Writing Writers’ Lives: Founding Fathers as Literary Figures

– I’m going to introduce the moderator. And we are delighted to have her here at the Leon Levy Center
for the first time. Annette Gordon-Reed is a
legal scholar, historian, whose 2008 investigation of slavery in the American colonial period, in the early American republic, the Hemingses of Monticello,
An American Family, won many awards, including
the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize. In 2010 she was awarded
a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellowship for her
scholarship on Thomas Jefferson and was awarded a
National Humanities Medal by President Obama. She is currently a
faculty member at Harvard, serving as a professor of
law at Harvard Law School, from which she earned her law degree, professor of history in the
Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and she’s the Carol Gay
Forscheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute
for Advanced Studies. She’s a member of the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth College, from
which she was graduated with high distinction,
and she is now working with Peter Onuf, one of our panelists, on a book about Jefferson’s
intellectual development, which will be published
by Liveright Norton. Delighted to have Annette Gordon-Reed. (applause) – Thank you very much,
and I too give my thanks to everybody for their
stamina for sticking with us and being here this evening, we hope to have a lively panel. And I’m the moderator, and I
plan to ride herd on everybody. I’ve asked them to make a
short five-minute statement about the subject, we’re talking
about the Founding Fathers as literary figures. We’re gonna go in order of,
alphabetical order here, starting with Richard Bernstein, who was my former colleague
at New York Law School, he teaches at City College,
and at New York Law School as well, he’s written a
wonderful biography of Jefferson and is working on Adams. Next we will have Eric Foner,
who I’m sure many of you know, who is the DeWitt Clinton
Professor at Columbia University, who’s won many awards for his work, including the Bancroft
Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for his latest book on Abraham Lincoln. Over here we have Peter Onuf
who has already been mentioned as my co-author on a book
that we’re working on now about Jefferson, this is a
very top-heavy Jefferson panel, I’m gonna try to mix things up a bit here, with Adams over here. Peter is the Thomas
Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor Emeritus at the
University of Virginia. He is now the Senior Fellow
at the Robert H. Smith International Center for
Jefferson Studies at Monticello. Can’t get him out of Monticello, he’s up on the mountain now. And he will speak last, and after that, their short statements, we will
open it up for conversations among them, I will ask them questions, and then we will take questions from you. So Richard, I would like
to start out by asking you, as I said before, we’re
top-heavy on Jefferson here, but you know about Adams as well. And what interests me, is you’ve studied both of their letters,
and their public writings and their private writings. What’s the difference
between Jefferson and Adams, as literary figures? – Ooh. – And I didn’t tell them
these questions ahead of time. – That’s actually a lovely question. There’s this wonderful book, it’s called the Adams-Jefferson Letters, it’s edited by Leonard Cappen and it has all the surviving letters that we have between Jefferson and John Adams, and also some between
Jefferson and Abigail Adams. And when you read them, one thing’s sure. The thing that they have in common, is they both had as their
hero the Roman senator, politician, philosophical
recycler Marcus Cicero. And Cicero’s letter were some
of their favorite writings from the classical period,
and I think both of them were trying to write like Cicero. Except that Jefferson is a
smoother, more polished writer, he is clearly writing,
even if only to Adams, he’s also writing for posterity. Whereas Adams writes letters
that are better as letters. They have a certain rough-hewn elegance about them of their own. And they’re very
personal, but they’re also as philosophical as Jefferson’s. And the two men are
really quite remarkable when you see them
engaging with each other, especially in that last
part, when they’re old men, and they’re trying to sort out the world, their place in it,
their view of posterity, whether they would live
their lives over again. They’re both men of the 18th century, but the aristocratic slave-owning
gentleman from Monticello is very different from the
son a shoemaker and farmer from Braintree. So that’s one way. I’m sorry, I violated my own rules here, you were supposed to make
your statement first, I was so anxious to get Adams into this. – Okay well. – Anxious to get Adams into this. – We just didn’t want you
to read that statement. (Richard laughs) – So let’s, time out, start
again, so I was anxious to get Adams in here. Well I’m going to segue
back into what I thought I was going to say, because
actually I love that question. Because it is something that
has been preoccupying me, the differences between
Adams and Jefferson. But there is one other
thing they have in common. And this is something that
I’ve said in these remarks that I was going to read
very grandiloquently. They’re both men of law. They both studied law,
being a lawyer was essential to their self-conception. They were both deeply
intellectually enamored of law, they studied it closely, they in some ways were law reformers. They both read and deeply admired a book by the Italian philosophe,
Cesare de Beccaria, a book called Of Crimes and Punishments, which is still worth reading today, especially in New York
with our Taylor Laws. We still ought to read Beccaria counseling on moderating crimes and punishments, and on keeping laws in
progress with the human mind. They were both men of law,
and that usually is missing from biographies of them. I mean people will touch
on it, but they won’t say these are central integral
aspects of who they are. In fact, doing some research,
I realized that I might be the first guy of legal training to attempt a biography of John Adams. Which really startled me,
when I found that out. But it’s not just law. More generally, as politicians, they sought to order the world with words. Not just law, but constitutionalism, was really important to them. And this was something
that was really important to my Life of Jefferson, and
is going to be in some ways even more important to
my Life of John Adams. Because Jefferson was very wide-ranging, Adams was comparatively narrow in focus. And his central preoccupation
was constitutional government. Other than Abigail,
constitutionalism was the thing that got him out of bed every morning, and the thing he thought about
going to sleep every night. So, I want to try to make
clear, in my Adams book as I did in my Jefferson
book, just how important law and using law and
constitution-making as a way of ordering the world was to both of them. – So Eric, we’ll go back
to my original plan. Your statement, sorry. – Okay. Well, I’m very happy to be here, and thank you for inviting
