll hear the way he phrases
it. He wrote this letter in 1811,
and he said to this one correspondent — who said,
‘I revere the Fathers. I want to be like them.
— all the things he’s getting
in all of these letters. And he says,
“I ought not to object to your reverence for your
fathers…. But, to tell you a very great
secret, as far as I am capable of
comparing the merit of different periods,
I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.”
He was being really
straightforward about this. Now, all of those quotes of
course are from the sort of lofty Adams, the far-seeing
Adams, the sage Adams. They’re not from the Adams I
was just referring to a few minutes ago, which is the
I-don’t-get-any-respect John Adams, and he’s there too.
Both of those things are there
at the same time, which also tells you something.
When you read the
correspondence of his old age, he’s sort of veering back and
forth between: I am a lofty Founder.
Why won’t anyone recognize me
as a lofty Founder? I am a lofty Founder.
Please, someone recognize me.
He has all these letters where
he’s like: ‘no one will ever make a monument to me,
John Adams’ [laughter] — like: so,
so sorry. But my point here is that,
to Adams and to many others, you’re not supposed to look at
history at this sort of golden, perfect moment that’s
drastically different, in that sense,
from everything since. In a sense, to these people,
worshipping the founding era, or worshipping the American
Revolution, as a golden age actually did more harm than
good. The Revolution had been all
about beginnings, about beginning traditions and
patterns of governance, about beginning new
constitutions, but these beginnings were
actually supposed to go someplace.
They were supposed to lead to
something that actually would survive and be shaped by future
generations. So I think to this whole
generation, this idea of sort of
worshipping the Founding era as a golden age made it seem as
though the time for that kind of work had ended —
as though there was a glorious, wonderful creative moment when
things could really be done, and now that time is gone.
And you could see that in
Adams’ letters too — that he says often about the
future: ‘Well, maybe it’ll be a brighter page
or maybe it’ll be a darker page. I don’t know.
It’s up to you.’
But he assumes — obviously —
that what they’ve been doing isn’t some dead-end moment at
which who knows what’ll happen next.
He actually assumes they
started something that in one way or another they assume is
going to continue. So clearly, the time for that
kind of creative political work hadn’t ended whenever the random
date is that we decide the American Revolution ended,
and in a sense it hasn’t ended. As the Founding generation well
knew, American citizens are always responsible for their
government. They control its destiny.
They decide when revolutions
start. They decide when revolutions
stop. They control the destiny of the
aftereffect of revolutions. So I guess in a sense — And
this is where I was really struggling this morning.
I was like: what would be the
ultimate message I give to you? It’s so hard when you teach
courses on the Founding period because everything you say has
weird resonance in the present —
as I’m kind of saying here — and I don’t want to have weird
resonance in the present [laughs].
I just want to sort of give
something to you guys. So related to what I’m saying
here, maybe the ultimate message,
the sort of ground-level message of this course is:
your opinions matter and your actions out there in the world
politically and otherwise are going to matter too.
That’s in essence what these
Founders are saying, when they’re saying,
‘Don’t treat us like demigods, like we’re some lofty
population that will never come again.
We set something in motion and
the whole point of the thing that we set in motion is that
you’re supposed to make it run.’ Right? It’s actually about you.
We may be memorable guys.
I might want to be a more
memorable guy than I am, but it’s all about you;
it’s all about you.’ That’s what’s supposed to keep
it running in the end. Okay.
I want to first of all thank
you for laughing at my jokes all semester.
Obviously, one of my favorite things to do is to tell stories,
and lecture courses are moments where you’re completely my
hostage and I get to — Sometimes as I’m writing a
lecture, as today, I’m like:
oh, this isn’t related but I’ll find a way to rope it in to the
lecture so then I can give it to you.
So, I have greatly enjoyed
myself this semester. You’ve been wonderfully
receptive. You asked — When I went to
sections you asked wonderful questions.
You engaged with the material.
After lectures you guys kept
coming up to me and asking good questions, which was impressive
and doesn’t always happen in a lecture course.
So I want to thank you because
it makes me really happy if you guys are really engaged with
what I’m talking about here. So, thank you very much.

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