Founders at Home
The human side of demigods.
May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By EDWARD ACHORN
Here, also, is the brilliant Hamilton, lured like a naïve schoolboy into an adulterous affair with a scheming woman working in league with her husband, who blackmailed him. Of course, it all came out in the press, blackening Hamilton’s reputation to this day. He wrote in an agony of remorse: “I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love.” (His religious wife Eliza found the strength to forgive him.)
Fleming also marches boldly through an academic minefield to blast away recent scholarship which insists that Jefferson sired children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Many yearn for the story to be true, he suspects, for reasons more to do with the heart than historical truth. Slavery, of course, made such things possible, and critics have found Fleming’s stridency on this point off-putting; but if the book has a flaw, it is Fleming’s near-pathological contempt for John Adams. Our curmudgeonly second president was indisputably hotheaded, and far too free with his words for his own good. Still, he merits a more balanced treatment, as a brave advocate of independence and liberty, a brilliant thinker about the nature of tyranny and the dangers that representative republics face from within, a man who sacrificed his family life for the cause of independence, and a president who made sure that a weak and fledgling United States of America was not sucked into a suicidal war.
Of course, private lives only flesh out what is truly important about the Founders. They displayed immense courage and resourcefulness in creating an extraordinary country, where the individual is remarkably free and the government’s power is constrained. What they unleashed in the realm of human achievement can seem, at times, almost miraculous. But it is under assault by forces the Founders feared: Many Americans seem to have lost the idea that people should grow up and fend for themselves in life, preferring to turn to a Big Daddy/Mommy government that will take care of their wishes and needs, failing to understand the cost of permanent dependency.
Still, those who love liberty can understand what Washington meant when he wrote: “To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.”
Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.