me, and to the audience, for you stamina, as has been said. I have to admit that when I was invited I sort of came to think
of, I’m sure as a historian you think of some kind of weird things, but I’m sure it’s fresh in your mind, the 1992 vice-presidential
debate between Al Gore, Dan Quail and Admiral Stockdale, the vice-presidential
candidate of Ross Perot. And when it came his turn to speak, he began by saying “I
don’t know why I’m here.” (laughing from the audience) – Yeah I remember that. – And I kind of feel the same way in that I’m not a biographer. I read biographies. In fact, I’m not even
qualified to be a biographer. As my wife keeps reminding me, I have almost no psychological
insight into other people. (laughing) So I’m not the right person
to write biographies. But I have written
about two famous people. One Tom Paine and one Abraham Lincoln. Both of whom, this may be
surprising, both of whom I think it’s very hard
to write a biography of. And you might say, that’s
kind of weird for Lincoln, cause there are hundreds if
not thousands of biographies. Because we know very very little
about their private lives, actually. Now with Paine it’s absurd. Paine came to the United
States at the age of 37. We know almost nothing about Paine’s life before he comes to the United States. He’s formed, one would
assume, by the time he’s 37, and yet, it’s mostly speculation. We know a job he had, tax
collector, not a very popular job. We know he was married
twice, his first wife died soon after they were
married, the second one, something happened, we don’t know what, and they got divorced,
which was rather unusual in 18th century England. And his papers were burned, or destroyed. Even his bones have
disappeared, we don’t even know where they are. And most people who’ve written
about Paine are partisans. They either love him or hate him. And so it’s a problem. Lincoln, there are thousands
of works, but oddly enough, we know very little about
Lincoln’s early life also. Except through reminiscences
which are mostly unreliable, of people after he died,
you know, his law partner, Herndon, went around interviewing
people who’d known him as a kid, and of course
they remembered him through what they knew. Oh yeah, when he was five years old, he said I’m gonna free
the slaves, you know. Absolutely. And Lincoln didn’t reveal himself either. He did not write letters,
he did not keep a diary, he did not confide in people. We have a little
Jefferson fraternity here, the works of Jefferson are
what? Over 100 volumes, now, right, and growing. The works of Lincoln are seven
volumes, and mostly speeches. So Jefferson, he’s writing
letters all the time, so is Adams, not either Paine or Lincoln. So you have to go with
their public writings, their public actions, their statements. And in the case of Paine, that is okay, because Paine,
that’s why he’s important, his writings. He’s not an original thinker,
although what that means, who is an original thinker, in a sense. But he’s a publicist, he’s a propagandist. And he is really the inventor
of a new literary style for political writing. He writes in a way that is
akin to his political views. That is, democracy. He writes for the ordinary reader. His writings do not use Latin phrases, they do not cite any other
work except the Bible. He does not cite legal precedents. The title of his great
work here, Common Sense. What is the point? Anybody
can understand politics, you don’t need a high-class education, all you need is common sense. And Paine rewrites the
language of politics in the late 18th century. Phrases we think of from that
period often come from Paine. The Age of Revolutions, the Rights of Man. John Adams, who didn’t
like Paine very much. In fact accused him of stealing his ideas, he said there’s nothing in Common Sense that I haven’t already
said, what is this guy, how come he’s getting all the credit? Adams had a very high
opinion of his own worth, as you well know. But he also wrote, we should
call this the age of Tom Paine. No man has had a greater
influence on this era than Paine. Which is rather remarkable
for a guy who grew up in the working classes of England, came to the United
States pretty much broke, and somehow managed to
become this literary avatar of the democratic revolution
of the late 18th century. How that happened is very hard to say, in terms of his personal life. But that it did happen is what makes Paine interesting to write about. – Well I’m not a biographer either. In fact, I describe
myself, in one of my books, as an anti-biographer. It’s only because of Annette, and because she asked me to
do it, that I’m doing it. So I’m now into biography. It seems somewhat churlish
of Jeffersonians to complain about the impenetrability
of Jefferson’s character, personality, we don’t
know him, supposedly, when we have some 20,000 letters. What do you need, after all? How many Facebook postings
will actually yield a life. I think Jefferson lives in his writing, and I think the challenge
for biographers is to see how that life takes shape through writing. I just wanna make a few suggestions about how we might think about
Jefferson as a literary figure and rather than finding him impenetrable, putting us off, finding him
a hypocrite, a wordsmith. He’s blamed for turning a phrase. Paine is celebrated for turning a phrase. Somehow there’s something
disingenuous about Jefferson doing it. I think we should think
of Jefferson as somebody who’s struggling hard to create a self. To make himself. He’s both a figure of the old regime, and in fact he’s of the
generation that invents the very idea of the old regime, and he knows what he’s talking about, because that’s where he comes from. But he also resonates in some ways with our modern conception of the individual who takes care of himself, who’s exceedingly self-conscious, who builds a house
that’s all about himself. It’s not just a statement of who he is, but is a comfortable place,
full of conveniences. Comfort is a new idea,
in the 18th century, and Jefferson’s all over it. He’s a first adapter, in many ways. Even as he is this American
renaissance man, aristocrat. And writing is crucial
to his self-fashioning. I wanna give you just a brief tableau, a way of thinking about Jefferson. Let’s think about him, for
a minute, escaping company, leaving his family, going
into his side of the house. This is a house that’s
designed, Jefferson, and everybody else. And Jefferson’s suite of rooms, he calls it his sanctum
sanctorum, what does he do there? Well, he goes into this
place, this secret place, and he writes letters. So here’s the first thing he reads to, and does all this postmodern
stuff of recycling, and commonplacing. He, in this private space, Jefferson is connecting with other people. And to me, that epitomizes
the Jeffersonian project of being alone, creating
a space for himself, an autonomous space where
he can think, he can write, he can reflect, he can read
the Bible, he can cut it up, he can invent his own gospel. And the paradox is that in
this very private space, a kind of Virginia
Woolfian room of his own, Jefferson is intensely
social, in a private way. And that I think is the key
