Early on in Founding Brothers, Ellis emphasizes that the events leading up to and following the American Revolution can, from our present-day position, seem like they were destined to happen. In hindsight, we know that the Revolution was ultimately a success, that the republic both survived and thrived, and that the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution continue to shape America today. However, all of this was unclear at the time. The Founding Fathers had no idea if the American experiment would turn out to be successful, and much of what was occurring around them was also unknown to them due to misinformation, rumor, and the simple problem of not witnessing everything first-hand. Ellis endeavors to explain how the events following the Revolution appeared to those living them at the time, rather than presenting them only from the position of hindsight. In doing so, he suggests that even though we have far more knowledge about these events now than anyone did back then, there is also a special advantage to the perspective of those alive at the time. Some truths conveyed in the present are not available to those viewing the situation in hindsight.
There are many ways in which hindsight improves our knowledge of historical events. Thanks to the work of historians, we now have a comprehensive picture of the events surrounding the birth of the American republic. We know, for example, that meetings about the issue of slavery or the location of the nation’s capital occurred in secret. We also have insight into private correspondence, revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the major historical actors under consideration. In this sense, hindsight strengthens our understanding by revealing information that was kept hidden at the time.
Another way in which hindsight strengthens our knowledge is due to the fact that we know the consequences of events in the past. As Ellis explains: “What is familiar history for us, however, was still the unknown future for them.” We know, for example, that the Founding Fathers’ decision to “table” the issue of slavery did not resolve or mitigate the problem, but rather led to an enormous amount of suffering and, eventually, to the Civil War. Ellis argues: “Hindsight permits us to listen to the debate of 1790 with knowledge that none of the participants possessed. For we know full well what they could perceive dimly, if at all—namely, that slavery would come to be the central and defining problem for the next seventy years of American history.” Indeed, hindsight tells us that not only did the slavery problem not disappear, the legacy of slavery and related racial tensions continue to shape life in America over 200 years later in the present.
At the same time, Ellis is careful to avoid giving credence to the cliché that “hindsight is 20/20” (meaning that hindsight shows us the complete, accurate version of an event). While hindsight often produces an abundance of information from which the truth can be deduced, in other cases too little information or conflicting evidence further obscures the truth within our contemporary perspective. For example, Ellis emphasizes that little is known about what happened in the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, despite it being one of the most famous events in early American history. Rather than picking one interpretation of events and filling in the gaps to construct a full narrative, Ellis presents another, different interpretation of what occurred during the duel, with commentary about which version is more likely to be accurate and why. This reminds us that hindsight is not “20/20” but often severely limited, and there is much that we will simply never be able to know about the past.
Hindsight can also corrupt our understanding of historical events due to the tendency to romanticize these events and fit them into a neat, coherent narrative. In correspondence with Benjamin Rush, John Adams expresses suspicions over the historical narrative of the American Revolution that romanticized events that were in reality “desperately contested and highly problematic occasions.” He emphasizes the authority of his own, “deconstructed” account because he was “present at the creation [of the republic].” Adams was also critical of the romanticized portrayal of the Founding Fathers and other leaders as heroes, which may make us question the depiction of these figures in Founding Brothers itself.
Not only can hindsight make us produce romanticized narratives, but it can also lead us to distort the past by imposing our own contemporary perspective and values onto it. Ellis argues that George Washington’s Farewell Address has come to mean many different things over time, but “unless one believes that ideas are like migratory birds that can fly unchanged from one century to the next, the only way to grasp the authentic meaning of his message is to recover the context out of which it emerged.” For this reason, Founding Brothers provides the original context such that we can get as close to Washington’s original meaning as possible—even if interpreting it from a contemporary perspective is difficult to fully escape.
Present vs. Hindsight ThemeTracker
Present vs. Hindsight Quotes in Founding Brothers
No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution. On the inevitability side, it is true there were voices back then urging prospective patriots to regard American independence as an early version of manifest destiny. Tom Paine, for example, claimed that it was simply a matter of common sense that an island could not rule a continent […] Several other prominent American revolutionaries also talked as if they were actors in a historical drama whose script had already been written by the gods.
Hindsight, then, is a tricky tool. Too much of it and we obscure the all-pervasive sense of contingency as well as the problematic character of the choices facing the revolutionary generation. On the other hand, without some measure of hindsight, some panoramic perspective on the past from our perch in the present, we lose the chief advantage—perhaps the only advantage—that the discipline of history provides, and we are then thrown without resources into the patternless swirl of events with all the time-bound participants themselves.
The Compromise of 1790 is most famous for averting a political crisis that many statesmen of the time considered a threat to the survival of the infant republic. But it also exposed the incompatible expectations concerning America’s future that animated these same statesmen.
Hindsight permits us to listen to the debate of 1790 with knowledge that none of the participants possessed. For we know full well what they could perceive dimly, if at all—namely, that slavery would become the central and defining problem for the next seventy years of American history; that the inability to take decisive action against slavery in the decades immediately following the Revolution permitted the size of the enslaved population to grow exponentially and the legal and political institutions of the developing U.S. government to become entwined in compromises with slavery’s persistence; and that eventually over 6oo,ooo Americans would die in the nation's bloodiest war to resolve the crisis, a trauma generating social shock waves that would reverberate for at least another century.
Any attempt to take decisive action against slavery in 1790, given all these considerations, confronted great, perhaps impossible, odds. The prospects for success were remote at best. But then the prospects for victory against the most powerful army and navy in the world had been remote in 1776, as had the likelihood that thirteen separate and sovereign states would create a unified republican government in 1787. Great leadership had emerged in each previous instance to transform the improbable into the inevitable. Ending slavery was a challenge on the same gigantic scale as these earlier achievements. Whether even a heroic level of leadership stood any chance was uncertain because—and here was the cruelest irony—the effort to make the Revolution truly complete seemed diametrically opposed to remaining a united nation.
Unless one believes that ideas are like migratory birds that can fly unchanged from one century to the next, the only way to grasp the authentic meaning of his message is to recover the context out of which it emerged.
Lacking a consensus on what the American Revolution had intended and what the Constitution had settled, Federalists and Republicans alike were afloat in a sea of mutual accusations and partisan interpretations. The center could not hold because it did not exist.