When studying the history of the formation of the United States, one usually thinks in terms of separate events and individuals. However, the American republic was established, instead, by a series of important decisions and the joint efforts of some of the most prominent men of all time. In a matter of ten years, these critical interactions among the eight leading figures of John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington formed a nation that to this day remains one of the most successful "experiments" of democratic governments. As Joseph J. Ellis, the author of Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation states:
What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God's will was in reality an improvisational affair ... If hindsight enhances our appreciation for the solidity and stability of the republican legacy, it also blinds us to the truly stunning improbability of the achievement itself.
THE INTERVIEW -- The Duel (Chapter 1). In his book, Ellis describes with interest and intrigue several pivotal events occurring at the beginning of American history. The first "story" details the background that led up to the duel in 1804 between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, which is the only case in "the revolutionary generation when political differences ended in violence and death rather than in ongoing argument." Ellis reveals that both men seemed to be on the downside of their careers when the duel occurred; Hamilton fired his pistol first, though he intentionally aimed to miss Burr. Burr was surprised and regretful about his shot, which struck Hamilton in the side and resulted in his death the next day. Further, the "stigma associated with the Burr-Hamilton duel put the code duello on the defensive as a national institution."
The facts of this duel are not so cut-and-dry, however, and most probably will never fully be known. Questions continue about which man fired first, if Hamilton ever expected to shoot his gun and whether Burr planned on or even hoped for what eventually happened. According to Ellis, the duel was just the last straw in an ongoing disagreement between the two leaders. It was a situation of two grown men not wanting to lose face, and never expecting the worse to happen. Hamilton kept on egging Burr on until Burr finally lost his patience. Once Burr reached his point of no return, Hamilton could not back out either. As a result, it was a lose/lose situation. It goes without saying that Hamilton lost more, but Burr was left with little power. "All in all," says Ellis, "both Burr and Hamilton thought of themselves as great men who happened to come of age at the one of those strategic points in the campaign of history called the American revolutionary era. Neither man had much of a political future," but by being there beneath the plains of Weehawken for their so-called "interview" they made a dramatic statement about the time of their time. "Honor mattered because character mattered."
THE COMPROMISE OF 1790: The Dinner (Chapter 2). The second "story" goes that Jefferson held a dinner in 1790 so Hamilton could talk to Madison about his financial plan in a relaxed, non-threatening environment. Jefferson took credit for the fact that this personal meeting solved all problems, as he said: "I opened the subject to them, acknowledged that my situation had not permitted me to understand it sufficiently but encouraged them to consider the thing together. They did so." In other words, Jefferson boasted that he brokered a political bargain of much significance.
Ellis admits that Jefferson's thoughts were "essentially true," but he oversimplified the history occurring at the time. In addition to the dinner, there were several behind-the-scene meetings that were just as, if not more, important. The dinner was just the culmination of a longer and larger discussion. More importantly, explains Ellis, are the questions that this event raises. Why did statesmen as Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison believe that the U.S. government was so shaky? Why was the passage of assumption so threatening? Why was the Potomac so symbolic?
The author concludes that the Compromise of 1790 clearly demonstrated how a political crisis can be averted, which was so important at the time of a struggling new republic. The necessity at this time was confronting and overcoming deficiencies. "In a sense," admits Ellis,
it was a very old story, which has been rendered even more familiar by the violent dissolution of revolutionary regimes in modern-day emergent nations: Bound...
Securing a revolution has proven to be a much more daunting assignment than winning one.
A number of differences separated the people involved with the American Revolution: sectional vs. national allegiance; agrarian vs. commercial economic priorities; diffusion vs. consolidation as social ideals; an impotent vs. A potent federal government. The Compromise of 1790 did not totally resolve such differences, but kept things from boiling over so discussions could continue.
ABOLITION OF SLAVE TRADE: The Silence (Chapter 3). The desired abolition of the slave trade, backed by the Quakers and Abolition Society, whose letter to Congress was signed by the revered Benjamin Franklin, publicly aired the dirty laundry of several members of Congress. Comments in favor of slavery were normally made privately behind closed doors. Even Madison, who normally was the individual who kept decorum emphasized that although the Constitution did not allow Congress to restrict or end the slave trade before 1808, nothing was said about prohibiting the House from discussing the issue.
Little did these men realize that this was just the beginning of seven decades of such debates on this controversial topic and that scores of lives would eventually be lost to resolve it. Until then, two compromises would keep the status quo: The first, the Northwest Ordinance allowed for the ban of expansion of slavery north of the Ohio River, and the second, the Sectional Compromise provided for an exchange of votes where New England agreed to back an extension of the slave trade for 20 years in return for the Deep South's support of making the federal regulation of commerce a mere majority vote in Congress instead of a supermajority of two-thirds.
As a result of the debates, Madison gained what he wanted. Seven resolutions addressed the question, "What are the powers vested in Congress, under the present Constitution, relating to the abolition of slavery?" The first resolution confirmed that the Constitution prohibited any federal legislation limiting the end of the slave trade until 1808; the fourth authorized Congress to levy a tax on slave imports designed to discourage the practice without prohibiting it; and the seventh declared that "in all cases, to which the authority of Congress extends, they will exercise it for the human objects of the memorialists, so far as they can be promoted on the principles of justice, humanity and good policy. Most memorable was the second resolution that compromised by giving the Deep South protection by denying congressional authority to pass any gradual emancipation legislation, and also setting a chronological limit to this moratorium.
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S FARWELL SPEECH: The Farewell (Chapter 4).
Washington was not only considered the "Father of the Country," since 1776, but nearly as god-like as Zeus. Thus, most people were amazed when they saw a note from him in the paper saying he was to retire. Was this primarily because he was getting old and frail? Not really, says Ellis. He was concerned that he was losing his power in the second term. In fact, the opposition press ran a letter by Thomas Paine that celebrated Washington's leaving and actually prayed for his imminent death. He said, "The world would have a hard time deciding whether he had been an apostate or an imposter, abandoned good principles, or whether he had any good principles to begin with."
Washington had seen such articles as a chance to leave while the going was still half way good and his reputation was still in tact with most people in the country. "By resigning, he was declaring that his deepest allegiances, like those of his critics, were thoroughly republican," says Ellis. He was making his final statement as America's first and last benevolent monarch.
In his Farewell Address, Washington was successful in accomplishing the three things he had wished: One, to let people know that even though he was ready to retire, he still was very much in charge and not at all senile; two, to carve out a middle course that pushed the ardent critics to the edges of the fray and to not have any strength remaining, and three, to explain his own version of the Revolution or the importance of being united as a people.
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