to understanding Jefferson, the way that he attempts to
connect with the larger world. I think it’s the Jefferson
Bible, to which I just alluded, that captures my sense of
how Jefferson is both in, but not of, his world. And how that is a very
strenuous effort by him to define himself, to
make something of himself. As he works things out for
himself by cutting up the Bible. Retreating, nobody knows what
he’s doing when he’s doing it. And I think that’s crucial. He’s not posting regular notices, he’s not writing to people,
hey I just had this idea about miracles, and there weren’t any. That’s the idea, that’s all it adds up to. Essentially, what Jefferson
says, behind what I call his wall of separation, to
borrow a phrase of his own, and it’s significant that
that’s religious liberty that he’s talking about,
or religious freedom that he’s talking about,
that’s taken from the letter to the Danville Baptists in 1802, that Jefferson is conducting
his own religious quest, trying to figure things out. He doesn’t want anybody to
know what he’s thinking. This is very private. And he doesn’t want, and
religious freedom means, that people in authority are
not going to influence you or control you, they’re
not going to subject you to their mystifications. There’s a tremendous anxiety of influence that Jefferson reflects here. And it works two ways. If we want to abolish priestcraft, the control of those stewards of mystery who dominate the old regime, then we can’t turn
around and impose our own religious beliefs. Jefferson is, as Richard
says, writing for posterity. The Bible is actually a
document that he hopes his family will cherish,
even though they don’t know anything about is, at first. What he thinks is that one day, one day posterity will
discover that the Jefferson who was not of his time,
who was before his time, had arrived at some understanding
of the human condition with which we could resonate. Jefferson is crying out for biography. He wants us to write his life. At the same time, he
wants to keep his distance from his contemporaries. Writing does both these things. And writing is both a way
for Jefferson to connect with other people in the world,
to create imaginary worlds. And many different worlds. I think, Richard, that he has
a gift for multiple voices. And conjuring up multiple worlds. In some ways the family life at Monticello that he cherishes so much, lives mostly in the correspondence he has with his family. There’s a tremendous
amount of feeling in that. And I think it’s that writing effort, the writing that creates bonds. That’s the real Jefferson,
he writes a life for himself, both by connecting with people, and by his very private writing. Writing that he’ll leave for us to read. For us to try to understand him. – All right, so I’ve already
asked you your question, so I’ll come to you, and ask you: when you’re writing about
Paine, were you conscious of, this is a very political figure, were you conscious of the moment, the particular political
moment you were in when you were writing about him, and does it influence you in any way, consciously or unconsciously? – Well absolutely. I wrote
that book a long time ago. – Can you remember? – It was published in 1976, for the Bicentennial of
American Independence. And of course, as you all
know, when a book appears, it’s the product of a number of years. So it’s really a product
of the 60s, in a sense, and I was very aware of
the time I was writing in, and indeed, that book was supposed to, originated as the first chapter of a book that I never wrote, which was a book about the history of radicalism in America. Because the 60s got me very
interested in that history, and I thought I would
do a book sort of like Richard Hofstadter’s
American Political Tradition, but it would be the
American Radical Tradition. Unfortunately, Hofstadter
figured out that all those guys were the same in his book, that’s what gives that book unity, which is not the case at
all in American radicalism. But anyway, I got more and
more interested in Paine, and there it was. So yes, I think, this is
a cliche among historians, as you know, but it’s true, the present gives you the
questions you’re interested in. It doesn’t give you the answers, or it shouldn’t give you the answers. But it determines what we
want to study in history. So the experiences that all of us had had in that decade of turmoil in this country, and of social movements,
and of tremendous change, made many people, like myself,
interested in the origins of radical thinking in the United States. That’s why I turned to
Paine, to try and figure out where all this had come from. – And did it answer anything for you? – No, I don’t think it answered
a lot about the present, but it did, you know
that was also the moment in the writing of history when
history from the bottom up was becoming very much in vogue, and efforts to expand
the cast of characters beyond the Jeffersons
and Adamses et cetera. And I think what interested
me was Paine’s connection to lower-class activism in
the American Revolution. He’s a spokesman for the whole revolution, but he’s also a spokesman for
particular lower-class groups who are seeking greater
democratic participation. And to that extent I think
it was a contribution to this expansion of our
vision of American history which was going on at that time. – You mentioned Jefferson
and his multiple voices. What do people misunderstand about that? What would you say is
the biggest misconception that people have about
Jefferson, as a writer and a literary figure? – Well the pathos of
Jefferson, as I suggested, is that he wants, he’s
crying out for understanding from us, because he has a
progressive notion of history. Maybe not quite radical, we’ll
have to argue about that. But he imagines things
are going to get better. He has a kind of a
republican millennial view. And his religious beliefs are very much the core of that whole project of his. And it’s, I think the
problem with Jefferson is, the voices for us seem
to indicate a dishonesty, hypocrisy, that he’s not leveling with us. That he didn’t write that document that you kept looking for, in which he talked about selling Hemings– – I wasn’t looking for that. – No. And I think Jefferson
had a pretty clear notion of who he was becoming
and who he wanted to be, and I think he would
be appalled at how much he’s misunderstood now. History hasn’t turned out the
way he imagined it would be. We don’t have the kind
of perspective on him that makes him seem like a whole person. He seems too diffuse, too
multiple, too many voices, and therefore it’s easy for us
to simply throw up our hands and say we never understand this guy, which is another way of saying
we really understand him, and he’s just a slave-holding racist. And it’s not worth further consideration. For Jefferson, that would be a tragic, a pathetic misunderstanding. And I think that’s the
translation-interpretation problem. As Eric says, we ask
our questions because of what’s going down now,
it’s very hard for us to look forward with our
subjects and to imagine their world on their terms. And that’s why radical tradition fractures into multiple traditions, it’s not a tradition at all, in fact. – One thing I would say, and
