The American Revolution seemed unlikely or impossible at the time, but in hindsight it appears “inevitable.” The revolutionary leaders spoke with the confidence of people who knew they would have significant historical legacies, but at the same time they had no idea if their experiment would succeed. It is important to balance the “tool” of hindsight with trying to understand historical events in their proper context and imagine how it would have felt to witness them at the time.
The last decade of the eighteenth century was an extraordinarily significant part of American history. Much of what occurred in this short period went on to determine the future of the country right up to the present day. Founding Fathers focuses on the eight most important political leaders of the revolutionary generation: John Adams, Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. It tells their story through a series of six episodes, all of which convey the same four basic themes: the collective teamwork of the revolutionary generation, the close relationship between the personal and the political, their inaction on the issue of slavery, and the awareness the Founding Fathers had of the fact that they were shaping history.
The first chapter focuses on the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Both men arrived at the duel accompanied by their faithful proteges, William Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton. Hamilton accepted Burr’s invitation to the duel because he never backed down from a challenge, but wrote that he planned to “throw away” his first shot. It is unclear exactly what happened when the men fired at each other. After they did so, Hamilton was hurt and was tended to by Pendleton and his doctor. He died the following day and was mourned as a martyr. Burr was vilified and fled to Georgia, his political career forever ruined. There was much speculation about what actually happened during the duel, and a variety of different interpretations of the event still exist today. The two had a long history of mutual antagonism, and Burr blamed Hamilton for his embarrassing loss in the New York gubernatorial election of 1803. Hamilton claimed that his criticisms of Burr were purely political rather than personal, but in reality this distinction was rather fuzzy. Despite these tensions, it seems likely that neither man wanted to cause the other serious harm.
The second chapter covers the dinner party hosted by Jefferson in which the “Compromise of 1790” was brokered. At the time, Hamilton’s financial plan—which included the federal assumption of state debts—was stuck in a gridlock in Congress. At the dinner, Madison agreed for the plan to be brought to the house again on the condition that the nation’s capital be placed on the Potomac. Madison coauthored The Federalist Papers with Hamilton and John Jay, but had since switched to the antifederalist position. Having spent time away in France, Jefferson was less up-to-date with the issues being discussed at the dinner. His personal qualities made him a good facilitator and allowed him to negotiate a deal between Madison and Hamilton.
The question of where the capital would be located was known as “the residency question.” In March 1790, sixteen different sites were under consideration, and it seemed most likely that a spot in Pennsylvania would be chosen. Along with Jefferson’s dinner, there were likely many other meetings and discussions that occurred around this time to discuss the residency question along with assumption. The period after the decisions were made was difficult, as many were horrified both by assumption and by the placement of the capital on the Potomac. The Compromise of 1790 averted a major political crisis, but the issues that caused the original divide remained.
The third chapter addresses the delivery of petitions to Congress calling for the end of the slave trade and slavery, respectively. The first petition was delivered by Quaker delegates; the second, which was signed by Benjamin Franklin, by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Franklin’s support meant that the petitions would have to be taken seriously. A clause in the Constitution stated that Congress could not take any action to curtail the slave trade until 1808, and some delegates argued that even the discussion of slavery was not permitted. James Jackson and William Loughton Smith of Georgia have two long proslavery speeches, the first time such an argument had been explicitly stated in Congress. There was a 43-to-11 vote to forward the petitions to a committee.
While the Declaration of Independence could be read as “an unambiguous tract for abolition,” little serious action was taken to curtail slavery following the Revolutionary War. There was a major divide between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states during the Constitutional Convention. Now in 1790, the prospect of gradual emancipation faced two pragmatic roadblocks: the significant cost this would incur, since most politicians believed slaveholders would have to be compensated for their losses, and the relocation of freed black people, as most politicians also held that white and black people could not live together in one society. Many concluded that the combination of these issues made emancipation impossible. While most of the Founding Fathers opposed slavery in theory, in reality they were unprepared to take action to stop it because they believed this would tear apart the union. Ultimately, the report that the committee produced contained vague references to “justice” and “humanity,” but confirmed that Congress could not take action to curtail slavery until 1808.
The fourth chapter focuses on the end of George Washington’s presidency and his Farewell Address. After his second term, Washington was personally eager to retire, and also keen to disprove criticisms that he was acting more like a king than a president. Ellis emphasizes that it is crucial to read the Farewell Address in the context in which it was originally produced. The end of Washington’s presidency was characterized by fierce political divisions between Federalists and Republicans. Jefferson’s opposition to Federalism was so intense that he developed a “conspiracy theory” that the Federalists were organizing a hostile takeover of the government and that Washington must be “senile” because he was letting it happen.
Washington wrote the Farewell Address with Hamilton’s assistance. In it, Washington called for unity and nonintervention in foreign affairs. He failed to mention slavery, which reflected his own contradictory position and inaction on the issue. The reaction to the Address was mostly positive, though Washington’s critics continued to accuse him of monarchical behavior. Washington was largely unruffled by this criticism and remained confidently committed to his principles until the end of his life.
The fifth chapter begins with America’s first contested presidential election in 1796. The two frontrunners were Jefferson and Adams, who, despite their differing political views, had always been close friends, having been brought together by the Revolution. Adams had served as vice president under Washington, a role he found made him frustratingly impotent. During this time, Adams and Jefferson’s political difference became so explosive that their friendship hung by a thread. As the election approached, both Adams and Jefferson initially denied that they were interested in the presidency, although Adams more quickly admitted this wasn’t true. In the end, Adams narrowly beat Jefferson, and offered his old friend a bipartisan shared platform as president and vice president from different parties. Jefferson agreed to serve as vice president but refused the bipartisan plan, claiming it was for personal reasons.
Adams inherited significant problems as president, from the Federalist/Republican rift to the “undeclared war” being waged against France. He tended to ignore his cabinet and seek advice only from Abigail. He made a series of controversial foreign policy decisions, including appointing his son John Quincy as Minster to Prussia, which ultimately paid off. However, his support for the Alien and Sedition Acts was disastrous, helping to accelerate the downfall of federalism. Meanwhile, Jefferson commissioned a scandalmonger to write a libelous book about Adams. In the 1800 election, Jefferson was elected as president and Burr as vice president, with Adams coming third. Adams and Jefferson did not speak for twelve years after this.
Adams retired to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he remained embittered about his political defeats and the actions of his enemies. In 1804, when Jefferson’s youngest daughter died in childbirth, Abigail wrote a letter of condolences which Jefferson mistook for an attempt and reconciliation. Abigail reacted to this by angrily scolding Jefferson for all the ways in which he had wronged her husband. Following this, the silence between Quincy and Monticello resumed for another eight years. In the meantime, Adams began writing to Benjamin Rush. In his letters, Adams criticized the overly romantic and simplistic version of the Revolution that had emerged in recent years. His own account was messier and far more critical of the revolutionary leaders.
In 1809, Rush wrote that he’d had a dream that Adams and Jefferson reconciled, started a correspondence, and eventually died at nearly the same time. Adams believed this dream might be “prophecy,” yet it took him another two years to reach out to Jefferson. Finally, in 1812, the men began writing to each other. They reflected on the Revolution, debated politics and other matters, and forgave each other for the hurt they’d caused. By the late 1810s they were among the only surviving members of the revolutionary generation and wrote that they were looking forward to reuniting with their “band of brothers” in the afterlife. On July 3, 1826, one day before the fiftieth anniversary of independence, Jefferson slipped into a coma. He died the next day, on July 4, as did Adams, just as Rush predicted.