I tell this to my students every year, twice a year. We have to remember that
Jefferson is the guy who gives us the standards
by which we judge him. Jefferson is the guy who
articulates the ideal of American public life, the
ideal of American equality and American promise, and
then we judge him by it. And no other founding
guy is in that position. No other first-rank
American political figure is in that position. Except maybe Lincoln, maybe. – Perhaps Lincoln. – And one of the things
that I found interesting as I was listening to you, Peter, is in some ways what you’re
describing is very much a pretty good description
of John Adams as well, except for one thing. Jefferson does fashion a series of selves, because he is not enamored of conflict. He’s very conflict-averse. He wants to be friends with,
and in a friendly relationship with whoever he’s writing to, and whoever he’s answering
in his correspondence. John Adams doesn’t care. The man starts life as a
lawyer, as a litigator. There’s an online website,
which Founding Father are you? And one of the questions is something, I don’t remember the question,
but one of the answers is, and if you pick the
answer you’re John Adams, well I live in a constant
simmering state of grumpiness anyways, so what? But the thing about John
Adams is, unlike Jefferson, Adams is perfectly, he’s always who he is. He doesn’t have to fashion
who he wants to be. He’s always Farmer John of Braintree. He’s always the son of Deacon John Adams. And as I was preparing
to work on my Adams book I found this amazing
article, which I don’t think anybody else has really
noticed it for years. You probably remember the
historian Stephen Kurtz, who wrote a great book on
the presidency of John Adams. He wrote a little article in the late 60s, called something like Notes on
the Statecraft of John Adams. And one of the first things he said, and it totally blew my mind was, of course John Adams wasn’t original, he wasn’t trying to be. Jefferson was trying to
engage original and creatively with the past to address the future. Adams was trying to engage
creatively with the past to channel the best of the
past toward the future. He wasn’t trying to be
original, he was a distiller. The huge three-volume
work that has defeated just about every Adams scholar
except Henry Steele Commager and Richard Samuelson, the Defense of the Constitutions
of the United States, that Adams wrote in ’87 and ’88. It’s a textbook on comparative government. He’s copying stuff out of
books and stringing it together with his own comments
to educate his readers and to educate posterity. And he’s not claiming anything original. Except that he is so bound
up with his own ideas, like so many of the
first-rank founding guys, he has an intensely
personal stake in his ideas. They matter because he has
found them and articulated them, even though they’re not original. And they matter because he
needs posterity to understand. It’s why he and Thomas Paine never get on. – Right. – Paine says at one point
to some French family he’s staying with, well we
could burn every library in the world and start
over with Rights of Man, and we’d be much better off. And even his admiring French friends think this is a little bit much. Adams would have thought
this is horrifying. Because Adams says you don’t throw away the accumulated wisdom of
the past, you engage with it. You listen to it, you learn from it. And so that’s the two big ways that Adams differs from Jefferson. Adams has a predisposition
to learn from the past, and Jefferson has a
predisposition to argue with it. – Well Adams thinks that human
nature is not changing, ever. And so you can develop a political science and political psychology
that’s good for the ages. So how would you relate psychology with his conception of history? – I’m not sure I would. – I mean I suggested
that Jefferson’s project is very much shaped by his understanding of the progressive
possibilities of history, of course it’s always
in danger of regressing, the whole project could be destroyed. But in his optimistic
moments, he needs to embrace, it’s his faith that there is a future, and it’s going to be better. And that shapes his psychology. Conflict aversion has something to do with bringing that moment on. – Well Adams has a more
modest and limited sense of faith in the future. – Well he’s neurotic. – Well, that’s a dangerous thing to do. To say, ah, his ideas
can be explained because he’s neurotic. – But isn’t he? – Yes. But there’s something more there. To him the ideas make sense. And I think it’s because he
sees, like Jefferson, yes, the possibilities are there,
but they can collapse. But Adams is convinced that
the possibilities can collapse because of defects in the nature of man that cannot be overcome. And Jefferson is convinced that somehow you can get beyond those defects, you can create some sort of new man. Adams is not convinced of that. Frankly, I’m not so sure
that Adams is wrong. Maybe that means I’m neurotic. – Well I was gonna ask you, how does that change your
approach to writing about him? Your response to them. – I am wary of anybody who practices, and I’m not saying, Peter,
that you’re doing this, there are other people who have done this, including a very very famous
and very wealthy popularizer, whose name I will not state in this room. – I wonder who you’re talking about. – Who will reduce Adams to a character. And reduce everything
about Adams to a character, including his political ideas, to expressions of his
character and nothing more. But I think that’s a mistake. I was influenced deeply by this letter that Niccolo Machiavelli
wrote to a friend of his, in which he pictures his life,
he’s in exile from Florence, he’s in enforced retirement,
he’s working on his farm just outside of the city. But every night he goes inside, he takes off his grubby farming clothes, he puts on his robes of state,
he sits down at his table, and he engages with the
great political thinkers of the Western tradition, of antiquity. And in their kindness,
they answer every question he puts to them, and he is in this realm which is the closest thing
to paradise that he knows. And I am deeply convinced that that letter describes what John Adams was doing. – But here’s the odd thing. I mean, I’m sure you’re right, and that’s why Paine and
Adams, Paine is the opposite, completely the opposite. And Paine says, you know,
we have it in our power to begin the world over again. The past is just a burden,
it can be eliminated. Whether it’s libraries,
forms of government, you can just break out of
that and start something new. That is the American frame
of mind, in a certain sense. That the past is just a
burden to be moved away from. Somehow Paine, who has lived
his entire life in England, arrives here, within a year
he has captured something about the American psyche,
if there is such a thing, that Adams never quite did. Now Jefferson does too. Jefferson is very forward-looking. But Paine is even more so. That’s why so many different
political tendencies claim Paine. Paine is a hero of radicals
of one kind or another, but Ronald Reagan loved to quote Paine. Partly because he just wanted
to stick it to the liberals and annoy them by quoting Paine, I think. But also because he
also was in this notion of absolute optimism, forward-looking. Human nature, there is no such thing, we can just go and do whatever we want. It may be a little
pollyannaish, let us say, but it does somehow, it
resonated with people. When Paine says the birthday
of a new world is at hand, that’s the psyche of
the American Revolution, for many people. And Adams’s kind of, you know,
annoyingly backward-looking view of governments and constitutions, maybe be more erudite, and
may even be more accurate, but it doesn’t quite capture
a spirit of revolution that is going on. – But Eric, don’t you think
that when you read Paine, that you know him? Isn’t there a kind of
romantic authenticity, a premonition of romantic authenticity? – You know, it’s almost
impossible to know Paine as a person. There’s so little
evidence, there’s so much, you know what was he really like? One thing we know about Paine is he was what we would call today a schnorer. He loved to go and move in on, you know he’d go visit
people and six months later they’d wonder why Paine wasn’t
going on to the next place. But he was a romantic
revolutionary, to some extent. You know, supposedly, this
is a turn-of-phrase business. Was it Franklin said to
him, where liberty is, that is my country, and Paine said, where liberty is not, that is my country. I wanna be where the
revolution is taking place. – He didn’t do so well in France, though. – No. Well first of all, he didn’t speak French, which was a bit of a problem in France. The French are not that
accommodating for people who don’t speak French,
especially when they’re a member of the National
Convention, he was elected– – A French citizen. – Right. But he didn’t
understand the French situation at all, but he wrote one
of the great defenses of the French Revolution
in the Rights of Man. But unlike Jefferson and
Adams, Paine then also wrote the Age of Reason, which
didn’t say anything that the more discreet deists
of the time were saying, but he said it in this
very popular language, and it sold many copies,
and he became the bete noir of the clergy, the churches. Of course, a lot of them didn’t
like Jefferson much either. But Paine became, as Theodore
Roosevelt would call him a century later, the
filthy little atheist. So it’s actually interesting
to see Paine come back now, many libertarians and
conservatives have adopted Paine, when there was a long
period when he was just completely out of the
question because of his condemnation of the Bible. Well he didn’t believe in
miracles any more than Jefferson, but he said it, whereas
Jefferson is in his study thinking about it. – Yeah, Jefferson was very careful to keep his religious views to
himself, sharing them only with a few trusted friends. One of whom was John Adams. Interestingly enough,
so far as I can tell, the one friend he never ever disclosed his religious views to was
his closest political friend, James Madison. He’s silent, and we
don’t know anything about Madison’s views, either. Because Madison is probably even more tactful than Jefferson. One thing I disagree with you about, Eric, is that I think Adams knew all too well this dimension of Paine’s
thought, he just didn’t like it. He found it dangerous. He said, okay fine,
there’s room for new ideas, but we can’t throw the old away. And Paine said, no we have
to throw the old away, because it’s chaining us down. And Adams says no, we’re
fighting a revolution on behalf of our understanding
of the good old way. And Paine says no you’re
wrong, the good old way is bad because it’s old. And Adams says, no, nothing’s
bad just because it’s old. And then the argument
spins out of control. – But what I was saying
was not that he agreed. Paine somehow touched a
chord in American life, which exactly feels, you
know what was it, Melville, the past is the textbook of tyrants, the future is the Bible of the free. This notion, that’s a
very deeply-rooted notion in American culture, and
Paine somehow got his finger on that pulse, which
Adams wasn’t able to do. – No, I think he knew it was there. – He knew it was there, but
he couldn’t identify with it. – He regarded it as a kind
of intellectual third rail, touch it and you’re dead. – So if Adams is not in contact, he’s not in contact with this
part of the American psyche, does it take a notion of
character to rescue him as a figure for Americans? – Why is he relevant? – Well that’s what a certain distinguished and incredibly wealthy and
very popular writer would say. – Quit it! (they laugh) – You’re jealous of his royalties. – No I’m not, I admire
that certain writer’s earlier books greatly, I
just had a real problem when I read his John Adams book and said, this is not the guy I’ve been studying since Professor Commager told me I had to. And he was right. I think that Adams is
relevant for two reasons. Three reasons. First reason, he’s a realist. He is a realist about human nature, and he’s a realist about
the dark and bleak side of human nature that sometimes
we don’t pay attention to. And the said thing is, in some ways, the man you mentioned just now. I mean rereading it, Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s greatest book, is not only about this amazing side of romantic understandings of America, it’s about the incredibly destructive side that that American character can have. And Adams would recognize it and say, yes we have to be careful with that. Another thing is that Adams rejected American exceptionalism. He said we are not
different from other nations and other peoples. The only exceptionalism
that Adams recognized was a very narrow timeframe in ’76, an exceptionalism of opportunity. Not an inherent
exceptionalism of character. This is where he differs
from Jefferson and Paine. And that’s something we have to beware of, even though we would love to believe what Paine and Jefferson were saying. – Well, Richard, wasn’t he
too attached to New England, wasn’t that his problem? He was a New England exceptionalist. There was a great New England way, and a New England tradition. So the idea of a complete
rupture between old and new doesn’t make sense to
him, and it’s because of that notion of continuity
across the generations in New England that the idea of a greater Anglo-American continuity
and his persistence in these silly ideas
about mixed government is a tribute to that notion. – Well that was the third thing that I was going to bring in. And to my amazement, as
I was doing my first work on this Adams project, I read
a book by Kevin Phillips, about the Bushes and the Bush dynasty, and the dangers for America
represented by the Bush dynasty. And in the last chapter,
Phillips expanded his focus to the dangers, not merely
of the Bush dynasty, but of aristocracy in American life. And to my amazement, there it was, the one Founding Father
who truly understood the dangers of aristocracy was John Adams. And I said, yes that’s right. Because Adams was trying to
warn, and this in some ways does still speak to our situation, that in American life, there are people whom we
privilege as aristocrats. And it may be, now we limit
that to landed families, or great families by descent, but Adams at one point says to Jefferson, an aristocrat is any
person who can command at least one vote beside his own. By any of the following means, and this is not an exclusive list: character, intelligence,
ability to write well, membership in a great
family, wealth, height, physical attractiveness,
being a good fellow. Being beautiful. Any of these that enables
you to command one vote beside your own gives you influence and makes you an aristocrat. And we have to be wary of that
tendency in our public life. To that extent, I think Adams has a point. In 2000, we had the son of a senator, who was vice-president,
running for president, against the son of a president, who is grandson of a senator, and meanwhile the wife
of the sitting president was running for the US Senate. How would Thomas Paine
have reacted to that? He would have been appalled. He would have said
these are not the people who should be running, the
people should be running, not aristocrats. – More interesting is what Jefferson would have thought of that, since he sort of
straddles the line between democracy and aristocracy. – Well what’s interesting
is, Joanne Freeman pointed this out to me
once, when she was writing that wonderful essay on Jefferson and Adams’s correspondence, in
the book that you’re in also, the Cambridge Companion. At one point, Adams says
challengingly to Jefferson, Virginia has aristocracy,
just like New England. You have Washingtons and Lees
and Harrisons and Randolphs and Jeffersons, and
Jefferson says no we don’t. And Adams says but you do. And Jefferson just gets,
he digs in his heels, will absolutely refuse to
acknowledge that aristocracy has any role in Virginia politics, and it’s one of the few times
in their correspondence, where in an argument between them, Jefferson digs in his
heels and Adams gives way. Usually, it’s Adams digging in his heels, and Jefferson tactfully
changing the subject. This times Adams has
to change the subject. – And this is why Jefferson
can’t tap into that American psyche that Eric’s
talking about, as Paine does, is that he can believe that
the monster aristocracy can be destroyed. That you can kill it at its roots, that you can uproot landed
aristocracy through land reforms. That a truly republican political system is going to abolish the very possibility, if we disestablish the
church, these are the sources. And if we get rid of slavery, he understands that that’s a problem. That that is a fundament of
the old regime in Virginia. But it is his faith, and
it’s not a faith that your realist Adams would have. The realism is, well
things are gonna continue as they have been, and
we need to make provision for the better sort, by
giving them the Senate, for instance. And he may be right, in his
discussion of emulation, and what drives people,
political psychology, and he may be prophetic
in terms of the kind of aristocracy we have now in
this great age of inequality, but he doesn’t capture the
spirit of the very possibility of transcending that. That realism can be a kind of fatalism. – You know, another indication of Paine’s forward-looking nature, which
differentiates him a little, I think, from the others, is it’s also based on
economic development, what we would call economic development, and scientific development. You know, when Paine goes to France, in 1787, he’s not going, the Revolution hasn’t taken place yet, he’s not going to be in
the French Revolution, he’s going to try and promote this design for an iron bridge that he has designed, and he can’t get it built in America, and he thinks someone in
France will put up the money. So he’s an inventor. And he’s a kind of amateur scientist, of course many others
are in that period too. That’s how he met Franklin
in the first place, through their interest
in science, in London. But he sees economic
growth and development as a positive thing,
whereas, I’m not even sure how I would characterize
Adams’ view of it, but Jefferson is very conflicted about, you know because he wants this
agrarian society, et cetera. But Adams, it’s before
the Industrial Revolution, you couldn’t say he’s an
advocate of industrialism, but he’s certainly an
advocate of, you know, capitalistic development. Which he thinks will get
rid of the aristocracy, who can’t compete, you
know, in a truly fair market competition. – I think that’s more Hamilton than Adams. Hamilton has that thing,
it’s a meritocratic faith. I think it’s one way that
Jefferson’s and Adams’ critiques of Hamilton cohere, they’re both suspicious of that. Adams is not a
forward-looking economic guy. The forward-looking member of
the Adams family is Abigail, as Woody Holden has shown. – She’s the investor. – She’s the investor, and
does better than John does. But these are all very, one thing I wanna say, they’re
very interesting people, and they’re people of their own time, and we want them to speak to our time. I wanna ask all of you, and me, to what extent do they speak to our time? And to what extent are
they mired in their time, and to what extent are we,
what’s the line from Casablanca, you’ll find the conversation
a trifle one-sided, when we talk to them. To what extent are we making a mistake by trying to engage them? – Well you suggested that Paine, when you were writing about him, you saw that— – Yeah, but I quickly figured out that it would be a big
mistake to just try to find in Paine a direct line
to whatever one thinks ought to be done today. Because, Paine, as you say, he’s a figure of the 18th century, and the early 19th century,
and his ideas do not fit modern political
characteristics or categories. That’s why he can be claimed
by all sorts of different. Nor do they fit exactly
some of the dichotomies that historians have
imposed on that period. Liberalism versus republicanism, he’s kind of both at the same time. And socialists claim him as an antecedent, because of the Rights of Man, and some of the economic policies there. Extreme libertarians claim
him as an antecedent, he says you know, society is
good and government is bad. So it would be a mistake
to think that Paine is speaking to our time. What I think is relevant about Paine is a radical sensibility. The willingness to attack
existing institutions. Exactly what Adams doesn’t like about him. The willingness to see all institutions as created by people,
and you can change them. The fact that they’ve
been there for a long time doesn’t mean you can’t just overthrow them and try something else. – So sensibility for Adams’s character, I know you don’t like that. – I don’t like that, I want to go more to
an intellectual level. Although Adams’s character is interesting. He’s stubborn, he’s brave,
he will argue things even when he knows they’ll
get him in trouble. Because he believes them. – Well see, but I’m saying, if
it’s the radical sensibility is the thing that connects
Paine, that excites people today, not the actual programs, because
it can’t be the same thing, this is the 18th century. Character, evidently, matters to people. I mean this thing, it went out there, and it made a mark for a reason. And character, it’s not the
fatalism that you talked about, that isn’t very attractive to Americans, but the notion of a person who is– – Even John Adams in 1776
in Thoughts on Government wrote about the excitement in forming the wisest governance that
human wisdom can contrive. There is a hope in
that, a hope in creative political building. Using old materials, perhaps,
maybe mixing them with new. But, building solidly and safely. And always being aware of
the risks in what you do. Now at the same time,
yes, there is a character dimension to John Adams that is valuable. He is the most
self-revealing of any of the three guys that we’re talking about. Even in his public writings,
but also in his letters. Which sometimes show him
at his best as a writer. His letters are extraordinary, and they’re so much fun to read. But it’s not just character. I mean I’ve imagined on
occasion, at three in the morning when I’m trying to get something done, well here he is, here’s
the ghost of John Adams, and Adams is saying, and I ask him, what do you wanna be remembered for? And his answer is always,
my ideas of course, have you forgotten? And of course the answer
is yes, we have forgotten. And certain of the realistic
cautions that he offers to us, are as important as the
character with which he approaches these great public questions and the task of how to live. – I think it’s easy to like
and identify with Adams, even though he wasn’t
likable in his own time, a nice paradox. People didn’t like him, a lot of people didn’t like him much. He was a little thin-skinned
and hyper-self-conscious. – He was a lot thin-skinned. He was a lot thin-skinned,
not just a little. – I think Jefferson shows us, and I don’t wanna use these terms, but the radical possibilities
of false consciousness. (others laugh) Of somebody who can delude
himself into imagining a new world, and somehow
believe that he can sustain the comfort, the wealth,
the influence and the power that he already has. And the key idea, this is a
variation on the radicalism that Eric’s talking about, which seems more authentic
to us because it’s bottom-up, and therefore it makes sense,
because we’ve understood radicalism in terms of
the French Revolution, in terms of social change and upheaval, that’s what we’re worried about. But for Jefferson, the idea
that you could have a Revolution and that could be a kind
of permanent Revolution, and at his best and most memorable, Jefferson imagines this
generational cycle of renewal. He doesn’t know how to pull it off, it’s not clear what it would entail, and he certainly wouldn’t
want it to be punctuated by a violent insurrection, for instance, but he does believe that every generation, as Herb Solomon would
tell us, in his wonderful, every generation is like
an independent nation, and it has to determine its own destiny. It’s against the tyranny of the past, because of a belief in the future. And he would say that
your obsession, Mr Adams, with the British legal
constitutional tradition which keeps him up at
three a.m. in the morning, that’s what keeps us from
imagining a different and better future. Is Jefferson consistent on it? Is that something that we
can truly take from him, any real inspiration? Probably not. But to his death, he’s continuing
to try to figure it out. In his thinking about ward republics, and this notion of how can
you decentralize authority to really make a republic work, to make a democracy work. And I think that kind
of anti-exceptionalist. He can be called an American
exceptionalism, certainly, but the idea that every
generation should recreate itself, that’s the spirit of radicalism. And that somebody is one of
the most privileged persons of the provincial old
regime could think that, could imagine that, is I think
something we can take away. – Okay, so we should stop here, and we would like to take any questions that anyone has about this, in any form. – [Audience Member] It was
thrilling, thrilling, truly, to listen to you. So just a little complaint,
you’ll have to take with the compliment, is that I lost sight, to a certain extent, of these
figures as literary figures. What we heard was amazing, and
we’re all well-served by it. So I’d like to redirect
us back, a little bit, a tiny bit, by returning
to something Richard said at the very beginning. When he said that Adams
and Jefferson needed to be understood as men of the law. I think that, and this isn’t a question, it’s just an observation, I think that, the biographical problem
for Jefferson and Adams, and perhaps Paine, could well
be addressed by realizing something that your
discussion did bring out. And that is that both
literature and law exist, in Western culture, but
particularly in the founding of the republic, and in the 19th century, as competing narrative systems. And not only are they
competing narrative systems, they’re competing normative systems. They vie for space as to
how people are to describe the true nature of relationships. Literature imagines human
relationships in one way, and the law imagines human
relationships in another. And those two systems, you
quote Melville to make a point, you know, you quote Adams to make a point. So perhaps maybe the way
to think about these men as literary figures is
not so much in terms of what they wrote, as
so much that they stand right at the moment, with
one foot in each camp of literature and law,
not only as creators of their own text, but
as readers of texts. This affection for Cicero, and for the literature of the past, has to do with the way in which literature shaped who those men were. So I wanted to make an
argument for literature and law as a constant point at which
American history evolves from the beginning of
the republic forward. – But they simultaneously
are working within both traditions at that moment. It’s a textual revolution, after all, and people who are very
self-conscious about the history of political
thought and of constitutions, and they are lawyers, I think rather than stipulating separate
traditions, this is a moment that they interpenetrate, and
it’s hard to distinguish them. – You know, Paine is interesting, because among all these
founders he is the only one who actually makes his living as a writer, he doesn’t have any other occupation, or source of income like the others. He is really a modern figure, in that way. He’s sort of an intellectual
who lives off his writing. And that puts him in some
interesting situations, and at one point he becomes
a kind of hired writer for Robert Morris,
who’s very conservative, writing in favor of banks
and things like that. But you know, he really is, literature, defined broadly, is really what his livelihood is, and you know he’s a
craftsman of words in a way that nobody else is in that era, that is what you do for your entire life, not other things and you write. – I would add one thing though. And this is not original,
I’m borrowing, not stealing, from Robert Ferguson’s great,
early, I think 1984 book on law and literature
in the early republic. Ferguson argues, he was
looking at the canon of American literature, and he says, it cuts off in the late colonial period, and then it starts off again
with Ralph Waldo Emerson. And there’s several decades
missing, and what’s missing? And Ferguson says, the colonial period, and then the period from Emerson forward, literature is inward-looking,
regarding the private self. And Ferguson says, what
about the literary product of that period, from the beginning of the American Revolution to say, the death of John Marshall and the rise of the young Abraham Lincoln? That’s a public-regarding literature. A literature that’s engaged
with great public questions. And in that way, the two
realms are not separate, they are cohering somehow. They are fitting together
like mortise and tenon, like cut-out, like an indenture document, the two pieces fit together. And in particular, I
mean one of the things that Adams is very clear
about in his memories of the Revolution is,
Jefferson succeeds not because of his oratorical gifts,
not because of anything except for one thing: he has a happy talent for composition and a peculiar felicity of expression. And virtually every other
person who looks at Jefferson, whether they reduce his
contribution to that, or whether they simply note,
the man’s a great writer, they do note he’s a great writer, probably the greatest of his era. Because he does have this
extraordinary ability to put things in words,
to order the world, the political world with words. Which is why he’s the
George and Ira Gershwin of the American story. (laughing) He’s written the words and the music. When we argue about liberty,
when we argue about equality, when we argue about separation
of church and state, we don’t argue in John Adams’ terminology, or Paine’s terminology. Except when Paine fits with Jefferson, when Paine harmonizes with Jefferson. We argue in Jefferson’s terminology. And in that way, he still shapes our lives and still shapes what we do. Long after he died. So in many ways, Jefferson’s
power is a literary power. – You can turn Ferguson
around for a minute and say that it’s remarkable
how little good literature there is on the American Revolution. Our literary figures have not tackled the American Revolution very effectively. Benjamin Franklin ignores
it, in his autobiography. Rip Van Winkle sleeps through it. – Well he doesn’t ignore
it, he doesn’t get there. Rip Van Winkle sleeps through it. – Israel Potter spends
it in a prison, right, so he doesn’t have anything to do with it. Writers seem to have difficulty, somehow, coming to terms with
the American Revolution, I don’t know why, there’s
still opportunities. – [Audience Member] Let me just point out, you can also go a little
bit further forward, and say it’s amazing how
much bad law there is about slavery, and how
much good literature there is about it. – Okay that is true. – Really interesting. – Anyone else? – Come on, there’s gotta be somebody else. – No, they’ve been here
a long time. Go ahead. – Certainly have. – [Audience Member] I
have a question about the Declaration of Independence. Can you go into a little
bit about its genesis, and how Jefferson came up
with this amazing document in such a short period of time. – Well, in its final version
he had a lot of help. It went through multiple versions, in fact he was a little testy
about how it had been edited. – Yes. – Because a lot of the
good stuff, he thought, for instance his commentary
on the slave trade, a few other things that he said that were probably well edited out, that were not gonna
make a good impression. How was he poised to say these things? Granting that he was a great wordsmith. It’s because nobody felt more intensely a sense of betrayal of what
the British Empire had become, and how George III had turned
on his American subjects, than the one-time provincial
Anglophile Thomas Jefferson. It’s a very deeply personal quarrel he has with his king. And it then is extrapolated
into a broader, sort of a canned version
of social contract theory, which is off-the-shelf, as it were. I didn’t have to look at that stuff, it was just out there. But what animates that text is this powerful hatred and animosity toward the King of England. And it’s because American
provincials like Jefferson were such loyal subjects to an empire, which in their lifetimes
was turned on its head. It’s the betrayal of the empire that makes the American project so important. – If you go back before, Jefferson’s first major pamphlet is A Summary View of the
Rights of British America. And at one point in that pamphlet, he confronts George III. He says the whole art of
government consists in the art of being honest, let
not the memory of George III be a blot on human history. Sire, you have ministers,
remember their parties. This Virginia provincial
is lecturing his king. – And for some reason he didn’t respond. – The difference between the
Declaration of Independence and Common Sense, which had
come out a few months earlier, is that, as of course you wrote, by the way, nobody reads the whole Declaration of Independence
anymore, right? Daresay it’s almost
impossible to read through all those complaints, but
the preamble, the first part is immortal and everybody
reads and should read that. But Common Sense is an attack on monarchy, not on King George III,
per se, it’s on monarchy as a form of government,
and on aristocracy as a form of social privilege. Paine is different. His sense is not betrayal
of something he believed in, I think he is reflecting a real, you know, lower-class animus
toward British society and the terrible injustices
which British society of the 18th century embodied,
he brings that with him, he expresses it, and
somehow it strikes a chord here in the American colonies. (audience member speaks
away from microphone) Didn’t you ever see 1776, the musical? There’s a whole song about it. – It’s the musical that
got me into this business. – Yeah the thing about
slavery is of course, slavery was a system imposed on us. – By George III. – Neat trick. – We tried to regulate the slave trade, in Maryland and Virginia,
by putting a moderate tariff on the import of slaves, simply because there’s an oversupply. But for Jefferson that was
a small step for mankind, it was like being on
the moon to even imagine that we could do something to lead toward the end of slavery. Because in those days
there was this naive belief that if you stopped the slave trade, that would be the end of slavery. And George III, because of the interests of British slavers, imposing this heinous
system on poor Americans. It was so over-the-top and ridiculous, it would’ve been counter-suggestive. Because at the very same time, Samuel Johnson was talking
about where the loudest yelps for freedom are coming from, slaveholders. This was not a savvy move by Jefferson. It was indeed heartfelt,
and it did express that enormous sense of George
III had this despotic power. He was attempting to exercise this power, and we look back at what happened to us, this is what George did to us. It’s, as I say, deeply personal. And it’s a way, that now
seems transparent to us, of projecting blame for an institution that defined provincial Virginia and made Jefferson possible. – And this is why we need
new biographies of Jefferson, because I never fully understood it until you just described it. – Okay, with that I
think people need to go. Thank you, thank you for coming. (applause)

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